How to Spend 24 Hours in Cambridge, England

Staying in a bed and breakfast is a great option when visiting the history-rich city of Cambridge
Staying in a bed and breakfast is a great option when visiting the history-rich city of Cambridge | © charles best / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Annie Hopkins
21 August 2020

If you’re visiting Cambridge but short on time, have no fear: you can catch many of the highlights of this British city in just a day. Luckily, the River Cam flows down the western edge of the city, allowing you to take in lots of the best attractions (such as the historic university buildings, finely crafted bridges and vibrant greenery) from the comfort of a bobbing punt. Once you’re back on dry land, there are gardens, parks and museums galore, plus a hearty food scene and plenty of intimate pubs and cocktail spots to choose from. Here is Culture Trip’s guide to spending 24 hours in Cambridge.

Kick off with a Stickybeaks granola and coffee

Restaurant, Coffee Shop, European, Tea , Contemporary, $$$
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With top-class coffee and tangy juices to start your day in the right way, Stickybeaks is a lovely place to brunch. Their crunchy granola is served in photogenic mason jars, and each table is adorned with fresh floral blooms, meaning your followers will totally forgive you for the agreeable Instagram spam.

Visit the Round Church

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Church of the Holy Sepulchre (The Round Church), Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England, United Kingdom
© Efrain Padro / Alamy Stock Photo

Not far from your breakfast spot is the Round Church. Officially known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it’s a Grade I listed building dating back to 1130. The church’s upper storey, built above the nave, has a glorious conical spire on top, making this a pretty unique space to explore.

Book in for a punt along the Cam

Natural Feature
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It may be cliché, but no visit to Cambridge (however brief) should be without a leisurely punt on its famous river. There are plenty of high-quality boat tour companies on offer to help you stay afloat. Try Let’s Go Punting for the friendly service and flexibility of a smaller business. Hop into one of their tartan-lined punts and let your Beatrix Potter fantasy commence (or whatever fantasy you may have involving ducklings and riverbanks).

Admire the Bridge of Sighs

Bridge, University
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This covered bridge across the 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 that it’s covered, there’s still an undeniable romance about its ornate stonework. You’ll float beneath it as your punt sails south.

Check out the university buildings

University, Bridge
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Spread out on either side of the River Cam are the magnificent Cambridge University buildings. You’ll see parts of these historic monuments from the river, but you may also choose to stop off and have a proper wander around (many of the buildings are open to the public, offering access to admire the fine architecture) or explore inside. St John’s College is worth a look, with its fairytale crenellations, while at Trinity College you’ll find a statue of Henry VIII holding a table leg instead of a sword. Various myths seem to surround the exact reason why, but it makes for a fun talking point, right?

Visit King's College Chapel

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Widely believed to be one of England’s finest examples of perpendicular gothic architecture, along with St George’s Chapel in Windsor, King’s College Cambridge is a sublime place to be. With the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world and some dazzling examples of medieval stained glass, it will have you gazing heavenwards to drink in its daunting beauty.

Wander along the Backs

Natural Feature
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Tourists punting on The Backs, Cambridge
© charles best / Alamy Stock Photo

Though you’ll pass this way on your punt, you can also enjoy the Backs on foot. For a fabulous walk incorporating the university buildings and their impeccably manicured lawns, as well as the River Cam and its various bridges, take a stroll here. With grazing cattle to be spotted all along this picturesque stretch of reclaimed land, this is a cracking angle from which to admire the colleges that touch the water’s edge.

Refuel with a Fitzbillies Chelsea bun

Cafe, Restaurant, European, Tea , $$$
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The new Fitzbillies restaurant and cafe in Bridge Street Cambridge UK at dusk with interior lights glowing
© Julian Eales / Alamy Stock Photo

The highest-calorie thing to do in Cambridge is to drop into the fantastic Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street and feast on one of their famous Chelsea buns. These sticky-sweet snacks have been on sale here since 1921 and make for an ideal riverside energy boost when your punting enthusiasm begins to wane. There are now also branches of Fitzbillies on Bridge Street and Clifton Road serving coffees, cakes and tasty bacon rolls.

Hit up the museums

Art Gallery, Building, Museum
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British Art Gallery, Fitzwilliam Museum
© Damien Vickers / Courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum
Once you’ve made it down river and are buzzing from the syrupy glaze of your bun, there are several great museums in Cambridge you ought to check out. The famous Fitzwilliam Museum was once declared “one of the greatest art collections of the nation and a monument of the first importance” and was founded when Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion donated his collection of art to the university. Then there’s the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Polar Museum is also very cool – get it? Corny puns aside, there’s plenty here to satisfy museum lovers.

Visit the Corpus Clock

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This enormous, embellished 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.

Explore the Botanic Garden

Botanical Garden
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cambridge university botanic gardens, england
© David Burton / Alamy Stock Photo

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 that are home to all kinds of flowers and shrubs, making this park a blooming lovely itinerary option for a sunny Cambridge afternoon.

Watch the cows grazing on Midsummer Common

Natural Feature
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Cambridge blocked with punts as people watch the firework display
© Geoffrey Robinson / Alamy Stock Photo
One of Cambridge’s most delightful eccentricities is the fact that its parks are frequented by gentle cows nibbling on the grass. In 2006, a herd of residential cows was introduced to Midsummer Common, and the bovine beauties there now even have their own Twitter account: @CambridgeCow.

Dine at the Pint Shop

Gastropub, Pub Grub, Beer, Wine, Cocktails, British, $$$
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You know where you stand at the Pint Shop when you hear the tag line: ‘Meat. Bread. Beer.’ With a charcoal grill and coal-baked flatbreads bursting with flavoursome fillings, there is plenty to feast on as a reward for your busy day out in Cambridge. Try the Overnight Pork Belly and the Coal Flaked Flatbread Kebab, and get ready to loosen those belt buckles. Craft beers, sumptuous wines and some moreish veggie options are on offer too.

See some live music at the Portland Arms

Pub, British, $$$
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Head along and take in some brilliant live music at the well-loved Portland Arms. This traditional pub has managed to preserve its chilled-out vibe, with plenty of locals making up the regular guest list. The Portland Arms finely balances this low-key feel with a cool, alternative feel. From grungy guitars to hip-hop and electronica, you can check out all kinds of music at this Cambridge favourite.

Treat yourself to a cocktail at NOVI

Deli, British, $$$
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Offering coffee, brunch and smoothies by day, Cambridge’s fancy NOVI morphs into the chicest spot in town at night. Deliciously mixed cocktails and fine craft beers grace the menu at this trendy spot, whose interior manages to be simultaneously fashionable and off-beat. The living roof terrace lets you enjoy your tipple surrounded by potted plants and foliage, so you can end your evening in style.

These recommendations were updated on August 21, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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