Home to one of England’s oldest and most prestigious universities, beautiful bridges and wonderful shopping streets, Cambridge is a fascinating city for architecture aficionados.
The city is built around the River Cam, and its 25 bridges offer interesting architectural feats best enjoyed up close on a punting tour that takes you directly beneath them. Combine this with one of the city’s walking tours and you’ll cover many of Cambridge’s city landmarks.
The city is a joy to stroll, with yellow-stone buildings, clean streets and cobbles beneath your feet. The perfectly manicured lawns outside the historic university buildings are iconic, and the medieval churches and low-rise Tudor houses are an impressive sight for any fan of fine architecture. Pause to see how the newer constructions are blending in with the older buildings in the city. In Cambridge, design and engineering come together to create one of the most architecturally interesting cities in England.
Go punting under the Mathematical Bridge
The Mathematical Bridge is one of the most iconic spots in Cambridge. This wooden footbridge is supported by the Riverside Building – the oldest building on the river dating from 1460 – and a Grade-II-listed building.
Designed and built in 1749, the bridge has been rebuilt twice thanks to the aging timber, but the distinctive design has been conserved. It looks like an arch, but as you get closer you’ll see it’s made entirely out of straight timbers, using the Chinese building technique of tangential radial trussing. The timbers are at various tangents with an open design to help the wind flow through.
Being a bridge, the best way to see this tension and compression at work is by going underneath it, on a punting tour. It crosses the 50ft-wide (15m) River Cam, so you have plenty of space to maneuver. If you don’t fancy a punt, then you can see it for free from the bridge on Silver Street, or pay £3.50 to cross it.
Wander around Cambridge’s unique shops
Some of the best representations of impressive Cambridge architecture are casually found on the streets, inside and outside the pretty rows of shops along Mill Road, All Saints Passage and St Edwards Passage. Look out for the interesting colorful facades on the Cambridge Gin Laboratory, Chocolat Chocolat and The Cambridge Cheese Company in particular.
Admire the Fitzwilliam Museum inside and out
If you’re looking for the most impressive buildings to see in Cambridge, book a trip to the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Most people visit the Fitzwilliam Museum to see the over half a million works of art, masterpiece paintings and historical artifacts inside, but the exterior of the building is worth the journey too. Founded in 1816, the Grade-I-listed building represents some of the best architecture in Cambridge.
Huge green gates topped with gold pineapples guard the building, while the elegant neoclassical pillars make for a grand entrance. Step inside and look up in the stunning main hall for some impressive ceiling work before wandering the many long corridors and high ceilinged rooms in one of Cambridge’s top attractions. It’s free to visit but you need a ticket.
Take in the panoramic views from Great St Mary’s Church Tower
If you’re visiting Cambridge to admire the architecture, you’re going to make a beeline for the university buildings. The alumni walking tours are a great way to spend a day, but another good option for admiring Cambridge's architecture is to climb up Great St Mary’s Church Tower and see it all from above.
For just £4 you can ascend the 127 narrow, medieval spiral stairs to reach the viewing balcony. Time your visit with sunset for a stunning view (check opening hours in advance).
Stay at the modern West Court, Jesus College
The West Court, Jesus College is one of the best examples of modern architecture in Cambridge, with high windows and an open design, complete with a microbrewery.
This new extension has managed to balance the heritage of the city architecture with modern architectural details. The development has won multiple architecture awards since opening, and if you book into the hotel rooms now housed there, you can get an up close look at why.
Try to get inside the Wren Library
Only 15 people at a time are allowed in the Wren Library, and it’s only open over lunchtime – meaning you have to plan your trip very carefully. If you’re one of the lucky few you’ll get to admire the huge room, with its checked floor, windows to the ceiling for optimum reading light, and many VIP busts dotted around the edges.
The Wren Library was designed by Christopher Wren, one of the world's most important and prolific architects. As well as visiting the library for its architectural merit, there are also some impressive books among the 70,000 here, including one of Sir Isaac Newton’s original notebooks and two of AA Milne’s manuscripts for Winnie the Pooh.
See modern architecture at the eco-friendly Central Mosque
Another triumph of modern architecture, Cambridge Central Mosque was completed in 2019 as Europe’s first eco-friendly mosque. The same architects who designed the London Eye worked on it, with the brief to "develop the idea of a British mosque for the 21st century."
They’ve created an artistic, architecturally stunning building that's practical and sustainable too. Join a tour and you’ll learn about how it’s specially designed to minimize carbon emissions with a heating system using solar panels and locally generated energy. Rainwater is used for irrigation and toilets, and sustainably sourced materials were used in the building. There’s a botanical garden inside, while huge timber tree-like columns spread out and intertwine to hold up the roof – designed to catch the light as it changes through the day. It took a decade to build, at a cost of over £23 million, and is one of Cambridge's newest buildings.
Visit the impressive Round Church
As one of the oldest buildings in the city and one of only four round churches in Britain, any self-guided architecture tour of Cambridge needs to stop by the Round Church.
This Norman structure dates back to 1130 CE and is modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, with various changes and influences over the years creating the architectural wonder that stands there today. The treasured Cambridge landmark is surrounded by trees and for just £3.50 you can step inside and learn more about its unique architectural history, and why it’s one of the most important buildings in the city.