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Cambridge is perhaps the perfect day trip from London.
A Cambridge day trip is a treasure trove of historical locations, quaint streets and beautiful buildings made famous over the centuries.
And with excellent transport links from central London, you can be punting along the River Cam past the world famous Cambridge University colleges in around an hour.
Though Cambridge was an important trading centre from Roman times, the town rose to prominence in the middle ages when the famous university was founded.
One of the most celebrated seats of learning in the world, Cambridge University was established in 1209 when some scholars from Oxford University fled after a dispute with the townspeople.
The university, its students its many beautiful college buildings are now the heart of the city.
This is a place where scholars weave through cobbled streets on bicycles, lounge by the river and make some of the world’s most profound discoveries.
Former alumni include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Sylvia Plath.
Cambridge day trip – what to see and do
Cambridge is a small city and easy to walk around. If you arrive by train it’s a half hour walk into town and the main tourist attractions down Station and Regent Streets.
You could also take the Citi 1 or Citi 3 bus from outside the station.
Tower at Great St Mary’s
Start your tour of Cambridge by climbing the 123 steps of the tower at 800 year old Great St Mary’s church opposite King’s College.
The view over King’s College Chapel is the best in Cambridge and extends over the colleges and the river Cam. The tower is open from 10am Monday to Saturday and from 12.15 on Sundays. Cost – £4 for adults – more information
King’s College Chapel Cambridge
Many people visit Cambridge just to see this extraordinary building – the King’s College Chapel. As you walk inside the huge space, you can’t help but be impressed by the largest fan vaulted ceiling in the world.
The light refracted from the medieval stained glass windows creates incredibly beautiful light inside the chapel.
The chapel is a Tudor masterpiece. Henry VIII ensured the work his father, Henry VII, commissioned at the chapel was completed.
If you look closely you will notice the Tudor roses that adorn the chapel walls and evidence of Henry’s marriage to the ill-fated Anne Boleyn – initials entwined in emblems that were not removed.
The chapel is open to the public at varying times throughout the year. Adult tickets cost £5 or you can join a guided tour for £16 (adults) – check opening times and more information
Cambridge punting tours
Of course when you’re in Cambridge you must go punting. You can try to navigate the River Cam on your own but I strongly recommend doing a punting tour.
Sit back and relax in the punt while your guide does all the hard work with the boat and tells you stories about the city and its famous residents.
A highlight of your punting experience is gliding under the city’s famous bridges including the Bridge of Sighs and Mathematical bridge.
Head to the Quayside Punting Station near Magdalene Bridge and you will find tours leaving regularly from 09:00am to dusk. In winter blankets are provided so you stay cosy on your tour.
The punting boat tour of Cambridge lasts 45 minutes. The cost for a shared boat tour (around 8-10 people in total) is £19 per person but you can get a decent discount if you book your tour online – click here for prices and more information
Cambridge University colleges
The Cambridge boat tours take you past many of the city’s famous colleges. The 31 colleges at the University of Cambridge were founded over its 800 year history and each have unique histories, architecture and stories.
It is possible to visit and tour many of the colleges year round although restrictions often apply in May when students are sitting their final exams.
Here are some of my favourite Cambridge colleges:
St John’s College
One of the oldest and largest colleges in Cambridge, St John’s was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII, in 1509. Her crest appears over the main entrance to the college.
Claiming William Wordsworth (and my grandfather!) among its alumni, the college flanks both sides of the River Cam.
The buildings are linked by the impossibly beautiful Bridge of Sighs, named after the bridge of the same name in Venice.
St John’s College Chapel was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who it is thought took inspiration from Sainte Chappelle in Paris.
You can visit and take tours of the college throughout the year – more information
Trinity College also has residences on both sides of the Cam and is famous for its Great Court (pictured above), Wren Library and illustrious alumni.
No fewer than 32 Nobel Prize winners attended Trinity as undergraduates. The poet Lord Byron and Jawaharlal Nehru Prime Minister of India were also students at Trinity.
The Wren Library is one of the country’s great library collections and is home to two of Shakespeare’s first folios.
The grounds at Trinity and Wren Library are open to the public with some restrictions throughout year – more information
Apart from its Gothic chapel, King’s College is also worth visiting to wander the beautiful grounds. These are the same stones and grass where the first Prime Minister of Great Britain Robert Walpole walked.
Literary greats E. M. Forster and Salman Rushdie, and brilliant mathematician Alan Turing were students at King’s.
The Mathematical Bridge at the end of most punting tours is part of the Queens’ College buildings. Wrongly attributed as the work of Isaac Newton, the bridge was built after his death but remains one of the iconic landmarks of the city.
Queens’ College is one of the oldest colleges of the university and claims the Dutch Renaissance scholar Erasmus among its alumni.
You can visit the college – do check their website for visitor information.
Cambridge guided tours
Cambridge is a city with so much history and stories lurking behind every wall. It is a place that really should be explored with expert knowledge so you can fully appreciate its beauty and impact on history.
This walking tour of Cambridge offers visitors highly qualified and experienced guides (often former students at one of the colleges) who can take you behind the scenes of the 800 year old university and the city.
A traditional pub lunch
Stop for lunch in one of the many Cambridge pubs. There are several that lie on the riverbank including local favourite The Anchor.
On our last visit to Cambridge we ate at The Punter as it was recommended by our punting guide and close to the end of our tour. The seasonal menu of British pub classics and a few surprises were enjoyed by all so I double down on that recommendation.
The Punter – 3 Pound Hill, Cambridge, CB3 0AE
Stroll along “the Backs”
After your lunch there is lots more to see. Your tour of Cambridge would not be complete without a stroll along the River Cam in the area known as “the Backs”.
This beautiful spot is where the city’s most picturesque colleges back on to the river stretches from Magdalene Bridge to Silver Street bridge.
On sunny days it is great for people and duck watching. And you can stroll along the path in any weather.
The Round Church
One of only four remaining medieval round churches left in England, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre (known as The Round Church) is an important landmark in Cambridge not associated with the university.
It is worth stopping by just to admire the symmetry of the building made of the same chalky limestone used throughout the city.
If you have a little more time or the weather is bad, a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must. This free museum is a full to the brim with treasures from antiquity and the art world. There are drawings by Da Vinci, paintings by Rembrandt and a fascinating collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts.
The museum building is fabulous and worth a visit in its own right.
Address: Trumpington St, Cambridge CB2 1RB | Open Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00 – 17:00 Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays: 12:00 – 17:00 | More information
How to get to Cambridge
The London to Cambridge train journey is about hour and even quicker if you take the express train. Trains depart from Kings Cross or Liverpool Street stations with around 4 departures per hour.
Note – most trains leave from Kings Cross. If you book in advance an open return ticket will cost you less than £20 > find train tickets to Cambridge
Driving from London is easy too via the M11 motorway. I recommend parking in the very central Park Street car park on the corner of Round Church Street.
Exploring the area beyond Cambridge
If you have added Cambridge to your UK road trip itinerary, there is so much to do in the surrounding area I recommend stopping for a few days.
We enjoyed visiting the Imperial War Museum at nearby Duxford – more for its collections of planes including a Concorde which you can walk inside, than for the tanks.
History buffs will enjoy a trip to Sutton Hoo where you can visit one of England’s most important archaeological sites.
For a picture perfect English market town you can’t beat Bury St Edmunds an hour east of Cambridge. You will also find one of the best preserved half timbered towns in England close by at Lavenham.
The perfect day trip from London
I think Cambridge is a perfect day trip from London. After a short train ride you are transported to another place where, over the course of 800 years, some of the world’s greatest minds have experimented and created the most amazing things.
Combined with riverside strolling and a leisurely lunch in a proper English pub, a cultural adventure in Cambridge is bound to be a highlight of any trip in England.
To be honest, I think you could linger much longer than a day in Cambridge and still have stories to uncover.
Have you visited this beautiful English city? And do you have a favourite college in Cambridge?
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