It’s very easy to follow the formula for a lovely daytrip to Cambridge. It goes something like this: you arrive at the train station, realise how far it is from the city centre, so wait for a bus that is late and slow. When you finally get there, the centre seems a bit generic; after all, in 2010 it had a greater proportion of chain stores than any other shopping district in the UK. You head towards historic King’s Parade, hoping to explore the real Cambridge, but when you try to visit the world-famous King’s College, you’re denied entry. Apparently there are some very important exams taking place in there, meaning visitors are absolutely banned. Cambridge: A local’s guide
You’re disheartened, so you buy a coffee from one of the overpriced cafés on King’s Parade and visit the university outfitters on the corner. You debate whether or not to buy a ‘CAMBRIDGE’ hoodie to remind you of your lovely day there, but they’re a bit overpriced as well. On your way out the shop, you’re collared by a ‘tout’, who persuades you to go‘punting’on the river. This pastime involves wielding a very long pole in order to push a very long boat down the slightly gross river (seriously, don’t let the water anywhere near orifices or open wounds; people have contracted Weil’s disease from the River Cam.) Punting does afford excellent views of the most renowned colleges, but it’s hard to appreciate them when your boat is perpendicular to the bank, blocking the whole river, while your pole is stuck in the mud five feet away and people are crashing into you as though challenging you to a water-top game of dodgems. Cambridge: A local’s guide
By the time you’re done, you’re hungry, and you’ve heard that there’s a famous pub nearby, where James Watson and Francis Crick went after they discovered DNA, ‘the secret of life’(they didn’t invite Rosalind Franklin, the woman who did a lot the groundwork that made their discovery possible.) You have an average bowl of chips there, and a good ale, before heading to the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is impressive, but full of artefacts that were stolen from their native lands by European ‘explorers’. It’s still an interesting museum though, and Cambridge is still a wonderful city. You have a lovely day, even though you get stuck in the infamous rush hour on your way back to the station and miss your train home. Cambridge: A local’s guide
But there’s so much more to Cambridge than the standard day-trip formula. I’m constantly discovering and rediscovering the city, which I’ve called home since I was 4 years old. If you’d like to add some less-trodden paths to your visit, read on: Cambridge: A local’s guide
The Museum: Kettle’s Yard
Kettle’s Yard is a quirky, informal gallery set in the former home of art connoisseurs Jim and Helen Ede. The couple supported a number of burgeoning artists, filling the house with art they bought, exchanged for something, or were given. They also collected natural objects: the swirl of pebbles on display in a lower room of the house is mesmerising. Kettle’s Yard has just been renovated, and now includes a brand new education wing, making it a wonderfully inclusive space. Here, art is something that we live alongside—not something that stuffily sits behind glass, to be looked at rather than interacted with.
The pub lunch: The Punter
Just around the corner from Kettle’s Yard is The Punter, a bright and labyrinthine pub. The menu’s not confined to the standard, stodgy options you’d expect (though if you’re in the mood for it, The Punter will provide: fish & chips, steak and burgers all feature.) There’s a delectable array of light and complex dishes, which usually include seasonal veg and a twist of originality. Both vegetarians and vegans are catered for.
The shop: G. David
Just off the market square, there’s a little alleyway that leads wanderers round a tiny, cramped, overgrown churchyard. Heading down it is like heading back in time, not least because it’s the path to G. David, a bookshop that’s been serving Cambridge for over a century. It’s everything you’d expect it to be, with its atmospheric antique books, eclectic shelves of second-hand volumes, niche interest titles and literary curiosities.
It also happens to be a stone’s throw from one of Cambridge’s loveliest independent coffee shops—the very tiny Indigo Café, which has a mismatch of slightly wonky furniture and an excellent selection of baked goods.
If you’re still in the mood for shopping though, make sure you stop at Country Traditionals on Magdalene Street, very close to Kettle’s Yard. This pottery shop has is just so aesthetically pleasing.
The café: Fitzbillies
One popular tourist destination that does live up to the hype is Fitzbillies, a quaint tearoom just past the southern end of King’s Parade. The Chelsea buns are so addictive that Fitzbillies actually ship them to destinations across the world (a friend of mine who worked there once told me that they have several customers in Hong Kong who get a box of 9 buns delivered monthly.)Cambridge: A local’s guide
Fitzbillies recently opened up in a second location, on the same street as Country Traditionals, so you can stop there on your way back into town from Kettle’s Yard. It’s also next to an Oxfam that’s always selling such good books at bargain prices.
The view: Great St Mary’s Tower
It’s hard to get a bird’s eye view of Cambridge. It’s in one of the flattest parts of the UK, so there’s no natural hills or mountains you can climb to get a vista of the city. For less than a fiver, however, you can climb up the tower of Great St. Mary’s church, which is the closest thing Cambridge has to a cathedral. From there, you can take in far more college courtyards than you’d ever be able to visit in one day, as well as appreciating the rainbow of awnings in Market Square, and the distant and imposing University Library, which is entitled to a free copy of every book ever published in the UK. Cambridge: A local’s guide
The sightseeing walk: Granchester
If you want to see a different side of the River Cam to the perspective you’d get from a punt, head out the front of Great St Mary’s and bear right ever so slightly to take a cobbled path between the University of Cambridge’s Senate House (where graduation ceremonies take place), and Gonville & Caius College (where Stephen Hawking was a fellow, until his death earlier this year.)
After crossing a very steep bridge, from which you can usually observe amusing punt-related incidents from the safety of dry land, you’ll come to ‘the backs’—a road that several of the most famous colleges back onto. If you turn left and keep walking, you’ll be able to experience the iconic view of King’s College Chapel.
From here, a 35-minute, picturesque walk along the river will bring you to the village of Granchester. The spot’s recently been made famous by the ITV drama of the same name, but it was well-known long before then, thanks to the Orchard Tea Rooms. Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke frequented this teashop 100 years ago, which has also been visited by David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, Alan Turing, Sylvia Plath, A A Milne an Emma Thompson. The tea and scones there are the perfect antidote after a long walk, particularly if it’s sunny enough to sit on one of the many green deckchairs dotted around the many apple trees there. Cambridge: A local’s guide
If you’re still hungry though, The Red Lion pub in Granchester is another excellent place to fill up before returning to town.
The college: Queen’s Cambridge: A local’s guide
There are three colleges in Cambridge that most visitors want to tick off their list: King’s, Trinity and St. John’s. They’re all beautiful, it’s true, but there are plenty of less renowned colleges that are equally impressive. Queen’s, for example, is a fascinating architectural hodgepodge: it’s home to the oldest building on the River Cam and the legendary Mathematical Bridge.
Nearby, Corpus Christi College is another ancient, intimate complex of buildings, with plenty to explore. It also boasts the most recent addition to the list of must-see sights in Cambridge: the ‘chronophage’(literally ‘the time-eater’.) This enormous clock is plated in 24-carat gold and topped with a creepy, locust-like creature that moves back and forth as the minutes tick by, appearing to eat them up. It’s easy to be mesmerised watching this bizarre invention. Indeed, many hypnotised tourists often find themselves admiring it from the middle of street, rather than from the narrow pavement outside its class case. Careful though: such behaviour might irritate one of the many cyclists that swarm Cambridge’s city centre. Cambridge: A local’s guide
Finally, Downing College, which is on the main road to the station from town, is quite spectacular. The spacious lawns invite you to take your time as you wander round them, and close to the entrance there’s a little exhibition space called The Heong Gallery, where there’s often something interesting to see. Cambridge: A local’s guide
The bar: The Varsity Hotel
The nightlife of Cambridge is the topic of much ridicule; the city doesn’t exactly buzz after dark. But if you’re looking for a cocktail (and another bird’s eye view of the city), The Varsity Hotel has a good bar, where you can indulge in some reasonably priced luxury. Climb the stairs inside the hotel’s little foyer, and you’ll be able to take the elevator up to their roof, where drinks are served throughout the summer, or to the restaurant, where you can enjoy a glass of wine and the sight of a lot of twinkly lights in winter, when it’s too cold to sit outside.
If you want to turn your evening into a bar crawl, Cambridge Wine Merchants isn’t far from The Varsity Hotel. This elegant but cosy space feels almost like a wine-library: bottles line the walls and the waiters’s recommendations are backed by encyclopaedic knowledge.
I’ve 101 more recommendations, but hopefully you’re now equipped with the insight you need to have a fantastic trip to Cambridge. If you’re planning to spend longer there, do get in touch!
Image sources via: Fitzbillies // The Modern House // The 189 Blog // Pinterest – if there is an image that has been creadited wrongly please let us know, we are more than happy to provide credits to the photographer!