Hectic and urban, the city of Oxford is an ever-interesting place to visit. Though there’s more to see than the synonymous school, Oxford is first and foremost a university town. With teaching in some form going for over 900 years, Oxford lays claim to being the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is considered to be the second oldest university in continuous operation on the planet.
Oxford is composed of 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls. The colleges function both as dormitory housing for the students and small teaching colleges. Unlike the large freshman classes inside cavernous lecture halls typical of large universities, most undergraduate teaching at Oxford is organized around tutorials at the self-governing colleges and halls. As undergraduates progress towards graduation, the shared faculties and departments of Oxford University support their advanced studies with lectures and laboratory facilities. Even the application process for Oxford is different; prospective students apply to colleges and not to the university.
College-centric education at Oxford has architectural consequences. The older colleges, some with founding dates in the 13th Century, have impressive street fronts. Historically, these buildings were walled and gated off from the city streets. The walls kept the riff-raff out and separated the students from corrupting influences of the residents of the city.
Inside the colleges’ compounds are self-contained educational facilities. There are rooms for students, a chapel, a dining hall, the kitchen, lounges, etc. Form follows function and the basic layout of the different colleges is typically similar. A visitor to Oxford can usually see the inside of the compounds. Depending on whether classes are in session, the gates of many colleges are open for visits. Tourists can step through colleges’ gate, have a look inside, and visualize how students have lived in Oxford through the centuries.
Beyond the colleges, there’s plenty more to see in Oxford. I recommend climbing the tower of University Church of St Mary the Virgin to get the best view of the iconic Radcliffe Camera. Nearby, the Bodleian Library, All Souls College, and other interesting old university buildings are worthy of a visit. Oxford has historical sites are at every turn.
With tons of things to see in a compact area guided walking tours are a popular way to get the most out of Oxford. The tours are a godsend for visitors with limited time. In Oxford a guided tour is a great way to learn about the history of the city, the university, and its colleges. Tours also give a chance to see things that might otherwise escape notice. Guides show visitors the places in Oxford that inspired Charles Dodgson’s (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) as he penned Alice in Wonderland, the hangouts where J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings discussed their fantastical stories, and the locations used to film the Harry Potter movies.
Oxford has a lot to interest a tourist. Indeed, if someone planning a trip to England asked me, which they surely won’t, I’d suggest visiting one of the historic university towns, either Oxford or Cambridge, as the best choice for a second city stop outside of London. Both cities are about an hour away from London by train and are easy to visit. There’s more to England than London; Oxford is a good start towards seeing the rest of the country.