Oxford, founded sometime during the ninth century, expanded during the Middle Ages as a center for learning—first for theology, then medicine, and then law. Over the centuries, the university has added more departments, and now you can study with the best and brightest in any field.
The small city of Oxford is basically one giant school. Every few feet, a new college springs up on you. The spires, ancient buildings, and courtyards make Oxford a beautiful place to stroll through. I spent three days there hosted by someone from Couchsurfing. Like my previous Couchsurfing experiences, this one was a lot of fun and the host was really welcoming. He hosts a new person every week and loves the experience. In a “small-world moment,” one of his friends is moving back to Thailand next week, and she lives right down the street from where I live.
Oxford was beautiful, despite it raining every day I was there. I explored the area during small gaps in the storms, but, since this is England, the rain quickly returned and I quickly turned inside. Not always back home though. Often I went exploring the colleges, shops, and museums.
While I don’t often take guided tours, I decided to do so here, and it was worth the price. They tell you a lot about the university that you might not otherwise learn. The Oxford system is unique. The university consists of 38 colleges, and each college is separate and in charge of itself. Each does its own hiring, firing, and admissions. The “university” is just an umbrella group run by the government that hands out the degrees. While you may go to New College or Exeter College, you still get an Oxford degree. There aren’t departments like in other universities around the world. Here, each college teaches all the subjects, though there is a separate science and medicine department. In graduate school, curriculums become more specialized.
When you apply to Oxford, you apply to a college. Each college accepts its own applicants, and since they all teach the same thing, a lot of it is a crap shoot and based on reputation.
Each week, students meet with a tutor who helps with their studies. These tutorials are the foundation of the Oxford system and comprise the bulk of a student’s work.
Another interesting fact about the Oxford system is that there aren’t exams. In most universities, when the term finishes, you take a final exam. At Oxford, you may have little tests here and there, but there is no real semester final. Your degree rests on a final examination you have at the end of your time at Oxford. One test. Sick, huh?
I thought the whole Oxford system was overly complex, but that’s the consequence of people starting their own colleges year after year over many centuries and then not wanting to integrate into one system.
Because of the weather, I didn’t get a chance to go punting in the river in Oxford. Punting is when you take a sort of gondola ride down the river while drinking, relaxing, and hoping you don’t fall in when it’s your turn to push that pole (punt) but here are my recommended things to do and see in Oxford:
University of Oxford Botanical Gardens
(Rose Lane, +44 1865 286690, botanic-garden.ox.ac.uk)
The Gardens are one of Oxford’s most scenic spots to take in the scenery and slower pace of town. It’s a great place for a quiet stroll, and admission is only 5 GBP.
Visit the Covered Market
(Market St, oxford-coveredmarket.co.uk)
This historical market is a great place to walk through and taste the local food. There are a lot of homemade meals served here, and it’s the best place to do some cheap shopping for groceries in the city.
(Broad Street, +44 1865 277162, bodleian.ox.ac.uk)
As the main research library of the University of Oxford, the Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It opened in 1602, and was based on the collection of Thomas Bodley. Presently, it has one of the largest collections of books in the world. The architecture on the building is very beautiful, making it definitely worth a visit!
During the summer, punting is an ever-popular activity. Punting is essentially pushing a boat around the rivers and canals of the university with a pole. You can rent a boat or hire someone to take you, and many bring food and wine with them to make for a more interesting day. Rentals cost around 20-25 GBP per hour, and can fit up to 5 people.
(Woodstock, +44 1993 810530, blenheimpalace.com)
This underrated attraction is just eight short miles outside of Oxford. Featured in the movie Hamlet, it’s a magnificent place to check out. Aside from the amazing architecture, the rooms are preserved with their original furniture and the grounds include a beautiful garden and a butterfly house. Admission is steep, however, with adult tickets priced at 24 GBP.
And when you go, make sure you go punting for me!
How to Get to Oxford
Oxford is located 62 miles from London. Trains leave every 3 minutes from Londo and the trip takes about one hour. Tickets start at around 17 GBP for a return journey and are normally considerably cheaper if booked in advance.
Book Your Trip to Oxford: Logistical Tips and Tricks
Don’t Forget Travel Insurance
Travel insurance will protect you against illness, injury, theft, and cancellations. I never take a trip without it. I’ve been using World Nomads for ten years. You should too.
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Note: This article was originally published in 2008.