Cambridge is a town about 45 minutes away from London by train, famous as the home of one of the world’s eldest and most prestigious universities. The whole town is basically one big university campus, but an over 800 year old one. In other words, it’s full of old and beautiful architectural masterpieces. I’m lucky to have visited Cambridge many times, and maybe that’s why I’m biased when I say it is one of my favorite towns in England. It makes a pretty easy day-trip from London and we always take everyone that comes to visit us there. Not once have we had someone not like it! So if you’d like to walk in the footsteps of over 90 Nobel prize winners, you should keep on reading.
- How to get to Cambridge: the easiest way to get to Cambridge from London is by train. There are trains from both King’s Cross station (45 minutes) and Liverpool Street Station (1 hour and a half). There is also a bus option with National Express, but it takes nearly two hours and you must book tickets in advance if you want them to be cheaper than the train. Cambridge is not very big and is very easy to navigate. Once there, you shouldn’t need any other form of transport other than your own two feet.
What to see: Cambridge University Colleges
Given that, as I said above, most of Cambridge is comprised by the university, the major attraction is visiting all of the different colleges. But before letting that put you off, bear in mind there are 31 different colleges, most of which are real work of arts. I’ve highlighted some of the most popular together with some of my favorites (and free ones) below:
- Downing College: Downing will be the first college you will encounter as you walk into town from the train station. It’s one of the newest colleges, only founded in the ‘recent’ 1800s. Though rather small, it’s got a very well kept green space surrounded by magnificent buildings. It’s free to visit and it is also very quiet compared to the other ones, which is probably why it is one of my favorites.
- Emmanuel College: the next college further along Regent/St Andrew’s street is Emmanuel college. It’s slightly bigger than Downing but it is also free, and just as nice. There’s a beautiful green space surrounded by cloisters, followed by a tranquil garden with pond and willow tree included. Also here’s an interesting fact I learnt recently: the university of Harvard is named after John Harvard, an Emmanuel alumni.
- Christ’s College: Christ’s is next to Emmanuel, but it’s on a whole other level. This one is also free, although double the size of the previous ones. You will be able to stroll garden after garden, each more beautiful than the other. Christ’s also has some rather famous alumni, including Charles Darwin and Robert Oppenheimer. I’m going to try and restrain myself and not turn this guide into a science lecture… Together with Downing, this is also one of my favorite colleges.
- Magdalene College: Magdalene is usually as far as I venture in Cambridge. There’s nothing too special about it, and I don’t think it can compete with the other ones I’ve mentioned. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the buildings are made out of brick instead of stone. Either way, what I do like is a small green area right beside the river Cam – it’s a wonderful peaceful spot to watch people punting or attempting to punt (more on punting below). Also it’s probably worth mentioning that the entrance is not as obvious as with the other colleges. Maybe there is a main entrance I don’t know about, but the one I’ve always used is a small unassuming wooden door on Magdalene street.
- St John’s College: next up (or down actually…) is St John’s. This is one of the most popular colleges in Cambridge and also one of the biggest. They are fully aware of this fact, which is why they charge a whooping 10£ to visit. Apparently you can pay the reduced fee of 5£ if visiting with a registered guide. But worry not, if you don’t feel like paying you can still see the famous New Court building from the gardens of the neighboring Trinity College. Also, if you take a punting tour, you’ll be able to see the famous bridge of sighs as well.
- Trinity College: St John’s southern neighbor is Trinity, the richest college in Cambridge. It’s also as big if not bigger than St John, meaning you also have to pay to visit. You can however roam the gardens on both sides of the river for free. Apart from the spot I already mentioned in Magdalene college, this is another great place to sit on the grass and watch people punting on the river. Apart from the gardens, I hear the Wren library is also worth a visit. Other than the fact that it is pretty stunning, they actually have some very interesting original copies such as Newton’s Principia Mathematica, or the original Winnie the Pooh. It’s probably worth mentioning that Trinity has produced a third of all the Nobel prize winner produced by the university.
- King’s College: the last college on the list is King’s, which is basically the one that appears in all of Cambridge’s postcards. Not without good reason though! It really is a stunning group of buildings. You can admire the impressive buildings from both King’s Parade Street and from the river, but of course you do have to pay to go inside. The only thing that in my eyes might make it worth paying is a visit to King’s Chapel, one of the biggest chapels if not the biggest in the world. Like any of the other big colleges, King’s also has some famous alumni, most notably Alan Turing, the creator of computers (or Cumberbatch in the Imitation Game).
Obviously I could go on, as there are many other colleges, but I feel like visiting these ones should hopefully be more than enough to give you a feel for the university!
What to do: Punting
I think that no visit to Cambridge is complete without a bit of punting. Punting involves a wooden flat canoe-alike boat called a punt. The punter (not even sure if that’s what they are called, but that’s what I’m calling them) is the person that stands at the back with a very long pole that has a grip at the end. The pole can reach the bottom of the river and that’s how the punt gets pushed along. It may sound weird, and maybe there are proper terms associated with all these things (I’m sure there are, with this being Cambridge and all), but I hope you get the idea. It is an extremely popular activity in Cambridge and on a sunny summer day the river Cam is completely filled with punts.
There are two options if you’d like to go punting: you can either hire a punt and try punting yourself, or you can get a tour. I’ve done it numerous times but not once have I tried punting myself. It is a lot more difficult than it looks! I have spent many shameless moments laughing at how ridiculous some of the beginners look, and I’m sure I’ll completely suck at it so I’d like to hold on to my dignity just for a little bit longer. If you do want to try it yourself, Wikipedia has an excellent beginners section with some tips.
If you are interested in taking a punting tour, I’ve always used Let’s Go Punting, and they’ve been great. The tour takes about an hour and the guide will spend it telling you all sort of anecdotes and stories from the different colleges that you will pass by. Also, you are allowed to take alcohol on board, so it’s a nice way to just put your feet up and enjoy a couple of beers. I’d strongly recommend booking online ahead of time though. It’s currently 12£ per person online, as opposed to 19£ on the spot. Besides, you can organise your day around it, as opposed to turning up and having to wait until there are free spots.
Whichever way you choose to go punting, it is definitely a great opportunity to see a lot of the major colleges that you don’t get to see from the street, without having to pay to go into each one of them.
Where to eat
There is a ridiculous amount of options when it comes to eating in Cambridge, and I’m definitely not going to cover them all. Buzzfeed has very kindly just written article about 21 things you need to eat in Cambridge so that I could include it here (kidding…). It’s definitely worth checking out! Here are some of the places I’ve tried:
- The Eagle: this pub has somehow become a must-visit in Cambridge, made famous by being the place where Watson and Crick announced the discovery of DNA. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m not a big Watson fan, but I think it’s overrated. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely pub, we had some lovely food and some really delicious desserts, I just don’t think it’s that much different from other pubs I’ve tried in Cambridge.
- Don Pasquale: this italian restaurant makes my list simply because of its location. It’s in a corner at the market square and has an outdoor terrace from where you can do some wonderful people-watching. I have very fond memories of sitting there enjoying a nice glass of Pimm’s in a warm summer day.
- Belgian waffles: I know some people don’t consider waffles proper food, but I do. This place is a market stand at Market Hill but the guy that runs it I believe is actually Belgian, so the waffles are the real deal. My mouth is watering just thinking about it…
- Fitzbillies: I haven’t yet tried their famous chelsea buns, but I’ve had some nice hot chocolates and sandwiches in this place. It is a really nice cafe, and it’s just opposite from where the punting tours take off, which is quite handy. Also, they have free wifi.
I will be sure to add more to the list as I keep trying them, but for not being that big a town, you are definitely spoilt for choices in Cambridge!
Hope you find this helpful if you are planning on visiting Cambridge for the first time! If you are, and there is something in particular you’d like to know that I haven’t covered, shoot away in the comments!