Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Anisa
Both Oxford and Cambridge are popular day trip options from London. They are beautiful cities that are home to world-famous universities and more. If time is limited, you may have to choose one to spend time in. Should you visit Oxford or Cambridge?
In this post, I will compare Cambridge and Oxford to help you figure out which city makes the best day trip. Will it be the dreaming spires of Oxford or the Backs in Cambridge? The answer is not the same for everyone.
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Cambridge and Oxford
Oxford and Cambridge are the top two universities in England, so not surprisingly there is a sense of rivalry. It may be best exemplified in the boat race which is a contest between Oxford and Cambridge rowing crews that takes place close to Easter each year on the River Thames. Let’s compare the two cities and see how they measure up in other ways. Then you can decide whether to do a day trip to Oxford or Cambridge.
Since both Oxford and Cambridge are home to world-renowned universities, a visit would not be complete without touring some of the colleges. Oxford has 38 colleges while Cambridge has 31. Of course, it’s not just about quantity. In a short visit, there isn’t time to see all of the colleges anyway.
You get to walk in the footsteps of some of the most influential people in history. Some of Oxford’s most notable alumni are Margaret Thatcher, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Oscar Wilde, while Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Oliver Cromwell are a few of the notable alumni from Cambridge. Both universities have educated many world leaders, nobel prize winners, and even Olympic athletes.
In Oxford, the top colleges to visit are Christ Church, Exeter, and Trinity. Christ Church is the most famous of the Oxford colleges, so there are lots of places to see. Don’t miss the Cathedral, private art collection, or the impressive dining hall. Both Exeter and Trinity Colleges have lovely chapels, beautiful grounds, and of course history.
In Cambridge, some of the top colleges to visit are King’s College, St. John’s, and Queen’s College. King’s College Chapel is one of the most beautiful churches I have ever been to. The stained glass is breathtaking. Tour Queen’s College and you can walk across the Mathematical Bridge.
Keep in mind that the college visiting hours vary along with the school calendar, so be sure to check specifics in advance. Also, note that most individual colleges will charge a small entrance fee.
If you’re not sure about visiting individual colleges, both cities offer walking tours that are led by students to learn about each university’s history. Click here for more information about a Cambridge walking tour or click here for more information on an Oxford walking tour.
A university could not exist without a library, so it may not surprise you that both Cambridge and Oxford have notable libraries. In addition to having large collections of books, the libraries are also architectural masterpieces.
In Oxford, the Bodleian Library houses over 12 million items, making it the second largest in Britain after the British Library. In addition, there is an exhibition space showcasing the jewels of the collection like the Vernon Manuscript, the first book printed with Arabic moveable type, and a rare surviving copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
The Bodleian Library is actually comprised of five buildings, including the Divinity School and iconic Radcliffe Camera near Broad Street. The Divinity School was featured in the first two Harry Potter films as Hogwarts’ hospital wing and is known for its fan-vaulted ceiling. Some areas of the Bodleian Library are only accessible by either doing a self-guided or guided tour.
In Cambridge, there is the Wren Library designed by Christopher Wren, the architect who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the old Naval Hospital in Greenwich to name a few. It reminded me of the Long Room Library at Trinity College in Dublin. In addition to the architecture and the books, you can see William Shakespeare’s First Folio, the original manuscript of A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, handwritten manuscripts by John Milton and Lord Tennyson, and some of Sir Isaac Newton’s notebooks.
The library is part of Trinity College. It’s free to go inside just use the side gate on Garret Hostel Lane or the Avenue off Queen’s Road. The Wren Library has limited hours (Monday – Friday 12:00 pm to 2:00 pm and Saturday 10:30 am – 12:30 pm). There may be a wait since they only allow 15 people inside at a time. We waited about 15 minutes. It takes about 30 minutes to look at the displays.
Both cities have world-class museums and many are free! If you are only planning on visiting for the day, choose one or two museums to visit.
In Cambridge, I love the Fitzwilliam and the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. The Fitzwilliam Museum has a bit of everything and reminds me a bit of the British Museum. The Museum of Archeology and Anthropology has a collection of over 1 million artifacts that covers 2 million years of human history. If neither of those museums appeals to you, there is also the Museum of Zoology, Museum of Classical Archeology, Sedgewick Museum of Earth Sciences, Polar Museum, Kettle’s Yard, and Whipple Museum of the History of Science.
In Oxford, the top museum is the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology which was founded back in 1683. It has a diverse collection covering four floors including everything from Egyptian mummies to European art. You could also visit the Museum of Natural History, Pitt Rivers Museum, the Museum of Oxford, or the Museum of the History of Science.
Both the Fitzwilliam and the Ashmolean have diverse collections for both art and history lovers. Honestly, it is hard to determine which city offers better museums. For me, I think the tie-breaker is the impressive building that houses the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
Winner: Cambridge (by a tie-breaker)
Those that love a traditional English pub will not be disappointed in either Cambridge or Oxford. Both have several pubs that you can check out, but in each city there is one that is most famous.
In Oxford, you must visit the Eagle and Child which has been a public house since 1650. This was the favorite spot for ‘The Inklings’ to get together in the 1930s and ’40s and discuss the manuscripts they were working on. The Inklings was an informal group of writers, including C.S. Lewis (the author of the Chronicles of Narnia children’s books), J.R.R. Tolkien (who wrote Lord of the Rings), Charles Williams, and Hugo Dyson. Have a pint in the pub and take the time to think that some of the most famous books in the world were dreamed up where you’re sitting.
In Cambridge, there is the Eagle. It originally opened in 1667, but may be best known as the place where Francis Crick announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after they developed their proposal for the structure of DNA in 1953. Russell loved the special Eagle DNA beer named to commemorate the event. Also, don’t miss the ceiling in the room in the back. It is full of graffiti from men that fought in World War II. Funny, it was originally named the Eagle and Child!
Punting is the English version of Venice’s gondolas. You can either do a tour with a driver (punter) or hire (rent) a punt and do the punting yourself. We have tried both. Punting is a lot harder than it looks. If you are not comfortable doing the punting, try one of the tours – it’s a fun way to learn more about the city.
Cambridge is famous for punting on the Cam river. It’s a beautiful ride through the Backs and under some unique bridges. Oxford also offers punting on the River Cherwell, but you don’t get views of the colleges like in Cambridge. You may catch a glimpse of Tom Tower but mostly it’s nature that surrounds the river. Keep in mind, if you are planning your London day trip in the winter, there is no punting in Oxford in December or January, but there is punting in Cambridge year around.
Bridge of Sighs
Since most people think of Venice when they hear Bridge of Sighs, you may be surprised to learn that both Oxford and Cambridge have bridges called “Bridge of Sighs.” While I think both are pretty, neither compares to the original.
Harry Potter Connections
Oxford has a few Harry Potter filming locations, while Cambridge does not. A few scenes were filmed at Christ Church College. The dining room at the college inspired the Great Hall at Hogwarts. You can also see filming locations at the Bodleian Library. Die-hard Harry Potter fans can take a tour in Oxford (like this one) to learn more about the city’s connection to Harry Potter.
Cambridge may not have any connections to Harry Potter, but it has been used as a filming location too. The Theory of Everything, the story of Professor Stephen Hawking, was filmed around the city and shows popular attractions like St. John’s College, Kings College Chapel, and the Bridge of Sighs.
One of my favorite things to do in England is visit castles. Oxford Castle is conveniently located in the city of Oxford. It was originally built in the 10th century by the Normans to defend the town, then became a prison around the 14th century. Much of the original castle was destroyed in the English Civil War, but the parts that survived were used as a prison until it was decommissioned in 1996.
You can take a one-hour tour of Oxford Castle which includes visits to St. George’s Tower, the crypt, the Debtors’ Tower, and more. From the top of St. George’s Tower, one of the oldest buildings in Oxford, there are stunning 360° panoramic views of the city. Click here to check price and availability for the Oxford Castle tour.
Unfortunately, there are no castles in Cambridge.
You might not have much time for shopping during a day trip but it’s good to know that both cities have lots of options. In addition to the standard high street stores, both Cambridge and Oxford have local markets.
Cambridge’s outdoor market dates back to the middle ages! From Monday to Saturdays from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm, it’s a general market with a variety of goods like books, music, clothes, jewelry, local food, plants, and more. On Sundays, from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm it turns into a local food, arts, and crafts market.
Oxford has several markets. The Covered Market is home to over 40 small merchants, a few cafes, and food shops. The market is open from 8:00 am to 5:50 pm Monday to Saturday, and from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm on Sundays. (Note that some businesses in the Covered Market will have different opening hours.) There is also the Gloucester Green Market which has different offerings depending on the day of the week. On Thursdays from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, you can find antiques and arts and crafts and on Saturdays from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, there is a bit of everything, including some incredible street food vans.
Distance from London
Both Cambridge and Oxford are easy to get to from London, although Cambridge is slightly further away. You can get to either city in around an hour by train. There are also bus options that are cheaper but take a bit longer.
Head to either London Liverpool Street or King’s Cross Station to catch the train to Cambridge. For Oxford, the trains leave from either London Paddington or Marylebone. Check the train schedules and pricing here. To get the lowest prices on train tickets, book in advance, choose specific train trains, and avoid peak hours.
Whether you do a Oxford or Cambridge day trip, it’s best to take the train, but for those that have more time a bus is another option especially if you want to travel late. National Express provides 24-hour service to both Oxford and Cambridge from London Victoria Station. Check schedules and pricing with National Express to Cambridge here or check schedules and pricing with National Express to Oxford here.
For those traveling to Oxford, there is also what is called the Oxford Tube. The Oxford Tube is a bus that runs frequently 24 hours a day, starts at Victoria Station, and has a few other stops in London. Find more information about the Oxford Tube here.
Overall Winner: Cambridge or Oxford?
It’s hard for me to choose an overall winner between Cambridge and Oxford because I love both cities. I have spent more time in Cambridge because it is closer to me (in Norwich), but I want to see more of Oxford.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, I think Oxford is the better choice, otherwise, I lean towards Cambridge. It may not be the most logical choice based on my analysis but my heart leads me there. Cambridge may not have a castle, but there are other places close to London (i.e. Windsor or Dover) to visit if that is your priority.
Both Cambridge and Oxford are amazing cities and in an ideal world, you could visit both. But if I had to choose between a Cambridge or Oxford day trip, it would be Cambridge. It’s hard to explain. Nothing against Oxford, but I think Cambridge is prettier (not by much) and it’s lovely to walk by the Colleges along the Cam River. It’s an emotional choice for me, not one that can be tallied on a scorecard.
If you decide to go to Cambridge, be sure to check out my Cambridge day trip guide.
Can You Visit Both Cambridge and Oxford in One Day?
Oxford and Cambridge are only located 66 miles from each other, but given how much there is to see in each city I would not recommend trying to see both cities in one day. A day trip from London to Oxford and Cambridge would be too rushed, especially if you are relying on public transportation. (Note: There is no direct train between Cambridge and Oxford)
If you can’t decide between the two cities and have your heart set on seeing both there are a few tours that go to both cities. An Oxford and Cambridge day tour is your best option because you won’t waste time finding the way and you get to see the highlights. Check out these options from GetYourGuide.
Oxford vs Cambridge: Which one do you choose?
Ok, it’s your turn, I want to hear which city is calling your name. Do you want to visit Oxford to see the Harry Potter locations or visit Cambridge to go punting on the Cam? It’s not an easy decision – I know! The good news is that they both are fantastic places to visit so I don’t think you can go wrong with either one.
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