Cambridge is a small university city with a huge reputation. Nestled along the banks of the peaceful River Cam, meandering cobblestone streets weave through a maze of charming olde worlde buildings and grand church spires to create a magical, postcard worthy backdrop whose sense of history is palpable. Whilst Cambridge’s romantic charm is unmissable, not everything about this city is as traditional as what first meets the eye - it’s not all tea pots, bicycles and rowing boats! In fact, Cambridge is a city of great contrast and manages to effortlessly intermingle modernity with tradition. As well as being home to the world-renowned University of Cambridge, the city has a thriving cultural scene, with many art galleries, theatres and museums coexisting alongside the university’s 31 historical colleges which are sprinkled all over the city.
As you uncover Cambridge’s enchanting beauty you will discover that every cobblestone is bursting with tales of famous poets, scholars and scientists who have made a worldwide impact from the quaintness of this seemingly modest city, whilst hidden behind historic stone walls some of the world’s brightest minds carry out cutting-edge research and innovation. Whether you’re a history buff, an art fanatic or simply want a taste of British tradition, read on to be immersed in the whimsical charm of England’s most quintessential city.
Know Before You Go
Cambridge is a very well connected city, having direct train links to Stansted Airport, London and the North of the UK. The city has a train station about half a mile southeast from the centre from which you can take the train to London King’s Cross in around 40 minutes, where you can then pick up the Eurostar to France, Belgium and Amsterdam as well as trains to London’s other airports. There is also a central bus station where you can take a direct coach to London and other nearby cities including Birmingham, Nottingham and Leicester. In terms of getting around the city itself, the relatively compact layout and winding roads mean that walking is your best option for navigating this beautiful city.
The United Kingdom uses Pound Sterling (GBP). Whilst the majority of shops will take card payment, it is wise to take out some cash just in case.
Cambridge experiences a relatively mild climate, with temperatures tending not to exceed 21 or 22℃ in summer or drop below 5℃ in winter. Nonetheless, whatever time of the year you visit be prepared for a bit of rain - you are in the UK after all!
Day 1: Punting & Cambridge City Centre
What would a trip to Cambridge be without a punt? Sail lazily down the iconic River Cam as you enjoy unique perspectives on many of the University’s beautiful bridges, gardens and colleges, including the picturesque Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College and the magnificent King’s College chapel. Film fanatics keep an eye out because as you glide along the banks of the river you will be able to catch a glimpse of some filming spots for famous films such as The Theory of Everything and Pirates of the Caribbean.
A punt is a long, narrow wooden boat which is propelled using a long pole that you push off the riverbed. Hire a punt and sail yourself down the river is a popular option, although be warned, it’s not as easy as it looks and the odd collision and man overboard isn’t unusual! If you want a more chilled experience and don’t fancy a dip in the River Cam, definitely take a look at this Guided Punting Tour which will take you along the length of the river as you soak up more than 800 years of history and enjoy the fascinating commentary from your punter. If you do one thing whilst you’re in Cambridge, this should be it!
Being the fourth oldest university in the world, the University of Cambridge is steeped in history and tradition. The university operates under a collegiate system, meaning that as well as being a member of the University and of a faculty, every student also belongs to a college community. In addition to having their own libraries, sports and music facilities and performance venues, each college has its own personality and reputation, and there are even some fierce rivalries between colleges, especially when it comes to the Tompkins Table, an annual list which ranks the academic performance of each college. All 31 colleges range in size, prestige and age, with the oldest, Peterhouse, having been founded in 1284 and the newest, Robinson, having been founded in 1977. Needless to say, you probably won’t have time to visit all 31 colleges so we would recommend choosing a handful that you want to see and checking them out as you explore the city. In our opinion Pembroke, St. John’s and King’s colleges are some of the most breathtaking, so definitely take a look at the stunning architecture they have to offer!
If you want to learn more about the colleges from a professional guide, check out this Guided Historic Walking Tour, which will take you around 5 of the University’s most famous colleges as well as the 11th century St. Benet’s church, the oldest building in Cambridge, and the historic Eagle pub.
Cambridge Market Square
Located in the centre of town, right beind Great St Mary’s church lies Market Square, a vibrant space in which traders have run stalls in an open air market since the middle ages. Here you will find a tantalising assortment of cuisines, including paella, greek gyros and lebanese falafel, as well as book, plant, art and jewellery stalls. Market square is at the centre of city life and amongst the buzzy atmosphere you will see people gathering with friends, street performers busking and visitors soaking up the lively ambience. Swing by for a bite to eat and a browse of the local offerings before continuing your exploration of Cambridge’s winding streets.
A trip to Cambridge wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Fitzbillies’ famous chelsea buns. This iconic cafe has been serving delicious artisanal baked goods to the poeple of Cambridge for over a century and has created a tremendous reputation for itself thanks to their irresistable sweet currant-filled buns. As a break from exploring, swing by for a civilised cup of tea and a yummy sweet treat or savoury snack and enjoy the traditional decor, or if you want to live the true English experience, order their specactular afternoon tea which includes scones, finger sandwiches and more baked delights. At peak times Fitzbillies can get a little busy, but we assure you it is worth the wait to taste all the scrumptious treats they have to offer.
King’s College Chapel
This awe-inspiring gothic chapel is truly a spectacle to behold, and given that it is the largest in the UK, it’s pretty hard to miss as it stands proudly in the centre of town with its huge spire extending up into the city’s skyline and overlooking the college grounds. An entry ticket will gain you access to the chapel and its breathtaking fan vaulted ceiling, which is the highest of any building in the world, as well as the gorgeous wildflower meadow on the lawn behind the chapel. For a great view of the chapel’s exterior, a climb up the 123 steps to the top of the nearby Great St. Mary’s Tower will provide an elevated view of the limestone and sandstone architecture as well as stunning panoramic views of the city.
With its construction having started in 1446, King’s College chapel has been witness to an unfathomable amount of history, including the bombings of the Second World War, during which the chapel’s spectacular medieval stained glass windows were removed to avoid being destroyed. Once it was safe, the fragile pieces were put back in their original places - talk about a tricky puzzle! If King’s College is one of many sites you would like to visit in Cambridge, think about booking a ticket on this 24 hour Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour, where a multilingual commentary will guide you through every corner of the city and, as the name suggests, you can jump off at any time.
Where to Stay
Budget: Holiday Inn Express Cambridge
Modern rooms with an included breakfast buffet 2 miles away from Cambridge’s historic city centre.
Mid-Range: The Tas Suites - Tas Accommodations
Rooms in a Guest House featuring a garden and terrace, located 1 mile away from the University of Cambridge.
Luxury: The Regent
Classic hotel-style rooms or studio apartments in a Grade II listed building with modern decor.
Day 2: The Fitzwilliam & Grantchester
Fitzwilliam Art Museum
The Fitzwilliam Museum is the University of Cambridge’s principal museum, founded in 1816, which houses a world renowned collection of over half a million works of art and historical artefacts, the first of which were gifted by university alumnus Viscount Fitzwilliam, along with funds to establish the museum.
History fanatics can discover antiquities from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Cyprus while art lovers can delve into the vast collection of works ranging from the 13th century to today, including pieces by Monet, Degas and Picasso. The museum is housed in an impressive Grade I listed building in the city centre with an imposing columned façade, making it a standout landmark in the city in its own right. A few hours spent in the Fitzwilliam will take you on a fascinating journey through art, history and culture as you discover the diversity of human creativity throughout the ages.
University Botanic Garden
Just a 15 minute’s walk from the city centre and 5 minutes from the train station you will find the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, where for a small fee you can enjoy a whopping 40 acres of lush English countryside. Initially established to support the teaching and research of botany at the university, the gardens are now also involved in the preservation of endangered plant species and the study of biodiversity and are home to over 8,000 plant species, many of which are rare or endangered. Take a stroll through the beautifully maintained gardens and have a picnic on the lawn before exploring the gorgeous arboretum, the garden’s nine national collections and its impressive glasshouse range.
With so much to see across all four seasons, the Botanic Garden is a great place to visit for those interested in gardening and horticulture, but equally provides a breath of fresh air and a tranquil escape for those just who want to be embraced by nature. The Garden Cafe is the perfect mid-walk pit stop for a coffee and cake or a casual bite to eat on the terrace, weather permitting of course!
Walk to Grantchester
If you want to experience the calm magic of a quintessential English village, follow this approximately 3 mile (5.5 kilometre) walk along the River Cam, which provides lovely views of the surrounding countryside. Start at the Cambridge Backs, an area of pretty gardens and pastures behind a number of colleges with riverside pathways and head south along the river towards Coe Fen Nature Reserve and Sheep’s Green park. Despite still being so close to the city at this point, the beautiful surrounding scenery, including grazing cows and sheep, will make you feel like you’ve been dropped deep into the rural English countryside. On your way here you will pass several colleges which back onto the river, as well as the Mathematical Bridge, an iconic wooden footbridge connecting the buildings of Queen’s College separated by the river. Drop by The Anchor or The Mill pubs, both cosy riverside establishments serving great views of the river as well as perfect pints and traditional hearty British food!
Continue south through the pretty Paradise Nature Reserve on one of the quiet woodland trails before following Grantchester Meadows Road away from the river and heading across Skater's Meadow to return to the Cam. Keep to the riverside path past Eight Acre Wood before turning towards the picturesque village of Grantchester. As far as villages go, it couldn’t get more English than this! Grantchester is a quaint village on the River Cam known for its thatched cottages, English pubs and the delightful Orchard Tea Room, where you can indulge in a cream tea in their idyllic setting amongst the fruit trees or on the pavilion. After refreshments you can either catch a bus back to Cambridge or walk back along the same route.
Around 3 miles (5.5km)
Where to Stay
Mid-Range: Regency House
Elegantly decorated rooms in a centrally located Victorian townhouse.
Luxury: Graduate Cambridge
Traditionally decorated rooms in a riverside hotel with a swimming pool, fitness centre and bar.