When you try to explain the University of Cambridge’s college system to people from the U.S., they usually get a confused look on their face. Most Americans are used to a system where the university affiliation is primary, i.e., I go to the University of Southern California versus I go to the Marshall School of Business. Cambridge is sort of backwards compared to this. Most undergrads self-identify as a member of Trinity or Clare College first and a Cambridge University student second. While it’s a bit different for graduate students, and especially business graduates as they more so identify with the Cambridge Judge Business School, selecting your college still plays a huge part in the Cambridge experience.
We were lucky enough to find our way to Jesus College, and realized over this last year that we couldn’t have found a better place to call home. Each college has its own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens. With a full year to explore, we visited all 31 colleges of Cambridge. While the Cambridge colleges most often seen by those visiting for the day are King’s College, Trinity, and St. John’s, there are treasures to discover upon every turn in Cambridge. Read on for my five favorite colleges to explore in Cambridge.
If you’re trying to choose between a day trip to Oxford or Cambridge, check out our post on the best English university town.
1 Jesus College
Or its official name, The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge. As that’s quite a tongue twister, it always goes by its common name, which comes from its chapel, Jesus Chapel.
Jesus College was founded in 1496 by John Alcock, Bishop of Ely, on the grounds of a 12th century Benedictine nunnery. For that reason, the college still has a monastic feel. The original buildings are at the center of the college, including the chapel, which is the university’s oldest building still in use. The symbol of the college, the cockerel, is derived from the founder’s name and is found all throughout the college.
Jesus College has the benefit of being a few streets out from the center of town. While it only takes me five minutes to get to Cambridge’s market square, I’ve never been whacked by a tourist’s selfie stick when stepping out of our flat and hardly notice anyone venturing down the Chimney (the long entrance to the college). It seems most share the opinion of Queen Elizabeth who also did not venture out to Jesus during her visit in 1564 as she felt ” it stood far out of the way.”
Jesus has some of the largest grounds, which include one of the most pristine football pitches you’ll ever set foot on, grass tennis courts, and a nature walk. The college is home to an impressive collection of sculptures, placed all over the grounds. Upon entering the main gate, you’re greeted by Barry Flanagan’s Bronze Horse in First Court. See the list here to see if you can spot the 15 other sculptures when you visit.
Pembroke is on Trumpington, Cambridge’s main thoroughfare, but still seems removed from the busy town.
The college chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings in the university, and holds a series of important firsts: consecrated in 1665, it’s the first chapel built specifically for a college; it’s Sir Christopher Wren’s first architectural project, and it’s the first English chapel in the Classical style.
The new library built in 1875 and designed by architect Alfred Waterhouse also stands out as one of my favorite buildings in town.
It’s hard to put my finger on it, but Pembroke was a place where I always wanted to go back.
Selwyn is all the way across town and on the other side of the River Cam from where we live at Jesus, but it’s spring gardens are too beautiful to miss (Read: spoiled by this amazing, walkable town. It’s 15 minutes away on foot). The benefit of all of the rain in England: the gardens are beyond compare. To compensate for the gloomy weather and constant postponement of warmer weather, January through June is a domino burst and bloom of flowers and color. If there’s any time to visit Cambridge, it’s spring, and if there is any time to visit Selwyn, it’s mid-April.
After enjoying the colorful tulips and dozens of other flowers in the main court and gardens, head to the north side of the campus for “Cherry Tree Avenue,” a long walk flanked by Purnus TaiHaku trees in full bloom.
4 Gonville and Caius
Simply known as Caius (and pronounced “keys”), this is the fourth oldest college. It’s right in city center, though it doesn’t have near as many tourists as King’s clambering at the gate. The exterior facing out towards King’s Parade is one of my favorites. During the Cambridge e-Luminate Festival, when the town glows with colorful light displays, this side looks like an eerie fairy tale castle lit up with pinks and purples and blues.
Thirteen Nobel prize winners hail from Caius, and Stephen Hawking is a current fellow. I was hoping some of the genius might rub off by spending some time in the gardens, but unfortunately I haven’t had any eureka moments since.
Walking down Senate House Passage, with the Senate House on one side and Caius on the other, you’ll pass the college’s Gate of Honour crowned with a sundial. It looks ancient, but was actually created in the 1960s as part of the 400th year anniversary restoration project for the college.
5 Sidney Sussex
I had a hard time picking my fifth favorite. Every time I visited a new college, it would become “one of my favorites.” Almost all of the colleges have something I love, but in the end, Sidney Sussex felt fitting as our back window looks out onto the tree tops in the college garden. It took me far too long to actually see what else was behind the tall brick fence and realize all that I’d been missing. Sidney has wisteria vines climbing fences, a long set of arches lining the walkway in Cloister Court, and the skull of its former student, Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, buried under the ante-chapel.
But that’s the beauty and mystery of Cambridge; what seems like just a small space between the fence and the street reveals itself to be an impossibly green and tranquil sanctuary with history to discover, something that feels both miles and centuries away from the busy road on just the other side.
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