Visiting the Hallowed Halls of Cambridge University
Updated: Jul 6, 2021
I'm a nerd through and through, and love everything related to learning and academia. So when I found out I'd be attending a conference at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., one of the most prestigious and hallowed academic centers, I was beyond excited. If you didn't know, some of the greatest minds of all time attended Cambridge University including Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, King George VI, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Sir Isaac Newton and David Attenborough to name a few! Exploring Cambridge for a week was one of my all-time favorite trips so I've put together my guide for getting around, where to stay and what to see while you're in Cambridge. I hope you enjoy!
Getting there: There's no direct airport to Cambridge so the closest one is either London Heathrow (LHR) or Gatwick airport (LGW). From there you'll need to either take a bus or cab into the city center or hire a private car. A private car can be pretty expensive (between $50-200) but it's well worth it if you're exhausted from jet-lag and don't want to deal with getting on and off trains, or if you're with a group and can split the cost. The ride from either airport is about an hour away.
Where to stay: I stayed at the Varsity Hotel in Cambridge's city center and it was one of my all time favorites! It's a boutique hotel and was a great price, so if it's in your budget I always recommend booking a room in one of these hotels vs. a large chain. The Varsity Hotel had a beautiful breakfast and bar area with a rooftop view of the entire city! I'm not a breakfast person at all but looked forward to breakfast everyday just for those views.
The rooms were also decorated with portraits of famous scientists and mathematicians that graduated from Cambridge University, which was a really nice touch. But hands down, my favorite part of this hotel was the fact that it was attached to a spa and sauna which was completely free to hotel guests. This was a godsend after flying in from L.A. and being jet-lagged. While taking a soak or steam, you can also see punters go by along the river Cam, I think I went here almost everyday <3.
What to do: On every trip I always decide what are my top things to do and the places and experiences that really make a city. Here are just a few of the things I loved doing and seeing while in Cambridge.
Get oriented by walking through Market Square: I love to start my first day in a new city with a stroll around town and the city center to get acquainted. The best way to do that is to see if there's a market, hall or square which usually centers around vendors or farmers markets. In Cambridge, that's Market Square and Great St. Mary Church, where you can climb to the top of the tower for a spectacular view of the city.
Visit the Fitzwilliam Art Museum: Near the city center is also the Fitzwilliam Art Museum. It's a really beautiful museum that has a lot of amazing art and sculptures all housed in one of the most beautiful buildings. I especially loved the exhibition of mummies on the lowest floor.
Visit the different colleges: You can't go to Cambridge University without walking around the campus, exploring the different colleges. Some of the colleges are locked and only accessible if you're a student or faculty; however, some of the bigger ones do allow entrance to the public for a fee. I spent an entire afternoon just walking through some of these beautiful colleges, grounds and chapels.
My favorites were St. Johns College (to see the courts, chapel, and the famous Bridge of Sighs), Trinity College (check out the Great Court, chapel, and Wren Library), Kings College (the biggest chapel/cathedral and absolutely beautiful grounds), Queens College (to see the old courts and Mathematical Bridge). I also have to give a special shout out to Clare College which was my Ph.D. advisor's college, where he received his degree.
See an evensong at one of the College chapels: Speaking of the different colleges, one of the most moving experiences you can have in Cambridge, is to see an evensong in one of the college chapels. I recommend St. Johns, but be sure to check online for the dates and times that are available for each of the colleges that have an evensong. This is also a great way to get inside the colleges, which are sometimes closed to outsiders.
Have a meal in one of the Colleges: This one is sort of hard to do... For every conference I attend, the local organizers always plan a banquet and it's usually really fun. For this particular conference, our banquet was in the dining hall of Trinity Hall College and it was beyond special, almost sacred. However, this was a special group event that was planned and probably made possibly because we were working at the university for the week, so it might be hard for everyone to gain access. We had a really special happy hour on the front lawn of Trinity Hall College and a beautiful meal in the dining hall. Also, I'm not sure why but I absolutely love this short series of photos of my friend Eli and I during happy hour on the front lawn. I may or may not have been a bit drunk from our punting excursion ;)
If you aren't a student or visiting faculty for example, and want to eat in one of the main dining halls, consider having brunch at Pembroke College. It's open to the public on Saturday and Sunday but always be sure to check the times in advance.
See the 'Corpus Clock': When I travel, I love to see the weird quirky things that have a unique story behind them. In Cambridge, that's the Corpus Clock, a biomechanical sculpture of a grasshopper who 'eats time'. Located on Trumpington Street, the Corpus Clock is a fairly new addition to Cambridge (compared to other sites and historic gems), having been unveiled by Stephen Hawking in 2008. A few things I learned about the clock include the metaphorical design which alludes to the Big Bang (with the center showing the beginning of time), the large grasshopper or 'Chronophase', which means time-eater, a movement seen as the grasshopper devours each minute as it passes with a jaw that snaps shut. Also, there are no numbers or hands so it's difficult to tell time at first, but just look to the three LED rings which show the hours, minutes and seconds. Somewhat morbidly, this clock actually represents the passing of time and ultimately death, which is reinforced with the Latin inscription underneath the clock that reads 'mundus transit et concupiscentia eius' or 'the world and its desires pass away. It's located on the facade of a building behind a pane of glass, so when walking by take a stop and admire 'the strangest clock in the world'.
Visit the Centre for Mathematical Sciences: Speaking of Stephen Hawking, you should definitely go visit the computer science department where he had his office. He was also a Fellow at the Gonville and Caius College where you can see his photos at the college entrance.
Go punting on the River Cam: One of my all time favorite memories of Cambridge (and an absolute must when visiting) was punting along the river Cam. Punting is where you steer a shallow boat along a river with a metal pole. Sounds easy right? Well it's not! It was pretty hard to figure it out but we had the best time doing it! We went as a group and each took turns trying to steer our punt along the river. Sometimes we were successful and other times (mainly when I was steering haha) not so much.
You can either go with a guide, usually a college student looking to make some extra cash, who will take care of the steering for you and point out the different sites along the river, or you can do it yourself at around $30-40 for a boat of up to 6 people. I LOVED doing this with a group of friends so would definitely recommend that if you're up for it. Oh and did I mention that drinking while punting is highly recommended? You can bring some drinks onto your boat and if you run out don't worry, there were 'floating bartenders' who came by on their own boat to sell us a few more bottles of wine.
Here are a few punt locations to try out: Scudamore's Mill Lane Punting Stations (this was the one we used), Cambridge Chauffeur Punts or Cambridge Punting Co (I didn't use this one but it was right outside of my hotel, which is very convenient). I'm sure all are great but we went with one that was near the bar we met at. Seriously, this was one of my all time favorite moments!
Take a short trip to Grantchester Village: One of the best things about Cambridge is that it's nestled in the heart of the British countryside. When visiting, why not get out in nature and take a walk or hike into the village which sits beside the River Cam. You'll see thatched cottages, a medieval Church and of course plenty of pubs. You can arrive on foot via the riverside Grantchester Meadows or take your punt all the way up the river.
Food and Drink: There are lots of great places to eat and find a great drink, and some that are quintessential to Cambridge. Here are some of my favorites.
Have a traditional English high tea: When visiting the city of Cambridge, what better way to spend an afternoon than sipping tea, nibbling on finger sandwiches, tasty scones and clotted cream (aka a cream tea)? The British tradition of high tea is a perfect way to experience the grandeur and history of any British city. There are many options to choose from but I really loved Harriet's Tearoom, which has a vintage theme that takes you right back to the 1920's. Here you'll find a mix of old and new with modern desserts like macarons as well as scones and tarts. Harriet's is located right near the iconic Trinity Hall College and the waitresses even wear period uniforms.
Another terrific place for high tea includes The Varsity Hotel (where I stayed). Here, you can have tea on the 6th floor of the hotel which has spectacular views of the entire city via a rooftop bar as well as amazing finger sandwiches and scones with clotted cream and a speciality tea selection created by their master blenders. After your high tea, you'll be ready to explore the rest of the cobble stoned city feeling refreshed and quintessentially British.
Get a takeaway picnic at Fitzbillies: If you're looking for other great restaurants around Cambridge, you have to try Fitzbillies. There are a few locations right in the city center but what I love the most is that you can eat in or order a takeaway for a picnic or to take on your punting tour! You can choose from larger meals with finger sandwiches, scones and desert or just a tea and scone takeaway to fit your needs.
Take a gin making class: With all of the terrific food and drink in Cambridge, why not try out a Gin making class? At the Cambridge Distillery you can choose from gin tastings where you learn about the history of gin production and how to taste like a professional, or simply taste the portfolio of award winning Cambridge Distillery products (no appointment necessary). You can even blend your own bottle of gin, guided by a gin lab expert but these are by appointment only and can be booked here.
Go on a pub crawl: When in the U.K. in general, you've got to experience the pub scene. Being in Cambridge is even better because it's a university town, so there's plenty of nightlife and fun to be found. So why not do a pub crawl and see which one is your favorite? One of my favorites is the Mill Pub located on the grassy banks of the river Cam. Here you can take your food and drink outside to enjoy next to the pond or even get some ale or a bottle of wine to go on your punting tour (this was where we picked up our punt).
Have a drink at the Eagle Pub: I don't love beer or ale, but when I heard about the Eagle Pub I knew I had to go there myself. It's a very traditional pub in the town center where Francis Crick famously announced that he and James Watson had discovered the DNA double helix. It's considered a 'drinking and thinking' hub that boasts knowing 'the secret of life'. Go in with some friends, get a pint and some fish and chips and soak in the energy of Cambridge's great thinkers.
Try some Pimm's: Speaking of drinking, I have to mention one of Cambridge's most popular drinks, Pimm's! It's really only drunk in the U.K. and the bottle even has a seal of approval from the Queen. Pimm's can refer to a particular type of gin-based liqueur, created by Mr. Pimm himself, but it's more commonly served as a mixed drink made with Pimm's and lemonade (sort of like an alcoholic fruit punch). The taste is hard to describe but it could be likened to a slightly bitter mix of apple juice, iced tea and Jagermeister. If you can't have some in Cambridge here's a recipe I found online that you can make at home.
And that's about it! Of course, in any city there's always more to see and do but these are just a few of my must see's while exploring Cambridge! As always I'd love to hear about your trip or any other recommendations you might have. Signing off with one last view of the River Cam right outside my hotel.
Until next time Cambridge!