Things To Do In Cambridge in One Day
As one of the UK’s most popular – and historic – cities, it’s a wonder that it took us as long as it did to explore beautiful Cambridge. Having studied for our postgraduate degrees at Oxford University, we wasted too many years viewing Cambridge as inferior – not half as pretty and vibrant as our own home turf.
How wrong we were.
After finally booking an overnight stay in Cambridge, we quickly realised that the city really is just as beautiful and enjoyable as people had promised. Brimming with independent stores, cosy cafes, majestic colleges and quirky museums, Cambridge makes for the ideal day out.
Below is our round-up of 5 of the best things to do in Cambridge – all of which are great to stop by if you’re visiting the city for just one day. And if you’re thinking of staying longer? We’ve also thrown in information on our favourite hotel in Cambridge and a quick guide to the best places to eat in the city.
1. Visit the Cambridge Colleges
Like Oxford, Cambridge is a city that’s grown around its university; every alleyway, pebbled street and leafy road leading to one of its 31 colleges. Indeed, the University forms the city’s veins and lifeblood; remove them and you’d be left with an empty vessel.
During your day out in Cambridge, it therefore goes without saying that you must take the time to visit at least a few of these historic spots. With no one college the same and each proudly harbouring its own identity, architecture and atmosphere, visiting the Cambridge colleges is a fascinating experience.
King’s College, Cambridge
Now, no university should have its favourite college – but it’s difficult to overlook the spectacle that is King’s College, Cambridge and its gothic Chapel. Positioned in the very heart of historic Cambridge, King’s College was founded by Henry VI in 1441 and completed during the reign of Henry VIII. Its chapel – boasting one of the world’s largest fan vaults – is worth a visit alone.
Visit when the Chapel’s world famous choir are practicing and you’ll hear soaring harmonies escaping from the ancient doors.
Access to King’s College is not cheap, with an adult ticket costing £10. However, the ticket then offers you limitless access to the college for 12 months. Once inside, you’ll be able to roam not only the Chapel, but the college’s beautiful grounds – watching as punts drift lazily down the River Cam.
2. Peterhouse College, Cambridge
Unlike King’s College, many of Cambridge’s colleges offer free entry to the public (during certain times of the year, including during the summer break). One such college is the quietly beautiful Peterhouse. Claimed to be the oldest Cambridge college, founded by Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely in 1284, Peterhouse has witnessed not only the English Reformation, but the English Civil War.
The smallest of Cambridge’s colleges, we entered Peterhouse to find that we had the college almost entirely to ourselves.
Welcomed by smiling porters, we explored its historic dining hall and chapel, before walking around its peaceful quads. Although perhaps not top of your list of things to do in Cambridge, the Hall at Peterhouse is so worth a visit.
Completed in 1290 and in use for over 700 years, the Hall is said to be the oldest collegiate building in the entire University.
In particular, pay careful attention to the William Morris designed stained glass windows and the minstrel’s gallery, lined with historical portraits.
2. The Fitzwilliam Museum
The enormous, neo-classical building that houses Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is difficult to miss. Dwarfing the small antique stores that fill Trumpington Street, this grand pillard museum was built in 1845 and quickly became one of the city’s most handsome buildings.
Housing a collection of 114 paintings bequeathed to the University by Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, the museum is a leader in fine-art conservation. Offering visitors the chance to browse an ever expanding collection of items ranging from the Ancient Egyptians through to the paintings of Whistler, the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must see during your one day in Cambridge.
Free to enter, the Museum has some fantastic permanent and temporary exhibitions, including the beautiful ‘Fans Unfolded’ exhibition and the prints, etchings and lithographs of Whistler.
3. Browse Cambridge’s Antique and Book Stores
One of our favourite things to do in Cambridge is to browse its abundance of antique stores. Indeed, from retro vinyl stores to specialist and eye-wateringly expensive antique shops, Cambridge is full of rare and beautiful treasures. As such, and if spending just one day in Cambridge, ‘antiquing’ should be on your agenda.
In terms of second hand bookshops in Cambridge, we were more than a little intrigued by Sarah Key Books, The Haunted Bookshop. Said to host two resident (bookworm) ghosts, this hidden little bookstore not only brims with supernatural tales, but beautifully illustrated books. Pop in as dusk falls for a truly atmospheric experience.
4. Punting in Cambridge
Of course, no day trip to Cambridge would be complete with a punting trip along the river Cam. The ideal way to view the city, a punting tour will take you past many of the ‘backs’ of Cambridge’s most beautiful colleges.
When booking a punting tour in Cambridge, make sure you book through a licensed punt companies. A full list of the licensed punt companies in Cambridge can be found on Visit Cambridge’s website.
5. A Lazy Lunch at Fitzbillies
From one Cambridge institution to another: Fitzbillies.
Opening it doors on Trumpington Street in 1920, Fitzbillies has long been the place to come to enjoy its illustrious Chelsea Bun. A carefully guarded secret, the bun’s recipe is the stuff of legends – the mixture creating what is claimed to be one of the world’s stickiest treats. Glistening with golden syrup and plenty of cinnamon, these buns are worth a visit to Cambridge in themselves.
If buns don’t quite float your boat, then Fitzbillies offers a lovely wider menu, filled with a selection of mouth-watering cakes and savoury dishes, including a fantastic brunch menu.
Be warned, the place does get very busy and unfortunately it does not take bookings – so you may have to wait a little while to be seated. However, it’s more than worth the wait and a trip here is one of our favourite things to do in Cambridge.
Where to Eat in Cambridge
Aside from Fitzbillies, there are plenty of delicious places to eat when visiting Cambridge for the day. Below is a round-up of some of our favourite restaurants and cafes in Cambridge.
The Old Bicycle Shop
Having arrived for our own day out in Cambridge, we immediately headed to The Old Bicycle Shop; a bar and restaurant that had come highly recommended by friends.
Outwardly, this stripped back restaurant may not seem of enormous historical importance – yet the Old Bicycle Shop commemorates what is fondly thought to be a Cambridge institution. Prior to becoming a cafe, this spot once housed Howes Cycles – a resident on Regent Street for 173 years. Thought to be the place where Charles Darwin once bought his bike, Howes equipped generations of Cambridge alumni with Humber bikes to Swifts, Granta bikes to Lea-Francis models.
Today, the Old Bicycle Shop plays homage to its 2-wheeled past and not least via its name. Walk inside and you’ll discover a rustic feeling restaurant decorated with former handle bars fashioned into lights and saddles used as ornaments.
Not only beautiful, the restaurant also offers an excellent and locally sourced menu. Try their sweet potato pancakes or black rice pudding for a healthy, vegan treat.
Had we been staying another night in Cambridge, we would have certainly enjoyed dinner at Trinity restaurant.
Nestled in the heart of Cambridge, its windows glowing nightly with candles and soft lighting, Trinity is a relaxed and romantic spot. Offering fresh and beautifully presented dishes, Trinity has also, incredibly, been named one of top foodie hotspots in the UK; quite the feat for a restaurant that only opened in 2017.
Now, no day out in Cambridge would be complete without a drink in one of the city’s many watering halls – and where better than one that overlooks the city’s River Cam?
The Mill, situated (perhaps unsurprisingly) inside an original 19th century mill, is regularly cited as being one of Cambridge’s most iconic pubs. Although diminutive in size, the Mill offers outdoor seating in the summer (next to the idyllic Millpond) and cosy fires and board games in the winter.
Parker’s Tavern (University Arms)
Parker’s Tavern is the restaurant located within the University Arms Hotel. A cosy, recently refurbished brasserie offering traditional British dishes, Parker’s Tavern is the ideal restaurant for those looking for high quality food in a relaxed yet refined setting.
Where to Stay in Cambridge
If you’re looking for a hotel in Cambridge during your visit, look no further than the centrally located and beautifully refurbished University Arms.
Take your time to settle in here – wiling away the hours with piles of books, afternoon tea and come the evening time, sumptuous feasts. Hire one of the hotel’s Cambridge blue bikes and wheel your way through the city’s cobbled streets; a handmade picnic on your arm.
And when you’re done? Head back to your hotel for a cocktail, before sinking into one of the University Arm’s velvet sofas; watching as outside dogs and runners sprint across Parker’s Piece.
It’s a beautiful, luxurious and wonderful hotel.