6 Ways Oxford is Like Nowhere Else in the World

The beautiful and historic city of Oxford has a presence and a prestige that is like nowhere else in the world. Much of this, of course, is because it’s home to the UK’s oldest university. 

A common misunderstanding from people who haven’t visited the city before is that the University of Oxford has a single location. In fact, if you stand in the city centre of Oxford and ask a passerby how to get to the university, they could quite reasonably point in any direction. That’s because the University of Oxford is made up of 39 colleges, spread out across the city. The result is that there’s no single university area; Oxford’s tradition of scholarship, and its long history, is in evidence across the whole city. 

This is just one of the many things that make Oxford such an incredible place to live and learn. Here are our top reasons why Oxford is like nowhere else in the world.

1. Oxford has an incredible history

Image shows Merton College, Oxford.
Merton is one of Oxford’s oldest colleges, founded in the 1260s.

Oxford was first settled over a thousand years ago – and surroundings areas such as Yarnton, where our International Study Centre is located, has evidence of human activity dating back to the early Bronze Age, perhaps as long ago as 2,700 BC. In Oxford itself, the tower of St Michael at the North Gate dates back to this early Saxon settlement, where – as the name suggests – it was next to one of the gates allowing access into the city. 

In the past thousand years, Oxford has housed Parliament three times, been a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War, seen riots and martyrdoms and, of course, become the home of the first British university, and one of the oldest universities in the Western World. The exact date of foundation of the University of Oxford is so long ago that it’s been lost to time, but teaching here dates back to at least 1096. The oldest colleges were founded over 750 years ago, and many college buildings date back to the Middle Ages. If you join our Oxford summer school, you can live and learn in a college of the University of Oxford, and you could end up staying in buildings that are astonishingly old, predating the French Revolution or American independence; the university itself predates the start of the Aztec Empire.

Many British cities have as long and storied a history as Oxford. What makes Oxford so unusual and special is how well-preserved its historical monuments are, and how well-commemorated its history is. Walking around the city, you can visit the Divinity School where Charles I’s Parliament sat during the Civil War, or see the monument to the Oxford Martyrs, who were notable Protestants burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. It isn’t just educational to wander around Oxford; the city’s long and remarkable history comes to life around you as you explore, and Oxford Royale Academy’s staff are experts at providing tours that fill in the gaps.

2. Oxford has a wealth of traditions, both old and new

Image shows All Souls College.
All Souls College celebrates one of Oxford’s oldest and oddest traditions.

There’s nowhere that celebrates its traditions, and shows such enthusiasm in creating new ones, as Oxford – not even its traditional rival, Cambridge. One example of this is the tradition of students wearing carnations during their exams. This is a recent tradition by Oxford standards, probably dating to the mid-20th century. The idea is that for a student’s first exam of the year, they wear a white carnation with their mandatory sub-fusc (that’s the black-and-white outfit you’ll sometimes see students in Oxford wearing). For later exams, it’s a pink carnation, and for the final exam, it’s red. There’s a myth that this comes from leaving the carnation in an inkwell filled with red ink, so that it gradually becomes redder and redder as time goes by, but this is more likely to be a charming story than reality, given that inkwells weren’t in common use even by the time that this tradition originated. Of course, many Oxford students believe, mistakenly, that it dates back centuries. 

One bizarre Oxford tradition that is centuries old – dating back to the founding of All Souls College in the 15th century – is a ceremony that takes place there just once every hundred years. This is Hunting the Mallard, in which Fellows of All Souls parade around the college with flaming torches, carrying an individual deemed ‘Lord Mallard’ in a chair, with the person leading the procession holding a duck on a pole. Historically the duck has been dead, but in more recent iterations, it’s been replaced by a more duck-friendly wooden version. The tradition has most recently been celebrated in 2001, so it won’t happen again until 2101. Such is the longevity of the University of Oxford, its awareness of its history and its adherence to tradition, that no one doubts that the ceremony will take place again, even when most or all of the current Fellows of the college are long dead.

3. Oxford has a unique atmosphere

Image shows an Oxford college dining hall.
Dining in Hall contributes to Oxford’s Hogwarts-esque atmosphere.

Some of the things that make Oxford unique can be identified easily; you can take photos of them, and the city’s souvenir shops put them on postcards and fridge magnets for visitors to take home. But perhaps the more important things are less tangible. One important part of what makes Oxford so special is its atmosphere. 

The university, and by extension the city as a whole, has a particular ethos. This is the shared knowledge of what people come here in order to achieve. Oxford’s long-standing reputation is such that students here are ambitious, and they know that they have been given an opportunity that is afforded to only very few people. But more importantly, they share a love of and commitment to learning. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is celebrated here. You can’t be too nerdy, or have too niche an academic interest, for Oxford standards; a common Oxford experience is that when you’re talking about your esoteric academic field in the queue for coffee, you’ll bump into the only other person in the world who’s researching the same area.

What’s more, you don’t have to be a current student of the university or a staff member in order to benefit. Oxford Royale Academy students in Oxford benefit, in part because many of our staff are current or former students at the university, and in part because this is simply the atmosphere of the whole city. There are public lectures, book signings, debates and more – not to mention the enviable collection of museums, libraries and archives that visitors can sometimes get access to. WB Yeats famously said, “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford except dream and remember. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking.” Over 130 years after the visit that inspired Yeats to write those words, the mood of Oxford has scarcely changed.

4. Oxford creates remarkable opportunities

Image shows two old portraits.
Studying in Oxford lets you follow in the footsteps of countless notable people.

This scholarly atmosphere doesn’t just hang around the city doing nothing. One of its consequences is that time in Oxford can create remarkable opportunities. A degree from the University of Oxford is recognised and valued in every country on Earth, and researchers at the university are making world-changing discoveries every day. From Dorothy Hodgkin’s work on protein crystallography, which confirmed the structure of penicillin, to Roger Bacon’s work in the 13th century shaping the nature of what would become science, the work of people at the University of Oxford has changed our lives in countless ways. 

And it isn’t just in the sciences. The University of Oxford has educated many of the world’s best-known writers, such as JRR Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers and Iris Murdoch; countless world leaders, such as Benazir Bhutto, Bill Clinton and William Gladstone; and a plethora of actors, musicians and other celebrities, such as Hugh Grant, Michael Palin and Nigella Lawson.

Undoubtedly some of these people would have achieved success and fame even had they not gone to Oxford. But it’s clear that for many people, their time in Oxford transformed their lives. Even if they didn’t commit to their studies, they met other remarkable people, formed their ambitions, and decided to aim high. At Oxford Royale Academy, we aim to support our summer school students in doing the same, helping them to form and work towards their ambitions, and giving them a support network of like-minded students to learn with and from. You may only spend two weeks with us, but it can still be transformative, in shaping new goals and discovering what routes are available to you in order to achieve them. And you’ll be following in the footsteps of remarkable people as you do so.

5. Oxford has beautiful architecture

Image shows the Radcliffe Camera.
The Radcliffe Camera is famously beautiful.

Perhaps the first thing anyone notices on visiting Oxford for the first time is how stunning the city is architecturally. It’s home to an example of every major architectural style seen in England from the Saxons onwards, which is highly unusual, yet because so much of the city centre is built in the same Headington stone, it has an elegant uniformity that many other cities lack, even if they have more consistent architectural styles. 

What’s more, Oxford has retained an astonishing number of its historic buildings. This is in part because it escaped being bombed during the Second World War – though the idea that this is because Hitler wanted to use Oxford as his capital following the invasion of Britain is almost certainly a myth. Another reason is because Oxford’s beauty has long been admired, so the city has benefited from the restoration and preservation of its ancient buildings, where in other cities similar buildings were allowed to fall into disrepair, and were then ultimately pulled down. Even the incredible St Pancras station, which you might see if your trip to Oxford takes you via London on the Eurostar, was once a candidate for demolition. 

The effect of being around such a beautiful built environment is genuinely uplifting and inspiring. It’s much easier to believe in yourself when you are in an environment that not only has a positive and encouraging atmosphere, but that is a delight for the eyes. The architecture constantly reminds you that by studying in Oxford, you’re part of something ancient that has endured and grown to the present day – and that you should make the most of it.

6. Oxford is open to the world

Image shows a group of friends laughing together.
In Oxford, you can make friends from all over the world.

Oxford is one of Britain’s most international cities. The 2011 census showed that 28% of Oxford’s population were born outside the UK, compared with about 14% for the country as a whole, and it’s likely that the percentage for Oxford has only increased since then. In Oxford you can get food from just about any cuisine from any culture that you care to think of, and you’ll hear dozens of languages spoken on the streets as well. One third of the students at the University of Oxford are from overseas, and the university states that over 140 countries and territories are represented among the University of Oxford student body. The university leads in connecting people from across the world to work together and advance our understanding across dozens of different academic fields. 

Of all the traditions of the University of Oxford that we incorporate into our summer school, this openness to the world is perhaps the greatest. At Oxford Royale Academy, we’ve welcomed students of 150 different nationalities to our summer school: students from Azerbaijan and Zimbabwe, from here in the UK to students from New Zealand on the other side of the globe. We love that at our summer school, you might make friends with someone from a country that you’ve never even heard of before.

What’s more, you’ll gain fascinating new insights into the subject you choose to study when you hear about the thoughts and experiences of students who’ve come from countries and cultures that are radically different from your own, just as they’ll be able to learn from you as well. We know that these meetings can be the start of lifelong friendships, bringing people from all across the world closer together in the shared endeavour of learning. 


All images in this article were taken on Oxford Royale Academy summer schools.