City guides

Cambridge city guide: Best things to do and where to stay for a culture-packed UK break

Ancient colleges, leafy spaces and punting on the river abound in this charming English city, but there’s plenty more to it, says Mary Novakovich

Friday 02 June 2023 12:33 BST
Punting on the River Cam – a quintessential Cambridge experience
Punting on the River Cam – a quintessential Cambridge experience (Getty Images)

For centuries, Cambridge’s venerable colleges have made the city centre one of the most exquisite in Britain. A short walk through the historic centre reveals such beauties as King’s College and its gothic chapel, Trinity College, Jesus College and Christ’s College. Countless cyclists bumping along on cobbled streets help to keep Cambridge’s position as Britain’s premier bike city, with designated lanes and routes all throughout this mercifully flat place (just keep an eye out for them when crossing roads).

There’s an unmistakably cultured air around the central colleges, amplified by the city’s fine collection of museums and busy calendar of cultural events. Wander round the narrow backstreets to stumble upon tiny pubs and independent shops, and leave the city centre to go south to Mill Road and experience its range of diverse food shops and restaurants, with cuisines from around the world.

What to do

Fitzwilliam Museum

Leave aside plenty of time to appreciate the half a million or so works that make the Fitzwilliam Museum so compelling. The enormous ceramics collection gives a clue to the sheer scale of artworks and objects contained within this sprawling neoclassical building. Titian, Michelangelo, Rubens, Pre-Raphaelites, Impressionists, Picasso, Matisse, Hepworth, Riley – they’ll do for starters.

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Visit the Fitzwilliam Museum for some of the finest collections of antiquities and modern art in western Europe (Getty Images)

Kettle’s Yard

This is one of the most delightful small museums you’re likely to come across. Kettle’s Yard is the old home of former Tate Gallery curator Jim Ede and his wife Helen, who spent years collecting works of art from various friends – who happen to include Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis and Barbara Hepworth. Their house is pretty much how it was left, with the Edes’ personal items among the artworks, and chamber concerts are held in the main room that looks like an architect’s Seventies dream project.

Punting on the Cam

The sight of punts being rowed on the River Cam on a sunny day is one of the quintessential images of Cambridge. You can take a tour with someone else doing all the work, or you can rent a punt and have a go yourself. Either way, you can slowly take in marvellous views of the Cambridge colleges that back on to the river. Scudamore’s, at the bottom of Mill Lane, is the original Cambridge punting company, and it offers self-hire as well as boat tours.

Enjoy all that green space

Cambridge is full of public parks, commons, meadows and nature reserves, many of which are along the River Cam. Stroll along the riverside walk of Midsummer Common and its neighbour, Jesus Green, where Jesus Green Lido, the largest pool in Cambridge, beckons on a hot summer’s day – bear in mind that it’s unheated.

Parker’s Piece, among the many green spaces in Cambridge (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Further south beyond the Backs, lose yourself in the greenery of Coe Fen, which makes you feel as if you’re in the middle of the countryside. The Cambridge University Botanic Garden has 40 acres of landscaped gardens and more than 8,000 plant species from around the world (and the Garden Café is definitely worth popping into).

Best time to visit

Although the students are away during the summer, that’s when tourist numbers soar. Late spring is lovely and green, while the autumn just before term starts is enchanting as the city’s trees change colour.

Where to stay

The Varsity Hotel & Spa

The Varsity Hotel & Spa has one of the most appealing locations in the city: right on the River Cam by Magdalene College, and very close to Jesus Green. Its 41 sophisticated rooms are set in a contemporary building joined to a 19th-century former brewhouse, where you’ll find the spa and gym. Head to the roof terrace bar for cocktails and some of the best views in the city. There’s a good restaurant, Six, on the sixth floor (with more fabulous views), as well as the River Bar Steakhouse overlooking the river.

University Arms

Cambridge’s oldest hotel is also one of its most elegant. University Arms dates from 1834 and is sheer class, from the marble columns in the coach gate entrance to the sumptuous and extremely cosy library-like lounge. Its 192 book-filled rooms recall the Edwardian era in its décor, but come with a few mid-century touches. Try to get a room that looks out over the greenery of Parker’s Piece next door, and take a ride on one of the hotel’s free bicycles. The excellent restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, does creative British cuisine beautifully, using East Anglian ingredients.

The Orlando

About a five-minute walk from the railway station is the The Orlando, an affordable and laid-back boutique hotel in a Victorian house. Its eight rooms are light and airy, with white walls and artful splashes of colour. There’s 24-hour keyless access, and the owner leaves a simple breakfast in your room fridge. Doubles from £105

Read more on the best hotels in Cambridge for historical charm and luxury spas

Where to eat

Old Bicycle Shop

This nicely ramshackle bar and restaurant housed in a former 19th-century bicycle shop has a varied menu that leans heavily towards the Mediterranean and Middle East, with hints of North Africa. But Old Bicycle Shop is also a convivial spot for brunch, serving eggs in classic ways (Benedict, royale, etc), plus pancakes and cheesy croque monsieur and madame. It’s a popular place, so it’s worth booking ahead.

Market Square

Among the food stalls in Market Square, there’s a good selection of street food from around the world. Among the stalls selling noodles, dim sum, paella and wraps are ones specialising in Nigerian, Brazilian, Cypriot and Goan food.

Little Petra

Having outgrown their old tiny café in multicultural Mill Road, Little Petra moved into larger premises on Hills Road in early 2023. But this family-run restaurant is still serving generous portions of Jordanian food, including a big selection of hot and cold meze dishes, grilled meats and slow-cooked mains such as the spicy chicken and chickpea yakhanah dajaj.

Polonia Club

It’s a bit out of the way on Chesterton Road, but the Polonia Club is the place to fill up on affordable Polish soul food. Pack away the pierogis and dive into big bowls of bigos stew and crunchy fresh salads.


It’s worth booking ahead at this colourful Mill Road stalwart if you want to enjoy a relaxed evening gorging on Bedouin’s North African specialities. Start with brik pastries filled with feta, chilli and spinach before feasting on a spicy tagine of lamb shanks, seven vegetables or seafood.

Where to drink

Cambridge Wine Merchants

Cambridge Wine Merchants have three branches, and the one on Bridge Street comes with a lively wine bar near the river. The wine menu has some excellent choices along with beers, ciders, aperitifs and gins, plus plates of charcuterie, cheeses and other snacks. When the weather is fine, grab a table outside for views of Magdalene Bridge. If you want to do some wine shopping afterwards, have chat with the knowledgeable staff.

The Elm Tree

If you like Belgian beers and real ale in a warm, candlelit setting, squeeze yourself into the Elm Tree pub in narrow Eden Street north of Parker’s Piece. Help yourself to one of the board games, and, as there’s no kitchen, you’re welcome to bring your own snacks. Turn up on a Sunday and there’s likely to be live music.

The Free Press

If the Elm Tree is full, the Free Press is only a minute away on Prospect Row. Open fires and a snug keep things cosy in this historic pub that’s been going since 1834. The lunch and dinner menus are a cut above the usual pub fare, so you might want to book ahead. The garden is a pleasant area on fine days.

Where to shop

Cambridge Cheese Company

Walk into dinky little All Saints’ Passage around the corner from St John’s College and you’ll see the Cambridge Cheese Company, a must-stop for any cheese lover. The selection of cheeses is superb: among local British cheeses are high-quality cheeses from all over Europe. The deli is fully stocked with equally moreish foods: charcuterie, pasta, oils, olives, condiments, tinned fish, meze, biscuits and chocolates, as well as wine, beer and cider.


Ark’s slogan is “gifts for interesting people”, and it’s the place to go to hunt down presents that are more unusual than those you’d find in high street chains. Browse its quirky selection of homewares, jewellery, children’s toys, clothing and accessories for gifts that are out of the ordinary.

St John’s College – not far from a rather cheese shop (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The Hockney Gallery

Among the shops along Bridge Street there’s one that stands out. Look out for the façade painted in a fantastically bright shade of blue – suitably so, for it’s the home of the Hockney Gallery. Fans of David Hockney can check out the wonderful collection of Hockney limited-edition posters, prints and books on one of the country’s greatest living artists. You don’t have to make an appointment, so just pop in and have a look around.

Architectural highlight

In a city of architectural marvels, King’s College Chapel stands out in all its regal glory. Founded by King Henry VI in 1441, it dominates the stately King Parade; its gothic vaulted interior and Harrison & Harrison organ are quite awe-inspiring. There are usually free organ recitals every Saturday, and you can hear the renowned King’s College Choir during services and special choir concerts.


What currency do I need?

British pounds.

What language do they speak?


Should I tip?

If a tip isn’t already included, add 12.5 per cent.

What’s the time difference?


How should I get around?

The city centre is easily walkable, and, of course, bike friendly. You can rent e-scooters or e-bikes with Voi, or conventional bikes from City Cycle Hire, among other agencies. If you’re arriving by train, it’s about a 20-minute walk to the centre. There’s a park-and-ride in Trumpington, which is about 10 minutes from the city centre.

What’s the best view?

Climb the 123 steps to the top of the tower of Great St Mary’s, the University Church, for wonderful panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside.

Insider tip?

Film fans should head over to Market Square for free monthly outdoor screenings from May to August.

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