The city of Cambridge is synonymous with its world-renowned university, which dates all the way back to the start of the 13th century.
Held in high regard for its scientific prowess, Cambridge’s roll-call of prestigious alumni is too long to list, but includes Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking and Sir Isaac Newton.
And as you’d guess, an institution of such importance has some world-beating museums to visit.
Many of Cambridge’s Colleges were founded by monarchs, and they abound with sublime architecture and resonate with tales of former students and professors.
By the River Cam you have to take a walk along The Backs, or go punting on the Cam to see enduring landmarks like the King’s College Chapel and Mathematical Bridge.
1. College Tours
Official tours of the constituent colleges are offered by the university’s official, Blue Badge Guides, who have to pass stringent exams to get the job.
They have permission to lead tours to parts of colleges you wouldn’t normally be able to go, and will give you compelling information about former students, as well as details of historic events, quirky customs and myths.
You can also make self-guided visits to colleges, which are listed below.
Make sure to check websites for opening times, and you’ll have much more access outside the Quiet Period around May and June when exams are taking place.
2. King’s College
Founded by Henry VI in 1441, King’s College and its chapel and Front Court is the sight most readily associated with Cambridge.
The spacious Front Court, walled to the north by the Chapel and the west by the Classical 18th-century Gibbs’ Building, has a real sense of majesty, especially in the evening when the sun catches William Wilkins’ Neo-Gothic screen on the east side.
But Cambridge’s masterpiece is the Kings College Chapel, erected in stages from 1446 to 1515 and held as one of the great works of late Perpendicular Gothic architecture.
The ceiling has the largest fan vault in the world, completed in the 1510s, and the glorious early Renaissance rood screen and stained glass windows followed later, in the 1530s.
3. Trinity College
Henry VIII established Trinity College in 1546, and his statue is in an ornate niche above the Great Gate.
Among the college’s alumni are Sir Isaac Newton, Lord Byron and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The showpiece is the Great Court, claimed to be Europe’s largest enclosed court and remodelled by Thomas Nevile, the master of the college at the beginning of the 17th century.
On the E Staircase in the northeast corner is where Newton lived, and at the centre is a delightful Renaissance fountain.
Nevile’s Court came in 1614 and on its west frontage is the Wren Library, built between 1676-1695 and named for its designer, Sir Christopher Wren, one of England’s most celebrated architects.
The Grade I listed Chapel is Tudor-Gothic and dates to the middle of the 16th century, radiant for its Perpendicular tracery and pinnacles.
In the chapel’s antechamber are statues of distinguished alumni like Newton and Francis Bacon.
4. St John’s College
If you’re hungry for more of Cambridge’s colleges, St John’s costs £10 to enter and is worth every penny.
The college was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. Her coat of arms sits above the Tudor Great Gate on St John’s Street, and is flanked by a pair of mythical beasts known as “Yales”. As with most colleges St John’s is arranged around a series of courts, and you’ll travel from the First Court (1511) to the Second Court (turn of the 17th century) and Third Court (1624), in the Tudor and Jacobean styles.
There are lots of neat details to look out for, like carved doorways, statues, oriel windows and coats of arms.
In the Dining Hall the linenfold panelling dates to 1528, while the sumptuous College Chapel was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the 19th century and shines for its stained glass showing scenes from the life of Christ.
5. Fitzwilliam Museum
This free attraction is an art and antiquities museum fitting for one of the world’s most prestigious centres of higher learning.
The five departments at the Fitzwilliam Museum are “Paintings, Drawings and Prints”, “Manuscripts and Printed Books”, “Coins and Medals”, “Applied Arts” and “Antiquities”. The wealth and size of the collections is staggering.
Take the fine art, which includes masterpieces by Titian, van Dyck, Monet, Rubens, Picasso and many more.
Among the antiquities are sarcophagi, stelae, busts, ceramics, rare paintings and other curiosities from Ancient Egypt, Nubia, Greece and Rome.
The “Applied Arts” department also deserves mention for its Korean and Japanese art, and fine European pottery, furniture and glass.
6. Cambridge University Botanic Garden
Moments west of Cambridge Railway Station, the Botanic Garden has aesthetic value to match its scientific importance, containing 8,000 plant species in its 16 hectares.
It was planted in 1831, away from the centre of Cambridge by John Stevens Henslow who was Charles Darwin’s mentor.
Almost half of the species are kept in a series of glasshouses, with environments mimicking the Oceanic Islands, mountains, tropical rainforests, arid landscapes and the period before flowers evolved on the planet.
You can also observe carnivorous plants up close and the florid environments of South Africa and Southwest Australia, once part of the same continent.
Outside, be sure to mosey around the lavender bed, rock garden, herbaceous borders, scented garden and the national plant collections of various species, from ruscuses to tulips.
7. The Backs
Literally where a line of Cambridge colleges all “back” onto the River Cam, The Backs is the prettiest place to go for a stroll in the city.
It’s a Grade I Historic Park making up the grounds of St John’s Trinity, Trinity Hall, Clare, King’s and Queens’. In the past this space was taken up by orchards and grazing livestock, but is now just open lawns dotted by the occasional mature tree.
There’s a broad gravel path threading through the lawns beside the river, where you’ll see the “punters” floating past.
On your shoulder are constant, unbroken views of Cambridge’s most celebrated monuments like the stupendous King’s College Chapel.
8. Queens’ College
This college on both banks of the Cam was founded by two queens when there was a rift in the English royal family.
The first founder was the Lancastrian Margaret of Anjou in 1448 and the college was re-founded in 1465 by the rivalling Elizabeth Woodville, wife of the Yorkist Edward IV. You can enter Queens’ College for £3.50 and visit the Old Court from the mid-15th century where the Old Library has England’s earliest celestial globes, produced in the 16th century.
In the adjacent Cloister Court, stands the beautiful half-timbered President’s Lodge (1460). The college’s older architecture on the Cam’s east bank is linked to the newer buildings across the river by the Mathematical Bridge.
This was first built in 1749 and reconstructed with the same design in 1866 and 1905. Despite appearing to have an arch, the footbridge is in fact made completely from straight timbers.
9. Kettle’s Yard
The collector and first modern art curator of the Tate Gallery, Jim Ede lived at this property on Castle Street in the 20th century.
Kettle’s Yard is made up of four separate cottages joined together, and every afternoon Ede and his wife Helen would open their house to visitors to give a tour of his collection.
The home and all its art were donated to the University of Cambridge in the 60s and the layout, books, home furnishings and laidback atmosphere are all holdovers from when the Edes were here.
The collection is a who’s who of the British avant-garde in the first decades of the 20th century and has works by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and David Jones, but also Joan Miró, Helen Frankenthaler and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
10. Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
The collections at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology cover nearly two million years of human history and come from all six of the world’s inhabited continents.
The museum goes back to 1884 and moved into purpose-built premises in 1913, refurbished and reopened in 2013 on its centenary.
Some of the most captivating things to see are the ethnographic pieces picked up by the explorer Captain James Cook during his three expeditions in the 18th century.
There are also Roman and Anglo-Saxon artefacts unearthed in digs around Cambridge and East Anglia, while the oldest item is a stone tool discovered in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge and dating back 1.8 million years.
One exhibit that literally stands out is the towering 19th-century Haida totem pole from Tanu in British Columbia.
11. The Polar Museum
The Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was founded in 1920 as a memorial to Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team, who died in 1912 in Antarctica on the return trek from the South Pole.
The SPRI runs the museum at the institute at the building, recording the feats achieved during the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. The museum has photographs, pieces of archive footage, drawings and paintings.
You can view arts and crafts by people indigenous to the Arctic, as well as equipment from polar expeditions and the last letters written by Scott during his ill-fated trek.
12. Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences
Free to enter, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is Cambridge’s oldest museum and was created when the geologist John Woodward bequeathed his collection of fossils to the university in 1728. Some of Woodward’s fossils can still be viewed in their original 18th-century cabinets.
In all the museum has about two million rock, fossil and mineral specimens.
Standing guard by the entrance to the museum is Iggy the Iguanodon, the plaster replica of a dinosaur skeleton discovered in a mine in 1878, and was donated to the museum by the King of Belgium in 1878. Also fascinating is the set of 2,000 rocks and fossils gathered by Charles Darwin during his expedition on the HMS Beagle, and there are also numerous meteorites, each presented with a thin section showing their optical properties.
13. Christ’s College
Although you can’t get inside Christ’s College’s buildings you are allowed to tour the college grounds and Fellows’ Garden.
And this is worthwhile when you remember that you’ll be treading the same path as eminent alumni like Charles Darwin and John Milton.
Christ’s College was established in 1437 and at the First Court are Late Gothic and Early Tudor buildings from not long after, like the wisteria-clad Master’s Lodge, chapel and Great Gate Tower fronting St Andrew’s Street.
The Fellows’ Building in the Second Court has elements dating to 1640, and through an arch you’ll come to the Fellows’ Garden, which has two historic mulberry trees, one of which was planted in 1608, the year of John Milton’s birth.
The best place to go punting on the River Cam is along The Backs.
This activity was introduced to Cambridge at the start of the 20th century and entails propelling a shallow-bottomed boat with a square bow (a punt) using a wooden pole tipped with a metal “foot”. By the colleges the Cam’s riverbed is shallow and gravelly, and it won’t take long to get the hang of the activity, so long as you can avoid the many other punters taking part in summer.
If you’d prefer some solitude you can go a mile or two upriver, past the weir to the village of Grantchester.
The backdrop here is more rural, and you can reward yourself with a pub lunch before floating back towards Cambridge.
15. Imperial War Museum Duxford
The biggest aviation museum in Britain is at a former RAF base 10 miles south of Cambridge.
There are five hangars, including the recently extended “Hangar 1”, which houses more than 30 aircraft starting with the First World War.
In Hangar 2 you can see planes that are in working order, and watch restoration work in progress, while Hangar 3 combines naval aircraft and vessels and Hangar 4 is devoted to the Battle of Britain during the Second World War.
Beyond all this you can enter Duxford’s preserved Operations Room, check out the tanks, artillery and armoured cars in the Land Warfare Hall and marvel at the B-52 and Blackbird in the American Air Museum.