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. From world-class museums to excellent restaurants and important monuments, here is our guide to the best things to do in Cambridge.
1. Explore King's College Chapel
This beautiful chapel has been painted by Turner and Canaletto, and eulogized in no fewer than three sonnets by Wordsworth.King’s College Chapel is now internationally famous for its boys’ choir, whose members process across the college grounds in their antiquated garb to sing evensong and carols on Christmas Eve.
The setting for the choristers is supreme. The chapel is impossibly slender, and the interior is carefully composed. Here, the high and handsome nave has an exquisite ceiling, whose fantail tracery has a dense geometry of extraordinary complexity and delicacy. This beautiful chapel is well worth a visit.
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2. Admire art at the Fitzwilliam Museum & Kettle's yard
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. Visiting these venues is one of the essential things to do in Cambridge for art lovers.
The Fitzwilliam Museum holds the city’s premier fine and applied art collection. The Lower Galleries contain a wealth of antiquities including Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies, fifth-century BC Greek vases, plus a bewildering display of early European and Asian ceramics. The Upper Galleries contain an eclectic assortment of mostly eighteenth, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European paintings.
3. Join a walking tour
To fully take in the city’s famously beautiful architecture, one of the best things to do in Cambridge is to join a council-run tour. Alternatively, you can 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 on the water.
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4. Visit Great St. Mary’s Church
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 town's 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...
5. Marvel at the Corpus Christi College
Corpus Christi College is one of the 31 colleges of the University of Cambridge and is one of the oldest colleges in the University. The college is best known for its exquisite architecture exemplified by the 16th-century Great Court and 15th-century Chapel.
One of the best things to do in Cambridge in general is to see Corpus Christi's unique Corpus Clock. The clock is famous for its unusual construction. It features an insect 'chronophage' (time-eater) that moves around the clock face and 'eats' the seconds as it passes. The clock also has a number of additional mechanical details, such as a bell that rings every 15 minutes and a display that shows the time in binary format.
6. Go punting on the River Cam
Punting is undoubtedly among quintessential things to do in Cambridge, though it is, in fact, a good deal harder than it looks. First-timers find themselves zigzagging across the water and in summer “punt jams” are very common on the stretch of the River Cam beside The Backs.
Punt rental is available at several points, including the boatyard at Mill Lane, at Magdalene Bridge, and at the Garret Hostel Lane bridge at the back of Trinity College. It’s almost always possible to rent on spec, but you can usually save money if you book ahead of time – Scudamore’s are as good as anyone. Alternatively, you can hire a chauffeured punt from any of the rental places – either a shared punt (with strangers).
7. Cross the Mathematical Bridge
Queens’ College is particularly beautiful, boasting two dream-like, fairy-tale Tudor courtyards: The Old Court and Cloister Court. Flanking Cloister Court is the Long Gallery of the President’s Lodge, the last remaining half-timbered building in the university, and the tower where Erasmus is thought to have beavered away during his four years here.
Equally eye-catching is the wooden Mathematical Bridge over the River Cam. This is a copy of the mid eighteenth-century original, which – so it was claimed – would stay in place even if the nuts and bolts were removed.
8. Visit the Centre for Computing History
Among the highlights of Cambridge’s many great value museums is the Museum of Cambridge, containing an enormous range of objects from Cambridge and the surrounding fens. For more 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.
Gamers can try out the Centre for Computing History where gaming lock-ins aren’t uncommon. 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.
9. Enjoy live music
Musicians of an astoundingly high standard from around the world play 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.
10. Learn about polar regions at the Polar Museum
The pocket-sized Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute begins with a section devoted to the native peoples of the Arctic, with an especially enjoyable collection of Inuit soapstone sculptures. It continues with pen sketches of the European explorers who ventured to both poles with varying degrees of success.
Here you’ll find a substantial set of documents – original letters, incidental artefacts and so on – relating to the fateful expedition to the South Pole led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912), after whom the institute is named.
11. Wander around Cambridge University Botanic Garden
The University of Cambridge Botanic Gardens is a 40-acre botanical garden with over 8,000 different plant species from all over the world. The garden's collections consist of a stone garden, a orangery, a Mediterranean garden, a greenhouse and a number of specialised gardens such as the National Berberis and Magonia collection, an alpine yard and a collection of peonies.
The Botanical Gardens are a vital centre for botanical study and research and are open to the general public for visits and guided tours. If you are passionate about plant life a visit to the Botanic Gardens should be on your list of things to do in Cambridge.
12. Discover St. John’s College
St John’s College sports a grandiloquent Tudor gatehouse, which is distinguished by the coat of arms of the founder, Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. Beyond, three successive courts lead to the river. There’s an excess of dull reddish brickwork here – enough for Wordsworth, who lived above the kitchens on F staircase, to describe the place as “gloomy”.
The arcade on the far side of Third Court leads through to the Bridge of Sighs. This is a chunky, covered bridge across the river built in 1831 but in most respects very unlike its Venetian namesake. The bridge is best viewed from the much older – and much more stylish – Wren-designed bridge a few yards to the south.
13. Enjoy a variety of restaurants
Cambridge has a lot to offer foodies. For the area's best restaurants, 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.
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.
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15. Visit the Wren Library
On the far side of the Great Court, walk through “the screens” – the narrow passage separating the Hall from the kitchens – to reach Nevile’s Court. This is where Newton first calculated the speed of sound. The west end of Nevile’s Court is enclosed by one of the university’s most famous buildings, the Wren Library.
Viewed from the outside, it’s impossible to appreciate the scale of the interior thanks to Wren’s clever device of concealing the internal floor level by means of two rows of stone columns. Natural light pours into the white, stuccoed interior, which contrasts wonderfully with the dark lime-wood bookcases, also Wren-designed.
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16. Pay respect at the American Cemetery
On top of the city’s numerous museums, history buffs should be sure to visit the beautiful American Cemetery, which commemorates US Soldiers who died 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.
The giant hangars of the Duxford Imperial War Museum dominate the eponymous airfield. In total, the museum holds nearly 200 historic aircraft, and a wide-ranging collection of civil and military planes from the Sunderland flying boat to Concorde and the Vulcan B2 bombers.
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- Best for location: West Court- Jesus College
- Best for couples: Gonville Hotel
- Best for stylish stays: Turing Locke
- Best for comfort: Graduate Cambridge
- Best for budget: Centennial Hotel
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