Cambridge is known around the world for its ancient university. The compact city centre is packed with beautiful and interesting historic buildings, and it’s a great place for a short break. Cambridge is in the East of England, around 50 miles north east of London. I’ve been to Cambridge to visit relatives many times over the years, but I’d never taken the time to explore the city as I would do if I were travelling abroad. So, in October, when a friend from Italy wanted to visit her student son there and see the sights, I was happy to go with her.
We drove to Cambridge from where I live in Surrey, and went straight to The Gonville Hotel, our city centre home-from-home for two nights. Here’s my suggested two-day Cambridge itinerary, based on our trip. Obviously you can mix up the order of these activities, depending on the weather and on how you feel.
Cambridge Itinerary – Day One
Morning: Walking tour
When first arriving in a city, I find it helpful to do some kind of tour, to get an idea of where everything is. We went on a self-guided walking tour of Cambridge’s historic city centre, using a Visit Cambridge map which we picked up at the hotel. The city is an atmospheric place to explore, especially if you think about the great scientists who have lived and studied there over the centuries – luminaries such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. We followed the walking route on a sunny Sunday morning when the streets were quiet. It was a good way of taking in the sights of this beautiful place, in particular some of the university’s oldest colleges – although this isn’t the best time to explore if you want to actually go into any of the colleges or museums, as most places are shut on a Sunday morning.
University of Cambridge colleges
The University of Cambridge dates from 1209, when scholars fled there to escape riots in Oxford. Today the university is made up of 31 individual colleges, 16 of which were founded between 1284 and 1596. Most of the colleges are open to visitors at certain times, with restrictions to protect students’ privacy and studies. If you’d like to go into any of the colleges, it’s best to check times in advance, as each college has its own arrangements, and for some you need to buy an entry ticket.
The walking route which we followed starts from the Visitor Information Centre in the Guildhall, and takes you past peaceful St Benet’s Church, which dates from the reign of King Canute, as well as 11 of the university’s oldest colleges.
Old Cavendish Laboratory
We strolled on past the site of the Old Cavendish Laboratory, where the electron, the neutron, and the structure of DNA were all discovered. It’s not possible to visit the laboratory, but there’s a virtual Museum at the Cavendish Laboratory online, showing apparatus which was used in some of the Laboratory’s most famous researches. We continued to Peterhouse, founded in1284, and Cambridge’s oldest college. Pembroke College, opposite is home to the first chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren. We passed the university’s imposing art and antiquities museum, the Fitzwilliam and then a punting station on the River Cam (both of which we returned to later on). After passing St. Catharine’s and then Corpus Christi colleges, we stopped at the intriguing Corpus Clock.
The Corpus Clock has no hands or digital numbers, but has instead three rings of LEDs, which show hours, minutes and seconds. On top of the clock sits a monster, known as the ‘time-eater’, which snaps its jaws as each minute passes. It’s quite a thing to see.
Our next stop was King’s College, which was founded by King Henry VI. King’s College Chapel has the world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling and is known in particular for its choir and its Christmas Eve carol service which is broadcast by the BBC every year. You can visit the Chapel and grounds at certain times (you have to buy a ticket to do so), but we chose to admire the Chapel’s soaring gothic architecture from the outside.
If you’re feeling hungry at this point, I suggest that you pop in to Fudge Kitchen, across the road from King’s College. We chose a bag of delicious dark chocolate and sea salt fudge to help us on our way. You can watch the fudge being made and you can try free samples of different flavours before you buy, and there are some vegan options available too.
We continued on to Trinity College, which was founded by Henry VIII and is where Isaac Newton studied. The college’s beautiful Wren Library, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is a working library but it’s open to visitors at certain times, free of charge. You can also see some of the library’s collection online via the Wren Digital Library.
I was delighted to come across the excellent Heffers bookshop, opposite Trinity College, as my grandmother worked in the art section there when I was a child, and I have happy memories of her taking us there. Heffers has been trading in Cambridge since 1876 and, besides books, is known for its huge range of board games.
We continued along the route to St. John’s College. When we reached Magdalene (pronounced ‘moored-lin’) Bridge, we stopped to look across to Magdalene College, where Samuel Pepys studied, and which is now home to his famous diary.
The remainder of the route took us past Sidney Sussex College, which was attended by Oliver Cromwell, Christ’s College, where Charles Darwin studied, and Emmanuel College.
Lunch: The Granta
For lunch we headed to The Granta pub, which was recommended by my friend’s son, who lives in Cambridge. The pub is at the edge of Mill Pond and it has its own pontoon for punting. It serves food all day and was so busy on the sunny Sunday lunchtime when we visited that if you hadn’t booked ahead – which we hadn’t – there was a two-hour wait for food. So we just had a drink there, but if I was visiting Cambridge again I’d book to have lunch here.
Afternoon: Fitzwilliam Museum and punting
The Fitzwilliam houses an astonishing collection of more than half a million of the university’s beautiful works of art and historical artefacts. The neoclassical building opened in 1848, and was one of the country’s first public art museums. Highlights include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Monet, Rembrandt and Picasso. I especially enjoyed the Impressionist section. You could easily spend a few hours here. Check opening times before you visit – when we were there it was closed on Sunday mornings and all day on Mondays.
Cost: Admission to the museum is free.
We went on a College Backs Punting Tour along the River Cam with Scudamore’s, starting from the Mill Lane punting station. In case you don’t know, a punt is a long, narrow, flat-bottomed boat, which is moved through the water using a long pole. The tour was very relaxing and took us along the Backs, a peaceful stretch of gardens and pastures behind some of the colleges. The 45-minute tour was led by a knowledgable and engaging guide who punted the boat while giving a sightseeing commentary. The punts seat up to 12 people and are equipped with cushions and blankets. I was expecting to be splashed during the tour but that didn’t happen at all.
Cost: Guided punt tours with Scudamore’s start from £19 per adult, from £11 for under-16s, and are free for under-fours.
Dinner: The Gonville Hotel
We had dinner at the Atrium Brasserie at our hotel, The Gonville, and it was good. We had drinks in the comfortable bar first. The Atrium menu offers dishes such as Fish & Chips with Hand Cut Potatoes and Tartare Sauce for £15 and 4 Pork Sausages with Creamed Mash Potatoes Yorkshire Pudding and Gravy for £12.50. The hotel’s highly-rated Cotto Restaurant has a £75 three-course fine dining menu featuring dishes such as Gressingham Duck Terrine, Parfait, Spiced Apple & Plum Chutney and Rack of Salt Marsh Lamb, Thyme & Rosemary, Natural Jus.
Cambridge Itinerary – Day Two
Morning: Polar Museum
We didn’t manage to visit the Polar Museum, but it’s definitely on my list for next time. The museum is part of the university’s Scott Polar Research Institute, founded in memory of Captain Scott and his men. The museum shares stories of survival from the Arctic and the Antarctic, with artefacts from the early days of British Antarctic exploration by explorers such as Amundsen, Shackleton and Scott. Displays also include beautiful clothing and artwork from communities living in the Arctic.
Cost: The Polar Museum is free to visit.
Afternoon: IWM Duxford museum & lunch
IWM Duxford is Britain’s best preserved WWII airfield and it’s around 10 miles from the city centre. It took us about 20 minutes to drive there from The Gonville. The nearest train station is Whittlesford Parkway Station, with direct trains from Cambridge. Built in 1917 and used as an RAF training station, the base played an important role during the Battle of Britain. We spent a few hours at IWM Duxford, but we could have easily spent a whole day there as there’s a lot to see and it’s spread over a large site. A highlight is the vast Airspace hangar which houses many famous aircraft, including a Concorde (which we went on board), a Spitfire and a Tiger Moth. We saw some historic aircraft take off from the airfield while we were at the museum. Duxford’s original 1940 Operations Room has been recreated at the site, but sadly it was closed when we visited. We had a decent lunch at one of the museum’s cafe’s, the Armoury Café and Kitchen. I chose homemade leek and potato soup, and it was very good.
Cost: If booked online in advance, from £18.90 per adult, from £8.55 for under-16’s, under-fives free.
We had dinner at lively Las Iguanas, a Latin American restaurant and cocktail bar by the river. The food, the cocktails and the service were all good, and this would be a great place to come on a family trip with teenagers. If you’d prefer a different kind of cuisine, the city centre has a wide range of restaurants and bars to choose from, as well as some excellent traditional pubs.
Where to stay: The Gonville Hotel
We stayed at The Gonville Hotel, a stylish boutique hotel in the city centre. This excellent four-star hotel has a luxurious country house feel, and is in a great location for exploring the city on foot – or you can use one of the hotel bikes, or take a tour in their Bentley. I’d definitely recommend The Gonville, and I’m writing a full review separately.
Cost: We stayed in a Classic King/Twin with Walk-in Shower for two nights, and we paid £323 for the room plus £17 per night for parking and £15.95 per person per day for breakfast.
Getting to Cambridge
By train, Cambridge is about an hour and 15 minutes from London or around half an hour from Stansted Airport. We drove to Cambridge from where I live in Surrey. It was an easy journey of about 80 miles around the M25 and M11, and it took a couple of hours. Once we arrived we didn’t use the car in the city at all, we just walked everywhere (apart from when we drove to Duxford).
More on Cambridge
For more information on things to see and do in and around Cambridge, check out the official Visit Cambridge tourism information website.
I really enjoyed exploring Cambridge, it’s a beautiful and fascinating city. My trip there has made me determined to visit some of the many other historic and beautiful places in England and in the rest of Britain which people from other parts of the world are drawn to, but which I usually don’t think about exploring.
Disclosure: I have nothing to disclose fo this trip as it was not a working press or blogger trip, and we received no discounts or free of charge services.