Medieval magnificence flows through the streets of Cambridge like the lilting waters of the River Cam, which meanders past the ‘backs’ of such legendary seats of learning such as King’s College, Trinity College and Peterhouse.   

Viewed from a gently gliding punt, or on foot from the tangled lanes that sneak between the colleges, Cambridge is exceptionally beautiful, and arguably more accessible than Oxford, thanks to its manageable scale and lower tourist profile. It’s also great fun, with historic pubs, student-oriented places to eat, picnic-friendly college greens and the ever-nostalgic charm of punting on the river. 

There’s loads to see and many things are free, but it pays to make a plan before you arrive. Here are some tips for the top things to see and do in Cambridge. 

Note: due to Covid, many colleges have restricted entry to pre-booked visitors, or closed to non-students, but you can still view these lavish establishments from outside. Things can change quickly, so check the latest advice before you visit. 

King’s College Chapel 

an ornate ceiling and church organ
The famous vaulted ceiling of King's College ©Radek Sturgolewski/Shutterstock

Flamboyantly finished in carved Gothic flourishes, King’s College dominates the centre of Cambridge. With advance booking, you can experience the full grandeur of the 16th-century college chapel, whose extravagant wood-carving and stained glass is only exceeded by the world’s largest fan-vaulted ceiling towering overhead. 

The chapel was founded by Henry VI, but it took a further five English monarchs to complete this extraordinary monument (look for Henry VIII’s carved initials inside, added during the final stages).The stained glass is original–Oliver Cromwell reputedly ordered it spared during the English Civil War out of nostalgia for his own college days.     

Trinity College 

The largest Cambridge college, Trinity is wrapped around an enormous quadrangle that emerges dramatically as you step through the college’s monumental Tudor gateway (with its stern statue of Henry VIII, holding a table leg rather than sceptre after a student prank). Grand gothic architecture rises on all sides, and the college’s famous Wren Library has original copies of works by Shakespeare, Newton and Swift. 

Check the latest on their opening policy; if the interiors are closed to non-students, you can still view the dramatic frontage and the rear of the college from a punt on the Cam. 

The Fitzwilliam Museum

Interior of the FitzWilliam Museum
The Fitz in Cambridge was one of the first public art museums in Britain © Arijeet Bannerjee / Shutterstock

The Fitz is a museum to rival anything in London, Edinburgh or Oxford. This was one of the first public art museums in Britain, displaying treasures accumulated by Viscount FitzWilliam in the 18th-century, alongside a treasure trove of more recent acquisitions. Egypt, Roman Britain and ancient Cyprus are particularly well represented, as are ancient and modern ceramics and glassware. Upstairs are paintings by da Vinci, Rubens, Picasso and other big brush-wielders.  

Take a punt along the Cam

Okay, so it’s unashamedly touristy, and fairly costly, but hiring a punt for a gentle glide on the Cam is one of the best ways to admire the medieval city. From the punt stations at Mill Lane and Quayside, you can swoosh past the backs of the colleges and view the genteel reality of student life behind the college’s lavish facades. 

En route, you’ll pass under a string of elegant college bridges, from Christopher Wren’s graceful stone construction at St John’s College to the flimsy-looking Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College. Take your pick from self-poled punts or chauffeur-driven boats with a waterborne tour; Scudamore’s is the biggest operator. For a change of pace, head upstream to the picture-postcard suburb of Grantchester, a favorite student escape.  

River Cam near Kings College in the city of Cambridge
Hire a punt for a gentle glide on the Cam to admire the medieval city of Cambridge © Premier Photo / Shutterstock

Browse the latest from the University Press 

The University Press bookshop on Trinity St is a monument to knowledge, and a great place to get a feel for the latest high-brow thinking to come out of the Cambridge colleges. University publications cover everything from climate change and genetics to gender identity and social reform; even reading the dust covers of the latest tomes will leave you measurably better informed.

Gonville & Caius College

With the unusual distinction of having been founded twice (hence the double name), Gonville & Caius is one of the best colleges to view from outside. Three magnificent gates–known as Virtue, Humility and Honour–invite students into the college, and usher them onward to graduation at the adjacent Senate House, via the occult-looking Porta Honoris. If you’re totting up famous alumni, this was the alma mater of Crick and Watson and Stephen Hawking. 

Have a pub debate 

the exterior of the Eagle pub at dusk
The Eagle Pub is the scene of many passionate debate © Shutterstock / Chris Lawrence Travel

Some of the mysteries of the ages were solved over pints in Cambridge’s public houses, and you can still listen in on some serious intellectual discussion today. Favored watering holes include the Eagle, where Crick and Watson talked over the structure of DNA till the wee hours, and the hipster-friendly Cambridge Brew House, with brews on tap from the on-site microbrewery. 

Watch sunset from the Varsity roof terrace 

The boutique Varsity Hotel emerges unexpectedly from the backstreets north of the centre, and its open-air Roof Terrace bar is undisputedly the best spot in the city to watch the sunset. With a cocktail in hand, you can look out over a sea of church spires and college turrets, but book ahead; space is in demand on any warm weekend evening. 

Go to the Footlights

Cambridge’s ADC Theatre is the home stage of Footlights, the university’s student legendary comedy club. The troupe has been putting witty students on stage since 1883, turning out such heavyweights of comedy as Richard Ayoade, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miriam Margolyes, Emma Thompson and the Monty Pythons. Check the websites for upcoming events.  

Great St Mary’s Church 

Facing off against the opulent chapel of King’s College, Great St Mary’s Church may not win the battle of the chapels, but it does offer dizzying views over the college quarter from the top of its 113ft (38m) tower. A leg-straining climb up a narrow spiral staircase will deliver you to the rooftop, with vertiginous views directly over King’s College, the Senate House and Gonville & Caius College.

Have a Chelsea bun at Fitzbillies 

You haven’t been to Cambridge until you’ve stepped in for a Chelsea bun at Fitzbillies. Generations of students have gathered here for a carb hit between lectures, and their buns are drowned in sticky syrup and jam-packed with spices and currants. Eat in, or grab some neatly boxed to go and retreat to one of the college greens.  

Pedal the backstreets 

Cambridge University
Biking is a great way to explore the streets of Cambridge © Evikka / Shutterstock

Generations of Cambridge students have navigated the streets by pedal power, and it’s easy to join them by hiring a bike in town or at the train station. To recharge after a scoot around the city, drop into Espresso Library, just east of Parker’s Piece green, which lures in bikers with the aroma of strong coffee and wholesome world food offerings.  

Kettle’s Yard 

Some museums keep the art at arm’s length, but not Kettle’s Yard. Previously the home of a curator from London’s Tate Gallery, this fascinating museum is full of lived-with artworks, from paintings and sculptures to found objects, scattered around lived-in spaces. Big names like Henry Moore and Miro are represented, but it’s the work by less well known artists that sticks in the memory.  

Take a pub and food crawl along Mill Road 

No matter where you are, student life means pub crawls followed by a kebab or curry and Mill Road is where these sessions usually stagger to a halt. Start off in a town pub and drift slowly eastwards as the evening wears on, then browse the inexpensive Asian and Middle Eastern eateries on Mill Road.

Have a packed afternoon tea

It says something about the demographic of the university intake that packed afternoon teas are a thing. For an elegantly boxed selection of buns and sandwiches to munch daintily on a picnic blanket at Jesus Green, head to Harriet’s Cafe Tearooms on Green Street and pretend you’re pausing for a sugar hit before rushing off to a debate.  

Go church hopping

the rounded exterior of a church
The Round Church is only one of four medieval churches left in Britain ©Valery Egorov/Shutterstock

As well as the college chapels, Cambridge is studded with interesting medieval churches, many with famous pedigrees. Little St Mary’s is a popular stop for its familial links to US president George Washington, but the wonderfully arcane-looking Round Church is more atmospheric. One of only four round medieval churches in Britain, it was built by a mysterious order of monks after the First Crusade and it hides one of the clues to the location of the Holy Grail...okay, we can’t back that up, but if it turned out to be true, we wouldn’t be surprised. 

Have a splash at the Jesus Green Lido 

There are far too many punts about for the Cam to be suitable for swimming, but the Jesus Green Lido comes a close second best. This unheated, open-air pool offers a similar jolt-you-awake experience to river swimming, and it’s been welcoming locals and visitors since the 1920s. On sunny days, the sun-bathing spots around the pool are in heavy demand. 

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Like Kew Gardens in miniature, Cambridge’s botanic garden is a chlorophyll-filled wonder. Most make a beeline for the tropical greenhouses with their steamy collection of palms and ferns, but it’s the back paths, hidden clearings and secret spaces in between the planted beds that make the gardens so special. With kids in tow, it’s a great spot for a game of hide and seek. 

St John’s College  

The Bridge of Sigh at Saint John's College
St. John's College is famous for its medieval Bridge of Sighs © S.Borisov / Shutterstock

Every Cambridge college has a list of famous alumni as long as a punting pole, but the honors list at St John’s is particularly cosmopolitan. William Wordsworth, William Wilberforce, former Indian PM Manmohan Singh and writer Douglas Adams all studied here. As well as a full hand of stately college buildings, the college is famous for its medieval Bridge of Sighs, a masterpiece of stone tracery that often forms the focus for college pranks.  

Cruise the college museums 

Assuming they’re open to non-students (check first), the university’s museums are a fabulous resource for anyone craving an instant education. College museums cover everything from archaeology and anthropology to zoology and the history of science itself, but perhaps the stand out is the Polar Museum, devoted to the likes of Scott of the Antarctic, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton, with original items from polar expeditions.     

Detour out of town to the Imperial War Museum  

You’ll have to day trip out of Cambridge to reach the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, but it’s worth it for an epic spread of military history, much of it of the aeronautical variety. Britain’s largest aircraft collection covers everything from famous WWI and WWII fighters and bombers (Hurricanes, Spitfires, Lancasters and the like) to a retired Concorde. Check the website for upcoming events; many aircraft here still take to the skies for annual airshows. 

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