As you walk the streets of Oxford, know that you are inhaling air breathed by geniuses of every ilk. Oxford University, the oldest English-speaking university in the world (a center of learning since at least 1096), is an education powerhouse without rival. Christopher Wren, William Penn, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, T. E. Lawrence, Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, Steven Hawking, Tony Blair, Hugh Grant, and King Abdullah all hit the books here.
Unlike American universities, where buildings sprawl across acres and students from many disciplines share high-rise housing, Oxford is separated into 39 compact colleges, each with its own buildings, lodgings, traditions, and hours open to visitors. The picture-perfect choice for visitors is Christ Church College, familiar to Americans because it served as the setting for scenes in the Harry Potter movies. The Great Hall at the college was replicated to become Hogwarts Hall; the cloisters was the setting for the Hogwarts trophy room; and more than one staircase was used.
Christ Church was also where Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, taught. (Alice, the daughter of the school’s dean, is everywhere at Alice’s Shop, which is a cross between a tourist attraction, tea room, and shop, near the entrance to the college.) Albert Einstein and John Locke are other Christ Church notables. Once you’ve toured the school, head for the Oxford Story, a museum where you climb into a car, pull on headphones, and ride through a lively visualization of history of the city and the university. There’s a separate narration for youngsters.
Other top sites include the Bodleian Library, with its miles of books and serenely beautiful reading room (its gift shop is ideal for book-lovers); and hike to the top of Carfax Tower for a panoramic view of the city. (The stairs are narrow and there is no elevator.)
Tolkien devotees can stop at his favorite pub, the Eagle and Child, and take a short bus trip north of town to Wolvercote Cemetery, where he is buried. (Despite the name, the cemetery is not in the small hamlet of Wolvercote but north of downtown.) If you have time, try punting on the Thames, a pleasant pastime that allows you to see Oxford like a local: via boat. Rentals are available east of downtown where High Street meets the river. For lunch, head to Brown’s on Woodstock Road, a local institution. With an extra day, you can add a visit to Blenheim Palace, one of England’s finest historic homes and, as the place Winston Churchill was born, a perfect compliment to Chartwell, where he died.