Home to the U.K.'s oldest university, Oxford is eccentric, engaging and personable—epitomizing the spirit of Old England in many ways. The "city of dreaming spires" claims the world's densest concentration of Gothic architecture. Towers, battlements and domes crown the compact center, which is fringed by watery parklands. Many streets and cobbled alleys are pedestrian, making this a pleasant place to stroll.

The university, which is documented as far back as the end of the 12th century and may be older, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It has 39 colleges, each with its own traditions, history and grand edifices. The "ivory towers" are sprinkled throughout the city. Among their highlights are Christ Church's quadrangle and cathedral; the Bodleian Library and its rotund Radcliffe Camera; Hertford College's Bridge of Sighs and Magdalen (pronounced MAUD-lin) College. During spring exams, students still wear mortarboards and trailing dark robes over semiformal clothes.

However, the city also has a modern edge. Runner Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in May 1954 in East Oxford, and indie bands Supergrass and Radiohead later launched there. The Said Business School rises sleek above the train station.

"A city built on books," was how author Jan Morris described Oxford. Publishing continues to thrive in the city that inspired Alice in Wonderland, The Lord of the Rings, The Wind in the Willows and, more recently, the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.

Many former Oxford students have become literary lions: Dr. Samuel Johnson, John Donne, Percy Shelley, T.S. Eliot, John Galsworthy, John Buchan, W.H. Auden, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Graves, A.E. Houseman and Evelyn Waugh, among others. Iris Murdoch taught philosophy at St. Anne's College in addition to her writing.

Visitors frequently underestimate this destination, merely day-tripping between London and Stratford-upon-Avon. Yet Oxford merits leisurely exploration of everything from the ancient colleges to the world-class Ashmolean Museum, countryside rambles and picnic boat-excursions on the River Thames.

With its central position and excellent transport options, Oxford makes a more peaceful alternative to London as a sightseeing base, with day access to such places as London, Bath, Stonehenge and Stratford-upon-Avon.

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