Gowned students attending their graduations and freshers whizzing past the grand college facades on their bikes—the university is Cambridge's lifeblood. But the city has a strong local vibe too, with streets full of independent shops, pop-up food events, music and movies, microbreweries, and a tribe of artisan food trucks. And for outdoor enthusiasts, the ancient fenland and sparkling river are perfect for exploring.
Walk the Hallowed Halls
Few places in the world have created as many notable graduates as Cambridge University. Whether you’re visiting for a week or a weekend, make sure to see some of the 31 colleges. Not all are open to the public—and those that are still close for exams and events—so check at the porter’s lodge when you arrive.
King’s College Chapel is the jewel in the university’s crown. The stained-glass windows alone took 30 years to install, and the fan-vaulted ceiling is a jaw-dropping feat of building and design.
At Magdalene, visit the Pepys library, a feature of the college since 1724. As well as Pepys’s diaries, the library has a copy of the Canterbury Tales from 1483, and an almanac believed to be signed by Francis Drake.
At Trinity, visit the 343-year-old Wren Library, a vast store of knowledge and history, some of which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times. Don’t miss the handwritten notebook of poems belonging to Milton among the items on display.
Other highlights include Trinity College Chapel, which has a light-filled antechapel full of marble statues of the college’s alumni including Alfred Tennyson and Isaac Newton.
Discover a Classic English Country House
Around an hour by train or 30 minutes by bus is Audley End House, one of the best surviving Jacobean mansion houses in Britain. Built for entertaining royalty including James I, it has an opulent interior, with 18th-century furnishings and old master paintings, and sweeping grounds designed by Capability Brown.
There are plenty of ingredients here for a great day out and lots for children to enjoy, including a reconstructed Victorian kitchen and scullery, a working stable block, and costumed characters bringing the history to life.
Voyage Into the Deep
The Museum of Zoology's collection dates back to 1814 and contains some astonishing items, including a skeleton of a 10,000-year-old elephant-sized sloth, and a 146-million-year-old fossilized bird. Specimens Darwin collected during his voyage on HMS Beagle are also on display. Cleverly designed to capture visitors’ imagination, whale skeletons float in mid-air and shoals of fish are projected on the ceiling, as if you are at the bottom of the sea. Reopened by Sir David Attenborough in 2018 after a 4.1 million pound redevelopment it will delight both children and adults. Admission is free.
Take to the River
Peacefully winding its way through the city, the River Cam is one of Cambridge's main assets. Tourists punt along the "backs" for views of the colleges across manicured lawns, but this can be pricey and crowded. Instead, hire a kayak or a canoe and paddle to Grantchester. The two-hour journey takes you alongside woodland and water meadows, and you might spot a heron, pheasant, or an otter. Take out British Canoeing membership, and you can paddle as far as Ely in around four hours.
Do Some Retail Therapy
Cambridge has many independent shops where you can find unique clothes, artwork, and gifts. Stop by ethical jewelry pioneer Harriet Kelsall on Green Street to see some of her goldsmiths working on commissions. Swing by the Cambridge Satchel Company in St Mary’s Passage for colorful bags that have been featured in Vogue. Have a look around Cambridge Contemporary Art on Trinity Street, which sells ceramics, glassware, prints, and paintings—some of them by local artists.
Honor Fallen Heroes
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During World War II, thousands of Americans served in some of the riskiest missions of the war, including the Battle of the Atlantic and the aerial bombing of Germany. Nearly 4,000 of them are buried at Cambridge’s Madingley American Cemetery—more than a quarter of them from the legendary eighth air force. The only American World War II military cemetery in Britain, it has a 472-feet-long stone "Wall of the Missing" memorial to another 5127 missing veterans. In the visitor's center, an exhibition brings the story to life. Admission is free, and guided tours can be arranged. Get there on the Citi 4 bus.
Channel Your Inner Explorer
Excavations around Cambridge have uncovered everything from Iron Age hill forts to Bronze Age burial grounds. Many of the findings are on display in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology—as well as objects from far-flung corners of the earth.
On the ground floor, don’t miss the Trumpington Cross, a gleaming gold and garnet cross found at an Anglo-Saxon burial site in Trumpington Meadows, on the body of a 16-year-old girl. On the first floor, you’ll find a 26-foot totem pole from the Queen Charlotte Islands, and a dugout canoe, used for explorations of Papua New Guinea, which is suspended from the ceiling because it’s so long. Admission is free, and there’s also a small shop with gifts inspired by the collections.
Eat Your Way Around the World
Away from the colleges in the Victorian part of the city, Mill Road is packed full of interesting restaurants and foodie shops. Dine at Lagona for authentic Lebanese cuisine, Athithi for Indian food, Vanderlyle for all things seasonal and plant-based, and Tradizioni for inexpensive Italian. As well as restaurants, you’ll also find Chinese, Korean and Middle Eastern supermarkets stocking huge tubs of curry paste, jars of kimchi, zaatar spice, tinned jackfruit, giant olives, goat cheese, and even specialties like kibbeh.
Go On a Church Crawl
Cambridge is full of old churches charting centuries of history. Great St. Mary’s on Senate House Hill is where the university first delivered lectures before the colleges were built. Climb the 114-foot tower for spectacular views of King’s Parade and the market. St. Benet’s, which will celebrate its 1,000-year birthday in 2020, has a Saxon tower from 1020, which is the oldest structure in the city. On Bridge Street, the Norman Round Church is one of only four similar-shaped churches in the U.K.
Ignite Your Curiosity
If you like weird and wonderful objects, you'll love the Whipple Museum. Dedicated to the history and philosophy of science, the museum’s collection includes one of Darwin’s telescopes and a particle accelerator from 1936. There are shining instruments for mapping the skies, intricate astrolabes (models of the universe), sundials, and globes. One of the oddest items on display is an E-meter, used by the Church of Scientology to supposedly read thoughts. Housed in a 400-year-old building on Free School Lane, the main hall has a rare Jacobean open timber-beamed roof. You can see the whole collection in a couple of hours and admission is free.
Try a Local Tipple
As well as experiencing a gin boom, in recent years, England has seen the popularity of its wines and beers blossom. Cambridge is no exception; there is a small but dynamic craft beer scene, and several distilleries and vineyards in the area.
Gin lovers should head to the Gin Lab on Green Street for a gin cocktail made with gin created by the award-winning Cambridge distillery in Grantchester. Oenophiles can open a bottle of English sparkling wine at the Bridge Street Wine Bar, or pay a visit to Chilford Hall vineyard in Linton. For local beer try the Cambridge Brew House, a lively pub-cum-microbrewery, or Calverley's, which has a taproom on weekends.
Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Cambridge is surrounded by countryside and villages. Cycle or walk the Fen Rivers Way, running for 50 miles to Kings Lynn through the Fens—ancient marshes dotted with farms and full of wildlife. Walk the Lodes Way, an eight-mile track through the Lodes, man-made waterways used to transport goods in medieval times. Or take the Wimpole Way through Anglo-Saxon villages to the 18th-century Wimpole Estate. Bikes can be hired from Rutland Cycling or City Cycle Hire for a day, a week or longer.