While wandering among the streets and colleges of Cambridge, the imagination easily conjures up its famous alumni - Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf skinny-dipping in Byron's Pool, Sylvia Plath reciting Chaucer to the cows on Grantchester Meadow, Lord Byron keeping a bear on his staircase in Trinity College. Despite the throngs of shoppers and the exasperating traffic, Cambridge retains an atmosphere of ancient learning. College gateways lead to a world of tranquil paved courtyards, velvety lawns and spectacular buildings.
The A-list colleges such as King's, St John's and Trinity charge admission (£4.50, £2.20, £2.20 respectively), but if you don't want to spend any money, try Trinity Hall with its lovely gardens overlooking the river. Magdalene's 17th-century Pepys Library (open 2.30-3.30pm in term time), Emmanuel with its Wren chapel and Jesus College with carved Gothic arches in the cloister are other good options. Members of the public are also welcome to attend Evensong at King's College Chapel (term-time only, free admission).
The best free vantage point is Castle Hill, which once provided the city with fortifications but is now not much more than a grassy knoll. For £2 you can climb the 122 stairs of Great St Mary's in the heart of the city. Issam Kourbaj, artist-in-residence at Christ's College, is currently working on a project to install a camera obscura on top of Great St Mary's. If he can raise the £35,000 for a feasibility study, the new spire could be in place for the university's 800th birthday celebrations in 2008-9.
Nearby, the Cambridge Tourist Information Centre is on Wheeler Street near the market (0906 586 2526, 60p a minute; www.visitcambridge.org). The recently introduced Cambridge Visitor Card (£2.50) gives discounts on attractions such as punt hire, cinema and restaurants.
The Victorian Warkworth House (01223 363682) on the terrace of the same name near Parker's Piece offers en suite rooms and breakfast for £75 for a double. Victoriana is also the style at the Arundel House Hotel (01223 367701), near the river on Chesterton Road, where a minimum two-night weekend break for two costs £67.50 per person per night. Serviceable rooms at the Travelodge in the Cambridge Leisure Park on Hills Road (an easy bus trip or 20-minute walk to the city centre) are available from £29 in low season (0870 191 1601). Near the station, the Youth Hostel at 97 Tenison Road offers adult dorm beds including breakfast for £16 (0870 770 5742).
The city end of Mill Road offers some lively culinary options. Bruno's Brasserie at number 52 (01223 312702) offers adventurous dishes such as chicken liver parfait with sage and apricot toast, while the Café Adriatic, serving tasty Mediterranean fare, has recently moved to number 66 (01223 352836); try their black squid risotto (£9) or grilled squid salad with rocket (£12). Just north of the river at 17 Magdalene Street, delicious Vietnamese food is served up at Thanh Binh (01223 362456), which has the advantage of allowing you to bring your own bottle. The march of Thai cuisine has seen Mai Thai (01223 367480) take over the quaint Hobbs Pavilion overlooking Parker's Piece, while the Big Buddha (01223 358944), off Bridge Street opposite the 12th-century Round Church, offers more elegant food than its name suggests.
Visitors to central Cambridge are never more than a five-minute walk from the city's green lungs - its parks and commons. Jesus Green is an appealing destination for a stroll under the vaulting canopy of plane trees. Prior to 1496, it was the site of the Nunnery of St Radegund, founded in 1133. The name survives in the excellent pub called the St Radegund Arms nearby at 129 King Street.
Punting goes on throughout the year, with or without chauffeurs. The cost of hiring one of these crafts is £14/£16 for one hour, £10 per hour for two or more hours if you are prepared to punt yourself (instructions can be viewed on the St John's College website: www.joh.cam.ac.uk). Scudamore's (www.scudamores.com) owns a fleet of 150 pleasure punts operating along the River Cam.
Two contrasting museums have been given successful facelifts in the past year or so. The Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street (01223 332900; www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk) now has a lovely café and shop at its heart instead of a dingy unused courtyard. The permanent collections of paintings and artefacts are always worth a browse (free admission, 10am-5pm Tuesday-Saturday, noon-5pm Sundays). Young children will enjoy using the imaginative kits that can be borrowed from the reception desk. Until 11 December, an exhibition of exquisite illuminated manuscripts is on display here and in the University Library. When gazing at the Gospel of St Augustine on which Archbishop Rowan Williams was sworn in, it seems impossible to believe that this small book has been serving the same purpose since the 6th century.
The Folk Museum at the bottom of Castle Street re-opened earlier this year after a major redevelopment (01223 355159, £3 admission). Once an inn, its higgledy-piggledy rooms contain thousands of fascinating local artefacts, such as a trap for bedbugs. Newly installed panels tell stories of the city's colourful past.
Just a few steps up the hill is another Cambridge treasure. Kettle's Yard was the home of Jim Ede, a curator at the Tate, whose life's project was to create an artistic home environment out of several workers' cottages knocked through. The muted colours and exquisite arrangements of furniture, 20th-century paintings and objets trouvés achieve its founder's aim superbly (open 1.30pm-4.30pm, free admission after pulling the bell cord).
The towers of King's College Chapel are the iconic image of Cambridge. Seen from the Backs, the lifting and dropping of punt poles are the only indications that the River Cam flows gently along in the foreground.
ELY, AN ARCHITECTURAL OASIS IN THE FENS
The majestic towers of Ely Cathedral (right) sail on the Fenland skies, and the interior is equally magnificent; the £4.80 admission fee includes a guided tour (free admission Sundays and for services). The light-drenched Lady Chapel is reached via a passageway from the north transept (note that one window is sponsored by Tesco plc).
A tour of the Octagon Tower (£4, daily April to early November) allows you to marvel at the massive oak timbers brought from Bedfordshire in the 1320s, on which the unique lantern was constructed. The tour also takes you onto the roof for superb 360-degree views.
Ely is not just a one-hit wonder. It's also a great base for exploring Cambridge and Norwich by car or train. Today, the Ely-Cambridge rail journey takes 15 minutes, but transport wasn't always so straightforward. Ely means Eel-Isle, a reminder that before the fens were drained, punts were used to move between villages and in winter it was sometimes necessary to lace on skates. Archive film of both is shown at the Ely Museum at the Old Gaol on Market Street (01353 666655, admission £3).
It's possible to explore the town from the River Ouse by boat, but strolling is simpler: from the railway station to Riverside takes just a quarter of an hour, past barges and boats. The Boathouse Restaurant (01353 664 388; www.cambscuisine.com) menu features such delicacies as samphire, radish and berry salad (£5). Nearby, the Babylon Art Gallery is housed in an 18th-century warehouse (www.babylongallery.co.uk, free entry).
The Tourist Information Centre (tourism.eastcambs.gov.uk) is located in a building on St Mary's Street that was once home to Oliver Cromwell, and now contains a museum about his life (£3.75). Several listed buildings offer bed and breakfast, including No 11 Chapel Street (01353 668768) and 29 Waterside (01353 614329). Visitors with cars may prefer the Anchor Inn in the village of Sutton Gault (01353 778537; £80-£100 B&B for two). The famous Old Fire Engine House in Ely prides itself on its devotion to English cuisine (starters from £5, mains from £15; 01353 662582).
The 315ft spire of Norwich Cathedral is best seen from across the river at Pull's Ferry, where the honey-coloured stone used in its construction arrived from Normandy on barges.Reuse content