The city of Cambridge is one of the most beautiful in Britain, with a list of illustrious past residents and historical accolades that’s almost impossible to beat. Here’s our guide to this historic city…
Words by Henrietta Easton
STUDY YOUR SURROUNDS
Cambridge wouldn’t be Cambridge without its university. Dating back to 1209 it is the second oldest in Britain (behind its great rival, Oxford) and the thiking’s collergrd oldest in the world. A walk through its colleges is a walk in the footsteps of history’s great names: Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, the list goes on.
But whether or not you’re a quantum physics fanatic, the university’s historic architecture will be a highlight of your trip. Make time for King’s College, which has risen to global fame for its Christmas carol service, and the chapel is its jewel in the crown. Originally started by King Henry VI in the 15th century and finished by Henry VIII in the 16th, it is home to the world’s largest fan-vaulted ceiling, and the Rubens masterpiece The Adoration of the Magi.
MEANDER AT THE MUSEUM
With over half a million works of art, including works by Monet and Picasso, and historical artefacts dating back to Ancient Egypt, the Fitzwilliam Museum is a treasure trove of world history. It was originally founded in the early 19th century when a former student, Richard Fitzwilliam, bequeathed his extensive collection of artworks and objects to the university.
The Neoclassical building on Trumpington Street has been the museum’s home since the 1830s, and its extravagant interiors are just as impressive as the objects it houses. The astoundingly beautiful Founder’s Entrance (below right) with its mosaic floors, marble columns, breathtaking painted glass and sculptures everywhere you look, is a fitting welcome to the treasures inside.
With its foundations first laid in 1010 AD, Great St Mary’s (left) tells a thousand years of the city of Cambridge’s history, with many a king, queen and academic having passed through its doors. It was also the setting for the funeral of Stephen Hawking in 2018, who studied and worked just over the road at Trinity College, and then at Gonville and Caius. Its tower, with 123 narrow and winding steps up to the top, is a great way to survey the city in all its glory from a different angle.
A PERFECT PUNT
You can’t come to the city of Cambridge without a traditional punt along the pretty river Cam. Sit back and enjoy a gentle trip along the ‘Backs’, as your guide (usually a student) regales you with anecdotes of the city’s history, mostly related to the beautiful colleges that line the riverbanks, and tales of their illustrious alumni. Look out for where Isaac Newton discovered the speed of sound at the Wren Library, the famous Bridge of Sighs, named by Queen Victoria after the bridge in Venice (although she never actually saw the original), and the Mathematical Bridge, which looks like an arch but is in fact made up of straight timbers. Scudamore’s is a renowned punting tour company, in business since the 1920s.
WALK THROUGH HISTORY
Home to so many great names in the world of academia, it’s no surprise that the city of Cambridge has 27 Blue Plaques dotted around the city, recognising many famous names, significant events and places. A stroll through the historic centre will give you a sense of the city’s gravitas. Look out for The Eagle Pub on Bene’t Street (above left), which, as well as being a great place for a fireside pint, was where Francis Crick and James Watson announced that they had discovered the ‘secret of life’ – the structure of DNA – in 1953.
A Blue Plaque on Trumpington Street commemorates the work of mathematician Alan Turing who studied at King’s College, and who helped crack the ‘unbreakable’ German enigma code during the Second World War.
The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is a little oasis right in the city centre, home to over 8,000 plant species from all over the world, as well as an abundance of wildlife, from toads to birds and badgers. The garden first opened in 1762, when it was used to grow plants for teaching medical students, and has been in its current home, supporting University horticultural research and conservation, since since 1846. Designed for year-round interest, each season at the garden is as beautiful and interesting as the last.
Just three miles outside the city is the village of Grantchester, with its quaint thatched cottages, riverside walks and cosy pubs. It claims to have the highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners per person in the world and has been home to the writers Rupert Brooke, Lord Byron and Jeffrey Archer.
It’s a surprising fact that there are 30.5 acres of American soil just outside the city of Cambridge. The moving Cambridge American Cemetery (above left) honours the sacri ce of more than 8,500 Americans who died in military operations based out of the UK during the Second World War.
TAKE 5 CITY OF CAMBRIDGE EXPERIENCES
WALK THE CITY
A Cambridge walking tour with Cantab Tours is the best way to get the most out of your visit. With your own knowledgeable guide, tours can be tailored to your interests.
Set in a beautiful townhouse, Kettle’s Yard is the university’s modern and contemporary art gallery with an incredible collection of 20th-century paintings, sculptures and objects.
The brilliant Museum of Zoology showcases the diversity of animal life through hundreds of fascinating objects, including a complete dodo skeleton and a 21-metre fin whale.
BOLTHOLE FOR BOOKWORMS
The city is famous for its locally made gin. A trip to the Cambridge Gin Laboratory will teach you about the making process, and you can even blend your very own bottle, guided by experts.
Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street has been a Cambridge institution since 1920, famous for its syrup-drenched Chelsea buns. Step inside for traditional English breakfasts and indulgent afternoon teas – but get there early as there’s usually a queue. fitzbillies.com
For the city’s best Sunday roast try the snug Pint Shop, a quirky pub housed in the 19th-century former home of novelist EM Forster; their scotch eggs are to die for, and excellent with one of the many craft beers on offer. pintshop.co.uk
For fine dining in the city centre, The Gonville Hotel’s Terrace Restaurant serves inventive and immaculately presented dishes using local ingredients, in an upscale yet relaxed setting. gonvillehotel.co.uk
Flat Iron (the first branch outside of London) is your go-to for a bit of buzz in the centre, serving perfect steaks and beef dripping chips, with complimentary vanilla and brown butter ice cream for pudding. flatironsteak.co.uk
For a drink in a historic pub, The Eagle is a must, which, as well as being the site for a scientific breakthrough, is also home to the RAF Bar, covered in graffiti from Second World War airmen, and allegedly has some resident ghosts. greeneking.co.uk
Novi is a relaxed coffeehouse-cum-cocktail bar and serves botanical cocktails alongside scrumptious small plates and tapas, in a candlelit and sociable space. novicambridge.co.uk
Overlooking Parker’s Piece, a grassy common in the centre of town, The Gonville is a recently renovated, stylish 4-star boutique hotel with friendly staff. Its contemporary rooms feature sumptuous king-size beds, and there’s live jazz in the cocktail bar on Fridays and Saturdays and spa treatments in the wellness rooms. It’s hard to leave the Gonville’s comforting confines but their chauffeured city tour in a classic Bentley makes seeing the city a whole lot more luxurious. gonvillehotel.co.uk
This is an extract, read the full feature in the January/February 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 8 December.