An esteemed university city with bags of history and a river running through its heart, Cambridge is England’s finest holiday spot if you’re looking for culture, academia and charm all in one place. With striking university buildings packed with history, a pleasant climate and leisurely lawns, falling for Cambridge is as easy as falling off a punt. Easier, in fact. Read on for Culture Trip’s pick of the 25 must-visit attractions in Cambridge, England.
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Cambridge University Buildings
Of course, Cambridge is famed internationally for its world-class university. Attended by some of the country’s top writers, actors, comedians and politicians, the college is set in magnificent grounds. Dating back to the 12th century and including examples of the earliest patterned brickwork in England, the various colleges of this world-renowned establishment are dotted around the city and should be high on your must-do list for fabulous Cambridge.
The River Cam
This attractive body of water flows through Cambridge into the Great Ouse, and is usually dotted with pretty punts and small boats. With Byron’s Pool named after the poet Lord Byron, who is said to have swum there, and its waters the apparent subject of a speech from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Cam has clearly made an impression on England’s literary masters. Picnic on its riverbanks, cross King’s College Bridge, go angling or, of course, take a punt.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Cambridge University’s art and antiquities museum makes for a fascinating day out. Once declared “one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance”, the museum was founded when Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion donated his collection of art to the university. The brilliantly diverse collection includes arms, coins, and Cypriot, Greek and Egyptian art by Degas, Reubens and Gainsborough, among countless others. Many consider it the finest small museum in all of Europe.
The Bridge of Sighs
This covered bridge across the swirling River Cam was built in 1831 and connects the Third Court at St John’s College Cambridge with the New Court. Though it doesn’t have much in common with its Venetian namesake aside from the fact it’s covered, there’s still an undeniable romance about its ornate stonework.
This enormous embellished metal clock hangs at street level outside Cambridge’s Corpus Christi College. One of the city’s most remarkable monuments, the clock was constructed by John C Taylor (OBE) and inaugurated in 2008. With a face made entirely of gold, a metal grasshopper called the Chronophage or ‘time-eater’ sitting above it and an undulating ripple design – which suggests the expansion of the universe after the Big Bang, the clock is a truly unique asset to Cambridge.
The American Cemetery and Memorial
This cemetery comprises just over 12ha (30 acres) of neat green lawns, dedicated to the memory of those who were killed in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the strategic air bombardment of Northwest Europe. With the remains of some 3,812 people buried at this peaceful spot, the cemetery is a sobering place to remember those who fought and died in past wars. The visitor centre has many compelling personal stories and photographs that paint a vivid picture of those who gave their lives.
Cambridgeshire Wine School
If fine wines are your thing, head along to Cambridgeshire Wine School for a lively evening of wine tasting. Not only will you sample delightful wines from Europe and even further afield, you’re bound to make some fabulous new friends, too. Choose evenings dedicated to Italian tipples, South American or Portuguese recipes. There’s even a cheese and wine event if you’re a fan of fancy fromage.
The Round Church
Officially known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Round Church is a Grade I-listed building dating back to 1130. Its pretty rotunda structure is formed of stone. The church’s upper storey, built above the nave, has a glorious conical spire on top, making this a unique space to explore.
Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences
If this list has already got you thinking Cambridge rocks, let us dig a little deeper and recommend a geology museum that’s pure gold. The oldest of Cambridge University’s museums, it was founded in 1728 and is now home to around 2 million minerals, fossil and rocks.
The Mathematical Bridge
This pretty wooden footbridge is another gorgeous spot at which to breathe in a little of Cambridge’s chilled-out charm. This Grade II-listed building, designed by William Etheridge and built by James Essex in 1749, takes its name from the arrangement of its timbers at certain tangents to create its arching shape. There is a myth that Sir Isaac Newton built the bridge without the help of any nuts or bolts, which, though untrue, makes a cheeky anecdote to share with your travel buddy as you stroll across.
OK, this one isn’t technically in Cambridge, but it makes for a brilliant day trip during your stay. Dating back to 1083, it is built in the monumental Romanesque style and its central octagonal tower attracts some 250,000 visitors every year. Take a moment to gaze up at the church’s captivating ceilings and dazzling stained glass.
Definitely the highest calorie thing to do in Cambridge is to drop into the delightful Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street and feast on one of their famous Chelsea Buns. These sticky-sweet snacks have been on sale here since 1920 and make for an ideal riverside energy boost when your punting enthusiasm begins to wane. There’s now a second branch of Fitzbillies on Bridge Street – serving coffees, cakes and tasty bacon rolls.
Another beautifully kempt lawn space, the 10-ha (25-acre) common Parker’s Piece is known as the birthplace of association football as it was here that the Cambridge Rules were first put to use in 1848. It also played host to fancy cricket matches between 1817 and 1864. A pleasant place for a walk or your own mini cricket match (top tip: dogs make excellent fielders).
Cambridge University Botanic Garden
This dreamy 16-ha (40-acre) garden is alive with an incredible variety of plant species from all over the world. There are also several glasshouses – home to all kinds of flowers and shrubs – making this park a blooming lovely option for a sunny Cambridge afternoon.
This absolutely glorious country house and former priory was bought by the aristocratic Broughton siblings, Lord Fairhaven and his brother Henry, in 1926. Located just outside Cambridge, in the idyllic village of Lode, the building is now home to the eccentric lord’s vast collection of clocks, ornaments and silverware. A fabulously nostalgic day out.
Billed as an intimate, family-run zoo, this place offers the chance to get up close and personal with a diverse and colourful collection of exotic animals. Tapirs, zebras, tigers, kangaroos – every animal lover will enjoy visiting this well-kept sanctuary.
For a beautiful walk incorporating the university buildings and their impeccably manicured lawns, and the River Cam and its various bridges, take a stroll along The Backs. With grazing cattle to be spotted all along this picturesque stretch of reclaimed land, this is a cracking angle from which to admire those colleges that touch the water’s edge.
For a sprinkle of culture, head along to Kettle’s Yard, a gorgeous Cambridge house filled with a collection of 20th-century art, which also has its own contemporary gallery. There are exhibitions on display for much of the year and events including study days, art workshops and music recitals.
Imperial War Museum Duxford
As well as an enormous airfield, this museum also boasts a collection of 200 vintage aircraft (including Concorde and the Spitfire), which have been carefully restored to their hey-day glory and are displayed proudly from floor to ceiling at what is the largest aviation museum in Europe. You have to travel a short distance out of Cambridge to reach it (either by bus or car) but it’s well worth the extra time it takes to get here.
King’s College Chapel
Widely believed to be one of England’s finest examples of perpendicular gothic architecture along with the astounding St George’s Chapel in Windsor, King’s College Cambridge is an unbelievable place to be. With the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world and some dazzling examples of medieval stained glass, you’ll find yourself gazing heaven-wards to drink in its daunting beauty.
There are, of course, numerous bookshops all over Cambridge, but Heffers is very special. For starters, it’s 144 years old, and has been a mainstay in bookselling since it first opened, providing a central place for students across all the colleges to buy books. Though it has been renovated many times, the core architecture is still intact, and it features a huge collection of books of all kinds, as well as one of the largest stocks of board games of any book shop in the country.
If you want to relax with a drink and watch the world go by, NOVI is the bar for you. Facing onto Regent Street – Cambridge’s longest and most central road – it serves arguably the best cocktails anywhere in Cambridge (the espresso martini is a highlight) and serves a diverse menu of interesting food. The open-plan setting means that you can get a clear view of the busy street outside without ever leaving the building.
A National Trust site just outside of the city, Wimpole Estate has been continuously occupied for over 2,000 years, and is now largely open to the public. The explorable grounds include the gardens, parkland and farm. The gardens surround the grounds of the enormous Wimpole Hall. It has been the home of many significant families through the years, and you can learn all about its fascinating heritage while exploring the grounds, as well as meeting the various animals that reside on the farm.
There are a few open-air markets around Cambridge, but FoodPark is special in that it occupies different places depending on the day of the week, as well as playing host to different food vendors. It’s open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, rotating between Eddington, the Science Park and other spots. All the traders are local, independent, and you can try all kinds of interesting twists on established meals.
The Eagle Pub
Higher education has changed a lot since the Cambridge colleges first appeared, but one thing remains true – students like to drink. The Eagle has stood proud in the city since 1667, when it was called The Eagle and Child, and quickly became the favoured watering hole of local scholars. Many famous scientists have visited over the years, and famously it is where James Watson hit upon the double helix idea – now the most well-known representation of DNA strands. The pub is still open, and the walls are covered with pictures of famous former patrons.
Additional reporting by Callum Davies
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