England

The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

August 2, 2016
King's College at University of Cambridge, England

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.

The River Cam in Cambridge, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

1 Jesus College

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

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.

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Jesus Chapel at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | The 5 Best Cambridge Colleges to Explore

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Jesus College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

2 Pembroke

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

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.

Wren Chapel in Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Wren Chapel in Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Wren Chapel in Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Pembroke College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

3 Selwyn

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

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.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Selwyn College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

4 Gonville and Caius

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

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.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

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.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

5 Sidney Sussex

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

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.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.

Sidney Sussex at Cambridge University, England | Each college has it's own deep history, unique architecture, and stunning grounds and gardens to explore.


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11 Comments

  • Reply Lori August 5, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    Wow! Once again, excellent writing and photography. Makes me want to go and see all that I missed!

    • Reply nomanbefore September 22, 2016 at 3:12 am

      There is always more to explore!

  • Reply Tanja (the Red phone box travels) September 11, 2016 at 8:04 am

    beautiful photos! I’ve been to King’s, Clare’s and to another smaller one that I can’t remember now:)

    • Reply nomanbefore September 11, 2016 at 6:52 pm

      Thanks Tanja! King’s is impressive, and I love the gardens at Clare. All of them are beautiful, it’s so hard to pick favourites! Hope you get to explore more!

  • Reply Oxford vs Cambridge September 12, 2016 at 5:12 am

    […] the fifth tends to change based on the day, and today I’m feeling fond of Sidney Sussex (see here to read more about these five!). The best time to visit is generally spring as almost all of the […]

  • Reply AlicevstheWorld January 13, 2017 at 9:27 am

    To be honest I’ve only visited a couple of Cambridge’s Universities, and even then only briefly. This summer I definitely need to go properly exploring them though, your photos are so beautiful!

    • Reply nomanbefore January 13, 2017 at 5:02 pm

      Yes, definitely! I really think they are some of the most beautiful places in England. Just don’t go during end of year exam time (late May – June) because they are closed to visitors!

  • Reply What's It Really Like to Live in Cambridge, England? January 14, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    […] were part of Jesus College. It’s one of the older colleges, but it’s known as being more relaxed and has a great […]

  • Reply Katie February 11, 2017 at 11:30 am

    What time of the year did you go? I want to go to Cambridge when the flowers are in bloom.

    • Reply Kelly Barcus February 11, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      Hey Katie, thanks for stopping by! We lived there, so these pictures are throughout the year, but mostly in spring. Flowers bloom starting in late winter through the spring, so it just depends on which ones you want to see. The pictures from Selwyn (tulips and cherry blossoms ) are mid-April, and the roses and wisteria at Jesus and Sidney Sussex are from later in May. Hope you have a great visit to Cambridge!

  • Reply Three Days in the Cotswolds, England | No Man Before June 20, 2017 at 1:48 pm

    […] living in Cambridge, a historic English university town, and taking plenty of trips to London, we were ready see another side of British life. We planned […]

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