Thanks to its prestigious university, Cambridge is a name that finds recognition almost anywhere in the world. It is also partly in thanks to the university that the city has such a fantastic concentration of historic and impressive buildings – largely in near-perfect condition – indeed many of the old constructions are still in use for various purposes today. While a visit to the city must surely include forays around many of these historic landmarks, the city certainly has much more than this to offer. There is a surprisingly modern cultural scene that has emerged from the beautiful old foundations.
Sitting astride the River Cam from which it earns its name, Cambridge is located roughly 50 miles north of London and is easily accessible by train from King’s Cross Station. There is archaeological evidence that settlement has existed here since at least the Bronze Age – the remains of a 3500-year-old farmstead have been unearthed at the site of present-day Fitzwilliam college. Since then, it has continued to be of importance, spending time as a significant trading center in both the Roman and Viking ages. The University was established all the way back in the year 1209. Since then it has grown continuously and its scholars have made massive contributions to human knowledge and scientific progress. Here is a selection of the best things to do in Cambridge city, in no particular order.
1. Guided Walking Tours
These official tours are a fantastic way to explore the city and have its secrets revealed to you by an expert guide. Not only that, they are the only way you will have access to the beautiful insides of Cambridge’s many historic colleges – except for becoming a student, of course. There are a variety of tours on offer so you can tailor the experience to your tastes. This is an excellent way to introduce yourself to the city.
2. King’s College and King’s College Chapel
Tour the beautiful and serene grounds of King’s College, founded by King Henry VI in 1441. The manicured lawns lead all the way down to the Backs, the lovely waterside grounds of the various University Colleges. Explore the inside of the King’s College Chapel, its magnificent architecture and intricate internal decor.
If you visit during term time, try planning your visit to intersect with the excellent student choir that practices and records their CD’s here. The only way to view the interior of the college properly is with the walking tours as mentioned above.
3. Queens’ College
Another of the most popular of Cambridge’s colleges amongst tourists is the beautiful, riverside Queens’ College (note the apostrophe after the ‘s’). Originally founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (wife of King Henry VI), it was later refounded in 1465 by rival queen Elizabeth Woodville – hence the use of queens’, not queen’s.
It has some of the best-preserved and most iconic of Cambridge’s many historical buildings. Notable alumni include actor and comedian Steven Fry and author T. H. White.
One of the most popular things to see is the famous Mathematical bridge that connects the college’s two sides (colloquially known as the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ sides). It is a rebuilt copy of an original bridge by the same design, first constructed in 1749. The sophisticated engineering means there are no nails used to hold it together – it relies on clever calculations to support its own weight.
4. Punting Tour
There are few more enlightening or relaxing ways to explore the city than on the water of its beloved river Cam. A punt is a traditional flat-bottomed boat, pushed along with a long pole that reaches to the riverbed. This iconic Cambridge experience takes you past all 7 of the riverside colleges.
The tours start at Trinity College, passing some of the most memorable and famous attractions in the city, including the beautiful Bridge of Sighs. The experienced guide who will be steering the vessel will also provide illuminating commentary to enrich the experience.
5. Peterhouse College
The oldest of Cambridge’s colleges, Peterhouse was founded by Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely, in 1284 – not long after the university itself. It is one of the smallest of the 31 colleges, but still well worth a visit. It has produced many notable alumni through the ages, especially within the natural sciences – perhaps the names of Henry Cavendish or Charles Babbage ring a bell. Five of its graduates have earned themselves Nobel Prizes in science.
Especially worth visiting are the 13th century chapel with its beautiful stained glass windows and the old dining hall – still in use today. Thanks to its location and size it is far quieter than King’s College, for example, and it is thankfully free to enter and explore.
6. Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Set across 40 acres of beautiful grounds, these gardens are an active research facility with a collection of over 8000 plant and tree specimens. The beautiful trees really set the scene here, giving the gardens a slightly more wild feel than you would find in the botanic gardens of many cities. Often they date all the way back to when the Botanic Gardens were founded, in 1846.
A great way to get a breath of fresh air (although Cambridge could hardly be called a smoggy city even in its busiest areas), try relaxing for a few hours with a gentle stroll or a lie down on the inviting lawns. There is a cafe to grab refreshments and a shop to browse if it tickles your fancy.
7. Fitzwilliam Museum
Surely the most popular of Cambridge’s many excellent exhibition spaces is the Fitzwilliam Museum. Set in one of the city’s most iconic buildings, with grand pillars rising up at its magnificent front entrance. Inside you’ll find a fantastic range of exhibits – over half a million objects in its collections, you’re sure to find something of interest.
The museum explores world history and is host not only to one of the best collections of artifacts from antiquity but also of some of the most culture-defining art ever made. Ancient Egyptian treasures share these halls with illuminated manuscripts and artworks from the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, the list goes on.
The huge museum is free to enter. Consider also the University Museum of Zoology, packed with a huge array of fossils, skeletons and more. Or maybe the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology suits your tastes, with its excellent collections representing over 2 million years of human history.
8. The Corpus Clock
A great example of the mindset of the fervent intellectuals who have called this University home over the years is the bizarre Corpus Clock. Located at Corpus Christi College – which is well worth exploring in its own right – the clock is a sculptural piece that was unveiled to the public by famous Cambridge physicist Steven Hawking in 2008.
The face of the clock is a 24 karat gold-plated stainless steel disk, not with moving hands, but slits that open to reveal blue LED lights inside, thus displaying the time. The really unique part of this clock is the huge, locust-like metal sculpture that sits atop the eclectic timepiece. John C. Taylor, the Cambridge alumni who came up with the idea, names the insect as the Chronophage – the mythological ‘time eater’ of ancient Greece.
Indeed its mouth moves with the passing time, appearing to eat up the seconds as they pass. The beautiful yet deeply disturbing clock is a potent metaphor for the irreversible passage of time – a stark reminder for the students to make the most of the precious hours they have.
9. The Museum of Cambridge
This quirky museum is set in a 17th-century timber-framed building, which before its current use spent 300 long years as the home of the White Horse Inn. Set up in 1936 to remember and help continue the unique social life of the city, its nine rooms display items from as far back as the 1600s.
The interactive museum is a great way to explore the history of Cambridgeshire and the ordinary people who call it home. Beloved by locals and tourists alike, it is well worth a visit.
10. Kettle’s Yard
Set in a beautiful old house is Cambridge University’s own modern and contemporary art gallery. Jim Ede, the first modern art curator of London’s Tate gallery, spent 16 years living here. The gallery now hosts his personal art collection, including paintings by Joan Miro and sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
Painting, sculpture, glass, ceramic and natural objects are blended seamlessly together to create a spellbinding experience, powerful yet homely – beloved by many of its visitors. This free to enter the gallery is a great one to add to your trip.
11. Food and Drink
Cambridge has an excellent range of options for food and drink, from lovely cafes for a spot of lunch all the way up to Michelin starred restaurants. Fitzbillies is a fantastic traditional bakery with a classic art nouveau frontage. It has sold its famously sticky Chelsea buns since opening in 1921.
Try an English classic here and sit down for afternoon tea. Cambridge has many high-end hotels that boast excellent restaurants – for example, SIX, located on the top floor of The Varsity Hotel – it offers stunning 360-degree views of the city and is open through the day and into evening service. If you want something a bit less classically English, try Atithi for fancy Indian cuisine or Pho, near the historic Corn Exchange, for some authentic Vietnamese food.
From the traditional to the cutting edge, Cambridge is a city of many festivals, held throughout the year. Try the world-famous Folk Festival, one of the best in Europe, for a wide variety of music – with many contemporary acts stretching the definition of what can be called folk to new limits.
The Midsummer Fair has been going on now for over 800 years, making it the country’s oldest traveling funfair. Expect all the classic rides, candy floss, toffee apples and more, hosted since its inception at Cambridge’s Midsummer Common. The Cambridge film festival is the third longest-running and one of the best in the country.
There is so much more – to name but a few; Cambridge Comedy Festival, Strawberry Fair, The Cambridge Beer Festival, The Cambridge Literary Festival. Have a look at which best suits your tastes and time your visit to intersect with one of these fabulous offerings.