10 reasons why visiting Cambridge will make you happier than Oxford
The question of whether it is better to visit Cambridge or Oxford is often debated and has existed almost as long as the rivalry itself. The rivalry between the two cities has been fiercely contested for centuries and dates back to 1209. This was when the University in Cambridge was first established with Oxford having been founded 113 years earlier. At this time, they were the only two universities in the English-speaking world. Over the years, this rivalry has developed in the fields of academia, scientific discovery and sporting endeavour.
Today, Cambridge and Oxford are among the best cities in Europe to visit. Both have striking similarities in terms of their architectural footprint and status. The two universities have world-class reputations and a long list of illustrious alumni who have shaped the world around us. Both are among the most popular and best places to visit in England with much to offer the most seasoned visitor. However, Cambridge offers a more complete and unforgettable visitor experience and here are our 10 reasons why.
1 Historic Cambridge
To walk around Cambridge is to enjoy a tangible historic experience compared to the more urban experience of visiting Oxford. The Cambridge Colleges are more open and visible than those at Oxford, providing an opportunity to appreciate their beauty without going inside them. A day in Cambridge sightseeing offers a greater sense of history as you walk the cobbled streets and experience an endless supply of historic buildings.
Many of the most historic places to visit in Cambridge are very close to each other so you have a continuous sense of walking through history. A 5 minute walk in Cambridge sightseeing will encompass The Round Church, St John's College, Trinity College, Gonville & Caius College and Great St Mary's Church and the most striking landmark across both cities, King’s College Chapel. Oxford has its own historic buildings to enjoy, notably Christ Church Cathedral, Magdalen College and the Radcliffe Camera. However, the buildings in Oxford are more sporadically located. The sense of walking through time is often interrupted by the many modern looking buildings on display.
2 Green space
Both cities offer some of the best scenery in the UK. However, if you are looking to visit Cambridge or Oxford for beautiful gardens and green open spaces, then Cambridge is the place for you. A walking tour of Cambridge demonstrates this perfectly with so much green space on view as you walk around the city. Many of the Cambridge Colleges are located within easy walking distance of each other with their entrances and immaculately manicured lawns openly visible. This contrasts with the more hidden views available in Oxford.
Cambridge also benefits from having large open spaces in more central locations. Jesus Green, Midsummer Common and Parker's Piece all compare favourably to Port Meadow Park and University Parks in Oxford. Relaxing in these many open spaces is one of the most popular things to do in Cambridge for locals and visitors alike. Where it is harder to differentiate between the two cities is in their Botanic Gardens. Both cities offer beautiful tranquil experiences in central locations. The Cambridge Botanic Garden opened in 1762 compared to 1621 for Oxford. Both offer beautiful gardens and glasshouses packed with flowers and plants from all over the world.
However, when it comes to green spaces, the one area Oxford can’t compete with is the magnificent backs of Cambridge. Intrinsically linked with many a Cambridge punting experience, the backs stretch out on both sides of the River Cam. The view of the backs is regarded as one of the best places to visit in England and is the highlight of many a Cambridge sightseeing trip. If you go punting on the river Cam, you will enjoy some of the most breath-taking views in Cambridge. The beautifully manicured grounds of the Colleges perfectly compliment the stunning architecture on display. This results in a truly memorable Cambridge sightseeing experience.
3 Getting around
Cambridge is a smaller city and is much easier to navigate on foot than Oxford. This makes it ideal if you have limited time at your disposal for your Cambridge sightseeing experience. With some planning, you can fit in all the main Cambridge attractions in one day.
There are so many more beautiful sights to enjoy on your day trip in Cambridge with a greater concentration of sights in easy walking distance. The best example of this is to stand on King’s Parade where a 360-degree perspective brings into view some of the most popular Cambridge attractions. These include King’s College Chapel, Senate House, Great Saint Mary’s Church and the Corpus Clock.
For those of a more active disposition, getting around Cambridge on two wheels is also an easier experience than Oxford. The streets are flatter in Cambridge with many more cycle lanes in place. For a more laid-back Cambridge sightseeing experience, you could go virtual and try our Cambridge walking and punting tour instead.
4 Punting in Cambridge
If punting is high on your list of things to do, then both Cambridge and Oxford are among the best cities in Europe to visit. However, punting on the river Cam in Cambridge offers a much more enriching and interesting punting experience by far. Punting on the River Cherwell in Oxford is an opportunity to brush up on your punting skills but little else. You can enjoy the charm of being on the river as you drift away from the more interesting sights of Oxford into the countryside. In contrast, your Cambridge punting experience is a much more memorable one as you glide through history while punting on the river Cam.
The river flows more centrally through the city of Cambridge than in Oxford. This means there are many more eye-catching and historic Cambridge attractions on display. As you glide down the backs you will view the Bridge of Sighs, King's College Chapel, the Wren Library, the Mathematical Bridge and St John's College New Court - all among the very best landmarks you must see in Cambridge. Experience some of the best scenery in the UK for yourself by taking our virtual Cambridge walking and punting tour, allowing you to experience punting on the river Cam from the comfort of your home.
5 The secret of life
Both universities have world class reputations for academic excellence, innovation and research. However, when it comes to Science, Cambridge is ahead of Oxford and indeed most universities in this field. A 2019 survey of 1,400 universities across 92 countries unveiled Cambridge as number one in the world for Life Sciences and number 3 for Maths, Chemistry and Physics. Oxford by comparison was number 3 and number 7 respectively.
Both universities have produced great thinkers and some of the world's top scientists. Notable alumni from Oxford includes Tim-Berners-Lee who invented the internet, the astronomer Edwin Hubble and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Famous Cambridge alumni includes Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Sir Christopher Cockerell the inventor of the hovercraft, Charles Babbage the father of modern computing, Ernest Rutherford, Sir Joseph John Thomson who discovered the electron in 1897, James Chadwick who discovered the neutron in 1932 and Michael Foalem the first Briton to walk in space.
The Old Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge has been home to many of these famous scientists and their many profound scientific achievements. None more so than Crick and Watson who cracked the DNA code there. The Old Cavendish Laboratory is one of the most popular Cambridge attractions with 22 Nobel Prize winners having worked there.
In total, Cambridge has produced 109 Nobel Prize winners, compared to the 69 from Oxford. Trinity College Cambridge has produced 34 Nobel Prize winners alone, the most of any college. Nobel Prize winners from Cambridge include 33 in Physics, 27 in Medicine and 25 in Chemistry with Frederick Sanger notable for winning a Nobel Prize twice in 1958 and in 1980, one of only four individuals to have achieved this.
6 The Bridge of Sighs Cambridge
Both Oxford and Cambridge are home to a Bridge of Sighs but when it comes to sheer breath-taking beauty, the Bridge of Sighs Cambridge is the clear winner. The Bridge in Oxford links two parts of Hertford College together and is built across New College Lane. In contrast, the Bridge of Sighs Cambridge is located in the grounds of St John's College and is best viewed from the river. The view is one of the highlights of many a Cambridge punting experience and is a big reason to go punting on the river Cam.
Well-known for its striking Neo-Gothic stonework, the Bridge of Sighs Cambridge famously inspired Queen Victoria to declare that it was her favourite view in the city. It is one of the most popular and romantic Cambridge attractions and is the only covered bridge in the city. There are 9 Bridges of Sighs in the world and Venice is widely regarded as the most beautiful with the Bridge of Sighs Cambridge a close second.
7 Museum Delight
When it comes to Museums, both Cambridge and Oxford offer a huge array of museums and exhibits to cater for every interest. However, although there are more in Oxford, the museums of Cambridge and their collections offer greater variety and depth for the average visitor. Of the 12 museums in Oxford, the most visited is the University Museum of Natural History which features the preserved remains of a Dodo. The Ashmolean Museum is also popular and includes the lantern of Guy Fawkes among its extensive collection. Visitors to Oxford can also explore the Pitts Rivers Museum and Modern Art Oxford which is dedicated to modern art and culture.
In contrast, the breadth of exhibits on display in the museums of Cambridge include Roman & Anglo Saxon artefacts, Darwin’s scientific instruments, Scott’s expedition papers, a Jurassic dinosaur skeleton and any rock or mineral you can mention going back 4.5 billion years. The most popular are the Whipple Museum of the History of Science which features scientific artefacts owned by Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton among others; the Museum of Zoology and its 2 million animal specimens, notably a 21 meter long Fin Whale which greets visitors on arrival; and the oldest University Museum, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences which is focused on geology and features items going back 4.5 billion years.
However, if you only have time to visit one museum on your day trip in Cambridge or Oxford, there is only one choice. The Fitzwilliam Museum is one of the finest regional museums in Europe and merits a day exploring its contents alone. The outside of the museum has been compared to the Parthenon in Athens. With its imposing neo-Classical edifice and monumental columns, it is easy to see why.
Across 30 galleries, the Fitzwilliam Museum is home to a staggering collection of over half a million artefacts, sculptures, antiquities and treasures from all around the world. The works of art on display feature the likes of Leonardo da Vinci, Rubens, Gainsborough, Constable, Rembrandt, Renoir and Van Gogh. So, when it comes to museums, the Fitzwilliam Museum is a real must see in Cambridge with nothing else coming close.
8 Sporting pedigree
When it comes to sporting rivalries between the two, Cambridge is way ahead of its rival on the field as well as off it. There are varsity matches between the two Universities in all sports. The two main events are the annual Oxford Cambridge Boat Race, held on the River Thames in London and the Varsity rugby match, held at Twickenham, the home of English Rugby. The first sporting contest featuring Oxford vs Cambridge was a two-day cricket match at Lord's in 1827. This was organised by Charles Wordsworth, nephew of the poet William.
However, Cambridge cements its status as the more influential sporting city by being the home of football. This dates back to 1848 when students from Cambridge formalised a set of 11 rules. These rules were then adopted by the English Football Association in 1863 who stated that "they embrace the true principles of the game, with the greatest simplicity." Football in Cambridge at that time was played on Parker's Piece with the rules nailed to the trees surrounding it.
Today a granite sculpture sits on Parker's Piece in commemoration. This was installed in 2018 and is one of the newest Cambridge attractions. The rules of football are inscribed on the sculpture in different languages and this reflects the global nature of football today. For football fans, the sculpture is an essential must see in Cambridge and should be part of every sports-related Cambridge sightseeing itinerary.
Cambridge and Oxford have had a significant impact on our lives in so many ways, none more so than popular culture. When it comes to the world of entertainment, in this most subjective of categories, Cambridge again takes the plaudits. The acting alumni of Oxford include Maggie Smith, Rosamund Pike, Emilia Fox, Hugh Grant, Imogen Stubbs and Emma Watson who studied English at Worcester College for a year. The University comedy group, The Oxford Revue has produced a strong cast of comedians and satirists over the years. These include Rowan Atkinson, Al Murray, Richard Curtis, Dudley Moore, Armando Iannucci, Sally Philips, Patrick Marber, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
However, Cambridge has produced many more household names who have delighted and entertained millions of fans over the years. These include Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne, Olivia Colman and Sam Mendes. Redmayne studied at Trinity College Cambridge and won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. Other famous Cambridge alumni include Sir Ian McKellen, Thandie Newton, Rachel Weisz, Tilda Swinton, Naomie Harris, Tom Hollander and Emma Thompson. The famous Cambridge Footlights comedy troupe has produced some of the world's finest comedians and entertainers. These include: Stephen Fry, Sacha Baron-Cohen, John Oliver, David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Hugh Laurie, Peter Cook, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Mel Giedroyc, Sandi Toksvig, Alexander Armstrong, Richard Ayoade, David Baddiel, Ben Miller and Griff Rhys Jones.
10 May Ball celebrations
When it comes to nightlife, there can be only one winner. May Week and the May Balls in Cambridge set the scene for the biggest, loudest and most extravagant parties by far. The May Balls take place at the end of every academic year in June in a tradition that dates to the 1830s. The balls are the highlight of the social calendar and are a must see in Cambridge. They are extremely lavish events with individual college budgets running up to £400,000 with no expense spared.
The May Balls are hugely popular and sell out quickly with tickets for the Trinity College Cambridge May Ball in 2019 exchanging hands for £345. Revellers with the stamina to dance their way through the garden parties, moonlit punting and spectacular fireworks can have their proclivities enshrined forever by having a survivor’s photograph taken at dawn the next day. An unmissable Cambridge experience that repeats every year, unless you are in Oxford which sadly has no equivalent.