Founded more than nine centuries ago, Oxford is the oldest English-speaking university in the world. Its 39 colleges, built of limestone from the local hills, are superb examples of medieval, Gothic, and classical architecture and are a movie-set-perfect background for its 16,500 students, many of whom cycle around the city with their gowns trailing in the wind. Its impressive alumni include four kings, 25 U.K. prime ministers, 44 Nobel Prize winners, and a certain sax-playing U.S. president. Although you can enjoy Oxford for a day, it takes at least three days to fully experience the breadth of its art, theater, music, and intellectual life. And you will find that Oxford is an affordable intellectual bonanza.
Before you go
Second, decide if you want to focus on architecture, theater, museums, music, or a bit of each. Tickets can be ordered online in advance for most theater and music events. Museums are free, and many lectures invite everyone (see "Events Open to All" listings on the Oxford Web site or posted in the bookstores and elsewhere in town).
Last, pack comfortable shoes. Oxford is a walkable city, and its paths along the Thames (called "Isis" in Oxford) and Cherwell rivers are especially beautiful. Or you can rent a bike and set aside an afternoon for the eight-mile trip to Blenheim Palace, a giant Baroque English country house built for the first Duke of Marlborough. Winston Churchill was born there. It's open from mid-March to late October. (You can also take the bus for £3.70 round trip, or US$5.78; at press time, £1 equaled $1.56.)
Unless you've found a lecture you don't want to miss, start by visiting the heart of the university, the area between High Street and Broad Street that includes the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, and the Old Schools Quadrangle.
There are 39 residential colleges at Oxford, and even in three days, you probably won't visit them all. For the most famous, there is often an entrance fee. Be sure to see Christ Church (£4)-it's the birthplace of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and its chapel is the Cathedral of Oxford-or Magdalen (o3), where C. S. Lewis was inspired to write the Chronicles of Narnia. Both have famous bell towers.
Magdalen's Addison's Walk, a riverside half-hour footpath route, loops around a meadow where seasonal plantings abound and where cows graze on college grounds from mid-July to September.
While strolling around Oxford town, don't miss Blackwell's book shop. It's a must-stop for book lovers. In one single room are three miles of bookshelves containing 250,000 volumes, and salespeople who know what's there. After filling your bag with hard-to-find books, fill your days and evenings with intelligent entertainment by choosing from the following:
The city offers the City of Oxford Orchestra; the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building with chamber music, orchestra, and jazz presentations; Oxford Chamber Music Society; Oxford City Opera; the Oxford Philomusica (Oxford's orchestra in residence); several jazz venues; and a variety of concerts in the college chapels. For information on these and other events, log on to visitoxford.org. Most tickets are £5 to £20, depending on the event. All are professional quality at considerably less than you would pay in London.
Where to stay