It may be famous for its university, but a short break in Cambridge doesn't have to be spent studying. Read my alternative suggestions from visiting a festival to punting on the River Cam
Despite its city status, Cambridge is essentially a very compact market town with a population of just over 110,000, many of whom are students. The world-famous university, around which much of Cambridge is based, consists of multiple colleges (31 at the last count) plus various administrative buildings and research centres spread throughout the city and beyond. You can’t go far in Cambridge without stumbling across a university owned building, be it a 600 year-old college or a 1960s' office block.
It will therefore come as no surprise that a short break in Cambridge wouldn’t really be complete without taking in some of the amazing architecture, such as the awe-inspiring King’s College and Chapel (www.kings.cam.ac.uk/), and exploring one or two of the beautiful college grounds; St John’s (www.joh.cam.ac.uk/) and Trinity (www.trin.cam.ac.uk/) being two of the best. Do remember though that these are university colleges first, and tourist attractions a very lowly second. Always check the admission days and times before you go, as most colleges are closed to the public for periods in June and July, and remember to pay attention to any ‘Keep Off’ signs, unless you’re willing to endure the wrath of a college porter.
Whilst those on a day trip from London (just 50 minutes by train from Kings Cross) could easily fill their day visiting colleges and taking a student-guided punt on the River Cam, Cambridge has much more to offer than just the college buildings. If you’re on more than a student budget, there are also some lovely hotels and some fantastic places to eat and drink.
Beyond the colleges
In recent years, Cambridge City Council has been investing in summer events such as the Big Day Out which provide free or subsidised family entertainment for locals and visitors alike, and make the most of the wealth of green space that can be found throughout the city. Cambridge has also become the home of two ever-growing music festivals: the free Strawberry Fair (www.strawberry-fair.org.uk/), held on the first week end of June and the increasingly popular Folk Festival (www.cambridgefolkfestival.co.uk/), held late July/early August. Whereas the folk festival features acts from around the world, the Strawberry Fair has retained a far more local feel. As well as plenty of live music, there is entertainment for kids and the obligatory festival-type stalls to browse - just don't expect to find any strawberries!
For those in search of something a little more cultural, Cambridge has what is arguably one of the country’s best collections of antiquities outside of London, the Fitzwilliam Museum (www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/index.html). Housed in an imposing 19th century building, which in itself is a work of art, the museum includes art by the likes of Picasso and Whistler, as well as some amazing collections from ancient Greece and Egypt. A short walk from the Fitzwilliam, hidden away on Downing Street, are two lesser know university museums also worth visiting: the University Museum of Zoology (look for the inconspicuous whale skeleton out the front) and the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, housing a wonderful totem pole and the kind of place you’d imagine Indiana Jones contributing to.
For evening entertainment, there is a selection of small theatres and the wonderful Arts Picturehouse (www.picturehouses.co.uk/) which shows a good range of independent films as well as the Hollywood blockbusters. This small, well-run cinema is central to the Cambridge Film Festival, held in September every year, and there is the added bonus of a licensed bar, meaning that you can give the popcorn and bucket of fizzy drink a miss, and instead enjoy a civilised glass of wine with your film. For music and comedy, Cambridge also has a couple of very popular venues, the Corn Exchange (www.cornex.co.uk/ccm/portal/) and the Junction (www.junction.co.uk/) and, if you prefer something a little more intimate, the Portland Arms on Chesterton Road (www.theportland.co.uk/) features regular gigs in a cosy pub venue.
Where to eat and drink
Some of the best eating in Cambridge can be found close to the city centre on Regent Street. Here you'll find a good selection of independent restaurants, including Asia (great Thai and Indian curries), De Luca (quality Italian and excellent cocktails) and Little Seoul (traditional Korean food served in a trendy little basement). For those willing to travel further afield, the Wrestlers Pub on Newmarket Road serves freshly prepared Thai cuisine and Alimentum on Hills Road provides top-end, ‘modern European’ dishes at prices that whilst by no means cheap, are very reasonable given the service and food on offer.
Cambridge is also awash with traditional pubs, though with a few notable exceptions such as the Champion of the Thames on King Street, the best of the bunch require venturing a little outside of the city centre. Pubs close to Mill Road are favourites with the Cambridge locals and real ale lovers. Two of the most highly regarded are the Live and Let Live and the Kingston Arms, and from here you’re not too far from the wonderful Flying Pig on Hills Road.
Where to sleep
Finding somewhere comfortable to lay your head in Cambridge can be a struggle, particularly during the summer, as there is a limited number of hotels and guest houses. However, a few miles outside of Cambridge is the Holiday Inn Impington, which represents far better value for money than many of the chain hotels in the city centre which have seen better days. That said, if you’re looking for luxury in a prime location then for those willing to splash out, the Doubletree by Hilton situated right on the River Cam, or the Hotel Du Vin, close to the Fitzwilliam Museum, are the best in the city by far.
With a bit of planning, a short break in Cambridge can be done on the cheap. Most of the museums are free, the city council and university run a variety of subsidised events throughout the year, and there are plenty of green spaces for picnicking and pubs to relax in. However, for those looking for a bit of luxury, Cambridge can also offer classy hotels, some great restaurants and plenty of evening entertainment. So if you're not on a student budget, why not treat yourself?