Cambridge city break travel guide: colleges, punting, things to do, hotels, restaurants

Why you should visit Cambridge 

Boasting “exquisite” architecture, “exuding” history and tradition, and renowned for its “quirky rituals”, Cambridge is a university town “extraordinaire”, said Lonely Planet. With its “tightly packed core of ancient colleges”, the “picturesque” riverside “backs” (college gardens), and many leafy green meadows, this gives the city a “more tranquil appeal” than “The Other Place”, as Oxford is known locally. 

This is a city that’s “too smart for its own good”, said Chris Haslam in The Times. “Leafy”, “dreamy” and “timeless”, Cambridge is a place where “the graffiti comes in Latin”. But there’s more to Cambridge than the “self-neglecting dons reading Greek in the snug” and the “champagne-slurping students punting on the Cam”.

A “semi-paradise” of parks, parapets, poetry and punts, the imagination “easily conjures its famous alumni”, like Newton, Darwin, Wordsworth and Plath, when wandering among the streets, colleges and river paths, said Susan Griffith in The Telegraph. It is also a city of “extraordinary” innovation and “cultural diversity”. 

Punting on the River Cam in Cambridge

Top attractions in Cambridge: things to see and do

University buildings

If you’re looking for culture, academia and charm all in one place, then Cambridge is England’s “finest holiday spot”, said Annie Hopkins on Culture Trip. Dating back to the 12th century, the various colleges of this “world-renowned” establishment are dotted around the city and “should be high on your must-do list”. The colleges are an “architectural marvel”, said And visitors can “stroll around most of them”, including King’s, Clare, St John’s, Peterhouse, Jesus, Magdalene, and Queens’. “All have their own character, and all are worth visiting.” Cambridge Alumni Tours provides walking and punting tours with Cambridge University students and graduates. 


“Seriously though, what is punting?” This is a question that Cambridge River Tours probably answers on a daily basis. “We need to clear one thing up right away”, punts are not gondolas, “nor do they bear more than a passing resemblance to them”. Punts are “flat bottomed boats and propulsion is done by pushing off the river bed using a big, long pole – of around 15 foot in length (5m if you’re using the metric system)”.

The River Cam

You need to get out on the river, said Chris Haslam in The Times. But do not be tempted by the “pushy touts” selling “overpriced and underwhelming” guided river tours. “Head instead to Scudamores at the Mill Pond” for punt or canoe rental. Downstream, past the colleges, is “where most tourists go”. Upstream is “more beautiful”. There’s also a “gorgeous” river walk to be had from going round the “backs” of the colleges, said CambridgeshireLive. “As well as admiring the stunning Gothic architecture of buildings, such as King’s College and St John’s, along your walk you will also see Cambridge’s iconic bridges too.”


Once you’ve seen the city’s colleges, head to The Fitzwilliam Museum, said You can explore a “treasure trove” of Egyptian antiquities and “artistic masterpieces” from major names like Degas and Canaletto. A fairly small city compared to London or Manchester, there are still more than 30 museums in Cambridge that feature a variety of exhibits, said Alice Smith on Adventures of Alice. “This ranges from art galleries to science museums, and everything in between.” Must-visit places include the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Scott Polar Research Institute (Polar Museum), University Museum Of Zoology, and the Museum of Cambridge.

Parks and open spaces 

One of the top 20 greenest cities in the UK, Cambridge’s relatively small size means that whether you’re “in the mood to lie on the grass” or go for a long country walk, “there’s options aplenty”, said Callum Davies on Culture Trip. Of the best parks and gardens in the city, favourites include Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Milton Country Park and Midsummer Common, said Wanderlog. Other outdoor highlights include Jesus Green in the city centre and Parker’s Piece, an open space used by locals to lounge around and play football and cricket on the grass. 

The library at the University Arms in Cambridge

Best hotels in Cambridge: where to stay 

Visitors looking for that “uniquely academic atmosphere”, without the physical exertion, will find it at the University Arms Hotel, said Julia O’Driscoll in her review for A Marriott Autograph hotel with a boutique feel, the University Arms is located on the corner of Regent Street and Park Terrace – and right on Parker’s Piece common. The original building dates back to 1834, when it operated as a coaching inn for traders passing through Cambridge. An £80m renovation, which saw the hotel reopen its doors in 2018, has preserved elements of this historic character and integrated mod-cons and comforts.

Praised for its “city centre elegance”, the University Arms also gets top billing on The Times’s list of best hotels in Cambridge. Hotel du Vin & Bistro is rated as the best for “Georgian style”, while Gonville Hotel is best for “all-out luxury”. 

Overlooking the River Cam and offering “stunning views”, the Graduate Cambridge is a “sophisticated” boutique hotel that’s just a short walk from the university and close to the historic centre, said The Luxury Editor. Meanwhile, The Varsity Hotel and Spa is one of the city’s “most luxurious” properties and also “conveniently located in the city centre” close to St John’s, Trinity, Jesus and Magdalene College.

Midsummer House has two Michelin stars

Best restaurants and pubs in Cambridge 


Just one restaurant in Cambridge currently has a Michelin star – and in fact Midsummer House has two of them. Located in a beautiful Victorian house and overlooking Midsummer Common, the chefs at this “creative” fine dining restaurant produce dishes that “continually evolve”, said the Michelin Guide. Although they have a “classic base”, dishes are “packed full of personality and originality”. Luxury ingredients are “generously used”, flavours are “measured”, there’s an “appealing range of different textures” and many of the dishes are finished off at the table.

Other restaurants in Cambridge recognised by the Michelin Guide include Mercado Central (Spanish), Restaurant Twenty-Two (modern cuisine), Vanderlyle (vegetarian), and Fancett’s (classic French). 


The city is “blessed” with dozens of “brilliant” pubs, clubs and bars, said CambridgeshireLive. A “popular choice” for locals and visitors alike, The Emperor is the top rated pub in Cambridge, while the Old Ticket Office, Calverley’s Brewery & Taproom, Queen Edith Pub, and the Sir Isaac Newton are also recommended. 

King’s College Chapel and King’s Parade in Cambridge

Transport: how to get to Cambridge 


Located on Station Road, one mile south east of the city centre, Cambridge railway station is an “elegant Grade II listed building with a long, classical façade”, said Trainline. It’s just a short walk from the city’s galleries, museums, and architecturally stunning colleges. Served by Greater Anglia and Great Northern, routes “typically” take Cambridge commuters into either London King’s Cross or London Liverpool Street, while other connections link the city with Ipswich, Ely and Norwich. CrossCountry also provides a service through Cambridge, taking passengers through to Stansted Airport or north to Birmingham.


Just over 60 miles between the two cities, it’s about a two-hour drive from Cambridge to London. To Birmingham (100 miles away) it’s between two and two-and-a-half hours, while Norwich (65 miles away) takes an hour-and-a-half. 

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