The last few times I visited London I debated whether I should visit Cambridge or Oxford as a day trip from London. Unfortunately, after numerous online searches, I never seemed to get a straight answer as to which city was best from a tourist perspective.
If you find yourself asking the same question, I’m here to give you my honest opinion after visiting both Cambridge and Oxford back to back.
Both cities make wonderful day trips from London. Travel time is under an hour for either Oxford or Cambridge and tickets are between $10-$15 each way as long as you book in advance.
As I’m sure you've already guessed, both are university towns that offer a lot of history with a long list of famous professors and alumni. Both offer tours (often student led) that will take you through the most popular colleges, chapels, and libraries.
You’ll find beautiful architecture and that “scholarly” vibe on a visit to Oxford or Cambridge.
But to answer the pressing question of which is best to visit, Cambridge or Oxford…my answer is hands down Cambridge. This is purely from a tourist perspective and assuming it's a day trip from London. I’ll get into why Oxford may be best for some people.
Should I visit both if I can’t decide between Cambridge or Oxford?
Before we get started on why I prefer Cambridge, let’s discuss one of the most common questions that comes up when discussing whether you should visit Cambridge or Oxford. Should I visit both if I’m not crunched on time?
The short answer is no.
Even if you’re spending a month in England, there really is no reason to visit both university towns. They are very similar, and it would seem redundant to tour both. The only reason I would argue otherwise is if you’re a big history buff and intent on seeing where famous students and professors attended or taught classes.
Cambridge and Oxford have a long list of prominent alumni. Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton hail from Cambridge. Albert Einstein, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Oscar Wilde studied at Oxford. They also share a few famous names. Stephen Hawking and C.S. Lewis attended both universities.
If seeing the hallowed halls of where your favorite scientists, economists, authors, and politicians studied is of utmost importance to you, then it may be worth it to visit both Cambridge and Oxford.
Why Cambridge wins the Cambridge vs Oxford debate
Cambridge wins the Cambridge vs Oxford debate primarily because it’s more picturesque and compact. It’s exactly what you imagine when you think of a quintessential university town in England.
Picturesque cobble-stoned streets, peaceful green space and botanical gardens, students riding bikes to and from class, a skyline filled with Gothic spires, and cozy cafes.
Cambridge is compact, making everywhere worth going reachable by foot in twenty minutes or less.
Oxford is far more sprawling. It’s still doable by foot, but walking around is not nearly as scenic as Cambridge is.
Cambridge feels like a small, charming, college town/village. Oxford has more of an urban vibe to it.
You’ll find photo opportunities around every corner and down almost every street in Cambridge. Oxford has it's stately buildings and picturesque spots, but as a whole, it's not as picturesque as Cambridge.
Cambridge is also the perfect place for a punting experience. Think of punting as the British equivalent to a gondola ride in Venice, minus the singing, absorbent cost, and overall tourist rip-off vibe.
It's a memorable experience to book a punt tour and take it the views, especially if the weather is nice.
Punt rides go around what is called the “backs”. Which is quite literally, the backs of the colleges. It’s peaceful, calm, green, and a great way to see the different buildings and bridges of Cambridge.
Oxford also offers punt rides, but Cambridge again, is a bit more picturesque.
Reasons to visit Oxford instead of Cambridge
There are several specific reasons why I would recommend visiting Oxford vs Cambridge. The biggest factor is if you want to fit in more than just once place on your day trip from London. There really isn’t much around Cambridge and it’s not on the way to anywhere a typical tourist might be going.
Oxford on the other hand is in the vicinity and on the way to a number of popular destinations. A quick stop in Oxford is actually often combined with Bath, the Cotswolds, Stonehenge, or Stratford-upon-Avon with tour companies.
Popular tours that include Oxford:
Oxford wins the Oxford vs Cambridge debate for Harry Potter fans
Should serious Harry Potter fans visit Cambridge or Oxford? The answer is Oxford when it comes to Harry Potter filming locations and inspiration.
The Great Hall in Christ Church College served as inspiration for the Great Hall in Harry Potter. The steps that lead up to the hall were used in several scenes as were the surrounding hallways.
The Divinity School at Bodleian Library was used as the Hogwarts hospital. Duke Humphrey’s Library (also at Bodleian Library) stood in for the Hogwarts Library in the first film.
Lastly, the scene where Mad-Eye Moody turned Draco Malfoy into a ferret was filmed at the New College Cloisters.
While Cambridge may remind you of many Harry Potter scenes, the only college that was used was Oxford.
Join a tour to take you to all the Harry Potter filming sites!
A summary on whether you should visit Oxford or Cambridge
If you’re looking for the more picturesque, compact, charming, quintessential university town…Cambridge wins the Oxford vs Cambridge debate. Cambridge is by far more scenic.
I also personally think it’s the more worthwhile of the two if you’re visiting Cambridge as a day trip from London and don’t want to stop anywhere else before or after. There isn’t much around Cambridge that would easily fit into a day trip itinerary.
It would make more sense to visit Oxford vs Cambridge if you want to fit more than place on your day trip itinerary. Oxford is on the way (or close) to a number of other interesting destinations like Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon, and the Cotswolds.
This also makes Oxford a convenient stop if you’re planning to stay in those destinations. Harry Potter fans will also prefer Oxford over Cambridge because Oxford was used for a number of Harry Potter filming sites.
I hope this helps answer the question on whether you should visit Cambridge or Oxford as a day trip from London. Either way, you'll have a memorable time as both are wonderful destinations filled with history and character.