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Best hotels in Cambridge for historical charm and luxury spas

From Nobel Prize winners to heads of state, many have passed through the historic university city. If you’re planning on retracing the footsteps of some of the greats, Valerie Teh has selected the best places to stay

Valerie Teh
Friday 14 April 2023 17:01 BST
Beautiful Cambridge is perfect for a city break
Beautiful Cambridge is perfect for a city break

I fell in love with Cambridge as a bright-eyed 17-year-old, wandering along the banks of the River Cam, through pastures dotted with grazing cows, and into revered colleges with lofty spires. Like me, many have felt the pull of this historic city, from Nobel Prize winners to heads of state who have passed through the university.

However, there is much more to this city than its famous higher education halls. After all, around 5.3 million people venture to the riverside location every year, each as eager as the last to soak up its rich history and architecture.

The hospitality scene has thankfully developed since my student days. Visitors now have a whole host of activities to choose from: you could visit one of the many museums found in town, dine in some of the most romantic restaurants, visit the Botanic Gardens or of course punt down the river – it’s not quite Venice, but it’s pretty close.

Thankfully there’s also a wide range of hotels to suit every taste, style and budget too. From the hip to the high-end or homely digs, Cambridge has it all. Though it is worth noting that this is not the city for cheap accommodation...

The best view in town: Varsity Hotel & Spa

Neighbourhood: Quayside

Gaze over Cambridge's dreaming spires on top of the The Varsity's roof terrace

When the Varsity launched in 2011, it immediately became the place to see and be seen in Cambridge. The brainchild of a group of Cambridge graduates, the all-encompassing but unassuming boutique hotel is comprised of 48 sleekly decorated rooms, two popular restaurants, a full-service gym and Elemis spa. That’s not to mention that there is also one heck of a view from its seventh-floor roof terrace, conveniently packaged into two buildings in the city’s buzzing Quayside area.

The spectacular view alone justifies a visit, and on any given day, you’ll likely find yourself taking in the sight of college spires and punts floating along the Cam alongside young locals and university students celebrating a special occasion.

Best hotel for the college experience: Christ’s College Cambridge

Neighbourhood: all over the place

Sleep where the greats slept at Cambridge Christ's College

Cambridge is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world, and no visit would be complete without exploring some of the 31 colleges that make up the city’s educational establishment. Most are open to walk-in visitors, but if your trip happens to coincide with Christmas, Easter or the summer months, you can book to stay in a student room. Follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin by spending the night at Christ’s College, or take in the Gothic architecture of King’s College after hours from the dorms across the road on Bene’t Street.

Best hotel for old school glamour: University Arms

Neighbourhood: City Centre

Take a soak in one of the University Arms' opulent rooms

Following an £80m revamp led by architect John Simpson (whose previous projects include parts of Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace) and interior designer Martin Brudnizki (responsible for the refurb of restaurants including The Ivy and Annabel’s), the University Arms reopened in August 2018 to great fanfare. With a grand new porte-cochere as its entrance, marble-adorned communal areas, a restaurant helmed by Gordon Ramsay protege Tristan Welch, and 192 rooms – each filled with curated books and art – it’s Cambridge accommodation shifted into a higher gear.

Best B&B: Duke House

Neighbourhood: City Centre

Relax in the newly refurbished Duke House B&B

Not all bed and breakfasts are born equal. Steeped in history and character, Duke House was formerly owned by the Duke of Gloucester when he was a student at Magdalene College. Sensitively refurbished by former designers Liz and Rob Cameron, the property currently offers five en-suite double bedrooms and a self-catering apartment. Its central location next to Christ’s Pieces, one of the city’s oldest green spaces, means you are only a few minutes away from Cambridge’s key attractions.

Price: Doubles from £140

Book now

Best hotel for families: Gonville Hotel

Neighbourhood: Petersfield

Enjoy a aperitif at the Gonville's atrium bar

With complimentary tours of the city in a Bentley S1, free use of the hotel’s Bobbin bikes to explore the riverside and quaint villages nearby, and a calendar of outdoor cinema screenings and live jazz during the summer months, there’s truly something for the whole family at The Gonville. In addition to 92 well-appointed bedrooms a few minutes’ walk from the city centre, the hotel is also home to a decadent Espa spa and two well-liked fine dining restaurants. Dogs are also welcome, so your four-legged family members can join in fun.

Best hotel for design: Clayton Hotel

Neighbourhood: Cambridge Station

The Clayton Hotel is characterised by its chic design

The Clayton Hotel is at the heart of a multi-million pound development next to the city’s train station. While the hotel occupies a relatively new building, it achieves a sense of chic cosiness thanks to the attention paid to its design – think plush velvet seats in front of wood-panelled bookcases – perfect for winding down after a day on the cobbled streets of Cambridge. Its rooms are comparatively generous in size, light-filled and decorated with Cambridge blue as an accent colour.

Best hotel for museum hopping: Hotel du Vin

Neighbourhood: City Centre

Culture vultures will find that Hotel du Vin is perfectly located

Set in five former University of Cambridge buildings on Trumpington Street, the Cambridge outpost of the Hotel Du Vin chain retains much of the quirk and character of its former setting while offering its guests the comforts of an urban boutique hotel. Its 41 bedrooms feature jewel-toned interiors and Egyptian cotton bedding – just what you need after a day exploring the treasures within the nearby Fitzwilliam Museum and Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Best value for money: ibis Cambridge Central Station

Neighbourhood: Cambridge Station

The ibis is a clean and contemporary option for those on a budget

The largest hotel in Cambridge also happens to be one of the best if you’re on a tighter budget. Just steps away from Cambridge train station, AccorHotels’ first property in the city was designed to meet the needs of a budget traveller without compromising on experience. Convenient location aside, the hotel’s 231 rooms are contemporary, the coffee artisanal, and there are meeting rooms aplenty if you are travelling for business.

Best hotel for ethics: The Regent

Neighbourhood: Petersfield

Thankfully, you don't need to understand what's written on this wall to enjoy the Regent Hotel

The Regent has so much going for it: from its history (the handsome Georgian building housed the very first students of Newnham College, Cambridge) to its location overlooking Parker’s Piece, where the rules of association football were first formed in the mid-19th century. The hotel holds an ethical stance; they are not only an accredited living wage employer, but also source fairtrade items for its grab and go breakfast and toiletries, which are free from parabens and animal-based ingredients.

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