Ever since the first time I visited Cambridge back in 2015, it has been one of my favorite cities in England. The city is beautiful and of course, it is home to the world-famous Cambridge University. For a city of its size, there is much to see. I keep returning for more!
If you are planning a Cambridge day trip, I have some suggestions for things to do in Cambridge, where to eat, information on how to get to Cambridge, and some helpful tips for your visit.
Cambridge is best known for its university which was founded in 1209, making it the second oldest in the English-speaking world. (Only Oxford University is older) The scholars that founded it were fleeing Oxford University because of a dispute with the townspeople. Cambridge University now has 31 colleges, over 100 academic departments, and more than 20,000 students. Some of its famous alumni include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Oliver Cromwell, and nine monarchs.
In addition to the University there are a few other historical points that are interesting:
- Although Cambridge started to flourish once the university was founded, there is evidence that the area was settled all the way back in the Bronze Age.
- The Roman settlement in the area was called Duroliponte. Later it was known as Grentebrige or Cantebrigge. Eventually, the name of the city became Cambridge.
- In the Middle Ages, the city was hit hard by the plague. The Black Death almost wiped out the town north of the river.
- Cambridge played a significant role in the early part of the English Civil War as the headquarters of the Parliamentarian military effort before the formation of the New Model Army. In 1643 control of the town was given by Parliament to Oliver Cromwell.
- During World War II, Cambridge played an important role. It was the headquarters for the Royal Air Force units in the area. Cambridge also served as an evacuation shelter for over 7,000 people from London, as well as for parts of the University of London. Luckily, the town itself escaped much of the German bombing raids.
Cambridge in a Day: What to Do
For a small city, Cambridge has an impressive selection of things to do. There is something for everyone whether you are interested in history, art, adventure, or shopping. You will not be able to see it all in one day, so you will need to prioritize based on your preferences. Here are some suggestions for your Cambridge one day itinerary.
Tour the Cambridge University Colleges
The University is the heart and soul of this city, so a day trip to Cambridge would not be complete without visiting at least one of the 31 colleges. Each college has its own rules about entrance fees, what you can see, and when they are open. You can visit the colleges on your own or you can take this walking tour led by a graduate. The prices, hours, and what you are able to see vary depending on the college and the time of year.
Some of the most popular colleges to visit are:
- St. John’s College was founded in 1511 on the site of where the Hospital of St John once stood. Now, it is one of the largest of the Cambridge colleges. You can visit the Chapel, get a nice view of the Bridge of Sighs, and see the mix of old and new buildings.
- King’s College of Our Lady and St. Nicholas (more commonly referred to as King’s College) was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. The highlight of your visit will be going inside the King’s College Chapel (get more info in the churches section below). All the other buildings are private but you can wander around the grounds, which are beautiful.
- Queen’s College was founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou (the Queen of Henry VI) and refounded in 1465 by Elizabeth Woodville (the Queen of Edward IV). The only way to walk across the Mathematical Bridge is to go inside Queen’s College. You also get to visit the chapel and Old Hall.
- Trinity College was founded by Henry VIII in 1546, combining Michaelhouse and King’s Hall. Most of its major buildings are from the 16th and 17th centuries. You can visit the Great Court and the Chapel, just purchase your tickets inside the Great Gate. You can also visit the Wren Library, which was designed by Christopher Wren, for free. If you want to go inside the library enter the College through the side gate on Garret Hostel Lane or the Avenue off Queen’s Road. It is popular so don’t be surprised if there is a wait, they only allow 15 people inside at a time.
Punting is a special type of boat sort of similar to a gondola. The punter uses a pole to guide the punt down the river. You must experience punting on the Cam river when you do your Cambridge one day trip. If you are adventurous, I recommend trying to do the punting on your own.
If you are worried about falling in the river, then you might prefer to do one of the tours. A “professional punter” (i.e. college student) will do all the hard work and tell you some interesting stories about Cambridge.
Visit a Church
There are several lovely old churches to visit in Cambridge. These are the most popular:
- King’s College Chapel is the highlight of your visit to King’s College. It is one of the most stunning churches I have visited. The walls are mostly filled with stained glass and the work on the ceiling is incredible. It was started in 1446 by Henry VI (1421-71) and took over a century to build.
- The Round Church is officially known as Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It is the 2nd oldest building in Cambridge (only St Bene’t’s Church is older) and only one of four round churches in England. Inside you can watch the film ‘Saints & Scholars’ to learn more about the history of the University. They also have an exhibition called ‘The impact of Christianity in England.’ Admission to the Round Church is £3.50 and it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm and Sunday from 1:30 pm to 5:00 pm.
- St. Mary’s Church is known locally as Great St. Mary’s (GSM for short) and is the official church of the University of Cambridge. This grade one listed building dates back to the 14th century but a church was first established on this site around 1205. It is free to enter the church. You can purchase a brochure to do a self-guided tour for £0.50. For the best views in Cambridge, you can climb the 123 steps to the top of the tower. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Ely Cathedral. You will also get an up-close look at the famous bells and clock. In some cases, they may close the tower when the weather is bad for safety purposes. There is a small fee to climb St. Mary’s Church tower. You can pay the fee at the gift shop and it includes an informational leaflet.
Walk along “The Backs”
The name “The Backs” refers to the backs of the colleges. It’s a beautiful area that includes rear grounds of St John’s, Trinity, Clare, King’s, Queens’ Colleges. Historically, the Backs were used for grazing livestock or growing fruit. Sometimes you will still see cattle grazing behind King’s College. You can walk along the Backs but you will not be able to access some areas that belong to the colleges.
Cambridge Botanic Gardens
The Cambridge Botanic Gardens are also run by the University and admission is free. You will find over 8,000 different species of plants spread across 40 acres of landscaped gardens. The University does research here to address some of the world’s greatest future challenges like food security, climate change, and healthcare. The Botanical Gardens open daily at 10 am but depending on the season will close between 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm.
Cambridge has museums for many different interests! The museums are world-class and operated by the University, so they are all free to visit. You could easily spend your whole day in Cambridge visiting a few of these. Keep in mind that since these museums are operated by the University, some will close or have different hours when the University is not in session. It is best to confirm the hours here before you visit Cambridge.
The most popular museum is the Fitzwilliam. While it is mainly an art museum, it reminds me of the British Museum in London because it has a little bit of everything. The building has grand columns similar to the British Museum too. It’s not as big though, you can see it easily in a few hours. The Fitzwilliam Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and Sundays from 12:00 pm – 5:00 pm.
I also enjoyed the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. They have a collection of over 1 million artifacts that covers 2 million years of human history. I enjoyed seeing the artifacts from early settlements in the area and special exhibits on Egypt and Star Carr. The Museum of Archeology and Anthropology is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 am – 4:30 pm and Sunday from 12.00 pm – 4:30 pm.
Other museums include:
- Museum of Zoology – This museum is dedicated to showing the diversity of animal life. Their collection includes thousands of specimens such as elephants, giant ground sloths, giraffes, birds, reptiles, insects and mollusks. Some were discovered by the Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. The museum was renovated summer 2018. The Zoology Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 am – 4:30 pm.
- Museum of Classical Archaeology – This museum has one of the best collections of plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the world. The museum is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm and Saturdays during the university term from 10:00 am -1:00 pm. It is closed on Sundays.
- Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences – This is the oldest of the Cambridge Museums established in 1728. Over the years, their collection has grown to over 2 million fossils, minerals and rocks. The Sedgewick Museum is open Monday to Friday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm & 2:00 pm to 5:00 pm. Saturdays they are open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm and the museum is closed on Sundays.
- The Polar Museum – The Museum is part of the Scott Polar Research Institute which was established in 1920 to study the Arctic and Antarctic. You will find an extensive collection on the history of polar exploration. They offer two audio guide options one for adults and one aimed towards children. The Polar Museum is open 10 am – 4 pm from Tuesday to Saturday.
- Kettle’s Yard – This is not your typical art museum, it is a modern and contemporary art gallery. You do not need tickets to visit the galleries, shop or café. To go inside the House, you need to reserve free timed-entry tickets online here. Kettle’s Yard is open from 11 am – 5 pm Tuesday – Sunday.
- Whipple Museum of the History of Science – Their collection includes scientific instruments, models, prints, photographs, books and other material related to the history of science from the 17th to 19th centuries. Many were used for research at the University. Unfortunately, the museum is closed for renovations until early 2019.
Shop at the Cambridge Market
Trading in the Market Square in Cambridge dates back to the middle ages! When you visit Cambridge, take a little time to see what the merchants have to offer at the Cambridge Market. From Monday to Saturdays from 10 am – 4 pm, it’s a general market with a variety of goods like books, music, clothes, jewelry, local food, plants, and more. On Sundays, from 10 – 4 it turns into a local food, arts, and crafts market.
Places to Eat in Cambridge
The Cambridge restaurant scene is thriving, so there are plenty of options. Here are my recommendations for where to eat in Cambridge:
- The Pint Shop – In addition to the impressive selection of beer and other adult beverages, you will find a very creative food menu which changes frequently. They always have some vegetarian options.
- The Anchor – If it’s a nice day, this pub has an outdoor seating area right on the river. Perfect for relaxing and watching the punting. You can try some of the traditional English pub dishes like fish & chips, or a burger. They also some more upscale offerings.
- The Senate – At the Senate, all their food is locally sourced. If you get to Cambridge early enough, this restaurant serves a nice breakfast. For lunch, they have a nice selection of sandwiches, salads, and small plates.
Tips for Your Day Trip to Cambridge
A few things to keep in mind
- Check the opening hours for the attractions you plan on visiting during your Cambridge day trip. It can vary depending on whether the University is in session or not. Some museums and attraction close when the school does.
- Wear comfortable shoes. You will be on your feet most of the day so wear something that won’t hurt your feet. Many of the streets are cobblestone.
- Keep an eye out for the blue plaques. As you explore Cambridge, you will notice blue plaques that denote the spots where history happened. I seem to discover some new ones every time I visit.
- You can negotiate the price for punting. It is a very competitive market so the different companies may give you a deal, don’t be afraid to ask!
- Punting tours operate year around but if the weather is bad, you probably won’t enjoy it as much.
- Don’t forget your camera. Cambridge is a very photogenic city. We love our Sony A6000.
- Since there is lots to do, you may want to spend more than one day in Cambridge. There are plenty of hotel options in the city center. (Click here to check out the options)
How to Get to Cambridge From London
Cambridge is located about 50 miles north of London and you have a few options if you want to go from London to Cambridge:
- Train – This would be my recommended option. Trains to Cambridge from London leave from both London’s Kings Cross and London Liverpool Street Stations. The journey takes around an hour. Be sure to buy your tickets in advance and choose specific train times for the best deals. You can check schedules and prices here. Once the train arrives at Cambridge station, it’s about a 20-minute walk to the city center. If you prefer, you can also take a bus. Depending on where in Cambridge you want to go, you can choose from the U Universal, Citi 3, or Citi 1 buses.
- Drive – It’s not a bad drive from London to Cambridge. Depending on the part of London you start from, it could take 1 – 3 hours. Parking can be an issue though. We usually park in the Grafton Centre and then walk into the city. If you want a more central parking option try the Grand Arcade car park, but it is expensive.
- Park and Ride – If you don’t want to pay for expensive parking or deal with the hassle of driving in the city center, Park and Ride might be your best option. It costs £1 to park for up to 18 hours and then you can buy a £3 bus ticket to go to and from the city. You can also use this ticket to get on and off any park and ride bus all day. The Cambridge Park and Ride lots are located at Milton CB24 6DQ, Newmarket Road CB5 8AA, Madingley Road CB3 0EX, Trumpington CB2 9FT or Babraham Road CB22 3AB.
- Bus – You can take a National Express Bus from London Victoria Station to the Cambridge Parkside Bus Station in about an hour. The buses run from 7:30 am to 11:30 pm. You can walk from Cambridge Parkside to the city center in about 12 minutes. This will be the cheapest way to get to Cambridge from London. You can check the schedule, find out the fares, and book your bus ticket here.
- Cambridge Day Tour from London – If you prefer for someone else to handle all the logistics, you can take a Cambridge tour that picks you up in London like this one.
Have you been to Cambridge, England or would you like to visit? I would love to hear about your experience.
Expert Tips for Your Cambridge Day Trip
- You have plenty of choices for things to do in Cambridge so prioritize and plan ahead.
- The best way to get to Cambridge is to take the train. Be sure to book in advance to save on your ticket.
- Check the opening hours on the day you are planning to visit Cambridge for the attractions that you want to see. Many are closed on Mondays and when the University is not in session.
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