Take a punt on the picturesque university city this winter and you'll be rewarded with fine architecture and food, a classical music festival and an outdoor ice rink.

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Why go now?

Winter arrives next Saturday with the opening of the popular outdoor ice rink (1) on Parker's Piece (to 3 January, cambridgeonice.co.uk). The triennial Cambridge Music Festival (01223 350544; cammusic.co.uk) starts tomorrow and runs to 29 November. The festival's theme is evolution, linking various musical forms to creation, nature, and the passing of time in our universe. The event will host classical, jazz and international musicians, from both local groups and professionals. Highlights include Samba in the Market, a performance of Haydn's Creation by King's College Choir, and the Swingle Singers. The work of Charles Darwin, who came to study here in 1827, is also celebrated in the city.

Touch down

Cambridge station (2) is 45 minutes from London King's Cross. There are also regular services from Norwich, Birmingham New Street, Leicester and Peterborough; 0845 748 4950 or nationalrail. co.uk for times and fares. While the city has its own airport, the main gateway is Stansted, with hourly trains to Cambridge taking around 30 minutes.

Get your bearings

The River Cam bends around the north-west of the city, separating the central district from the residential band, and holds several attractive green spaces and most of the colleges within its arc. The picturesque college Backs run along the river, with the larger shopping streets located around the central Market Square (3) on the other side of the college "Fronts". The attractions of the city are evenly dotted throughout the pedestrianised centre, with roads solely for buses and taxis but watch out for the many cyclists. The tourist information bureau (4) has recently moved to the back of the Guildhall on Peas Hill. It opens 10am-5.30pm Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturday (0871 226 8006; visitcambridge.org). The bureau organises guided walking tours (01223 457574) and distributes self-guided maps, while the university has commissioned useful podcast audio walks (strideguides.com/cu).

Check in

A well-located budget option is Worth House (5) at 152 Chesterton Road (01223 316074; worth-house.co.uk), one of many independent B&Bs dotted along this road, and just a short walk to the river and college boathouses. Prices for a double start at 59 in November, including breakfast.

The Regent Hotel (6) at 41 Regent Street (01223 351470; regenthotel.co.uk) boasts a central location overlooking Parker's Piece in easy reach of the station, with 22 rooms priced from 99 per double, including breakfast.

Day One

Take a view

Impressive views over the city and colleges can be had from Castle Mound (7), site of the first settlement in Cambridge and a short walk north of the centre. From Quayside (8) and Magdalene College (9), follow Castle Street up the hill. From here, you can take in the spectacular rooftops and spires of the colleges and their chapels, including the magnificent King's College Chapel (10).

Take a hike

From Castle Mound, walk south-west along Northampton Street, which turns into Queen's Road. This runs along the western side of the Backs parkland that is beautiful all year round, but especially in late autumn when carpeted in rust-coloured leaves, which not only provides a pretty backdrop to the spectacular buildings, but means that views are unimpeded by foliage. At the junction with Garret Hostel Lane (11), you can take a diversion west to the University Library (12), which is staging an exhibition, A Voyage Round the World, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth (9am-6pm Monday-Friday, 9am-4.30pm on Saturday; free admission; lib.cam.ac.uk).

Heading east on Garret Hostel Lane, the pathway crosses the river and winds past Trinity College (13) en route to the hub of the city.

Lunch on the run

Quayside (8) and the nearby streets are bustling with eateries and cafs, including an ethnic mix of Italian, American, French, Vietnamese and Japanese joints. Teri-Aki on Quayside (01223 88 2288) serves tasty fresh sushi, while next door Henry's Caf-Bar (01223 324649) offers reliable, modern pub-grub, both with views of the river and punt station.

Window shopping

Visit the All Saints Garden Art & Craft Market (14), in a pretty garden on Trinity Street, for handmade gifts, including art, jewellery and ceramics. It is held every Saturday from 10am-5pm; in December, it runs from Wednesday to Saturday, weather permitting. The market (cambridge-art-craft.co. uk) has been an attraction for more than 30 years.

Cambridge has recently acquired a new shopping centre: the Grand Arcade (15), and chain stores have flocked in, but the narrow streets which wind away from the Market Square (3) are still lined with some independent boutiques.

An aperitif

Cambridge is packed with historic pubs, but the Eagle (16) at 8 Bene't Street (01223 505020) is particularly worth a visit. It was here that Crick and Watson announced their discovery of the form of DNA, and the rear RAF bar has graffiti burnt on to the ceiling that dates back from the Second World War.

If you prefer the sparkle of modern cocktail bars, head to Ta Bouche (17) in Market Passage for an interesting drinks menu, lively music and a glamorous crowd.

Dining with the locals

Alimentum (18), south of the centre at 152 Hills Road (01223 413000; restaurantalimentum.co.uk) is an award-winning addition to the city's restaurants, with original dishes sourced as ethically as possible. Try roasted duck breast with sweet potato, hazelnut and grapefruit, followed by an astonishing dessert: smoked milk jam mousse with caramel and honeycomb, served in a smoke-filled Kilner jar. Dining is far more affordable if you can take advantage of the early-bird's set menu at 18.50 for three courses, served before 7pm.

A popular option is Anatolia (19) at 30 Bridge Street (01223 362372; anatolia-cuisine.co.uk), a Middle Eastern spot with an indoor barbecue giving off mouth-watering smells to draw in hungry crowds. A set feast of meze and grilled meats costs 21.95 with a pastry and coffee to finish.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The stunning King's College Chapel (10) (01223 331250; kings.cam.ac.uk) and its choir offer a choral Eucharist service at 10.30am on Sundays in term time (with Evensong an alternative at 3.30pm), open free to the public. The building, facing the River Cam in one direction, and King's Parade in the other, was commissioned by Henry VI in the first half of the 15th century, and took nearly a century to complete.

Out to brunch

Clowns Caf (20) at number 54 on trendy King Street (01223 355711), serves delicious comfort food under its humble roof. The Italian owners offer a warm welcome, matching the cheery clown pictures covering the walls drawn by the equally happy customers. It opens 8am-11pm daily. The adventurous might like to wander south-east from the centre along bohemian Mill Road to find a gem of a caf, the Black Cat (21) at 2 The Broadway where you can indulge in French toast, maple syrup, fruit salad and delicious coffee blended on the premises; it opens from 9.30am on Sundays.

A walk in the park

Midsummer Common, grazed by Red Poll cattle, and Jesus Green are perfect for a riverside stroll and for admiring the coxes who weave their boat crews past the barges. These open spaces that contribute so much to Cambridge's character lie on either side of Victoria Avenue, which runs to the north of the city. Most college grounds (some charge admission) are open to the public who can amble through Gothic arches and spot famous trees, including Milton's mulberry in Christ's (22) and a descendant of Newton's apple tree in Trinity (13). Walking on the grass is strictly forbidden, and visitors are kept under surveillance by vigilant college porters.

Cultural afternoon

The Fitzwilliam Museum (23) has a nationally important collection of fine art (01223 332900; fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk), open noon-5pm on Sundays, 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, admission free. Even the Botanic Garden (29) in the south of the city (01223 336265; botanic.cam.ac.uk) is joining in with the evolutionary theme, with Plants That Bite Back, a celebration of Darwin's life-long studies into carnivorous plants (open 10am-4pm in winter, 4 entry).

Murray Edwards College (24) on Huntingdon Road (01223 762297; www.art. newhall.cam.ac.uk), open 10am-6pm daily, has one of the world's largest collections of women's contemporary art.

Take a ride

Hop aboard a punt on the uncrowded river in winter to enjoy the tranquillity of floating under the willows without the summer problem of noisy tourists jousting with punt-poles. The river affords some of the best views of the colleges and grounds, and the intricate footbridges which join the banks. Scudamore's (01223 359750; scudamores.com) offers self-hire punts from Quayside (8) or Mill Lane (25) for 18 an hour, or chauffeured tours from 12 per person, with more adventurous options such as treasure hunts and ghost tours.