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Things to do in Cambridgeshire

The great thing about Cambridgeshire is that although there are plenty of things to do and see do, the actual city of Cambridge is pretty small. It’s easy to walk from one side of the centre to the other in around half an hour, which makes it accessible for families and those who might not be able to walk as far as they once could. And while there may be one fairly steep hill to the north of the city, the rest of it is fairly flat, which makes it great terrain for cycling.

Cambridge University

Most people will already know Cambridge for its famous university (made up of 31 colleges), so your first port of call should be a tour of the colleges. You can either pay for an organised tour or just pick the ones that interest you most, and do it yourself. Some, such as King’s, St John’s, Queens’ and Clare, charge an entrance fee, while others are free. You can usually wander around the grounds and often visit a library or peek into a dining hall to see how well the students live. Do bear in mind, however, that many colleges are closed or have restricted access during the exam period (late April to mid-June).

Trinity College, Cambridge University

Explore the grounds of the world-renowned Cambridge University

Some sites worth a mention include: Pembroke College and Emmanuel College, with their gardens and chapels designed by Sir Christopher Wren; King’s College chapel, which is a fascinating place to listen to Evensong; Trinity College, which has nurtured 31 Nobel Prize winners and boasts the Wren Library and the Great Court (which featured in the race scene of the film Chariots of Fire); and the Pepys Library at Magdalene College, with its 3,000 books – left by diarist Samuel Pepys – ordered by size. The college gardens are also worth meandering through, especially those close to the river. Stop to admire the Mathematical Bridge (part of Queens’ college), and the Bridge of Sighs (St John’s), which was named after the covered bridge in Venice on which prisoners would sigh as they were escorted to their cells.

Another must-do is to go punting on the River Cam. Punting is a great way to explore the backs of the colleges and see sights usually reserved for students or fellows. There are plenty of places to take a chauffeured (guided) punt if you fancy lying back and absorbing the history, or else you can hire your own and go it alone. You may be given the choice of a wooden or aluminium pole but take note: although the wooden ones look the part, the aluminium ones are much lighter and easier to manoeuvre! As the city is so compact, it’s easy to do a walking tour (book through the Visitor Information Centre) or simply meander the streets at your own pace.

Most people will already know Cambridge for its famous university (made up of 31 colleges), so your first port of call should be a tour of the colleges

Cycle tours and sculpture trails

You can also hire bikes at many bike shops and go off for a day in the countryside, or cycle around the city, stopping off at cafes and lunch spots along the way. The Cambridge Sculpture Trail is a good way to see the city and more than 60 sculptures, and there are three different routes to choose from. They each take in sculptures either in college grounds or public places, and last between two to four hours. A free leaflet is available from the Visitor Information Centre, art galleries and museums, detailing each route – trail maps can also be downloaded online.

Great St Mary’s Church marks the centre of Cambridge, and is the university church. The church on the site in 1200 was the first home of the university when students arrived from Oxford in 1209, and is where lectures were taken and graduations and celebrations took place, while the current building dates from 1478. Climb the tower (there’s a small fee) for a fantastic view of the city and King’s College chapel, directly opposite. On the corner of Bridge Street and aptly-named Round Church Street stands the Round Church, built in 1130 and designed to commemorate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. It’s the oldest of the four round churches that still stand in Britain. Most churches in Western Europe are designed around a cross shape, but this round style is said to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.


Take a tour of Cambridge on bicycle

If you fancy doing something cultural, Cambridge has more than its fair share of museums – in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to visit them all in a week. The most well-known is The Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. This beautiful, neo-classical building, with its monumental columns, houses an immense collection of paintings, sculpture and ancient treasures, including work by artists such as Picasso, Monet, Constable and Rubens. Founded in 1816 by Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, it also boasts a treasure-chest of artefacts from ancient Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Rome; oriental art collections; engravings and prints, including etchings by Rembrandt; and literary and musical manuscripts.

Other notable museums worth a visit include The Polar Museum, which tells of the expeditions of Captain Scott and other polar explorers; the Sedgwick Museum, which boasts a dinosaur skeleton, fossils, rocks, stones and a selection of Charles Darwin’s rocks and fossils; the newly renovated Museum of Zoology, which houses some of Darwin’s specimens including animals he collected on the Beagle voyage; the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with its fine collection of objects from the voyage of Captain James Cook; and the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

Hire bikes at many bike shops and go off for a day in the countryside, or cycle around the city, stopping off at cafes and lunch spots along the way

Green space and botanic gardens

If you’re feeling arty, Kettle’s Yard – just to the north of the river over Magdalene Bridge – houses a fine collection of modern art, alongside regular exhibitions. Next door is the Museum of Cambridge (formerly known as the Folk Museum), set in a 17th-century building, which features nine themed rooms detailing the lives of Cambridgeshire people and showing how they used to live. The building was originally the White Horse Inn, which ran for 300 years. If you’d prefer to see Cambridge the easy way, why not hop on one of the City Sightseeing buses that circle the city? The open-topped double deckers offer a tour of 20 points across the city with informative commentary, while you can hop on and off at your leisure.

Cambridge is renowned for its green spaces – despite being a city, there are plenty of large parks and open spaces for picnics, games and just sitting. Break up your day by planning a picnic in one of these parks. Jesus Green is just around the corner from Magdalene Bridge and Bridge Street, and offers a large, open space with the river nearby. Christ’s Pieces, near the bus station and the Grafton shopping centre, is filled with beautiful blooms, plus there’s a small play area for children. Parker’s Piece is an open park which often holds events and festivals, while Midsummer Common is a large, natural meadow bordering the River Cam, also home to Strawberry Fair every June.

Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Spend a day at the beautiful Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Beautiful at any time of year, the Cambridge University Botanic Garden makes a relaxing and wonderfully rejuvenating stop on any itinerary. Less than a mile from the city centre, it’s easily walkable, though plenty of buses pass nearby. It features more than 8,000 species of plants and trees, while a descendant of Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree – from which it’s said he devised his theory of gravity – is planted on the lawn near the main ticket office. Set over 40 acres, the flowers, trees and space are breathtaking, while the brilliantly-designed Winter Garden is stunning from late autumn to winter. Don’t miss the glasshouses, which display plants from habitats such as tropical wetlands, mountain, oceanic islands and tropical rainforests.

Slightly further afield, but definitely worth the trip, is the walk or bike ride along the river from Newnham to Grantchester, a pretty little village – made famous thanks to the TV drama – just south of Cambridge. It’s easily accessible by bike or with pushchairs via the flat, top path, or meander along the grassy riverside path with its small wooden bridges and stiles. Once in Grantchester, follow the path to The Orchard Tea Garden – once a favourite place of literary figures Rupert Brooke and Virginia Woolf – a wonderful apple orchard fitted out with deckchairs from which to drink tea and eat delicious home-made cakes, scones and sandwiches.

Cambridge is renowned for its green spaces – despite being a city, there are plenty of large parks and open spaces for picnics, games and just sitting

Country parks and stately homes

You can punt here from the city centre if you have the time and are feeling energetic, or else hire canoes. Wandlebury Country Park is an ancient wood and chalk grassland in the Gog Magog Downs, just south of Cambridge past Addenbrooke’s Hospital. This open space offers eight miles of walks through chalklands, woods and meadows, while the remains of a 5th-century BC iron age hill fort – a Scheduled Ancient Monument – can be seen and walked around. Events occur throughout the year, such as discovering autumn, moonlit walks and half-term activities.

Anglesey Abbey and Wimpole Hall – both National Trust properties – are just a short drive from Cambridge, and are well worth a day trip. With beautiful gardens and historically-interesting buildings, there’s plenty to see and do at both properties. Wimpole Hall also has a working farm that you can visit.

Anglesey Abbey

Visit the beautiful Anglesey Abbey

Just 15 miles away from Cambridge is the historic city of Ely. With its beautiful cathedral and picturesque riverside, it’s a lovely place for a day trip or more. Ely Cathedral dates from the 11th century, and is recognisable for its Octagon Tower, which can be seen from miles around. Oliver Cromwell lived in Ely for 10 years and his house, not far from the cathedral, can be visited almost all year round. The riverside area is a lovely place to walk – there are plenty of restaurants to pop into for lunch along the water’s edge, while the huge antiques wharf, Waterside Antiques, is a fantastic place to lose yourself for an hour.

Anglesey Abbey and Wimpole Hall – both National Trust properties – are just a short drive from Cambridge, and are well worth a day trip

Historic gems

Huntingdon, around 16 miles north of Cambridge, was the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell – born in 1599 – and the Cromwell Museum tells the story of his life and legacy. This quaint market town, which dates back to around 1205, has a good mix of shopping and history. The Historic Town Trail is a self-guided circular walk around the town, taking in the town hall, the 16th-century Falcon Inn, All Saints’ Church and the picturesque riverside park. Nearby is Houghton Mill, a National Trust 18th-century working watermill. Go and try your hand at making flour, or enjoy a relaxing walk along the riverside.

Oliver Cromwell's House

Learn about Oliver Cromwell in the actual building where he was educated as a school boy

The Nene Valley Railway, near Peterborough, is a heritage railway that features both steam and diesel trains, and runs every weekend. This preserved track uses part of the original London and North Western line, and also features a vintage bus service. Wisbech, in the heart of the Fens, is a market town noted for its Georgian architecture.

Peckover House, a National Trust property, is filled with fine panelled rooms and elaborate Georgian fireplaces, and was built in 1722. Behind the house, you can also visit the two-acre Victorian walled garden, filled with rare trees, herbaceous borders and summer houses. Whatever your day trip style, there’s plenty to do and see in Cambridgeshire, so start planning!

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Image credits: ©Frank Bach/Imran's Photography/Pawel/XtravaganT/Adobe Stock; Oliver Cromwell’s House

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