Most tourists fly to England to visit London. If you are one of them consider extending your visit with a few days to visit some of the surrounding cities and castles. A full day might just be enough to give you a taste of what Cambridge really is and take you back to medieval times.
While history goes back to bronze age at the city was founded in 875. It burned and was rebuilt several times, including the castle that William the Conqueror built in 1068. In medieval times, the city prospered due to its location and many of the original buildings can be seen even today. The Round Church from 1107 and many of the collages, with Peterhouse being the first of Cambridge University since 13th century. This followed by 15 more others until the 16th century. Today the city is both a tourist attraction and an impressive university campus recognised all over the world.
There are a few ways of getting there, and while a car might be the fastest, there is also the inconvenient of having to find a parking space. You wouldn’t need it at all there as everything is within walking distance. There are both coaches and trains from London, with the last being the best option. Trains leave regularly from Kings Cross station and the journey takes about 1 hour. A cheaper option would be from Liverpool St. station with Greater Anglia. Add another 20 minutes travelling time but at half the cost : £18 for a return ticket.
Cambridge might not be as big as London, and while there are directions to most of the touristic attractions, it might still be a good idea to plan the day in advance to maximise your time there. The best is to do a clock wise tour and include other attractions on the way.
As you get out of the train station, take the street ahead ( Station Road ). This will take you to the Botanic Garden is 5 minutes time. Not to be missed! I do recommend spring and autumn for a spectacular landscape. A mix of plants, wild animals, different forests from all over the world and gardens. Also includes a green house and a lake. A perfect morning walk to clear your mind and enjoy the total silence of nature and a perfect start of the day. It opens at 10 a.m. with an admission of £5. You should allow about 2 hours which is enough to see all of it and take photos without feeling rushed.
My recommendation is to leave through the same gate and take left on Hills Road. You shall soon be in sight of the Catholic Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs. A romano-catholic church built more than a century ago. Entrance is free and worth spending 10 minutes to admire the architecture. Take a left turn by the church and right and follow the signs to Fitzwilliam Museum. Mondays is always closed, so I didn’t get a chance to visit it.
Further ahead on the right there is Pembroke College. Founded in 1347, is the third oldest and is one not to be missed. I strongly recommend checking in advance admission hours and location for the colleges you wish to visit. Access is not always allowed and if you can’t pass by as a student you will miss the chance of visiting the most beautiful universities int he world. Superb architecture very well preserved over centuries and green gardens form a green oasis in an urban industrialised world. It’s like going back in time hundred and hundred of years. Most of them have free admission and some will charge £2-£3. There are a few that require a deeper pocket though. But about that a bit later.
St. Botolph is a stone church form the 14th century. Is free to visit so I’d suggest a quick stop. Please be considerate and turn off your flash if you take photos. As you leave, don’t forget to stop at Fitzbillies. The famous bakery that makes Chelsea buns. While a bit expensive, there are pretty good and if you have a sweet tooth then it’s a must.
With the belly full of buns, we continue our tour via Silver Street and soon we reach a bridge over the river Cam. From here one can see Queen’s College and Mathematical Bridge. Both can be accessed by a side entrance. Retrace your steps and take first left to join the entrance. Don’t forget to cross the wooden bridge and take a walk along the river.
Back to the entrance, follow the narrow streets until you get to Corpus Clock. An interesting timepiece invention. to the right, there is a small market (Market Hill) where locals sell their sweets and cheese. Ignore the other few Asians selling tourist crap made in China!
Going back to the main street, climb the tower of Great Saint Mary church. It will give you a spectacular 360 degree view over a small part of the city and some of the colleges. There is no lift but only the tower’s stone stairs. Also have some cash with you. Their card machine didn’t seem to be working.
While you might have seen it from the tower, King’s College and its chapel is certainly not to be missed. A stunning example of Gothic English architecture. Photography or video are not allowed in the chapel and for good reason. Even if you pay the £9 entrance and have seen it already, I suggest a revisit later in the day for a local service. Ask at the entrance for further details. I am not a religious person and not a catholic, but it was a unique experience to hear the King’s College Choir singing. The ceremony is open to public and during the week lasts for 40 minutes.
Next on the list, and again not to be missed is Trinity College.It’s a fine university with over 32 Nobel Prize winners founded by King Henry the VIII. Apart from the rich history, the Tudor-Gothic architecture will take your breath away. Sadly I only managed to get access to the main courtyard and the chapel as the rest was already closed to public. Having worn the camera around my neck it was clear the guard won’t take me as a student this time.
Further ahead, we pass by The Round Church, one of the fourth medieval round churches in England still in use. I did not think is worth the £10 admission so I snapped a shot and continued on Bridge Street to my next attraction.
Stop on the actual bridge to enjoy the view over the river. Here one can hire a guide with a small boat that will take you on the River Cam for a water tour of the city. Is what they call Punting. If you do pay for one, at lease make sure your guide is knowledgeable enough to give you a brief history of the attractions, most of them being colleges. The same tour can be booked outside King’s College.
I left behind the few chaps that were offering their punting services and continued to John’s College. Here the Bridge of Sights is the main attraction and access is done through the college. I did not walk over it as it was quite late and it was closed already. I however managed to sneak by the guard and take a few photos. Having learned from my mistakes, I put my camera away in my pack and went it without raising any suspicions.
By the time i returned to the main street it was already over 4 p.m. It wasn’t much left that I wanted to see so I decided to speed up my pace and end the tour with Parker’s Piece park. It wasn’t quite the silence one hopes for. Too many loud kids disturbing a relaxing sunset view. I enjoyed my last Chelsea bun and left for the ceremony at King’s College.
While I only mentioned the major tourist attractions, there is much more to be seen in between. Out of 31 colleges of Cambridge university, I managed to visit more than half of them. A few other churches and some important buildings like The Senate House. Once you set up a route with the most important attractions, add as you go and discover more just by wandering around the streets.
There are plenty of pubs and restaurants to eat. I had some sandwiches and a few Tesco stops for some snacks as I preferred to take advantage of the short autumn daylight. By the time I completed my itinerary, it was time to catch the train back to London. Prices are quite high so expect to pay around £20 for a main meal and a drink.
The weather was perfect and it kind of is a must in order to fully enjoy the city. I can imagine a dark rainy day will take away its charm and ones will to explore by foot. Especially the charm of the Botanical Garden. It certainly is a must visit but also a great day out of the busy capital. I am already planning my return for the spring – a new season with new colours and a different face of the city.
Train tickets: £18
St. Mary’s Church tower: £4
Entrance to colleges: ~£10 ( more if you visit all)
Chelsea buns: £1.5/each
Botanic Garden: £5.5 ( they charge 50p for a charity)