The weekenders' guide to Cambridge

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Words by Harriet Cooper

Set on the meandering River Cam, Cambridge is home to one of the most historic universities in the world, with a Who’s Who of former students including Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking to Stephen Fry and the Prince of Wales, not to mention the city’s wealth of museums and art galleries.

But this heritage-rich metropolis isn’t all about the past. Among the medieval lanes and cloistered colleges, there’s a buzzing restaurant scene, excellent hotels and myriad fun-packed activities for young and old. And what better time to spend the weekend here, when the students are on holiday and the university city is basking in sunshine?

The must-sees in Cambridge

Fitzwilliam Museum

Locally referred to as the Fitz, the Fitzwilliam Museum houses over 500,000 works of art, masterpiece paintings and historical artefacts, from ancient Egyptian antiquities to French Impressionist gems. Also well worth a visit is the newly-renovated Kettle’s Yard, the University of Cambridge’s modern and contemporary art gallery.

King’s College Chapel

The late-Gothic chapel at King’s College, which took 100 years to build, is breathtaking in its beauty. Book a tour and marvel at the largest fan vaulted ceiling in the world, some of the finest Medieval stained glass and the Adoration of the Magi by Rubens. You’ll also have access to the pretty College grounds, when open.

Kings College Chapel Cambridge

Botanic Garden

Founded in 1762, Cambridge University Botanic Garden is a 40-acre heritage garden in the centre of the city. It holds a collection of over 8,000 plant species from all over the world to facilitate teaching and research. It’s also a lovely place to visit, especially during the summer when its extensive horticultural collections tend to be in full bloom – the trees are a particular highlight. There’s also a shop and popular café.

Cambridge Botanical Gardens

The essential Cambridge experiences

Punting along the River Cam

No visit to Cambridge is complete without wending your way along the River Cam in a punt - the UK’s answer to the Venetian gondola. You could have a go at navigating one yourself, or take advantage of our great offers on luxury punting tours, where an experienced guide will do the hard work. All you need do is sit back and soak up the sites, as you drift under the famous Bridge of Sighs and past the University’s historic colleges.

Punting in Cambridge

The Backs

The Cambridge Backs are a series of gardens and parks that run along the back of the riverside university colleges. The historic Grade I-listed stretch of land - part designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown - can be viewed by punt. Alternatively, there is an excellent circular walk which starts at the train station, and takes you past many of Cambridge’s highlights, including the year-round picturesque Backs.

Parker’s Piece

Football fans will want to visit Parker’s Piece, a 25-acre windswept common near the centre of the city, for it's widely believed that the basic football association rules were formulated here in the 19th century. To this day the verdant area – named after Edward Parker, a cook who leased the land from Trinity College – remains a popular spot to kick a ball around and picnic, as well as hosting a number of festivals and fairs.

Parkers Piece Cambridge

Where to eat in Cambridge

Cheap and cheerful

The Urban Larder on the bustling Mill Road is a friendly café and deli with a Scandi vibe, serving goodies such as toasties and cakes, and delicious coffee. Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street has been serving its famous Chelsea buns since 1920 and is something of an institution when it comes to afternoon tea. There’s also another branch on Bridge Street.

Mid-range

The Old Bicycle Shop on Regent Street used to be… you guessed it… a bike shop. Indeed, it’s rumoured that former university student Charles Darwin bought a bicycle here in the 1800s. These days it’s a buzzing bar and restaurant, which serves a fresh, locally-produced menu. Vegan? King Street’s Stem & Glory has garnered many an award for its innovative plant-based dishes.

Fine dining

The two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House is the place to go for a push-the-boat-out (or should that be punt?) meal. Located in a Victorian villa on Midsummer Common, on the banks of the River Cam, the setting is sublime. So, too, the cooking: chef Daniel Clifford offers a set lunch menu and an eight-course tasting menu, with such delights as roasted brill served with cockles and pickled morels, and lemon posset with olive oil cake and a black olive tuile.

Where to drink in Cambridge

One thing you won’t be short of in Cambridge is the chance to order a good old-fashioned pint or a craft cocktail. The city is teeming with drinking establishments. The Mill on the grassy banks of the river is ideal for sipping a real ale while punt-spotting. The Anchor has equally as good a riverside spot, or you can make the 20-minute stroll to the nearby village of Grantchester and reward yourself with refreshments in the thatched The Red Lion. For cocktails, join the sundowner crowd at the rooftop terrace bar at The Varsity Hotel. Passion fruit martini anyone?

Where to stay in Cambridge

For old-school glamour, stay at the newly-opened and uber-swanky University Arms, the work of architect John Simpson and interior designer Martin Brudnizki. The rooms are all beautifully appointed and the hotel’s restaurant Parker’s Tavern has a quintessentially English brasserie vibe. There are B&Bs and then there is Duke House. This converted townhouse – once the home of alumni HRH Prince Richard, the Duke of Gloucester – offers five tastefully-decorated en-suite rooms. For that truly authentic university feel, stay in a student room. Available during the winter, Easter and summer holidays, beds are available from as little as £49 per night.