My Top 10 of Everything! What you will definitely love in Cambridge

It’s one of those places isn’t it – every time you hear mention of it, or see it on TV, it’s ‘I really must go there sometime‘. Well, we finally made it to Cambridge in early March – SO easy to get there and now I’m wondering why it took so long to make the trip!!

Cambridge was already well established as an inland port and market centre before the students turned up. In the late 1220’s, they arrived – supposedly driven out of Oxford after a dispute with townspeople. The rest, as they say, is history. The university grew – as did that infamous rivalry with Oxford which has existed ever since!

It’s not a very big place, which makes it perfect for a mini break. There are a few ‘must do’s’ for the first time visitor but it’s a hugely popular destination for return visitors also which is a very good sign of a place in my humble opinion!

#1 Take to the River

Of course you can stroll along its banks but you cannot come here and NOT go on the river at least once! The Cam flows through the town and punting is the ultimate pastime here – particularly in summer.

You can rent one of the flat-bottomed punts which are ideal for the shallow waters but I suspect it’s not as easy as it looks …..

……so just join a tour and let someone else do the work!

Tours typically last about 45 minutes… they are linear so bring you up and back the same stretch of water…. The punter doubles up as guide – imparting the usual info and stories as you glide along.

The Bridge of Sighs was built in 1831 to connect the original part of St John’s College with the New Court as the college expanded westward. Aside from it’s name and the fact that it is covered, it doesn’t actually have much in common with its Venetian namesake. This romantic Neo-Gothic style was very fashionable at the time and the bridge became a great favourite of Queen Victoria. The window design usually supports glass although there was never any inserted on the bridge.

The Mathematical Bridge takes its name from the arrangement of its straight timbers to create its arching shape. The myth persists that Sir Isaac Newton built the bridge without the help of any nuts or bolts. A group of students supposedly disassembled the bridge to discover how it stood up and then couldn’t put it back together. The bridge was then rebuilt using rather prominent bolts.

In fact, the bridge was originally built 22 years after the physicist’s death and, although it has been rebuilt twice to the same design, there have always been fixings at the joints – no mystery whatsoever!

#2 Visit the Colleges

Cambridge has one of the highest concentrations of preserved historic buildings in England and most of this splendor centres around Cambridge University’s 31 colleges – each one architecturally stunning. Every college has it’s history, its stories, its traditions, it’s library, its grounds, its dining halls, its chapel and its illustrious list of renowned former students. The Big 3 are St. Johns, Trinity and Kings but which and how many you choose to visit depends on interest, time constraints, opening hours and your budget (most colleges are free to enter but some charge a fee – anything up to £10!)

(Note – many colleges are closed to visitors at the moment thanks to Covid)

#3 Partake in Evensong

Choral Evensong is sung in many college chapels on most days during term time – all free and open to everyone. The service at King’s College is the most popular and offers an opportunity to see inside the fabulous chapel. Boasting the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world as well as spectacular 16th century stained-glass windows and original choir stalls, there’s plenty to look at and admire during the service.

Note – services tend to last for circa one hour and there is no opportunity to ‘slip out’ once they have begun. No photos allowed at King’s service.

#4 Stroll along the Backs

The Cambridge Backs is a stretch of land running along the river at the back of the riverside colleges. Reclaimed from what was effectively the flood plain of the Cam, it makes for a nice walk and offers great views of the colleges and river.

I love the view of the punters gliding along – with no sign of the river!

#5 Climb Great St. Mary’s Tower

Great St. Mary’s Church is first mentioned in records dated 1205 – before any students arrived. It became a venue for lectures and meetings but when the wooden structure was burnt to the ground in 1290, there was call for a replacement stone structure. Funding was to become a problem – the building stopping and starting on many occasions. The original plan for an 80ft spire was abandoned so when the tower was eventually completed in 1608, this allowed space for a viewing platform. It’s worth the climb to look out over the university buildings and beyond.

#6 Just go Walkabout

This is a beautiful city for a stroll – either on your own or as part of one of the many available walking tours….

The colleges dominate the town centre, their facades lining up along the main streets.

I wonder if anyone has ever actually tried to count the bikes……

On a visit to his mother during his Trinity days in the late 1660s, Isaac Newton observed a green apple fall from a tree and began to consider the mechanism that drove what is now termed Gravity. This apple tree, growing outside the entrance to Trinity College, was grafted from that actual tree at his childhood home and honours his links with the university.

The poet Thomas Gray was supposedly afraid of fire and attached a bar outside his window at Peterhouse College to which he tied a rope. After been awoken by students pretending there was a fire, he escaped down the rope only to land in a tub of water which had been placed below his window. Enraged by the practical joke, he stormed off across the road to nearby Pembroke College.

The 6 sundials that grace the tower of Gonville and Caius College date from 1963. 

The 25-acre Parker’s Piece is famous as the birthplace of modern football (it was here that the Cambridge rules were first applied in 1848)

Officially known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Round Church dates back to 1130.

Streetscapes are not all about colleges and chapels….

The Corpus Clock, or Grasshopper Clock, hangs at street level outside Corpus Christi College.

The ripple design of the 24 caret gold face suggests the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang.

Time is displayed, not by hands or numerals, but by three concentric rings (hours, mins and secs) of individual slits backlit with blue LEDs.

The clock is entirely mechanically controlled and electricity is used only to power a motor which winds up the mechanism and to power the blue LEDs. It is accurate only once every five minutes. The rest of the time, the pendulum may seem to briefly stop while the lights may lag or race ahead. This erratic motion reflects life’s irregularity.

A metal grasshopper called the Chronophage or time-eater sits above the clock. It moves its mouth – eating up seconds as they pass – and occasionally blinks in satisfaction

Guided walking tour or not? If you’ve already enjoyed a punting tour then a lot of the history / stories re colleges etc. will double up. But there’s plenty to be discovered around the streets that will be missed from the river. We’d prebooked a walking tour before deciding on the punting trip so ended up doing both. It took up a lot of our day of course – 45 minutes on the river and 2 hours walking – but gave us a great overview of the city. We had a bit more than one day in Cambridge and most of the colleges were closed so we could spare the time….

#7 Visit The Fitzwilliam

The most famous museum in Cambridge was founded when Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion donated his art collection to the university. Free to enter, the beautiful 19th century Neoclassic building is worthy of a look in itself….

The lower galleries contain a huge collection of ceramics as well as arms, coins, Egyptian sarcophagi and Greek and Roman antiquities….

Unfortunately, on the day of our visit, the upper gallery was closed in preparation of an upcoming Hockney exhibition. So we missed works by Monet, Picasso, Rubens, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Cézanne, Van Dyck, Canaletto, Turner, Hogarth, Gainsborough, Constable, Stubbs, Freud, Hockney…….sound’s like it’s worth going back for..

#8 Go for a pint in The Eagle

Every pub in Cambridge has a story but the Eagle has two in particular..

During the Second World War, Allied airmen, who drank and socialised at The Eagle, used wax candles, petrol lighters and lipstick to write their names, squadron numbers and other doodles onto the ceiling of the rear bar. The graffiti, in what is now known as the RAF Bar was uncovered, deciphered and preserved during the early 1990s.

On 28th February, 1953, Francis Crick interrupted patrons’ lunchtime to announce that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after they had come up with the structure of DNA.

#9 Shop in Market Square

Traders have been running stalls here since the middle ages. You can pick up your fresh food and ingredients as well as art, plants, jewellery, books, etc. Not surprisingly, there’s a busy trade here in bike parts and repairs!

The Market from Great St. Mary’s Tower….

#10 Take a break in Fitzbillies

A Cambridge institution, this is THE place to go for their famous Chelsea Buns ……… but forget that! – I’m hooked on their bacon rolls!!!!

Honourable MentionBotanic Garden

This would probably have made the Top 10 except we ran out of time and didn’t get to visit.

Covering an area of some 40 acres, a visit to the University Botanic Garden seems to be included on most ‘must do’ lists. Established in 1831, the garden’s trails and glasshouses showcase an impressive collection of more than 8,000 species of plants.

Small Stuff

Getting There

We travelled to Cambridge directly from Stanstead Airport by train.

You can buy tickets in the terminal ( there is usually an attendant on duty to help if necessary)

The Express train took about 35 minutes.

We returned to the centre of London by train.

Getting Around

The centre is compact and all major attractions are an easy walk apart. Tourists are well catered for so there’s plenty of signage…

Where we Stayed

We spent one night at Cambridge Ibis Central Station

Double Room – £82 (room only)

Positives

It is literally just outside the train station.

We arrived into the hotel at 8.55 am (YES!! I Know!!! Left home at 3.45am!!) and were given a room immediately (a Thursday morning) – VERY impressive!

We didn’t dine in but there are lots of convenience stores around the station. Kettle etc in room so very easy to source own breakfast..

There’s a nice coffee shop on the ground floor. It displays the railway timetable so its a good place to await your train.

Niggly Bits

Its a good 20 minute walk into the city centre which may not suit everyone. The station, of course, is served by buses in and out from the centre.

Would we stay here again? – definitely

How we spent our time…

Day 1

Great St. Mary’s Tower

Coffee, scones – and clotted cream of course!

Punting Trip

Fitzbillies – for my first bacon roll!

Free Walking Tour

The Eagle for a pint

Evensong

Dinner – Browns

Day 2

Fitzwilliam Museum

Fitzbillies (again!)

Searched out a few colleges that were open to the public – Pembroke and Emmanuel

Coffee time

Parson’s Piece, River Walk, The Backs, etc.

Lunch – Prince Regent

Train 4.20pm

(Yes – you’re right – we spent a lot of time eating!!)

If I ever go back….

I’m going to stay on the train and go to Ely first to see the cathedral (about an extra 20 minutes)

Botanic Garden

Upstairs in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Hopefully get in to some of the larger colleges

Fitzbillies for another bacon roll!!

42 thoughts on “My Top 10 of Everything! What you will definitely love in Cambridge

  1. This is the near the birthplace of my great grandparents. We went to the reunion in Bottisham and spent one day doing a Cambridge Tour. Our tour guides — my mom’s cousin who used to be a server in King’s College before he joined the Navy and my cousin who went there. It was amazing!! We learnt so so much. In subsequent visits we have done everything on your list except for the museum. As to Ely Cathedral — it’s quite spectacular. If you can climb the tower – the view is insane! Plus up there is a bust that is of my cousin — he was the head restorer there for a couple of decades and was told he could put his bust wherever he wanted and that was his choice. I just love that whole entire area. So much to see and do. Bernie

    1. Well are you well connected in those there parts!!!! It must make such a difference to see the city with someone who lives there and knows the college system. As for your cousin – there must be a blog post in that!!

      1. Not really. He died before the reunion but a sibling (?) told us about his bust so we looked for it. There were 198 people at that reunion so I’m vague about who I heard the story from! I wonder if there is any info at the Cathedral. Now my mom’s cousin who worked at King’s College – knew him better and sure wish I had taken notes when we visited. He was a character!

      2. I bet you’ll find that someone in that group of people is working on the family tree….the story will arise again….

  2. Woah Marie!! Hope you enjoyed your visit to Cambridge… I have never gone there so I don’t know how it’s like but I am sure it would be one of my best tours if I do…. Thanks for sharing your happiness with us. 😊😊

    1. We certainly did – could have done with a bit more time – 2 nights would have been ideal but sure we might get back there some time…. Glad you enjoyed the post. XXXMarie

  3. Thank you for sharing this beautiful city with us! It has the most amazing old buildings there. I was fascinated by the bridge with the windows. Jist love it. The punting must be difficult and I would let someone else do the work too😏 so many things to see, I would love to go there one day!

    1. I think it’s a place that everyone would love to visit… We spent a few days in Oxford a couple of years ago so Cambridge was always next on the list ….

  4. I’ve never been to Cambridge, Marie, but you’ve made it sound such a good place, I want to go! It’s now on my to do list!

  5. Aw Marie you should have popped in and say hello – I live only about 5 minutes from the Ibis Hotel you stayed in. What a wonderful post on my home city, thank you for showcasing it in such a lovely light. Looks like you covered off all of the main attractions during your stay, and if you’re ever back in Cambridgeshire, I’ll meet you for a wine or three in The Eagle 🙂

  6. What a comprehensive post on the pleasures of Cambridge! I have a friend who lives there (a former colleague who moved out from London on retirement) and spent a lovely day with her and her husband exploring the city in the summer of 2019. We talked about a repeat visit the following year to get to the parts there wasn’t time to show me but you can guess what happened to that plan! You’ve reminded me I should revive it for this summer 😀

    1. What a lovely place to retire to – and yet still close enough to London for keeping in touch with family and friends. Put it on your list for 2022!

  7. Great post and wonderful photos, Marie, it’s quite amazing how many colleges they have. Yes, I am definitely one of those people who upon seeing or reading about Cambridge always think to myself: I really must go there sometime‘. I am glad to see you had an amazing time, I especially love the idea of the river cruise – you can just put your feet up and take in the surroundings! Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    1. A very easy trip Aiva – especially for us in Dublin. That was actually our first time ever to fly to Stanstead – a new discovery!!

    1. Well I know I keep saying it but it’s so easy to get to – so whenever you get to London Lissy – even as a day trip…

  8. I didn’t really warm to Cambridge in the few days I was there – I think I was at a low ebb because it is fascinating. I must go back sometime and try again. I liked the Eagle all right, mainly because of the connection to the double helix, discovered on the day I was born 🙂 And I enjoyed the Botanical Gardens for the peace and quiet. Marie I should add one more must-do, the walk through the idyllic meadows to nearby Grantchester.

    1. Ah – pity you didn’t take to it Roy…. It was quiet enough when we were there – Covid still in the air and it was a weekday – so we didn’t actually feel as though we were in a tourist destination if you know what I mean – despite the punting and the guided walk! I’ve just checked Grantchester on the map – is it within walking distance of Cambridge?

    2. Oh wait – I’m just re reading – you said meadows ‘to’ nearby Grantchester … I thought it was ‘of’ nearby Grantchester!!! So I’ve answered my own question!!!!😅 😂

  9. What a charming city with so much fantastic grand old buildings. I have never visited Cambridge, but I’d love to after seeing these gorgeous pictures. Maggie

  10. I spent three years studying in Cambridge in the mid-70s and your photos brought the memories flooding back. It looks almost exactly as I remember it (albeit that most of my memories are out of focus due to an alcoholic haze induced by a local beer that I grew to love! 🍺 ). Definitely worth a visit.

    1. Gosh!!I don’t think I know any other Cambridge student! You’ve made my day!😅 😂 Its definitely a town centre that hasn’t changed much I’d say. I can just imaging the planning laws there!! I hope you didn’t disgrace yourself too much with all that alcohol!

      1. OK, confession time: I disgraced myself totally within days of arrival! At my Cambridge college new undergraduates just embarking on their first term at university are invited to a “matriculation dinner,” a grand feast hosted by the Master and also attended by the great and good of the college. It’s fine dining, and fine drinking too … the wine flowed freely (we needed it to wash down the pre-prandial port!), and of course we all retired to the college bar afterwards for a few beers.
        Inevitably I got more than a little pickled, and when my new-found buddies and I set off to return to our hall of residence we were in boisterous spirits!

        It was then that I managed to fall into one of the stinking drainage channels that is attached to and runs parallel with the river Cam, but on the opposite side to Kings College etc. My buddies dragged me out, guided me back to the hall of residence and then left me in the shower with stern advice that I should wash the mud, weed and other effluent off as soon as possible.

        The next morning I could be seen, as pale as death and nursing a thumping hangover, trudging the streets of Cambridge (a city I still barely knew, having been there only a few days) searching for a dry cleaner to work miracles on my suit and college gown, and a watch repairer to dry out my Timex.

        I never disgraced myself quite as spectacularly again, but nearly three years later fellow undergraduates would still sidle up to me and ask “Are you the chap who fell into the river after the matriculation dinner?” A story like that sticks to you just like the mud and weed in that drainage channel! 🙂

        Forgive me for cluttering your lovely blog with this anecdote, but I thought you might enjoy hearing about one man’s experience of life amongst the dreaming spires. Do feel free to delete it!

      2. Love it!!! Did any of those new found friends become buddies for life??? Or did they hastily dump you!! Its a bad sign that you made such an impression – I’d have thought that falling into drains would have been a more common occurrence!!!😅 😂 🤣

      3. One of them remains a close friend to this day: I was later best man at his wedding, and he at mine. All the rest are history, no doubt happily regaling their grandkids with tales of their undergraduate days at Cambridge, and how one idiot fellow-student – whose name they can no longer recall – fell into the drainage channel after the Matriculation Dinner! 🙂

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