Top things to do in Cambridge
By Annabelle Thorpe
Enjoy a great day out in East Anglia’s city of dreaming spires
It may be a university town extraordinaire, but Cambridge isn’t just about its students and dreaming spires. Thanks to its pleasing combination of history and culture, booming science and tech scene, and great food and vibrant atmosphere, this is a city that needs to be on your 2018 radar.
Until recently Cambridge was a city almost exclusively designed by its world-famous university. Visitors came to do college tours, maybe swing by The Fitzwilliam Museum, hire a punt and that was that. But in the last 10 years, things have changed; new arts venues and galleries are popping up, the city’s foodie scene has undergone a transformation and the influx of an affluent, non-student crowd – drawn to the swathe of tech companies who inhabit what’s become known as Silicon Fen, the UK’s technology hub – has breathed new life into the city.
“The beauty of Cambridge is that it has many different incarnations,” says resident Jonathan Page, who moved from London eight years ago. “Obviously there are thousands of students, but they do tend to stick to their colleges a lot of the time. Go to a coffee shop in town and you’ll hear one conversation about coding, another about a PHD thesis and another about a pop-up restaurant someone’s opening. There’s a fantastically diverse energy to the city right now.”
21st-century Cambridge may be renowned as a centre of innovation in technology but that sits beside, rather than overtakes, its cultural heritage. And 2018 is set to be an important year, with a trio of its best-loved institutions reopening their doors after periods of extensive renovations. The great news for art lovers is Kettle’s Yard – the city’s leading gallery of modern and contemporary art – revealed its new look in February, with updated exhibition spaces, a café and an education wing. And the Museum of Zoology, which originated in 1814, will be completely transformed when it throws open its doors again in March. The highlight is set to be a state-of-the-art ‘Whale Hall’, displaying its legendary skeleton of a Finback Whale – the largest anywhere in the world.
Fans of contemporary art should head to the city’s newest gallery, the Heong at Downing College (down.cam.ac.uk), which opened in 2016. For a wider collection of art, the Fitzwilliam has a world-class collection of paintings, with famous works by Breughel, Titian, and many of the Impressionists. “The Fitz is wonderful, but it does get busy,” says Jonathan. “To escape the crowds, look for a metal staircase that leads up to the small, uppermost gallery where you’re almost nose to nose with the paintings.”
Another grande dame with a new look is standout hotel The University Arms (universityarms.com), which opens in spring after a two-year closure. Situated on the grass lawns of Parker’s Piece, the hotel has welcomed visitors to Cambridge since the 1830s. It joins the city’s growing number of contemporary-styled, hip hotels including the Tamburlaine (thetamburlaine.co.uk) and the Varsity (thevarsityhotel.co.uk) with its fabulous rooftop bar.
Beyond its iconic buildings, Cambridge is also an incredibly green city, with abundant outside spaces to discover. One of the best ways to explore alfresco is, of course, by punt – the long, narrow boats that have been synonymous with the city since they were first introduced over a century ago. Most visitors use the River Cam to see the ‘Backs’ – a stretch of water east of Queen’s Road, where the grounds of several colleges run right down to the river. Undeniably beautiful, it’s also the busiest stretch; those in the know head in the other direction, past Paradise – the city’s tranquil nature reserve – and on up to Grantchester, where it’s possible to moor up and sit in the famous tea gardens.
With all the exploring to be done, it’s just as well Cambridge has become such a foodie city. To get you going in the morning, Hot Numbers (hotnumberscoffee.co.uk) does some of the city’s best coffee. A few doors along, Fitzbillies (fitzbillies.com) is something of an institution; saved from closure by a collective of local residents (including Stephen Fry), it is famous for its treacle-covered Chelsea Buns.
For something a little more refined, Midsummer House (midsummerhouse.co.uk) offers the city’s most upscale dining. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2018, the two-Michelin star restaurant is an indulgent treat, with eight-course tasting menus, featuring the best locally-sourced produce. Cambridge also has its share of cosy gastro pubs – The Punter (thepuntercambridge.com) was recently voted the UK’s second-best pub. Or, if you like your drinking with a slice of history, the 16th-century Eagle
(bit.ly/2n6znec) is the place where Francis Crick and James Watson sunk a few beers after discovering the structure of DNA.
Underneath all of this, Cambridge has an unexpectedly bohemian heart. In the warmer months, the city hums with music festivals; most famously the Cambridge Folk Festival (cambridgelivetrust.co.uk) and the Strawberry Fair (strawberry-fair.org.uk) – a mini Glastonbury that has kicked off summer for the last 40 years. The Mill Road area of Cambridge is a vibrant alternative to traditional shopping, with one-off boutiques, vintage shops and ethnic restaurants including Arjuna (arjunawholefoods.co.uk) – the city’s first vegetarian wholefood shop and cafe.
All that said, a visit to one of the city’s most famous colleges still shouldn’t be missed. Kings, St John’s, and Trinity are arguably the most beautiful – enter the latter during Evensong, and hear the college choir. To sit in one of the chapels, listening to the flawless voices, is a glimpse of traditional Cambridge.
It’s this fusion of old and new, that makes Cambridge such an extraordinary place. Whatever your whim, the city has a wealth of places and experiences to enjoy. But if all you really want is to people-watch and nibble on home-made cake – well, it’s pretty good at that, too.
Nearest stations are Cambridge and the newly-opened Cambridge North station. Book early for advance fares from £7 one way from London. For more information, visit greateranglia.co.uk
What to look out for in Cambridge
A new exhibition, Actions: The Image of the World Can be Different, unites 38 artists around world.
An installation of works by Stephen Chambers, with 101 portraits, runs from 24 Feb to 20 May. dow.cam.ac.uk
Cambridge Corn Exchange
Enjoy virtuoso violinist Nigel Kennedy (16 May). cambridgelive trust.co.uk/cornex
Cambridge Literary Festival
A full programme of talks, readings and seminars for all ages. 12–15 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com
A two-week celebration of the city’s vibrant foodie scene, from 19 May to 3 June.