Cambridge city view

Beyond the colleges: things to do in Cambridge

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By Rebecca Hallett
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Cambridge is deservedly famous for its university, and seeing the colleges is at the top of any visitor’s list – closely followed by punting of course – but there are a host of other reasons to visit. Rebecca Hallett explores all that Cambridge has to offer beyond chapels, courts and students.

Museums & galleries

Among the highlights of Cambridge’s many free museums is the Folk Museum, containing an enormous range of objects from Cambridge and the surrounding fens. But for some hands-on fun, head to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, where you can view and sometimes even use scientific instruments from across the centuries, and for video gamers, try out the new Centre for Computing History where gaming lock-ins aren’t uncommon, and you can see exhibits of old computers and games, or take part in a variety of Raspberry Pi (a cheap, credit card-sized computer for kids) programming workshops.

Punting on the River Cam, Cambridge

Art history students in Cambridge have it pretty good; they can see several important works in person at the stunning Fitzwilliam Museum and see twentieth-century art at the unusual location of Kettle’s Yard – the fascinating home and collection of Jim Ede, where visitors must ring the doorbell to be allowed in.

Architecture

To fully take in the city’s famously beautiful architecture, you can just wander the streets (or cycle, if you really want to fit in), but if you’re not sure where to start, join a council-run tour or explore the city’s much-overlooked modern buildings on one of Cambridge Modern Architecture’s suggested walks, which introduce you to the city’s stunning variety of post-war structures. The Midsummer Common section of the river is also a great place to stroll; you can see the spires of churches and chapels peeking over the trees, and enjoy a relaxing walk along the banks while student rowers sweat it out in the water.

Great St. Mary’s Church, the official centre of the University, is both architecturally and historically fascinating. For example, under a brass plaque are the remains of Protestant reformer Martin Bucer – kind of. After his death, the Catholic Queen Mary I had his corpse unearthed and burned at the stake as a heretic in the marketplace. Then, when Elizabeth I came to power, she ordered the marketplace swept clean and all dust gathered re-interred in the church. Tudor politics sound much more dramatic than today’s…

Great St Mary's Church Cambridge

Other than Great St. Mary’s tower there are two excellent spots for taking in the city – Cambridge is mostly flat, which makes cycling very easy but getting a good view pretty hard. For some local history, grab your camera and take a walk up Castle Hill, so named for the castle that was long ago torn down after being rendered redundant by a pesky period of peace. In its place you’ll find a number of informative signs and a great view over Cambridge. For a more surprising photo-taking opportunity, head to the car park on top of Lion’s Yard shopping centre. You’ll get beautiful vistas across the city, and a rare chance to avoid the crowds.

Where to eat

While Cambridge has a lot to offer foodies, if you want the best you should book a table (well in advance) at Midsummer House, a two Michelin-starred British-French restaurant. Not only is the food excellent, the staff couldn’t be more warm and personable – a welcome change from the efficient but distant service in many other expensive restaurants. For something a bit more affordable, head to Trockel, Ulmann & Freunde, also known to students as the ‘German café’ or ‘German soup kitchen’, who offer delicious, well-priced soups and snacks right in the city centre.

Car park view, Cambridge
Picture by Jonathon Kram 

If you’d like to venture a little further afield, the Mill Road area has a number of Middle Eastern and Asian restaurants, perhaps best among them Bibimbap House, and even further afield is the gorgeous village of Grantchester where The Orchard does an excellent cream tea. It was the haunt of such luminaries as the Bloomsbury Group, and has an attached Rupert Brooke museum, but despite its succession of famous patrons (Alan Turing, Stephen Fry, Bertrand Russell et al) this tearoom remains pleasingly down-to-earth, and the village atmosphere is a refreshing a break from Cambridge’s crowds.

Educational endeavors

On top of the city’s numerous museums, history buffs should be sure to visit the beautiful American Cemetery, which commemorates US Soldiers killed in World War Two. For more wartime history, head a little way out of the city to IWM Duxford, Europe’s best-preserved Second World War Airfield.

Cambridge is well-equipped for astronomers of all kinds. Those wanting a relaxed introduction should book a place on the Varsity Hotel’s Astronomy Masterclasses. After eating in the River Bar Steakhouse & Grill, attendees can enjoy drinks as they observe the night sky, while the Chairman of the Cambridge Astronomical Association explains what they’re seeing. If the size of the telescopes doesn’t impress you, then head to the Institute of Astronomy’s observatory. Following a talk from one of the Institute’s astronomers, on clear nights you get the chance to look through a far bigger lens.

American Cemetery, CambridgePicture by Jonathon Kram: the American Cemetery

For those after a more academic lesson, CRASSH (which hosts events on hugely diverse academic topics) often holds interdisciplinary lectures. The speakers are of extremely high quality, including such varied high-profile names as Dr Rowan Williams and Alastair Campbell. Arguably this is a much better way of getting a taste of the city’s intellectual atmosphere, rather than wandering a college, hoping to see someone in a gown.

Music of an astoundingly high standard from around the world is played every night in Cambridge; from symphony orchestras to the university’s own music students and other visiting bands. Many classical concerts are held in the city’s churches, while the Corn Exchange and Junction offer large venues for jazz, rock, pop and comedy acts.

Explore more of England with the Rough Guide to Britain. Book hostels for your trip and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.