On Easter Sunday, Oxford and Cambridge will meet again for the 159th edition of the Boat Race on the Thames. The race, one of the world’s oldest ongoing sporting events, pits students and alumni from the two prestigious “Oxbridge” universities against one another for (mostly) good-natured predictions beforehand and jubilation (or sorrow) afterward. An estimated quarter of a million cheering partisans gather on the banks of the Thames to watch one of the country's biggest annual sports events.
In the spirit of the Boat Race, and for the benefit of travelers thinking of heading to visit either university town, here’s a lighthearted look at the differences between the two. Christy Karras, the editor of Yahoo! Visit Britain pages, attended Cambridge. Contributor Amelia Gurley is a student at Oxford.
Why Oxford is better:
1. Cambridge was actually founded by a group of scholars who were kicked out of Oxford for arguing with the townsfolk. That’s right: Cambridge was formed by Oxford rejects!
2. The Bodleian Library, the largest and most beautiful library in the world, housing a copy of every book ever published in the UK. ‘Nuff said. (Tours of the library are available via this website, including extended tours into the underground tunnels that connect to branches throughout the city.)
3. Oxford is not only the older university – it is, in fact, so ancient that the exact date of its foundation is unknown, although records reach back to 1096 – but it also includes the world’s oldest educational building in use, found within St Edmund Hall’s campus.
4. Oxford men have more muscles! Or, at least, the men’s crew did as of the weigh-in for this year’s boat race. If you like your men well built, ladies, Oxford is clearly the place to be.
5. According to the leading pub guide websites for Oxford and Cambridge, Oxford boasts 20 more pubs than Cambridge. Those looking to eat, drink and be merry should pay Oxford’s dizzying range of pubs a visit. The best mulled wines and ciders are served at the historic Eagle and Child off of St Giles’ Street, the site of regular meetings between J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other notable authors.
6. More graduates of Oxford go on to become millionaires, according to this student paper. Notable Oxford alumni include Tolkien, Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Bill Clinton, and former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
7. Attending Oxford gives you a much higher chance of meeting a movie star! Oxford has been the setting for films ranging from “Harry Potter” to “X-Men: First Class” as well as the two long-running TV shows, “Inspector Morse” and “Lewis.” Several tours even allow visitors to walk in Harry’s footsteps through such iconic locations as the Hogwarts library and Great Hall.
Why Cambridge is better:
1. Cambridge is academically better than Oxford. Don’t just take my word for it: Cambridge is ranked first and Oxford third in the 2013 Complete University Guide, published within the UK. Likewise, U.S. News & World Report ranks Cambridge (#2 in the world, behind MIT) above Oxford (#5) in academic excellence.
2. Oxford’s lovely spires can’t beat the beauty of the Cambridge landscape. Situated among the wide-open skies and rolling fenland of eastern England (perfect for cycling), the university also boasts impressive gardens. They include the Cambridge University Botanic Garden and the gardens at Clare College.
3. Cambridge affiliates have more Nobel prizes among them. This is partly because of an emphasis on science that goes back to Sir Isaac Newton, who studied at Trinity College in the 1660s and returned to teach at the university. The Cavendish Laboratory, where scientists discovered the structure of DNA, is still an international hub of scientific inquiry. Even Stephen Hawking calls Cambridge home.
4. Cambridge students are more skilled at punting. Flat-bottomed boats, moved and steered with long poles, travel along a stretch of river called "the Backs" that runs among the university’s oldest buildings. Most students use their own college punts, but tourists can also try it by renting from a local company such as Scudamores.
5. You might be able to hang out with actors at Oxford, but if you actually want to become one, Cambridge is the place for you. That’s especially true for comedy: The Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club, established in 1883, spawned Monty Python as well as famous actors including Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie. It’s still easy to find a comedy show in Cambridge, perhaps through the Cambridge Impronauts or Cambridge Improv Factory, at CB2 bistro (which also hosts music acts).
6. William and Kate are our Duke and Duchess. While they don’t exactly hang around town, they’ve said they are proud to be affiliated with the university and the city: "We both feel immense pride at being associated with Cambridge, a place renowned the world over for its dynamism, beauty and learning,” Prince William said during a visit last year.
7. Finally, there’s the Boat Race itself: Cambridge has won the Boat Race 82 times, while Oxford has won 76.
Last year’s race may have been the most controversial in history: A random swimmer jumped into the Thames, narrowly avoiding getting whacked by an oar and forcing both crews to stop while he was captured. Oxford had been ahead before the interruption, but after a restart, Cambridge won in a victory that will likely be argued over forever.
If you’d like to get a taste of what makes these universities and their surroundings special, both are easily accessible from London by train. And if you have a hard time deciding which to see, why not try both? That way, everyone wins.
by Christy Karras and Amelia Gurley
Photos: The Cambridge crew in action during a training outing on the River Thames before the 159th University Boat Race is on Sunday in London. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
The view over Oxford spires from the Sheldonian Theatre. (Photo by Pawel Libera/Visit Britain)
Punters pass the famous Mathematical Bridge and Queen's College at the University of Cambridge. Cambridge is famous for both mathematics and punting. (Photo by Britain on View/Visit Britain)