Things to do in Cambridge

Cambridge is a small but perfectly formed city, full of historical treasures, best known for being the home to one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Cambridge University's greatest treasure is King's College Chapel, completed during the 16th century, and famous for its fan-vaulted ceiling and annual carol concert.

Other university gems include the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Botanical Gardens. Many of Cambridge's colleges, whose former students include luminaries such as Newton and Darwin, offer tours of their grounds.

Cambridge is a beautiful city, with lots of culture and nightlife. A popular summer activity is punting down the River Cam, which flows through the city centre. Don't leave without visiting the National War Museum, Duxford, and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Here's our selection of the best 10 things to do in Cambridge.

1. King's College Chapel

Side view of the King’s College Chapel from inside the college (© Dmitry Tonkonog, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The world's largest fan vault (1512–1515) at King’s College in Cambridge (© Lofty, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Great East Window of King's College Chapel in the University of Cambridge. This window dates from 1515 to 1531. (© DeFacto, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The foundation stone of King's College Chapel was laid by King Henry VI in 1446.

Completed over a century later, in the reign of King Henry VIII, the Chapel can now claim to be one of the most iconic churches, and finest examples of late Gothic architecture, in the world.

The Chapel is 239 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 94 feet high. Its most notable features include its intricately carved fan vaulted ceiling (the largest of its type in the world), medieval stained-glass windows (typically created by Flemish craftsmen between 1515 and 1531), and altarpiece (above which hangs Rubens' Adoration of the Magi).

The Chapel also houses an exhibition, which includes a chest in which Henry VII sent funds for the Chapel's construction.

The Chapel is also famous for its Choir, drawn from students of King's College and the nearby King's College School, who perform most days during term time and whose Christmas carol concert is broadcast on national television.

Those visiting the chapel can also explore King's grounds. Highlights include the Gibbs building (designed by James Gibbs and built between 1724 and 1732, this is where Word War I poet Rupert Brooke had rooms) and the Wilkins building (where novelist EM Forster lived for 30 years).

Where? King's College, King's Parade, Cambridge CB2 1ST. T: +44 (0)1223-331100.

When? During term (early Oct to early Dec, mid-Jan to mid-Mar, late-Apr to mid-Jun): Mon to Fri - 9.30am to 3.30pm; Sat - 9.30am to 3.15pm; Sun - 1.15pm to 2.30pm. Out of term: Mon to Sat - 9.30am to 4.30pm; Sun - 10am to 5pm. Check website for closures.

£$€¥ Adults: £10; Seniors, Concessions, Children 6-17: £8; Children 5 and under: free.

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2. The Fitzwilliam Museum

The primary entrance to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (© Andrew Dunn, CC BY-SA 2.0)
View of one of the Fitzwilliam museum's entrance halls in Cambridge (© Zhurakovskyi, CC0)
The Marble bust of Antinous at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (© Zhurakovskyi, CC0)

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge.

Receiving over 300,000 visitors a year, this medium-sized museum holds a remarkably varied, high-quality and beautifully curated collection. It is housed in the imposing, classically-designed Founders Building.

The Museum's works are arranged into five departments:

  • Antiquities: artefacts ranging from stone coffins to seal-stones and gold and silver jewelry.
  • Applied Arts: olding about 20,000 pieces of decorative art and sculpture from Europe, India and the Middle and Far East;
  • Coins and Medals : displaying almost 200,000 items, including a Victoria Cross and the Ides of March denarius, struck in 42/43BC—the Roman Republic's most famous coin;
  • Manuscripts and Printed Books: displaying works by Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf, and autograph scores by Handel and Elgar; and
  • Paintings, Drawings and Prints: including masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, Constable, Turner and Gainsborough. The museum's impressionism collection is particularly impressive. It includes four works by Monet: two seascapes, a delightful picture of an orchard at Monet's beloved Giverny called Springtime, and one of his Poplar series. Cezanne is also well-represented, with The Abduction (from his Dark Period), Still Life with Applies, and Landscape: A Forest Clearing. Other impressionists on show are Renoir and van Gogh.

The Museum's highlights include Rubens' The Death of Hippolytus, Monet's Poplars and Stanley Spencer's Self-portrait with Patricia Preece.

Where? Trumpington Street, Cambridge. T. 01223 332900. E. fitzmuseum-enquiries@lists.cam.ac.uk.

When? Tues to Sat: 10am to 5pm; Sun/Bank holiday Mondays: 12 noon to 5pm; Closed: Other Mondays, Good Friday, Dec 24-26, Dec 31, Jan 1, Apr 29.

£$€¥ Free.

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3. The Imperial War Museum Duxford

View of the AirSpace exhibition hall at Imperial War Museum Duxford (© IxK85, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hurricanes and Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at the Duxford Air Show, May 2007
This is the american reconasance plane SR71 'Blackbird'. Seen at Imperial War Museum at Duxford, UK. This aircraft holds the speed and altitude records for a jet engined aircraft. (© Telemaque MySon, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Duxford achieved fame as one of the first RAF bases to deploy the Spitfire.

It now houses a branch of the Imperial War Museum, together with the American Air Museum. Over 200 planes are on display, together with many tanks, artillery and small naval vessels.

The main exhibition space—the 12,000 square metre AirSpace Hanger—holds over 30 aircraft, including a Harrier, a Tornado, a prototype Typhoon and a Concorde. Hanger 3 is devoted to the Museum's Air and Sea exhibit, which displays a number of vessels and naval aircraft including a Vosper motor torpedo boat and a Wasp helicopter.

The Battle of Britain Exhibition is the highlight of Hangar 4, complete with a Messerschmitt Bf-109E forced down over Sussex in 1940.

The American Air Museum—built in memory of the 30,000 US airmen who lost their lives flying from British bases during the second world war—is housed in a Norman Foster designed hangar; inside visitors will find a vintage B17 Flying Fortress, a SR-71 Blackbird (the plane which holds the flight altitude record of 85,069 feet), and a 200-feet wide and 52 feet tall B-52 Stratofortress bomber.

The Museum's grounds contain an active airfield, with two parallel runways, which hosts a number of international air shows each year.

Where? Imperial War Museum Duxford, Cambridgeshire, CB22 4QR. T. +44 (0)1223 835 000.

When? Summer: 10am to 6pm; Winter: 10am to 4pm; every day except 24-26 December.

£$€¥ Adults (16-64 years): £22.70. Seniors (65+) and Students: £20.40. Children (5-15): £11.35. Children under 5: Free. Book online to get a discount.

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4. The Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

The Cambridge University Botanic Garden is a botanical garden located in Cambridge, England associated with the university Department of Plant Sciences (formerly Botany School)
The glass greenhouse at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens
The Cacti greenhouse at the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

Established in 1846 by Professor John Stevens Henslow, teacher and mentor to Charles Darwin, the Botanic Gardens is a 40-acre oasis of tranquillity close to Cambridge's town centre.

The Gardens contain over 8,000 species housed in gardens and glasshouses, including national collections of tulips and geraniums.

Glasshouse Range

The 80 metre Glasshouse Range is the main draw. The structure has been gradually expanded over the decades, which gives it a homely and ramshackle fee. It is most famous for its Palm House (containing bright orchids, bromeliads and passionflowers) and Alpine House (with raised beds that mimic alpine conditions displaying seasonal flowers such as irises, tulips and snowdrops).

Visitors should also look out for the carnivorous plant, oceanic island and arid lands collections.

Outside gardens

Outside, don't miss the central U-shaped lake, covering an area of almost an acre, flanked by willows and other beautiful trees, and adjacent to the Winter and Rock Gardens.

The Genetics Garden is another must-see. It was in these gardens that William Bateson, the man who coined the term 'genetics', proved the thesis of Gregor Mendel by experimenting on sweet peas in the early part of the 20th century. Bateson's experiments are repeated each year to honour his work.

Other features of note include the Scented and Rose Gardens and the tranquil fountain adjacent to the Glasshouse Range.

Many visitors opt to follow a 'Plant Picks' trail set each week by the Garden's Head of Horticulture.

The Gardens also feature a well-run Cafe offering drinks, snacks and light lunches inside or on its lovely outdoor terrace (we had tasty and reasonably priced lamb wraps), and an extensive gift shop.

Where? University Botanic Garden 1 Brookside Cambridge CB2 1JE 01223 336265.

When? Apr - Sept: 10am - 6pm; Feb, Mar & Oct: 10am - 5pm; Jan, Nov & Dec: 10am - 4pm. Closed 23 Dec to 3 Jan.

£$€¥ Adults: £6.30; Children 0-16 inclusive: Free.

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5. The Colleges

The Trinity College’s 'Great Court' in Cambridge (© Rafa Esteve, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The interior of the Old Library, St John's College at Cambridge University (© CharlieRCD, CC BY-SA 3.0)
A student walking past King's college at Cambridge University

The University of Cambridge, formed in the 11th century, is the second oldest university in the English-speaking world.

It is one of the world's foremost educational establishments, having taught over 60 Nobel laureates (the most of any university in the world), 15 British Prime Ministers, and at least 25 foreign heads of state.

Its former students and staff include Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin (thermodynamics), Lord Rutherford (nuclear physics), Charles Darwin, Francis Crick and James Watson (DNA) and Stephen Hawking.

All students and academic staff belong to one of Cambridge's 31 colleges. Those colleges fulfill educational and pastoral roles, providing 'supervisions' and accommodation for undergraduates.

A typical college comprises a hall for dining; a library; a bar; senior, middle and junior common rooms (for dons, postgraduates and undergraduates respectively); a chapel; and accommodation for around 300 undergrads, the head of the college and its dons. Given the age of the university, many colleges contain impressive architecture and grounds.

We particularly recommend: Trinity College, founded by Henry VIII in 1530, with its large Great Court, impressive Clock Tower (pictured) and classical Wren library; St John's College, and its charming Bridge of Sighs crossing the River Cam; and Queen's College, and its Old Court dating back to 1448 and striking 'mathematical' bridge.

Where? The colleges are located within easy walking distance of central Cambridge.

When? Most colleges welcome visitors all year round. Check their websites before visiting.

£$€¥ Some colleges charge tourists a small fee. Check their websites before visiting.

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6. The Backs

Trinity College's avenue and gate to Queen's Road viewed from the Backs (© Cmglee, CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Backs appear as the horizontal green band in the middle left of this aerial photograph of Cambridge city centre (© Cmglee, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Part of the Backs showing Clare College, Clare bridge, and the back lawns of King's College (© RXUYDC, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Backs is the name given to the area of outstanding natural beauty located behind seven of Cambridge’s colleges, and backing onto the River Cam.

Landscaped gardens, famous for their crocuses and daffodils in spring, are found to the east of Magdalene, St John’s, Trinity, Trinity Hall, Clare, King’s and Queen’s colleges. The gardens back on to the River Cam, a tributary of the Great Ouse River which flows to the North Sea at King’s Lynn, some 40 miles from Cambridge.

A number of picturesque bridges cross the Cam, including the famous Bridge of Sighs (a covered bridge, loved by Queen Victoria, linking two of the quadrangles of St John’s College) and the wooden Mathematical Bridge.

Punting is a popular activity in summer between Jesus Lock and Grantchester; several companies hire punts, with or without punt chauffeurs. We recommend being taken on a guided tour (punting is hard work and the river can get busy at peak times).

The Scudamores tours are very good: the tour guides are typicaly knowledgeabe and well-spoken Cambridge university students earning a bit of spending money!

Where? The area in central Cambridge between Magdalene Street bridge and Silver Street bridge.

When? Year round. Check website for details.

£$€¥ Hiring a punt for an hour will cost £20 from Trinity Punts or £33 from Scudamores. Scudamores guided punting tours cost £17 per adult and £15.75 for under-16s (using the online discount).

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7. The Sedgwick Museum

The entrance to Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge (© Sebastian Ballard, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Relief of two prehistoric creatures (an Iguanodon on the left of image and a Megatherium on the right) in the building of the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Cambridge. The coat of arms of this university can be seen between both animals. (© Vysotsky, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Unveiling of the bronze portrait bust of the young Charles Darwin by British sculptor Anthony Smith at the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge in 2009 (© Fortheloveofknowledge, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Opened in 1912, and housing 1.2 million specimens, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is the geology museum of the University of Cambridge.

The Museum's 10 exhibitions allow visitors to walk through over 500 million years of the history of life on earth.

The Ancient Life exhibition charts the first signs of life on earth, the development of marine life and the first mammals; highlights are fossils from the Ediacara mountain range dating from 500 million years BC, and a cast of the fossil of the world's largest spider, the 50-centimetre diameter Megarachne.

The Dinosaurs exhibition includes a complete Iguanodon skeleton (a 10-metre long lowland herbivore), the skull of a Megalosauras (meaning great lizard, a 9-metre long carnivore) and the fossilised remains of Polacanthus and Raptors. Finally, the Darwin the Geologist exhibition chronicles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836).

The artefacts on display include Darwin's journals, pistol and a reconstruction of Darwin's cabin on board The Beagle showing the rock specimens he collected from an island south of Chile. Darwin's subsequent account of the five year voyage, published under the title Journal and Observations, brought him fame and repute.

Where? The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EQ.

When? Mon-Fri: 10am to 1pm, 2pm to 5pm. Sat: 10am to 4pm. Closed Sun. Christmas and New Year 2019/20: The Museum will close at 4pm on Saturday 21st December and re-open at 10am on Saturday 4th January

£$€¥ Free.

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