Cambridge is located about 60 miles (100 Km) from London. Its university was founded in the eleventh century by disaffected academics from Oxford University. The oldest building from that time is in St John’s College but the oldest surviving college is Peterhouse. Cambridge and Oxford are similar distances from London: Oxford lies to the west and Cambridge to the north. The distance was sufficiently great that the ruling monarch could not travel from London to either town in mediaeval times in one day. This was an advantage for academics if the monarch acted on impulse and thought a few executions would boost morale!
The best time to visit Cambridge as a tourist is in the first half of June, particularly the week known as May-week – a Cambridge chronological mystery. All exams are over by then and the students want to relax with parties, open-air drama, rowing races on the river, all-night balls in the Colleges and general mayhem. Most of the events are open to the public and ticket prices are usually low, the exceptions being the College balls (May balls) where prices are high and tickets are usually sold-out in April. Only go to a May-ball in a college that sits along the Backs (the college backs onto the river Cam).
A visit to the bumping races on the river is well worth while during May-week but means an excursion outside Cambridge to the north east. Its possible to walk or take a bicycle – a car is probably inadvisable unless you are familiar with the area
Cambridge is crowded with tourists between April and September. Most arrive and depart by coach in the same day and don’t get much past Silver Street Bridge (to look at the Mathematical Bridge in Queens’ College) and King’s Parade (to see King’s College Chapel). Many of the colleges are now charging admission and restricting the times of access for visitors.
Cambridge is small and can only be visited on-foot. Expect to walk for most of your visit. There are no hills in the centre of town. Try to stroll along the Backs between Garret Hostel Lane and King’s Bridge. See our free walking map above
View the beautiful gardens along the Backs by hiring a boat on the river. Don’t miss Clare College Fellows gardens and Clare Bridge. Try your skills punting! Watch out for lunatics testing their own skills – particularly young language students. The easiest option is to take one of the chauffeur-punts, where in half an hour the chauffeur (usually a Cambridge student) will whisk you from Silver Street Bridge to Magdalene Bridge and back again. You should get a potted history and some amusing anecdotes but a chauffeur trip is expensive, too fast and you miss the chance to punt by yourself.
Most Cambridge students do not favour punting on the Backs during daylight and prefer to punt along the upper-reach of the river to Grantchester. This is much more difficult due to mud and the greater distance (it takes a whole day) but there are pubs of character in Grantchester and the banks of the river offer good locations for an al-fresco party or romantic encounter.
Before Henry VIII the monarchs of England focussed their patronage mainly upon King’s College and lying next to it Queen’s College. Both contain some beautiful buildings. King’s College chapel would do as a cathedral in most other towns. It is one of the most sublimely beautiful buildings in Cambridge. Started in 1438 and completed 100 years later it is the emblem of Cambridge. Forget the Reuben’s painting at the alter valued at 20,000,000 – look instead at the wonderful fan-vaulted ceiling, the technological marvel of its age. A guided tour is well worth while as is attendance at a service when the choir sings.
Queen’s College Master’s lodge and the mathematical bridge. Try to visit the lodge for an open-air performance of a Shakespeare play in May week, in June. The Mathematical bridge was the first bridge in the World to be designed according to mathematical analysis of the forces in it.
Trinity College main gate and main courtyard. Over the gate there is a statue of King Henry VIII holding an orb and …a wooden chair leg. Get the story about the undignified chair leg by going on a guided tour of Cambridge organised by the tourist office.
Trinity chapel is worth a visit but not particularly for the architecture nor for the atmosphere nor for the choir but it’s worth visiting to see statues and plaques about some of its old-boys: Isaac Newton is probably best known but Lord Byron went there too with his pet bear. Trinity boasts more Nobel prize-winners than a certain major European nation so the list of old boys is impressive. King Henry’s influence lives-on!
Trinity gardens, overlooking the river, next to the Wren library during May week in June when a choir arrives to sing madrigals.
The view from the top of St John’s College Chapel.
The view from the top of Great St Mary’s Church – don’t be on the stairs when the bells are ringing!
The Erasmus building in St John’s College – this is the oldest surviving building in Cambridge but access to it is restricted.
The Fitzwilliam museum – one of the best art museums outside or inside of London. Great porcelain, Egyptian artefacts going back to about 4000 BC, kids will love the armour but don’t let them touch! Fantastic.
The museum in the New Cavendish Laboratory, Madingley Road. If you are a physicist you will enjoy sitting down at Maxwell’s old desk or seeing the vacuum tube used by JJ Thompson when the electron was discovered. The photographs of Cavendish people are worth looking at too. No crowds for this delightful, small museum.
Downing College. Spacious, quiet buildings with a grand design.
Magdalene College – beautiful gardens and buildings. The Samuel Pepys library is here but jealously guarded – don’t expect to get to see it.
Scott Polar Museum – worth a visit to see old arctic and antarctic memorabilia.
Sidgewick Museum on Pembroke Street – see those old dinosaur bones close-up.
Fitzbillie’s confectionery shop – get some of those famous sticky buns. You can even buy them boxed and ready to be posted.
Americans may want to visit Emmanuel College (outside the area shown on the walking map – east at the end Pembroke Street) because several famous Americans (then not famous Brits) went to settle in America after studying at Emma. For example William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) and Mr Harvard.
The ADC theatre (by Jesus Lane) is where many famous actors and comedians have started their careers. Try to see the Footlights review – preferably after it comes back from the Edinburgh festival (October) when the students have had a chance to hone their performances. Keep the programme and maybe in a few years you will see some names re-appear on television.
The roof of one of the bars in the Eagle pub has names and squadron names left by airmen stationed around Cambridge during the second World war – many American. The names were scorched-on using cigarette lighters. There are some pictures to see. If this is of interest then you should visit the American Cemetry outside Cambridge (Madingley – west of Cambridge 2 miles) and or the Imperial War Museum at Duxford (south of Cambridge about 15 miles by the M11).
The American cemetery outside Cambridge. Visit the cemetery and the unusual Chapel.
The Botanical gardens – in summer. A haven of peace and tranquillity – a good place to rest the feet.
The meadows between Silver Street Bridge and Fen Causeway. There are some nice footbridges to explore, water-fowl to admire, a good children’s open-air play area and a secluded swimming pool formerly for university dons (allegedley for nude bathing). Also a good place to rest and eat – watch out for cows. Unfortunately, the busy Fen Causeway cuts through the meadows.