Insider guide to Cambridge
This university city with a whole lotta history, fantastic architecture, excellent restaurants and plenty of green space is SO deserving of your next weekend break.
Cambridge is dam good looking (we’d swipe right if it was on Tinder). Strolling around you’ll swoon at each alleyway, courtyard, church, red brick college, willow-lined riverbank and handsome punter. You can see and feel the history at every turn, from an off-shoot of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree outside Trinity College to King’s College chapel’s spires piercing the skyline.
The River Cam meanders through its heart, a punt along which is a must to experience the city from a whole different perspective. Kids will feel like they’ve stepped into a chapter of Harry Potter as they enter bookshops that wouldn’t look out of place in Diagon Alley and as for food and drink, all we can say is pack an outfit with an elasticated waist because this city is punching above its weight when it comes to quality pubs, bistros, restaurants and bars.
Let’s start with brunch. We love The Old Bicycle Shop as not only is the food belt-bustingly good – from avo toast to eggs Florentine – but the themed bike décor makes for a really enjoyable/Instagrammable experience. It used to be the home of Howes Cycles, the country’s oldest bicycle shop, and apparently Charles Darwin bought a set of wheels here in the 19th century, fact fans!
Another top spot for brunch and a Muddy favourite is Cambridge Cookery, a cookery school with cool Scandi-style café and bistro. Expect dishes like shakshuka and a traditional Swedish breakfast platter, including rye, cured cucumber, herrings, egg and caviar.
Moving on to lunch *loosens belt*. For people-watching while tucking into tapas like chorizo and patatas bravas, enormous sharing platters laden with dips and flatbreads and main courses like moules frites, try The Senate Bistro. Overlooking the impressive white senate house (where students have their graduation ceremonies) in the centre of town, it’s a great pit spot during shopping/sightseeing.
Vegan? Hunt out Thrive Cambridge a cafe based around sustainable, plant-based food and the brainchild of a group of friends who bravely launched it at the end of the first lockdown in July 2020. It has a garden terrace, venue for occasional live music/yoga/workshops and a terrific little menu, think roasted sweet potato and quinoa salad or creamy garlic mushroom pie and beetroot slaw, plus a great range of cakes.
Afternoon tea is best taken in the dreamy setting of the Gonville Hotel’s pretty garden, where bunting, a wood bar and deckchairs might make you want to prolong the experience into the early evening. Or try Browns Cambridge for a very indulgent Champagne AT with savouries, scones, mini cakes and puddings.
If you actually have any room left for an evening meal, then you have to try the food at Fin Boys (open Wed-Sun), a funky fish plaice (sorry, couldn’t resist) which opened in the middle of lockdown. Situated on hip Mill Road, it’s run by chefs Jay Scrimshaw (formerly of street food joint Guerrilla Kitchen and a Gordon Ramsay’s F Word finalist) and Richard Stokes (Three Horseshoes, Parker’s Tavern). A seafood platter’s the thing to order.
Parker’s Tavern’s a Cambridge institution, dating back to 1834 and serving exquisite comfort food in a classic setting; think Sirloin steak with all the trimmings.
Craving carbs? Family-run La Mimosa has been around for 40 years and has a garden right by the River Cam, so you can scoff pizza and pasta while watching the punts glide by. The walled garden of The Oak Bistro’s another special space that feels like you’re somewhere a bit in-the-know.
Ok we know it’s a chain, but we confess we’ve got a soft spot for The Ivy Cambridge Brasserie on Trinity Street. It’s hard to resist the plush velvet seating, modern art and fabulous vintage posters on every available wall space. Also, you can turn up in your jeans mid-shopping trip, but can also go all out and dress up and either way you won’t feel out of place.
If your idea of a decent night out is dining, drinking, dancing, live music and theatre, all in close proximity, then you’re gonna love The Town and Gown. This lively bar with cool decor – vintage wood, exposed brick, brass fittings, giant barrels upcycled into banquette seating – has a top floor fringe theatre and live music venue. It’s adjacent to hip cocktail bar Ta Bouche so definitely a great location if you want a good night out without having to trek to various venues around town.
Muddy Awards 2021 best bar winner NOVI’s a popular haunt with students and residents alike thanks to its roof terrace, gold-topped bar, botanical cocktails and craft beer. We’re partial to a sloe down – sloe gin, crème de mure, berry & balsamic shrub, lemon bitters, soda.
The Punter, a minute from the quayside, is a great place for a pre- or post-punt drink, with a sun-soaked outside space full of fauna, laidback vibes and super-friendly service. The Waterman also has a lovely little beer garden, screen (we watched Wimbledon here once), unpretentious, tasty food, some cosy rooms and excellent, fast service – order from the city club app and your drinks and food appear like magic.
Just-opened The Fellows House Hotel is a short walk from the city centre (around ten minutes) and has suites boasting small kitchens, living rooms with sofa beds and lots of extras like books and tea-making facilities, so it’s an ideal family getaway. There’s also a low-lit bar with great cocktails (try the Day Dreamer made from gin and strawberries), bikes for exploring the city and some really impressive pieces of art work connected to famous Cambridge fellows, such as Stephen Hawking. Its pool, sauna and steam room make a welcome place to unwind after a day sightseeing.
Another new opening this summer is Graduate Cambridge part of the US chain of hotels set in University towns. It’s on the edge of the River Cam and definitely one to book if you like a bit of a scene.
Gonville Hotel’s our special occasion stay (think anniversary, birthday or mini moon), where rooms with freestanding tubs overlook Parker’s Piece or the lovely garden and there are Bentleys available for guided tours of the city.
Just around the corner lies The University Arms, a huge and impressive hotel with a fancy restaurant, fab bar, cosy panelled library and interior sporting touches (did you know the rules of footie were made up on nearby Parker’s Piece?).
It’s sleep/dine/drink repeat at The Varsity Hotel & Spa, where sixth floor restaurant and bar SIX has all the views. Sip house special Where’s My Yacht? (vodka, lime, honey, cucumber and sparkling Brut), then enjoy some chicken Milanese straight from the wood stone oven.
Cambridge’s Grand Arcade houses dozens of high street stores – Allsaints, Hobbs, John Lewis, The White Company – but it’s the gorgeous independent stores, tucked away in narrow streets and alleyways, that get our pulse racing.
Hunt out The Haunted Bookshop, in a passageway seconds from King’s College chapel, to browse the shelves for illustrated children’s books, local novels and other fiction.
Fantasia pop up on Rose Crescent is where you’ll find vintage bits you don’t necessarily need but will certainly want to buy, like silk kimonos, Gucci gowns and antique rugs.
Ark – Gifts For Interesting People does what it says on the tin….filled with all kinds of quirky bits, like Mona Lisa art socks and Bauhaus-style chess sets.
Don’t miss a visit to Nomad’s Cambridge, an Aladdin’s Cave of trinkets from all round the world, and take inspiration from Alexa Chung and pick up a gorgeous leather bag from The Cambridge Satchel Company.
Special mention for Cambridge Market Square, one of the classiest markets you’ll encounter in the UK, with stalls selling everything from straw boaters and books to grilled halloumi and jewellery, all of it top quality stuff.
You can’t visit Cambridge without having a punt on the river. Best in the biz are Rutherfords Punting, who will glide you down the River Cam beneath the bridges (including Bridge of Sighs. Yes, there’s also one in Venice), throwing in plenty of interesting facts along the way and even letting you have a go at punting – cue lots of pictures and ‘What a punt’ captions on Instagram. Btw punt is latin for ‘push’, a little fact we learnt along the way.
Cambridge colleges are brimming with more culture than you can shake an encyclopedia at, so whether it’s your first or fifteenth visit, it’s worth booking a tour with The Cambridge Tour Company, as there’s always something new to discover. We enjoyed the wit and flow of facts from our guide, a former graduate, who left us more knowledgable – there are 31 colleges in Cambridge, Henry VIII’s obese body exploded after he died, Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap (as well as discovering the laws of gravity) and Lord Byron used to call William Wordsworth ‘Turdsworth’ – and with an extra laughter line or two.
While a student at Christ’s College, Charles Darwin was mentored by Professor John Henslow who established Cambridge University Botanic Garden, which has more than 8000 species of flora and fauna you can still stroll around today.
Cambridge Arts Theatre is the winner of Muddy Awards 2021 best theatre and we can see why it garnered so many votes, running a packed, varied schedule of plays and comedy; think everything from The Hound of the Baskervilles to Horrible Histories and panto.
If you’re got a mini nature-lover in your clan then check out family events at the Botanic Garden, such as marvellous moths and mystery trail activities – see the website for what’s on when you visit.
Herd about Cows About Cambridge? A trail of 90 cows scattered around the city (until the end of Sept when they’ll be auctioned off), all decorated by a different artist. My taxi driver to the station said he’d yet to find them all with this kids, so this might be too mighty a mission for a weekend break!
Cambridge Science Centre might sound a bit high brow for the summer hols, but there’s actually some fun stuff on, like discovering dinosaurs, so your kids are unwittingly learning stuff without realising, joy. Ditto the University Museum of Zoology where they can check out well-preserved animals and skeletons, including a box of beetles collected by Charles Darwin and a massive whale fin.
Parker’s Piece is Cambridge’s equivalent of Central Park, with a giant ferris wheel and acres of immaculate grass to run, jump around and generally let off steam on – ideal for anyone who has been told to speak in hushed tones in a museum for a leeetle too long.
Finally, check out the huge gold Corpus Clock on the corner of Trumpington Street. It’s worth more than a million pounds, was unveiled by Stephen Hawking and has a demon locust-like creature on the top called a Chronophage (that’s time-eater in Greek). Let the kids discover how to tell the time by the blue lights whizzing around in circles, which is surprisingly fun and time-consuming (!) when you’re ten (or 47).
On the move?
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