The big idea

Think of Cambridge and you’ll probably think of the university, of academics; maybe even of the beautiful architecture and landscaping. And while ‘the gown’ does play a massive part in making Cambridge what it is today, what may surprise you is that it’s a very free-spirited city, a mixture of alternative stuff, festivals, music and the arts blended perfectly with tradition. And it turns out that this unconventional but heady mix of traditional and alternative provides just the right conditions for greatness, which is evidenced in the sheer volume of achievements and discoveries that have taken place here, discoveries that have literally shaped the world we live in today.


As one of the leading and most prestigious universities in the world, it’s no surprise that Cambridge University has been at the forefront of learning and achievement for many years. It’s made up of 31 colleges, each with its own unique character, and has a rather impressive record: it’s produced 15 prime ministers, 81 Nobel Prize winners and has an impressive list of alumni, including Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, as well as numerous other scientists, politicians, authors, actors, comedians and business elite. And with such a roll call it’s no wonder that so much groundbreaking research has happened here: in DNA, botany, genetics, the splitting of the atom and the human genome project. But innovation and discovery isn’t limited to academia; Cambridge is also home to Silicon Fen, Europe’s largest cluster of high-tech businesses, pushing the boundaries in nanotechnology, biotechnology, software and electronics. Less a case of ‘resting on your laurels’ and more a case of ‘standing on shoulders of giants’.

A traditional city

Part of Cambridge’s charm is that it is steeped in history and grandeur, and that some of its traditions exist to this day: take punting on the Cam, it was introduced in Edwardian times and there can be no finer way of spending a sunny day than taking a leisurely punt down the river before mooring up for a good old-fashioned picnic and champagne – what ho! And if you come at the right time, you might see the Bumps, a short boat race organised by the colleges.

For those of a more dramatic bent, you can’t get much more traditional than the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, which puts on several of Shakespeare’s works throughout the summer. Talking of which, drama seems to run in the blood here, as the university boasts the oldest university amateur dramatic society in England, the ADC, and The Marlowe Theatre helped launch the careers of Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen.
Then there are the city’s streets, a joy to walk round with mediaeval buildings and the stunning architecture of the colleges – and they’re full of independent shops and lovely markets (all the high street regulars make an appearance, too). And if walking is your thing, check out the numerous fenland walks.

An alternative city

The other part of Cambridge’s charm, of course, is that it isn’t all history and grandeur, there’s a free-spirited, alternative side to the place that offers perfect balance to the tradition and rigours of academic life. Take the Footlights, arguably the most famous university comedy troupe and responsible for producing some of the finest comedic and acting talent the country has seen. We won’t name them all here because we’d be here all day, but here’s a few to whet your appetite: Peter Cook, Monty Python, the Goodies, Douglas Adams, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Germaine Greer (yes, really), David Baddiel, Robert Webb and, well, you get the idea. Needless to say if you go along to one of their shows this year you’ll probably be seeing some stars of the future.

The city also spawned none other than Pink Floyd, one of the most iconic and influential prog rock bands of all time. And talking of music, there’s a thriving alternative music scene in Cambridge, with two excellent festivals held each year: the Folk Festival in April, with leading names from the world of folk and impromptu sessions by visitors positively encouraged (but not after dark…); and the Strawberry Fair, a community-run music and crafts festival held in June.

The essence

Free-spirited discovery

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Families, couples and people who simply want to relax will love punting and picnics by the river, and it’s a great place to bring out your inner hippy with the alternative music festivals on offer.

It’s a truly inspiring, fascinating, yet relaxed and laid back city. And the volume of overseas visitors and students gives it a cosmopolitan and contemporary feel amidst all the incredible architecture and history.

Interesting bits in the history

There’s evidence of settlement at the site that is now Cambridge as far back as the Celts, but it wasn’t until the Romans arrived that the area became more developed. They built a fort on what is now Castle Hill and called the settlement Duroliponte. After the Roman Empire declined, the Saxons held Cambridge until the Vikings came over in the 9th century and took over the east of the country. Cambridge was of course well inside the Danelaw and benefited from the Vikings’ approach to trade.

By the time of the Normans the town was known as Grantabrycge (bridge of the River Granta) and William the Conqueror had a castle built in place of the previous fort. Of course, today the river is known as the Cam; hence the name of the city changing over time into Cambridge, after a wooden bridge on the Cam.

The 13th century saw one of the most important events of Cambridge: the arrival of scholars unhappy with life at Oxford. They founded a school in 1209, which finally won royal approval as a university in 1291; by 1318 it would receive the Pope’s blessing as an official university of European standing alongside the likes of Paris. It was also at this time that a vast international trade fair, the Stourbridge Fair, started, which would run for some 700 years.

In the 15th and 16th centuries there was a wave of college building, including both King’s and Queens’ Colleges. In fact, it’s believed the monarchy favoured Cambridge over Oxford because the scholars here were less critical of the Church.
By the next century Cambridge was thriving thanks to the growing reputation of its university (helped by figures such as Sir Isaac Newton, who studied there, and Sir Christopher Wren, who was responsible for the great architecture of the Library at Trinity College) and the improved transport links with the building of the railways.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw a boom in the town’s population, and the university expanded rapidly. In fact,  a veritable roll-call of geniuses was to pass through the city’s colleges, scientists such as Darwin, Crick and Watson; poets such as Byron and Tennyson; and philosophers like Russell and Wittgenstein.

Despite its huge reputation and prosperity, Cambridge wasn’t actually granted city status until 1951; it of coursed lacked one of the usual pre-requisites, a cathedral (it’s actually in the diocese of Ely, down the road), but it was granted it nonetheless on the basis of its importance as a seat of learning and impact upon the world.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of

Start to the north of the city at Castle Mound, once home to Cambridge Castle. Opposite here, get into the spirit of the city with a visit to the Kettle’s Yard Gallery, which houses an impressive collection of 20th-century art, the feel of this place is very Cambridge: come in, relax, enjoy, explore (and next door is the newly renovated Cambridge County & Folk museum, which will help you get a better feel for the history of the city’s people).

Stroll into the city over the oldest bridge, the Magdalene Bridge; there are some lovely boutiques along this road, with Magdalene College nestling behind to the left. Walking along Bridge Street, make time to check out the Round Church, one of the city’s oldest buildings, and one of only four round churches in the country.

Take a right and head down St John’s Street. Along this length of road are several famous Cambridge colleges – Trinity (with its marvellous Great Court), King’s and Corpus Christi amongst them. Look out on a Saturday for the All Saints Garden Art and Craft centre too – a really friendly market where you can meet the makers of some real one-off stuff.

Carry on along this road, passing by the Cambridge University Press bookshop, England’s oldest bookshop site (although there are a couple of lovely side streets worth browsing here; the cobbled Green Street has some little independent shops, while the striking Rose Crescent is an absolute delight) and you’ll come to King’s College, one of the most famous sights in the city, and no doubt heaving with throngs of visitors taking pictures and generally milling at the front. Spend some time at King’s College; a stroll around the grounds is a delight, and the chapel is stunning, including the world’s largest fan vault ceiling. Opposite check out the fabulous Grasshopper Clock, on the corner of Trinity College’s Library building, with its beautiful gold dial and scary timekeeper. Unveiled by Professor Stephen Hawking in 2008, every hour, on the hour the terrifying metal grasshopper literally gobbles up another hour: a brilliant reminder to live each hour to the full.

Carry on along with King’s to your right, taking a right down Mill Lane: down here is one of several boatyards you cantake a punt along the Cam, taking in the backs of the colleges and passing under the Mathematical Bridge (Queens’) or the famous Bridge of Sighs (St John’s). Idyllic, and a classic English image.

From here, pop down Trumpington Street, past Peterhouse College, the oldest in Cambridge, and visitthe famous Fitzwilliam Museum, dubbed the ‘finest small museum in Europe’. It houses world-class collections of rare and beautiful art; you can see Canalettos, Monets, Renoirs and Picassos all in one fabulous building.

Continuing along the road, take a left down Lensfield Street, and there’s real treat for explorers in the shape of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Museum, the country’s leading centre for Polar and glaciology research and full of fascinating artefacts about exploration and discovery of the Poles.

Afterwards, head to the right and then take a left back towards the city centre on Regent Street. On the right you’ll see Parker’s Piece, a flat piece of park land of interest to all football fans; it was here in the 1800s that a group of students drew up what was to become the Football Association rules which operate today; check out the lamppost in the middle known locally as Reality Checkpoint (reputed by some to mark the dividing line between a good night out in the nearby cosmopolitan Mill Road area, and the University ‘bubble’ in the centre).

Follow the road and you’ll get to the Grand Arcade, the city’s new retail and restaurant destination. To the right, down Downing Street in the heart of the city is another cluster of museums, which house the university’s many diverse collections. Different cultures of the world are brought to life at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; rare animal specimens can be found at the University Museum of Zoology; or head right back in time to experience how mediaeval astronomers read the stars at The Whipple Museum of the History of Science. This is the lovely thing about the city; it makes discovery so enjoyable.

Now back in the centre walk along and you’ll find yourself on the famous Petty Cury Street. To the right is the Lion Yard Shopping Centre; to the left is the bustling general market in the historic cobbled Market Square. Once shopped out, why not pop down Peas Hill onto Benet Street; down here is the Eagle, the pub where Crick and Watson scribbled out the code for DNA and exclaimed ’we’ve discovered the secret of life!’
An inspirational end for a truly inspirational city.  

When to visit

City pics