It’s less than an hour away from London and offers breathtaking architecture, a rich cultural heritage – plus the locals love their bikes. Matilda Egere-Cooper heads to Cambridge and discovers why this pretty university town should be on your tick list before school’s back in session…
Before I visited Cambridge, I’d prefer to jump on a plane to more foreign climes than take a train to a destination I only ever associated with the world’s greatest brainiacs – but in the last month, this charming city has stole my heart. The expansive colleges steeped in centuries of history are just the backdrop to luscious green landscapes, quaint boutiques and idyllic cobbled lanes, where cyclists weave through the many tourists who year-on-year contribute hundreds of millions to the city’s economy. And it’s little wonder – named one of the “most beautiful cities in the world” by Forbes two years ago, Cambridge is a refreshing destination for anyone in search of a bit of peace and relaxation or a quaint, yet contemporary English experience that contrasts from the hustle and bustle of our capital.
How to get there
You can catch a non-stop train from King’s Cross every half-hour during off-peak hours, and it will take you roughly 50 minutes to get into Cambridge. An off-peak return is £32.30 (while day returns start from £22.20). Once you arrive, city centre is about 15-20 minutes away from the station by foot, so you can always walk, catch a cab (more straightforward) or get a bus (less straightforward). The buses in Cambridge are run by a number of operators so figuring out which one to catch can be a little confusing. Just know that they don’t run as regularly as they do in London, the Citi 1, Citi 2, Citi 3, Citi7 and Citi 8 (not to be confused with the plain ol’ 1, 2 and 8) gets you into city centre and the total fare is £1.50. To catch a bus, come out of the station, take a left towards the car park and cross over to the road in front of you. You should see a number of bus stops along the road, on your left.
What to do
If you’re only spending 24-hours in the city, start off by marvelling at the architecture of the 30-plus colleges that make up Cambridge University. These medieval schools date as far back as the 13th Century and are magnificent in size and structure – so make a beeline for the likes of King’s College, Queens’ College or Trinity and pay for a guided walked tour around their grounds (£16 for 2 hours). Then hang out along the King’s Parade, a popular central street that offers views of King’s College Chapel, Senate House and Great St Mary’s, and small shops on the east side, which leads to the bustling Market Square. I spent hours here as you can get everything from tourist T-shirts and Jamaican patties to fresh herbal tea and thai food. You should also pick up a map from the Cambridge Tourist Information Centre just a short walk away from the Market on Peas Hill to help you plan the rest of the day.
For a little more history, it’s worth visiting the Fitzwilliam museum, which holds art and antiques on behalf of the University of Cambridge and is free to visit. Gallery-wise, you can enjoy more art at Kettle’s Yard on Castle Street which holds a lovely collection of modern works, as well as Byard Art on the King’s Parade. For a more peculiar sight, feast your eyes on the Corpus Clock. Based outside the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College, it’s a freakish sculpture which features the Chronophage “time”eater – a very grim-looking grasshopper that look like it’s related to a Gremlin (!). If you’d like more ideas of things to do in Cambridge see the “where to play section” below or visit the Lonely Planet‘s helpful guide.
Where to eat
As with any modern English city, restaurants chains and pubs abound – so you’ll stumble upon all types of cuisine options, especially if you’re on a budget. However, my personal faves were Nanna Mexico on Regent Street (the only independent restaurant Mexican restaurant in Cambridge) and Hong Kong Fusion on St John’s Street (you can get the tastiest bubble teas here) – and both are short walks within the city centre. And although it’s a chain, Bill’s on Green Street is a nice choice for lunch if you’ve never been (try the freshly made cinnamon donuts for dessert) and if you like your kebabs with loads of salad , you can’t go wrong with the Gardenia on Rose Crescent. This Greek outlet is hugely popular with students whose pictures adorn their wall of fame.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, get some free, homemade fudge samples – or have a go making it – at Cambridge Fudge Kitchen Shop on King’s Parade – or make haste to Hardy’s Original Sweet Shop on St John’s Street for those good old fashioned sweets you grew up with. TripAdvisor offers a decent guide to top restaurants and and confectionery spots in Cambridge, which you can check out here.
Where to sleep
What’s unique about Cambridge is that you can rent rooms at the colleges from around £34 a night if you’re after a quirky experience which will cast you back to your uni days (without the notorious food thieves). I enjoyed a few nights at Bishop Bateman Court on Trinity Lane (part of Trinity Hall College), which was clean, peaceful – and my room even came with a piano! Alternatively, if you ‘d like something more upmarket, you might want to stay at the stylish boutique hotel right opposite BBC known as The Varsity Hotel & Spa. I got the opportunity to spend the night there and really loved the modernised Brit-inspired interiors, the jacuzzi at the Glassworks spa next door and the roof terrace which offers a picturesque view of the city. Breakfast in the morning was also a plus, served at the River Bar Steakhouse & Grill on the Quayside which overlooks the river. The Varsity also runs a rooftop cinema every Sunday until September 10th. If you’re after a great deals on hotels, visit hotels.com.
Where to play
Walking around the city is great, but hiring a bike is a must. Cycle along the various winding lanes and the infamous Trinity Street – www.cityhire.com has a base that’s just a short walk from the market and offers bike hire for just £7 for 4 hours, £10 a day or £12 for 24 hours.
As the River Cam runs through Cambridge, punting is the recreation of choice for locals and visitors. There’s a few companies that offer excursions and lessons like Granta Punt & Boat, The Cambridge Chauffeur Punts or Scudamores. Expect to pay in the region of £12 upwards for a 45-60 minute guided tour or around £18 for a lesson. Alternatively, you can go for a punt and dining option, offered by The Varsity.
If you’re sticking around in the evening, see a theatre show at notable venues such as ADC theatre on Park Street which features a late-opening bar, the Cambridge Arts Theatre for more traditional productions or the Corn Exchange which also offers music and comedy. For more recommendations of things to do, check out www.visitcambridge.org.
Do you have any tips for visiting Cambridge or have a lovely holiday experience you’d like to recommend and share with The Cultural Exposé? Email firstname.lastname@example.org – we’d love to hear about it!