One of the good things about going to Cambridge on a day trip or weekend break is that it’s quite small for a city.
In fact, it only became one in 1951. Before that, the Domesday Book of 1086 described Cambridge as an important trading centre, and since the Middle Ages it has continued to flourish right up until the present day.
You’ll probably know it best as the home to Cambridge University, which is one of the oldest in the world. It’s worth going inside one of the 31 colleges and nine public museums and collections that are connected to this famous seat of learning.
But there are lots of other things to do in Cambridge too, so here’s our guide to where to eat, drink and play.
Drinking in Cambridge
If the weather’s good, then a pint in the sunshine at The Mill Pub is a good place to start. While you watch the punts go past, you can sip one of their fine ales on tap. If it’s raining, then head into the main bar and listen to whatever tunes their vinyl radiogram is playing.
On the same road you’ll find the Kingston Arms. A strictly ‘no lager’ real ale pub long before it was fashionable, it’s still a fantastic place and has a great food menu.
For a bit of history, visit The Eagle, which is owned by Corpus Christi College. This is the pub where Francis Crick and James Watson went for a pint after discovering their DNA breakthrough. If you head to the RAF bar – look above – as it’s famous for its war graffiti on the ceiling.
For wine, Cambridge Wine Merchants on Bridge Street has a huge range to choose from and the option to drink in or takeaway.
The Varsity Hotel & Spa has a roof garden with views over the vity. Access is on a first come-first served basis, so if it’s a lovely day / evening get there early to avoid disappointment.
You could also have a go a creating your own concoction. The Master Distiller at The Cambridge Distillery, will take you through blind tastings and let you try seasonal ingredients to help you create a bottle of your own (by appointment only).
Independent coffee houses and cafes such as Caffè Sicilia will keep caffeine levels up, while the Chelsea Buns at Fitzbillies come highly recommended (by Stephen Fry no less) and you can also get a decent afternoon tea and weekend brunch here.
For some fine dining, Restaurant Alimentum is a One Michelin Star Restaurant with Chef Patron Mark Poynton at the helm, serving seasonal British food.
Midsummer House has a wonderful location, in a Victorian Villa on the banks of the River Cam, and while it doesn’t yet have a star, it’s run by Two Michelin Star chef, Daniel Clifford.
If you want to keep things more simple – here’s a list of picnic spots in Cambridge.
If you like browsing independent shops, Magadelen Street, Bridge Street and Rose Crescent are good places to start.
The All Saints Garden Art & Craft Market is open every Saturday and Market Square also has a craft and food market on Sundays. The Jamaican food stall, which sells cakes and authentic patties, is always a popular stop.
For high street shops, the Grand Arcade has a large John Lewis as well as Topshop and Apple stores.
Cambridge’s theatres and cinemas
The ADC Theatre is run by the University of Cambridge, and its famous Cambridge Footlights has been the starting point for lots of famous comics and actors.
If you want to time your visit with a festival, Cambridge City Council has a list of dates for your diary from a Folk Festival to the Midsummer Fair.
Visit the Arts Picturehouse for the latest releases, foreign language and art house films.
Visit Cambridge’s starring roles
The nearby village of Granchester was used as the backdrop for the 2015 ITV detective series of the same name. Situated within walking or cycling distance of the city, this is a chance to see a slice of Cambridgeshire village life.
While you’re there, pop into the Orchard Tea Garden. Bloomsbury author Virginia Woolf used to visit here for a cup of tea.
Oscar-winning film, The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and telling the story of the University of Cambridge Astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, recently used the city for location shooting.
Art galleries and museums
The Ruskin Gallery, part of the Anglia Ruskin University’s Cambridge campus, is famed for its digital technology. It’s open to the public and the exhibitions are free.
If you like your museums small but perfectly formed, the Fitzwilliam Museum has a particularly fine art collection.
For fossils, rocks and minerals, visit the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science. Look out for some of the original features in what was once the city’s most expensive and advanced building, such as the wooden carving of a woolly mammoth near the front door.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology‘s oldest object is a 1.8 million year old stone tool from Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. They have a particularly wide range of exhibits from the Pacific, (some gathered by Captain James Cook on his voyages).
The spirit of exploration is strong at the Scott Polar Research Institute, and they are the world leaders when it comes to the cold parts of the globe. Entry is free to the museum, which was founded by the university in tribute to Captain Robert Falcon Scott, RN after the tragic failure of his expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
The Centre for Computing History celebrates pioneers in modern technology and is home to more than 800 historic computers. Marvel at how far the digital world has come by looking at these old consoles, old-fashioned games collections and the first “mobile” phones.
Cambridge’s gardens and open spaces
One of the city’s nicest spots is the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. There are around 40 acres of gardens and more than 8000 different plant species to explore. It’s also where Charles Darwin trained (and they have a rather nice cafe).
Anglesey Abbey, Gardens and Lode Mill, is a Jacobean-style house with gardens and a working watermill and dates from the 18th Century. If you want to see industry and opulence combined, the National Trust has it covered here.
The area of Cambridge known as The Backs is where the University Colleges have land backing onto the River Cam. It’s a pleasant spot, and out of all the colleges, perhaps The Fellows Garden at Clare College is the most beautiful, with a famous herbaceous border planted in gold and blue.
Chapels and churches
Henry VI started building King’s College Chapel in 1446. Its Gothic features include the largest fan vault in the world (look above when you’re inside) and some exquisite medieval stained glass (removed during WWII for protection). The University choir still sing a daily Evensong in term-time.
St Peter’s Chapel might be the smallest church in Cambridge, but it is certainly the quaintest. Special features to look out for is the ancient stone font, with a quartet of mermen holding onto their tails and the unnamed gravestone shaped like a heart in the grounds.
You’ll see the 65m spire of the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs from across the city. Completed in the late 19th Century, intriguingly this was funded by a former ballet dancer at the Paris Opera and Drury Lane, London who married into money.
The poignant Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial spreads over 30 acres and is the resting place of nearly 3,000 American troops lost in battle (mainly the Battle of the Atlantic). A multi-media visitor centre opened in 2014 and explains more about the contribution the American military made during WWII.
Bridge of Sighs, St John’s College (c) VisitEngland/ Iain Lewis / Visit England
Riverside life: Punting and boat tours
What began as a gentile Edwardian pursuit is now one of the key attractions in Cambridge.
You can either hire your own punt or take a guided tour along the River Cam with an expert at the pole. Companies like Scudamore’s Punting Company (the oldest on the river) and The Cambridge Punt Company offer both types of trips.
You might also see members of the Cambridge University Boat Club (whose elite light blue team take on the dark blue of Oxford in the annual Boat Race) and other rowing clubs training on the river in preparation – and you can hire rowing boats to have a go behind the oars.
Alternatively you can hire a boat or take a boat tour, by narrow boat or by cruiser along the river
See Cambridge with a guided tour
With so many historic buildings, important colleges and famous residents – taking a tour might be the best way of finding out more about Cambridge on a day trip.
Cambridge Tour Guides have qualified guides and have a range of tours depending on your time scale.
While they can’t quite rival the nine million bicycles in Beijing, Cambridge has the largest number of cyclists in any local authority in England. It makes sense then to see the city from a local (or student perspective) – by saddle. Cambridge Bike Tours run a range of tours, including half and full day ones. They also have electric bikes and antique bikes if you want to change it up.
If you are feeling particularly energetic, there are running tours of the city to give you a slightly more sweaty sightseeing experience.
If our guide has inspired you, why not make your visit a longer one? We have plenty of hotels in Cambridge and the surrounding area to stay in.
You can be in Cambridge in just over 45 minutes from London by train via abellio greater anglia.
If you are driving, it can take an hour and a half (depending on traffic) – and the city has a Park and Ride facility.
Do you have any Cambridge tips?
Live in Cambridge or perhaps you’ve visited before? We’d love to hear what your favourite things to do in Cambridge are.
Please share your experiences and recommendations by leaving a comment below.