Cambridge is a city for all seasons. With plenty of activities to fill both a rainy and a sunny day, it is a perfect city break destination. Easy to get to from London by train and compact enough to explore by foot. How has it taken me this long to visit?
A Brief History
Cambridge became a prosperous town in Medieval times and the town itself existed long before the university. In 1209, some students in Oxford fled to Cambridge after ongoing friction caused by town and gown disputes which came to a head when a woman was killed and two Oxford scholars were hung. At first, the students stayed in lodgings, but after a while, houses were set up with a Master in charge of the students.
How long should I stay?
There is lots to do in Cambridge and although it makes a lovely day out, you certainly won’t have seen everything that it has to offer.
Tight on Time? Spend a day exploring. The town itself is fairly compact and you will be able to see lots of the main sights in a day.
Plenty of Time? Ideally spend at least a weekend or longer here. Once you have explored Cambridge, it makes a good base for seeing other parts of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk. The pretty town of Ely with its stunning cathedral is well worth a visit.
Oh no! It is raining! Don’t panic, there is plenty to enjoy in Cambridge even in bad weather and the streets and cafes are much quieter, so it is a win-win!
It is very easy to explore Cambridge on foot. I love to wander, so I didn’t even bother with a map and easily found all the main places. If you want more structure then you can book walking tours at the tourist office and there is a hop on hop off bus that you can use. The tourist office also has a left luggage office which might be useful if you want to explore longer after checking out of accommodation or before checking in. Be warned though – there were long queues for this service!
Where to Stay
Obviously town centre accommodation doesn’t come cheap! You can stay in the university accommodation, particularly during holiday time, which is a good way of really seeing inside a college! I chose to stay in the Mill Road area which is a 20 minute walk from the centre of town, but was just 10 minutes from the station which was ideal when I had luggage and also gave me an opportunity to take some trips out of Cambridge. There are lots of AirBnB’s available in the area and Mill Road itself has a brilliant range of cool coffee shops and restaurants as well as plenty of grocery shops if you want to cook for yourself.
What to see: The 8 best things (in no particular order!)
I didn’t really have a plan for what to do when I arrived. I really did make it up as I went along! On my first morning after breakfast at my favourite Cambridge cafe The Garden Kitchen (the best garlicky tomatoes on toast!) I wandered into town with no idea how the day would go. I found myself standing admiring King’s College Chapel from the outside and realising that this was the building where the Christmas carol service that I had often listened to / watched on TV was held. I decided that I needed to go in!
1. King’s College
It was a good choice! What a beautiful place. For a ticket price of £10, I was able to visit the chapel and grounds of the College (Tip: Use gift aid and the ticket lasts for a year – I visited twice during the week). Henry VI laid the foundation stone of the chapel in 1446, but when Henry was taken prisoner in 1461, during the War of the Roses, the workmen downed tools and walked out, leaving the job unfinished (workmen eh?). Work commenced again (very slowly!), under the reign of Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII. The chapel wasn’t fully completed though until the reign of Henry VIII. Look up as you go in at that incredible fan vaulted ceiling which, I am told, is the largest in Europe! The dark oak screen houses the organ and was a gift from Henry VIII, who also commissioned the stained glass windows.
When you have had your fill of the chapel, wander out to the back lawn and walk its perimeter, for views of the punting on the River Cam and for views of the back of the college.
2. Gonville and Caius College: a hidden gem
Just up the road from King’s, you will find the peaceful haven of Gonville and Caius (pronounced Keys) which is a good antidote to the number of tourists at King’s. I loved this college. It felt much smaller and intimate and the buildings were beautiful. I also pretty much had the grounds to myself and it is free to get in! I did get shouted at for accidentally putting one foot on the grass, as I stepped back to get a better shot of one of the buildings, but we will let that pass (it hurt more because I had just seen a couple traipsing right across said lawn taking selfies and they got away with it!). It is the fourth oldest college and has produced no less than 14 Nobel prize winners. Stephen Hawking and Jimmy Carr are both alumni.
3. Trinity College
When I visited, the chapel was under renovation, so the grounds were free to wander around. Not much of the college is open to the public, but the Great Court is quite impressive and worthwhile for no entry fee. The college was founded by Henry VIII in 1546 and most of its major buildings date from the 16th and 17th centuries. You can also visit the Wren Library which is open for a couple of hours each day. The queues were pretty big for this as only a few people are allowed in at a time, so I decided to leave it for a future visit.
4. Queens’ College
The College was founded by two Queens of England – first in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou wife of King Henry VI (the founder of King’s College Cambridge), and secondly in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV. This is why the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’! This was a charming place, only £3.50 to enter and it was very quiet inside. I enjoyed a leisurely wander through. There are 4 courtyards to wander through as well as the Great Hall and a chapel. At the back, you can stroll across the Wooden Bridge (often known as the Mathematical Bridge) and walk a little way along the River Cam.
So, you are in Cambridge – you have to go punting, right? Think carefully about this one. Your choices are – to hire your own punt, or get a guide to do the hard work. For me it was a no brainer, I chose the latter. I actually hadn’t really planned to go punting at all, but when I came out of Queens’, I had hit a bit of a lull and wasn’t sure what to do next. I had done a fair bit of walking and the offer of a relaxing ride on a punt came just at the right time! It is worth shopping around a bit for your tour. The first company that approached me quoted £20. In my head, I had already decided that I wasn’t prepared any more than £15. The next guy quoted me £18 and then dropped to £15. If you book online in advance, or through the tourist office you will get the cheapest deals. Rocking up on the day, they will try it on by adding a bit more to the cost. I guess that it also depends on how busy it is. As it was, I was fairly easily persuaded as I was ready for a sit down.
Of course, if you are up for the challenge, you can hire your own punt. I spent a lot of time giggling at people trying to control their punts as well as looking at some in horror. At times, there was carnage on the water when there were several boats at once being punted by novices all crashing into one another or the river bank. I saw: people getting stuck, people losing their poles, people falling in, and the worst, seeing people whacking the Bridge of Sighs with their poles! Honestly – standing watching the punting deserves its own number! It was scary at times being on the water with these people. We had to rescue the pole for one boat and were crashed into more than once. This was all on a week day. The guide rolled his eyes and told us that it got really ridiculous at the weekend.
Anyway, sitting on a comfy cushion for 90 minutes, watching the world go by was a lovely activity and I was very glad that I had done it. The student guide, told us a little more about the history of Cambridge as we went.
6. Fitzwilliam Museum
My second full day in Cambridge started with heavy rain. I was disappointed at first, but in fact without the rain, I probably wouldn’t have gone to this museum. Another plus point was that as the rain set in from breakfast time, a lot of the day trippers stayed away giving the whole city a more relaxed feel and much emptier streets. After a cooked breakfast in Carluccio’s of eggs Florentine, I headed straight to the museum. It is free to get in and the building itself is just beautiful. Now generally, museums aren’t really my thing… I can get bored quite quickly on a museum visit and it is never my first choice when I visit somewhere. I prefer to whizz round fairly quickly and am not once for reading every sign. However, there was quite a bit to hold my gnat-like attention here.
The ground floor is full of antiquities from places like ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome and Cyprus. I enjoyed the Egyptian galleries particularly as I have a fascination with that period of history.
The top floor, I found, is an art gallery and I love an art gallery! The Museum has one of the finest collections of paintings, drawings and prints in Britain, with famous works by Rubens, Breughel, Constable, Monet and Picasso to name but a few. I was very happy to wander round for an hour or too, while the rain came down in torrents outside. Especially as my new ‘waterproof’ coat that I was wearing turned out to only be shower proof!
7. Kettle’s Yard
So, this was a great rainy day activity, but I enjoyed it so much that I would recommend it for any visit. I knew that Kettle’s Yard was an art gallery before I visited, but I had no idea before showing up exactly what a visit entailed. Basically, the star of the show is a house once lived in by Jim and Helen Ede between 1958 and 1973. In the 1920s and 30s Jim had been a curator at the Tate Gallery in London. Thanks to his friendships with artists and other like-minded people, over the years he gathered a remarkable collection of art work which is on display in the house.
Jim carefully positioned these artworks alongside furniture, glass, ceramics and natural objects, with the aim of creating a harmonic whole. His vision was of a place that should not be
“an art gallery or museum, nor … simply a collection of works of art reflecting my taste or the taste of a given period. It is, rather, a continuing way of life from these last fifty years, in which stray objects, stones, glass, pictures, sculpture, in light and in space, have been used to make manifest the underlying stability.”
Kettle’s Yard was originally conceived with students in mind. Jim kept ‘open house’ every afternoon of term, personally guiding visitors around his home. In 1966 he gave the house and its contents to the University of Cambridge. In 1970, three years before the Edes retired to Edinburgh, the house was extended, and an exhibition gallery added.
For more information about the history of the house, have a look at their website here.
You need to get a timed ticket for the house, which can be bought in advance from the website, although there are some tickets available on the day. When your time slot arrives, you knock on the door of the house and in you go. It is just beautiful inside. You are encouraged to sit on chairs and take your time as you go around and there are guides in each room who can tell you more about the exhibits. I found the whole place fascinating. It is beautifully curated.
8. St John’s College
If you want to see the Bridge of Sighs at close quarters, then this is the place to visit. It is also a rather glorious college anyway. It was founded in 1511, on the site of a monastic hospital by Lady Margaret Beaufort (mother of King Henry VII). You can see her coat of arms on the main gate and her statue in the first court. After visiting three courtyards, you can cross the river and see the Bridge of Sighs which was built in the 19th century, linking the new court of St. John’s with the older original college building and was named after the one in Venice.
I hope that you enjoyed reading about my stay. The places I have mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg! This filled two whole days there and I could easily go back and fill two or three more.