Destinations

24 Hours In Cambridge

Here’s our guide to a perfect day spent exploring this alluring city.
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Perhaps the archetypal university town, this jewel of a city is a melding of centuries-old architecture, picturesque college lawns (or Backs) and intriguing English history, all threaded together by the winding course of the River Cam. Students pack its pubs, punt along the river or trundle down the narrow, cobbled streets weighed down with books, just as many poets, prime ministers and scientists have before them. But although academia permeates the place, you don’t need to be a local or lecturer to fall in love with Cambridge’s charms. Here’s our guide to a perfect day spent exploring this alluring city.

9:30 AM Start early by stretching your legs and taking in the iconic architecture of the college cluster.

Cambridge’s many university colleges and their chapels are a major draw and a true wonder to walk around. Think ancient doorways, stately entrances and little snickets leading into hallowed lawns and historic colleges. And most are helpfully located on or close to St John’s Street. Begin at the Round Church on Bridge Street, the second oldest building in Cambridge, which dates back to the twelfth-century. Just to the south you’ll find Sidney Sussex College, where the head of Oliver Cromwell (a student at Sidney) is believed buried. Then head back up and follow St. John’s Street south on a long, 

looping line past St John’s gateway and the vast Great Court of Trinity College, founded by Henry VIII and counting nine prime ministers, 32 Nobel Prize winners and HRH the Prince of Wales among its alumni. On your way be sure to divert to see the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College and the Mathematical Bridge at Queen’s College. Note that the street’s name changes as you pass Trinity and the most majestic building of all – King’s College Chapel – before it eventually becomes Trumpington Street outside Pembroke College. Finish by strolling south until you reach the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Start early by stretching your legs
Start early by stretching your legs

 

10:30 AM Cambridge’s grand, glorious but ever-welcoming Fitz is a tranquil oasis of culture, ostentation and curation in a neoclassical pile. Built as one of the first public museums in Britain, today it brings together works from Leonardo Da Vinci, Monet, Millais – whose arresting portrait of the Hoare twins from 1876 is worth popping in for alone – with Egyptian sarcophagi,  Roman grave goods, armour, literary autographs and Cubist masterpieces. Give yourself two hours as there are treasures to slow your pace at every turn, not least in the building’s interior finery, which comes alive on a sunny day when the place is filled with light.

 

12:30 PM Duck out and stroll over the road to grab lunch at the cheekily titled Fitzbillies, a café, bakers and restaurant that retains its sumptuous Art Nouveau frontage, and equally delectable Chelsea buns – made here since 1921. Take a seat in the smart restaurant for substantial sandwiches, like steak on ciabatta with mushrooms and bone marrow, or squeeze onto the trestle table next door for a chicken salad and a sausage roll, washed down with a righteous iced tea. But wherever you sit, don’t leave without trying the cakes or – if in a rush – the Chelsea bun ice cream.

14:00 PM Make your way back up Trumpington Street a bit and take Little Saint Mary’s Lane to reach the river. By now you’ll probably have seen many punters. Standing on the end of shallow boats – or punts – with pole in hand, they attempt to push their way up and down the Cam, but frequently end up jack-knifed across the river or stuck under a bridge. A quicker, easier and far more graceful way to explore the Cam’s languid beauty is to hire a Canadian canoe and paddle the two miles down the willow-fringed banks to Grantchester for high tea. Along the way expect to dodge wild swimmers, the odd stranded punt and a few swans before the river quietens and you’re on one of the most delectable stretches of water in the country - a portal to another age.

Willows overhang the green depths; reeds fringe the side. You drift in every sense of the word. Moor up at Grantchester Meadows for a wild swim (the river deepens at the bend here), and then paddle a little further for a well-earned cuppa at The Orchard Tea Garden. It was here that the Grantchester Group of poets, painters, novelists and philosophers – including Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf and Augustus John – lived, visited and took tea in those heady days of elegance and optimism before the outbreak of The Great War. Visit the little museum and relax in the orchard as they did, taking afternoon tea and drinking in the sleepy sense of time standing still, before paddling back.

17:30 PM Evensong at the extraordinary King’s College Chapel should be on every visitor’s list. Nowhere in the city comes close for atmosphere or bewildering historical building-craft as this. It is unquestionably one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the UK. But if impressive on the outside, it is even more spectacular within: sixteenth-century stained glass  windows tower upwards to an 80m-long, fan-vaulted ceiling (the world’s largest), jewelled with astounding stonework. Begun by Henry VI, the chapel wasn’t finished until nearly a hundred years later by Henry VIII, but it remains a fitting stage for its world-famous choir, which sounds especially evocative around Christmas or during the enchanting, calming, candlelit service known as evensong. To experience the latter, arrive at 5pm and queue outside the college gates.  Services are free, last 45-minutes and are held at 5.30pm from Monday to Saturday, and at 10.30am and 3.30pm on Sunday.

18:45 PM Walk down Trumpington Street before cutting east across to Hills Road and dining at Alimentum a handsome, Michelin-starred restaurant that does homely but bold cooking at an affordable rate, with two course fixed menu for £20.50 before 7pm. Try the delicious chicken leg, truffle potato, apple and asparagus, followed by a pistachio parfait, white chocolate mousse and guava sorbet.

20:00 PM Go a little gothic after dinner by joining a wildlife trust expert on a twilight punting tour of the Cam to meet the river’s impressive array of bat-life (don’t worry – you’ll get chauffeur-driven this time). All along this rural, watery vein threading through the city bats fly in huge numbers in spectacular, skittering fly-pasts to hoover up the caddis and mayflies congregating under the willows and poplar trees. Armed with a bat detector, you can hear their amazing interwoven cacophonies converted from sonar into clicks and crackles and squeaks. It is
bat-song in full deafening voice, but switch off the detector and all is silent again to the ear – only the lapping of the water on the punt’s sides and the chuckle of the odd moorhen. It’s an otherworldly sensation and it gives an intriguing, unforgettable perspective on the city at night. Bat Safaris run weekly on a Friday from May to the end of September, departing from Granta Place boatyard.

21:30 PM Finish by heading to The Cambridge Blue on Gwydir Street for drinks. The Blue is a little back-street local pub that has a whopping selection of local and national ales (some tapped from the cask), over 200 extraordinary US craft beer and Belgian brews, as well as some impressive malt whiskies. The room is replete with brewery paraphernalia and pub signs and is the perfect for nook and cranny spot for relaxing after a long day. On a sunny evening the country-feel of its beer garden out back is a surprising treat too.

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