University Towns

The world-famous University of Oxford has produced dozens of Nobel prize winners and innumerable empire-builders and authors, but don’t be put off by its ivy-clad, cycling-don image.

Oxford, UK

Oxford is youthful and rowdy, with plenty to enjoy. Late spring is the best time to visit; pre-graduation festivities erupt and the punting season opens. Rent a punt at Cherwell Boathouse for the traditional Oxford experience.

The university comprises 38 distinct colleges. Prestige and Harry Potter bring tourists to Christ Church, and beautiful gardens to romantic New College, actually founded in 1379. Wander the medieval lanes and browse legendary bookstore Blackwell’s.

For a dose of culture, visit the Ashmolean Museum. Its quirky collection includes old masters, Egyptian mummies and porcelain. Then drop by Bodleian Libraries for a guided tour around centuries-old manuscripts.

Worked up a thirst? This might be the world’s best university town for a pint. Mingle with dons at The Eagle and Child. Authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien drank here. At the warren-like, 13th-century Turf Tavern, high-alcohol Headbanger ale lives up to its name. And cocktail bar Freud is a hub for jazz and folk music.

Bologna, Italy

Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna is Europe’s oldest university, and provides the city with two nicknames: La Dotta (the learned) and La Rossa (the red) for its radical politics. Red-brick towers and colonnaded squares characterise the place, but the vibe is young, providing a pleasing contrast to middle-aged Italian tourist towns.

Sit long enough under the water-spouting breasts of fountain nymphs in Piazza Maggiore and you’ll see all 85,000-plus students at some point, strumming guitars and lounging on steps. The scruffy, graffiti-covered university district is just outside the CBD, graced with centuries of architecture and crammed with bookstores and coffee bars.

Pop into Palazzo dell’Archiginnasio palace, flamboyant with the family crests of former students. Its wood-carved 1637 anatomical theatre is glorious, though statues depicting skinless humans might put you off your pasta. Museo di Palazzo Poggi is one of the uni’s best museums, with displays on botany, palaeontology and optics.

Bologna is also called La Grassa (the fat), as it is the deli-dense capital of Italy. It provided the world with tortellini, tagliatelle and bolognese. Tuck into local dishes at Osteria dell’Orsa and rub elbows with poets and punks at communal tables. Or enjoy jazz and 400 wines in the cellars at Cantina Bentivoglio, where you can try the original ragu bolognese.

In the late evening, join students for drinks along Via del Pratello or Via Zamboni. If you have disco fever, popular gay bar Cassero inhabits a medieval gateway: you can dance on the rooftop.

Berkeley, USA

Liberal, progressive Berkeley — the University of California produced the Free Speech Movement, hippies and Vietnam War protestors — might be next door to San Francisco, but it’s a destination in itself. Hang out on Sproul Plaza among protestors and drum-bangers and you’ll get a good flavour of this culturally diverse, slightly offbeat town.

The college campus is beautiful, with abundant green space. Join a free guided tour from UC Berkeley Visitor Services. UC Berkeley Art Museum focuses on abstract expressionism but also screens fascinating art-house films. For some fresh air and terrific bay views, hit UC Botanical Garden.

This being California, expect plenty of tofu, vegan sushi and fair-trade coffee on the menu. For affordable dining, drop by Chez Panisse, which offers organic Californian-fusion cuisine. The Cheese Board Collective has great cheese, muffins and pizzas. Other areas to explore are San Pablo Avenue, where old-fashioned shops mingle with hipster bars, and student-crowded Telegraph Avenue, which houses the multi-level wonder Moe’s Books.

Caffe Mediterraneum is associated with the beat generation; academics and arty folk still meet up for sandwiches and coffee.

Heidelberg, Germany

Germany’s oldest college town — the university was founded in the late 14th century — defies its age and compact size with a permanently buzzing, contemporary vibe, thanks to a strong contingent of international (especially American) students and its positioning as a place for scientific research and technological innovation.

Heidelberg is also a beautiful town. Tick off the tourist sights with a wander along the Neckar River and around the baroque area, which includes the shop-lined Hauptstrasse. Then visit the ruins of Heidelberg Castle if for nothing else but the views and a goofy photo in front of the world’s largest wine barrel.

The uni district has several notable sights, including the Bibliothek for medieval library manuscripts, and the Universitätsmuseum, dedicated to the revered university’s long history.

The Studentenkarzer, a former student jail, is rich in stories of misbehaving medieval scholars and the graffiti that laments their predicament. For inexpensive student dining, roam Universitätsplatz. For local favourites, head to beer hall Kulturbrauerei for pork knuckles or bratwurst.

At venerable Zum Seppl, cram in with students on age-worn benches beneath ‘borrowed’ street signs and licence plates. Next door, Zum Roten Ochsen has been the quintessential German student tavern since 1703. Piano-thumping and singing become more raucous as the night progresses. 

Words by Brian Johnston - Published in Voyeur August 2014
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 8 million
Area 1,572 km²
Time Zone GMT 0
Languages English (official)
Currency Pound (£GBP)
Electricity 230V with 50Hz frequency. 240V may also be found although 230V is the official voltage
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