You don’t need to be an academic to stay in this smart and stylish university city. Cambridge is small and everything is strollable. There’s plenty to fill a weekend – from drifting along the river in a punt to wandering around the dreamy colleges and world-class museums.
We discovered rather quickly that walking around Cambridge takes time, as intriguing buildings beckon seductively along every street.
The first one for us was the famous Fitzwilliam Museum (free entry, as with most Cambridge museums), a wonderful whirlwind of armour, ceramics, art, and fascinating Egyptian and Roman antiquities. By the time we’d explored, elevenses beckoned so we dived into local institution Fitzbillies for a coffee and their famous Chelsea buns (very sticky, very sweet).
Next up, a college crawl. Cambridge University’s colleges are sprinkled across the city. We began at King’s. It’s the grandaddy of them all, partly due to its enormous chapel and famously talented choir.
Note that entry costs £11 – and visitors can’t see much more than the chapel itself –but it is truly impressive. Highlights include the oak chancel screen, gifted by King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, which runs the width of the chapel.
There are soaring stained-glass windows, a valuable Rubens painting (Adoration of the Magi), and the most intricate fan-vaulted ceiling. Top tip – visit during term time and enjoy the chapel for free by attending evensong (daily except Sundays at 5.30pm, queues from around 4.45pm).
A spot of lunch at the excellent Senate bistro and it was time to see a couple of the smaller colleges. Most are free to enter, so it’s easy to dip in and out as you please. At Christ’s College there is a surprisingly large and interesting garden and a 17th century outdoor pool with pavilion.
At Emmanuel College we admired the chapel and took a peek into the beautiful Georgian dining room.
On the way to our hotel, we dawdled around the shops –everything from high-street names to boutique and vintage. I clocked the Cambridge Gin Laboratory, where you can book yourself onto a gin tasting or gin cocktail-making workshop. I earmarked it for another time and contented myself with a G&T at the Eagle pub.
It was the drinking hole during the 1950s of scientists Watson and Crick. They famously announced here that they had discovered the exact structure of DNA. Allied air officers during WWII were also regulars. They used lighters, wax candles and lipstick to write their names on the pub ceiling – still visible today.
The Varsity Hotel & Spa has a great location; on a quiet road, an easy walk away from all the sights. Our room looked out over the Cambridge rooftops from its spacious balcony, complete with table and chairs and outdoor sofa. We took advantage of the Elemis Glassworks spa, with its sauna, steam room and hot tub. It’s located next door to the main hotel building, in an old warehouse, once part of a brewery. I wished I’d booked a massage or facial as the spa menu was tempting, but there was still plenty to look forward to, as dinner plans lay ahead.
First, though, came an aperitif at the hotel’s rooftop bar – one of the best places in Cambridge to sip and sightsee, with its 360-degree city views. At the hotel’s top floor restaurant, Six, my starter of pan-seared scallops was perfectly cooked, as was the main course of roasted salmon with fire-roasted peppers and giant couscous.
I was feeling replete by the time the dessert menu came. However, I did manage a couple of spoonful’s of my husband’s sticky toffee pudding, much to his annoyance!
Early the next morning the sun was shining – the perfect time for punting. Scudamore’s have a base near the hotel. We opted for a chauffeured trip – steering these flatbottomed boats yourself, using only a long pole, is fun but tricky. Our punter, Henry, was a local zoology graduate. He pointed out a couple of kingfisher nests along the riverbank, a heron, some Canada Geese and ‘teenage’ swans, still with grey feathers amid the white. We sat back, enjoying seeing the colleges from the water, and listening to tales of the city and its landmarks, including The Bridge of Sighs (based on the one in Venice) and the Mathematical Bridge (curved, even though made up of only straight pieces of wood).
The temperature was climbing now so, after a tasty lamb wrap from the daily food market (in Market Square) we walked to Grantchester. Hire a bike if you want to do it student style. This pretty village is famed as the former home of war poet Rupert Brooke, who partied here with the likes of Virginia Woolf, EM Forster and Betrand Russell.
More recently it has been the setting for the popular TV series Grantchester. It’s a pleasurable 45-minute or so meander alongside the river, past the college ‘Backs’ and with views over Grantchester Meadows. Our reward at the end was The Orchard Tea Garden, where it would have been rude not to indulge in cream tea while sitting in deckchairs under the shade of the apple trees.
Dinner that evening was at The Folio Bar & Kitchen at the recently opened Fellows House hotel. It is just outside the main city drag but an easy 15-minute walk. It’s a buzzy, glamorous place, with divine cocktails and an inventive menu, including a wonderful choice of vegetarian and vegan dishes. I chose creamy burrata cheese with basil, grilled pears and tomatoes followed by meltingly good salt-aged fillet steak served with fries and portobello mushrooms. Another pudding snatch took place, this time with warm brownie and ice-cream. I’m still not forgiven.
Double rooms at Varsity Hotel & Spa from £176 per night, including access to the spa and gym or from £225 to also include breakfast, varsityhotel.co.uk
Text by Emma O’Reilly