Punts, pubs and good grub in Cambridge
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Food and Drink, Short Break, Mid-range
It’s not all pulpits and professors in Cambridge - to see another side of this beautiful town, hop on a bike and follow my guide to the places where the locals like to eat, drink and play
In summer, Cambridge is awash with tourists flocking to see the star attractions – King's College chapel, the university colleges and the many bridges that cross the River Cam. They congregate in their hundreds on the pedestrianised streets, snapping away at pediments and parapets, totally oblivious to the local cyclists screaming at them to get out of the way.
While I think a trip to Cambridge would be incomplete without taking in the stunning architecture, there are more pleasant ways of doing this than huddling with the rest of the herd. I suggest visiting Cambridge in the spring, when it’s at its most beautiful – the sun is out, the bulbs are in bloom and, best of all, you don’t have to share it with every man and his dog.
Get on a bike
Pedalling around Cambridge is by far the best way to see it. It’s not a big town (you can easily walk around the centre), but a bike will give you the freedom to explore a bit farther afield and free up more time when you do decide to stop. There are plenty of places to hire bikes in Cambridge. If you are arriving by train, Station Cycles is convenient, because it’ll save you the walk into town. They also have a shop in the centre. However, there are cheaper options nearby, such as City Cycle Hire. If you’re not super-fit, don’t worry: Cambridge only has one hill and you are unlikely to have any reason to go up it.
- Station Cycles: Station Buildings, Station Road (01223 307125) and Grand Arcade, Corn Exchange Street (01223 307655; www.stationcycles.co.uk). Prices: one day £10; three days £20; one week £25.
- City Cycle Hire: 61 Newnham Road (01223 365629; www.citycyclehire.com). Prices: one day £8; three days £13; one week £15.
Hire a punt
This is by far the nicest way to see the famous colleges and bridges along the River Cam. You can either hire a punt by the hour or take a guided tour. I have done both, so I am speaking from experience when I say punting is not as easy as it looks! Some friends from Sydney visited me in Cambridge last year. We took a self-guided punt from the company furthest away from the main attractions (they offered the best rate for a reason). After half an hour, less than 100m from where we began, we managed to get the pole stuck in a tree. Having dislodged the steering device, and accepting that punting was not our forte, we opted for using the one oar provided to navigate the rest of the way. Racing to get the punt back in time, we had to pull ourselves along the wall lining the riverbank with our hands (a top tip if you do decide on the self-guided option and find yourself equally incapacitated). Nonetheless, there were lots of laughs to be had and the benefit is you don’t have to share with people you don’t know.
That said, if you've got limited time and you want to kick up your heels, go for the guided tour - it’s much more relaxing. If you're feeling flush, Scudamores Punting Company does a champagne tour, or the Granta Boat & Punt Company does an Indian thali afloat on a summer evening. Both these companies are located near the Mill Pond, which leaves you well placed for a beginning our tour of the local bars when you’re done.
- Scudamores Punting Company: Granta Place, Mill Lane (01223 359750; www.scudamores.com).
- Granta Boat & Punt Company: Granta Moorings, Newnham Rd (01223 301845; www.puntingincambridge.com).
Head to the pub
First stop, The Granta, conveniently positioned just next to the Granta moorings. In the warmer months, this is one of my favourite pubs in Cambridge, for its large and colourful courtyard backing onto the river. I wouldn’t recommend ordering food here though, unless you are really hungry, in which case go with a safe option, like a sandwich.
A little further along the river are The Mill and The Anchor. Neither is particularly nice indoors, but in the summer they sell pints in plastic cups, which you can take outside to the Mill Pond. If you are travelling on a shoestring, then do as the locals do and bring your own. It does get busy here when it’s warm, but this is one place where it doesn’t seem to matter; the atmosphere is buzzing and after a few beers you’ll find yourself feeling all warm and fuzzy from the sights and sounds of summer… or is that the alcohol kicking in?
- The Granta: 14 Newnham Terrace (01223 505016).
- The Mill: 14 Mill Lane (01223 357026).
- The Anchor: Silver St (01223 353554).
I have to admit, pub food in Cambridge leaves something to be desired, but here are some of the better options if you want to stick to the beer gardens.
Fort St George
While many old Cambridge locals complain that the Fort has lost some character after its recent renovations, the good news is they did over the menu at the same time. It’s still standard pub fare, but the quality is much better than it used to be. If you aren’t planning to eat, it’s worth a visit just to sit in the vast courtyard, one of my favourite beer gardens in Cambridge.
This is a longstanding traditional ale pub, so switch off your mobile phone and don’t expect any music. What you can expect is a great pub meal. From the main menu, the goat cheese tart stands out, but the specials board provides the best options, changing daily.
The Rupert Brooke
A little farther afield is The Rupert Brooke. With a lovely courtyard overlooking Grantchester meadows, this makes a perfect setting for a sunny Sunday lunch. It's well worth the 15-20-minute cycle across the fields alongside the river - or, if you're feeling adventurous, why not punt there?
- Fort St George: Midsummer Common (01223 305523).
- Free Press: Prospect Row (01223 368337; www.freepresspub.com).
- The Rupert Brooke: 2 Broadway, Grantchester (01223 840295; http://www.therupertbrooke.com).
If you prefer something a little more upmarket, there are a couple of nice restaurants in Cambridge. It's not the city's selling point, but after a little trial and error, I have found a few worth going back for.
Loch Fyne is a good, reliable fish restaurant, in a rustic pub setting. Their traditional fare is best, but do try the bradan rost salmon and the oysters if they're in season. For ethnic cuisine, try Charlie Chan’s Chinese restaurant for freshly prepared dim sum at lunchtime or head for the Sala Thong for a good, cheap Thai.
If you have some cash to splash, then Cambridge’s only Michelin-star restaurant, Midsummer House, should be top of any foodie's list. With three AA rosettes, Alimentum comes a close second - not surprisingly, given that the head chef here worked at Midsummer House for over seven years.
- Loch Fyne: 37 Trumpington St (01223 362433; www.lochfyne.com).
- Charlie Chan’s: 14 Regent Street (01223 361763).
- Sala Thong: 35 Newnham Rd (01223 323178).
- Midsummer House: Midsummer Common (01223 369299; www.midsummerhouse.co.uk).
- Alimentum: 152-154 Hills Road (01223 413000; www.restaurantalimentum.co.uk).
Where to stay
Cambridge is only 45 minutes by train from London, so is perfect for a day trip out of the capital, but for those wishing to stay a little longer, here are some options.
I’m afraid there’s not much in the way of budget hostels in Cambridge - most of the students here go to the university. There is a YHA near the station, where my friends stayed when they visited. I can’t speak much about how comfortable it was, because they only stayed a night and spent very little of it in bed, but they seemed happy enough with everything else.
During University vacations you can stay in the university colleges. Prices range from £34.50 to £85. The central location, access to the college grounds and the ‘true’ Cambridge experience make this a popular choice for visitors.
Most visitors to Cambridge tend to be fairly affluent, so there are many more options at the top-end. Looking onto the river, the Arundel House Hotel has been there for years and is a good location from which to begin exploring the town. However, my number one would be the Hotel Du Vin – I haven’t stayed the night, but I’ve eaten in the bistro and had a look round when they first opened and all I can say is: lush!
Hinc lucem et pocula sacra (10 points if you can say that after a pint in every pub on the list).