Last Updated on 14/09/2023 by secretmoona
If you are looking for a relaxing city break, consider the city of Cambridge. Many people know this charming city due to its prestigious university. While visiting the many colleges might be high on people’s itineraries, Cambridge is more than just a university town.
Thanks to its cobbled streets and pedestrianised city centre, Cambridge is vibrant with a charming vibe. In addition, Cambridge is one of the greenest cities, with River Cam running across the city. You have the perfect English picturesque town in sight.
There are so many things to see and do in Cambridge, however, we’ve put our favourite things together, allowing you to do as much as possible within your Cambridge day trip. The guide includes all the practical information to help you plan your trip, including its history, must-see attractions etc.
Disclosure: This post contains a few affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through my links!
A Brief History of Cambridge
Cambridge University was founded in 1209 and is the heart of the city. It is the second oldest university in the UK, after Oxford. There has been a rivalry between the two universities, and if both claim the title of the Best University, interestingly, Cambridge’s alumni have been awarded the most Nobel prizes than any other institution. These famous people are among some university alumni: the naturalist Charles Darwin, the writer Charles Dickens, the mathematician Isaac Newton and the physicist Stephen Hawking.
Cambridge is consistently ranked among the world’s top five most prestigious universities. It is made up of 31 colleges, all independent of each other. Students become members of these colleges where they live, eat, socialise and of course, study.
Cambridge Day Trip – Things to Do
Access to Cambridge’s colleges
It’s worth noting that access to most colleges is limited. However, you can visit some of these colleges (admission fee), which will allow you to stroll around the impressive grounds and see some parts of the college that you would typically not be allowed to see otherwise. I recommend checking in advance if there are any particular colleges you wish to visit to ensure they accept visitors. Some colleges only accept visitors sometimes. If your trip is primarily to visit the colleges, avoid going during exam periods and graduation time.
Walk through the Colleges
The top thing to do in Cambridge is, without a doubt, explore the University of Cambridge. As mentioned, you can admire the university colleges while walking and boat tours. But if you wish to get inside, you must tour the colleges.
The first on the list is Trinity College. Founded by Henry VIII, Trinity College is the largest and wealthiest college in all of Cambridge. The splendid Tudor architecture will impress you, as will learning that no less than 33 Nobel Prizes winners studied within its walls. In front of its main entrance, you will find an apple tree. Apparently, it’s the replica of the apple tree which was said to be the origin of the theory of gravity. The highlight of the visit to Trinity College is the Wren Library, one of the most magnificent in the world, and contains prestigious manuscripts such as Isaac Newton’s notebooks.
The second college to visit is Pembroke College. Founded in 1347, it is the third oldest and one of the largest in Cambridge. Walking around the grounds of the college is a must. The architecture and gardens of Pembroke College are stunning.
In the late afternoon, attend the Evensong at the King’s College Chapel. The ceremony has been going on for years and it’s the perfect occasion to admire the great vaults and magnificent stained glass windows while listening to music.
Obviously, all 31 colleges cannot be visited on a one-day trip, you will need to visit several times to see most of them. Nevertheless, here are the most famous:
- King’s College
- Queen’s College
- St. John’s College
- Christ’s College
- Trinity College
- Pembroke College
- Newnham College
- Corpus Christi College
Admire the view from St Mary the Great church
St Mary the Great is best known for being the official church of Cambridge University. That being said, the view it offers of all of Cambridge undoubtedly makes it one of the top things to do in Cambridge. Head to the top by climbing the 123 narrow stairs after paying a small admission fee. Once at the top, you will be rewarded with an unobstructed view of Cambridge and its beautiful architecture. Take some time to check the church’s interior, especially the stained glass windows. Tickets cost £6 per adult and £4 for those under 16s.
Take a walking tour
A walking tour is a must for those who wish to learn more about the town’s history and colleges. Several types of tours are offered, but I recommend attending one led by alumni of the university of Cambridge. It’s not only a great way to discover the history of the colleges and other sites, but you will learn about personal stories and interesting anecdotes that only people who live inside closed doors know about! Prices will depend on the type and length of the tours.
You can do it on your own too. The city is beautiful with lots of green spaces. Wander around the cobblestone streets while admiring the beautiful architecture. Just be careful not to be hit by a bike. Just like Amsterdam, they always seem to pop up out of nowhere. Walking a little further away from the city will take you to amazing scenery. Walking along the river or in one of the many parks is refreshing.
Grab a bite at Market Square
If you are wondering where to grab something to eat after sightseeing, head to Market Square. The stalls will offer locally sourced products, anything from sweet to savoury snacks. As well as pastries, you can purchase souvenirs, books, clothing, flowers, fruits and vegs.
Other places to visit during your day trip to Cambridge
- The Eagle – Oldest pub in Cambridge
- Old Bicycle Shop – Housed in a former bike shop this restaurant is great for brunch.
- The Anchor Pub – Located by River Cam, it offer good food the the perfect spot punt-watching
- The Espresso Library & Hot Numbers – For your caffeine fix
- Fitzbillies – To taste the famous sticky Chelsea buns
Catch a glimpse of the Corpus Clock
Located at the corner of Benet Street and Trumpington Street, the Corpus Clock is one of the most interesting things to see in Cambridge. This unusual clock was designed and built by John C. Taylor, an alumnus of the university. At the top of the gold clock is a giant-looking grasshopper known as a “chronophage”, a “time eater”. As the giant insect moves, it only gives an accurate time every 5 minutes. People don’t look at it to get the time but admire the incredible art installation.
Go shopping at the Grand Arcade
If you are looking for that special present to bring home, head to the Grand Arcade for some shopping. The shopping centre has many high-street shops and restaurants. There will also be some independent shops along the cobbled streets. The market also has some art and crafts stalls offering artisan products, vintage clothing, and food. Be sure to stop by for some browsing. Don’t forget to stop by the famous Cambridge Satchel shop.
See the famous bridges
While taking a boat tour, you will pass through many bridges connecting both sides of the river. If some are very low, others are historic bridges. The most famous of those bridges is the Mathematical Bridge or Wooden Bridge (its official name). It is located outside of Queen’s College. This bridge is famous because it was allegedly built without the need for any nuts or bolts and relied solely on specific equations to ensure its strength. The story goes that students or fellows took the bridge apart but failed to put it back together. This fact and the myth that Issac Newton was the engineer are false, but the lie makes a great story. What, however, is true is that the bridge is an exciting design. You will pass under the bridge during your boat tour, if not, you can admire it from Bridge Street.
My favourite of all the bridges in Cambridge is the Bridge of Sighs, by St John’s College. Apparently, it was Queen Victoria’s favourite too. This covered bridge is named after another bridge in Venice. Anyone who likes architecture will appreciate this Victorian Gothic bridge constructed in the 19th century. Although popular with visitors, few know the bridge’s official name: New Bridge.
Go on a walk around the backs
As mentioned before, most colleges are lined up alongside the Cam River, which you can discover while punting. Although access to some of these is limited, you can still take a lovely walk along the “backs” of the colleges. The patch connecting St John’s Trinity, King’s College and Queen’s College are beautiful, especially on a summer day. Walking along the backs is another way to watch people punting, in case getting on one isn’t your thing.
Take a Tour of the Fitzwilliam Museum
Often compared to the British Museum in London, the Fitzwilliam Museum was one of the highlights of my trip to Cambridge.
You don’t need to go inside to be amazed by it – its massive neoclassical pillars alone are worth a detour. Inside, you will be welcomed by two impressive staircases leading visitors to the different galleries. You will spend at least an hour wandering through the various rooms.
The museum houses an extensive collection of antiquity and at least half a million works of art, including historical artefacts. You will also find an impressive collection of Roman and Egyptian artefacts, such as the granite sarcophagus lid found in Rameses III’s tomb.
You will find more modern art in the upper galleries, including watercolours by Turner, paintings of Picasso, William Blake, Da Vinci and others.
Fitzwilliam is not the only museum in the city, there are several others worth visiting, each offering free admission:
- Museum of Zoology – All about nature, animals and Charles Darwin. The museum has countless specimens, from big animals like elephants to insects and molluscs.
- Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences – Visit this museum if you want to learn all about geology. The oldest museum in Cambridge (it was established in 1728), the Sedgwick Museum, is home to an impressive collection of fossils, minerals and rock samples.
- Whipple Museum of History of Science – Just like the name indicates it’s a science museum. It houses lots of objects such as models, instruments, etc. Like the Zoology museum, it’s a great place to take your kids along.
- Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology – This museum centres around people and objects made and used by people throughout the centuries. It has an impressive collection of artefacts.
- Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute – You can increase your knowledge of the Artics by learning all about polar adventure, exploration and survival.
Although the museums are free, you must book online in advance. Please be aware that most museums are closed on Mondays. You can find more about the opening hours here.
Go on a punting tour along River Cam
A trip to Cambridge wouldn’t be complete without punting along the river. The River Cam (hence the name Cambridge) flows through the city and partly runs behind the university’s colleges. Punting is the most popular and best way to see the city since the boat passes through many notable and historic sites.
Since access to these landmarks, such as Trinity College and St John’s College, is limited, the boat tour allows you to see the grounds known as the backs.
But what is a punt, you may ask? It’s a small boat which typically seats 1 to 6 people and is steered upright with the help of a long pole. It’s a fun and relaxing way to discover the city leisurely, and you can do it in two ways (or three):
- Book a punting tour which a Cambridge student usually does. This is ideal for those who wish to relax and have someone else do the work for them. These expert punters will guide you through the Cam River while telling you information about the city. Even though we had already heard some of the stories from the walking tour the night before, we learned a few other things. The guide made it fun by adding some personal stories. You can either book a shared or private tour. The boats will have hot water bottles and blankets in chilly weather to keep you warm. Tours last 45 minutes, you can book your private or shared punting tours via Scudamores or Let’s Go Punting.
- Hire a punt and try to master the art of pushing the boat down the river without bumping into another boat, falling into the river or losing your pole. This is best if you want to do it alone at your own pace or simply don’t want to share the boat with people you don’t know.
- You won’t discover many attractions this way, but you will have lots of fun watching people try to avoid falling into the water. Sit comfortably on one of the many benches and watch for hours as people navigate the peaceful river.
Kettle’s Yard Gallery
Kettle’s Yard is a contemporary art gallery inside the former home of art collector couple Jim and Helen Ede. The permanent collection has paintings and sculptures from the founder, who was once the curator at the Tate Modern. They also have several temporary exhibitions.
The time of our visit coincided with the exhibition “Paint Like the Swallow Sings Calypso“, themed around Carnival. We were lucky to have had a tour from the gallery’s curator. It was exciting learning not only about the artists whose work was displayed but also the work of a curator and how they interact with artists. The Kettle’s Yard was definitely a highlight.
Stop by the gift shop with lots of lovely selections and the cafe for a nice break before returning to continue your visit. Entry is free but is sure to book your ticket in advance, you can book here.
Go see the Round Church
If you have time, see the oldest building in Cambridge. Modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Round Church, named due to its rounded architecture, is worth a visit. It is one of the only four medieval round churches still in use in England.
If you decide to go inside, you will find the “Cambridge Story Exhibition” detailing the story of Cambridge from Roman times.
It is easily missed due to its small size, surrounded by immense buildings, so be sure to pay attention, it is located on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street. There is a £3.50 entrance fee.
Why not end your trip to Cambridge with a short stroll in the botanical garden since it’s closer to the train station? Founded in 1831, the Cambridge University Botanic Garden is one of the most beautiful gardens in the United Kingdom. Not only is the garden attractive, but by taking a stroll, you will be able to admire more than 8,000 types of plants from all over the world. They are used to assist with teaching and research. The garden is so big (40 hectares) that you can easily spend hours there. However, if you need more time, pick a leaflet and follow one of the several self-guided paths that will take you straight to the area you want to see, such as the glass houses.
Map of Things to Do in Cambridge
All the things to do In Cambridge mentioned in this guide are on the below map.
When to visit Cambridge
Cambridge is a small city and therefore can be visited within a day. For that reason, Cambridge makes a great day trip from London, however, I recommend your stay at least the night. Weekdays are generally less crowded, however, be sure to check that your travel date doesn’t fall on days when attractions are closed.
If you can come the night before, you can spend a few hours exploring the city after the horde of tourists have left. The atmosphere is then more authentic.
Cambridge can be appreciated in all seasons:
- Spring: Ideal for a stroll in the city and punting, visiting during spring is best for enjoying nature. Be aware that although Cambridge is not all about the colleges, visiting the colleges is one of the main attractions. Final exams usually take place between April and June. So, access to the colleges will be limited during the examination time. However, if you time it well, you could be there while students celebrate their graduations.
- Summer: As the city empties its students, they are replaced by tourists. It’s the busiest time of the year, but the longer daylight hours give you more time to spend in Cambridge. Besides, going on a punting boat on a sunny day with a picnic basket is cool, right?
- Autumn: The city, especially the gardens, is the most beautiful during autumn as the leaves change to bright orange and red.
- Winter: Cambridge is generally quieter during November and January. Note, though, that the city is the coldest and rainiest in winter.
- The time between Christmas and New Year is to be avoided as the colleges will be closed.
How to get around Cambridge
Getting around the city centre is simple, you can do so on foot, by buses, taxis or bikes. The train station is about a 15 to 20-minute walk. Consider a day ticket if you plan to use public transport several times.
Where is Cambridge, and how to get there?
Cambridge is located about 97 km (60 miles) north of London and takes about 50 minutes to get there by train. It is also located less than 2 hours away from Oxford.
You can get to the city cheaper by coach, which takes about 2 hours or faster by car via the M11 or A1. Having said that, anyone travelling from London to Cambridge is better off taking the train. Traffic can be hectic coming back to London, so the train is the hassle-free option.
When leaving from London, you can choose three stations: Kings Cross, St Pancras or Liverpool Street Station. Travel time is about 50 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes, and the price also changes depending on the travel time and booking. You have two stations on the Cambridge side: Cambridge Station and Cambridge North Station. I recommend stopping at Cambridge station as it is closer to the main attractions.
Where to stay in Cambridge
Although Cambridge makes the perfect day trip from London, if you want to stay longer to explore more, here are some options.
I hope you enjoyed this guide to the best things to do in Cambridge. Obviously it doesn’t cover everything since it was based on our recent trip. If we have missed any of your favourite things to do in Cambridge, let us know in the comments. Alternatively, please ask if you are planning a Cambridge day trip and have any questions.