If you’re planning on attending the University of Cambridge and trying to narrow down which college you’d like to apply to, then, unfortunately, this article won’t help. My opinion of the best Cambridge colleges to visit is based purely on their idyllic gardens and impressive architecture, not academic specialties or prestige (though attending a pretty college certainly couldn’t hurt). There are 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge, each with separate grounds including gardens, dormitories, chapels, dining halls, and classrooms.
We’ve been lucky enough to live right near Cambridge city center for almost a year as Aaron is currently a graduate student at Jesus College (one of the many perks of Jesus College, if you are trying to pick a college 😉 ). This made it fairly easy to explore the centrally located colleges often, and over the course of the year, we’ve visited all 31 colleges of Cambridge University.
Whether you’re visiting Cambridge on a day trip from London, or you’ve decided to spend a few days in one of England’s finest historic university towns, the best thing to do is to step off the crowded streets of Trumpington and King’s Parade, and into college grounds. These places feel like a sanctuary from the outside world. It’s easy to get transported into another time, with ivy-covered towers built hundreds of years ago, porters manning the gates, green lawns that are not to be crossed, and students stepping out in their black academic gowns for formal dinners.
A visit to any of the colleges of the University of Cambridge is worthwhile. Most visitors stop by King’s College, Trinity College, and St. John’s College. These are some of the oldest, richest and most prestigious colleges of Cambridge University. While I would definitely include these on your list of places to visit in Cambridge, see below for my list of the best colleges in Cambridge to visit. In addition, I’ve included a map at the end of this post with each of these 5 colleges, as well as my favorite Cambridge cafés and restaurants along the way.
How to get to Cambridge, England
First off, make sure you’re searching for the right Cambridge, not the second (lesser) Cambridge in Massachusetts with that other university.
Cambridge is easily accessible by car, coach or train. Any of these can be good options, depending on where you’re coming from.
From London: If you are traveling by car, hop on the M11 motorway and you’ll be in Cambridge in about an hour and a half. Trains leave from London King’s Cross and London Liverpool Street for Cambridge frequently and typically take between one and one and a half hours for the journey. Check train times or purchase advance tickets at thetrainline.com.
From Stansted Airport: We’ve made probably twenty journeys between Cambridge and Stansted Airport as Stansted is the most convenient airport to Cambridge. Trains take between 30 minutes and an hour, depending on if the route requires a change of trains. Check train times and purchase advance tickets at thetrainline.com.
From Heathrow or Gatwick Airport: If you fly into either of these larger, international airports, the train journey will require that you first go into central London to change trains and head north to Cambridge. The journey from both takes about two hours. From Heathrow, you’ll have to change trains at least once, and most likely twice from Gatwick.
When we flew in and out of these larger airports, we opted for the convenience of the National Express coaches. Yes, the travel time is longer, but once you find your comfy set on the bus at the airport bus station, you won’t have to worry about overcrowded trains or hauling your luggage around when changing trains. Plus, the bus stop at Parker’s Piece is much closer to the city center, compared to the train station which is about a mile out of town. The journey on the National Express takes 2-3 hours and costs around £30. From Gatwick, the trip takes 3 to 4 hours and costs about £21.
Where to Stay in Cambridge
Cambridge is very bicycle and pedestrian-friendly. Add the fact that parking in city center is outrageously expensive and almost every street is one-way, it’s best to ditch the car and stay as close to the center of town as possible. There aren’t a lot of options as most of the city center is either college grounds, college housing, or shopping, but there are a few spots where you can book a comfortable room.
If you do end up booking a bit out of city center, rent a bike or use the bus.
The four-star Hilton Cambridge City Centre next to the Grand Arcade is the most centrally located hotel. Its interior is refreshing and modern, with suites that can accommodate up to four people. Book this hotel as soon as possible as it often does sell out. Check out room rates and availability of the Hilton Cambridge City Centre here.
Enjoy the idyllic English countryside only a few blocks away at the DoubleTree by Hilton Cambridge City Centre, situated right on the River Cam on Granta Place. If you luck out with a western-facing room, you can watch inexperienced punters (like myself) play bumper boats or get caught in an unintentional game of chicken as they try to navigate the crowded river. Check out room rates of the DoubleTree by Hilton Cambridge City Centre here.
1 Jesus College
The first on my list of the best Cambridge colleges to visit is Jesus College, and it’s probably not coincidental that this is Aaron’s college. We live in a student flat just across the street and around the corner from The Chimney, the college entrance pictured below. But even if we didn’t live so close by, I think it’s gardens and buildings are easily some of the most beautiful in the city of Cambridge.
Jesus College is technically a nickname. The official name is The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the glorious Virgin Saint Radegund, near Cambridge. I’ve never once heard anyone call it that as it’s quite a tongue twister. Its common name 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 was founded in 1347, and is the third oldest college of Cambridge University. When walking off the street and into the grounds, you pass through the oldest Gatehouse in Cambridge, dating from the 14th century.
The college chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings in the town 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.
If you’re visiting Cambridge in the spring, Pembroke has a large fence wrapped by wisteria vines, perfect for those #wisteriahysteria Instagram posts. The somewhat wild area located near the center of the campus known as “The Orchard” is also a pretty part of the garden to visit.
Selwyn is 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. 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. These blooms fade fast, so even if you miss them, the rest of the grounds still make Selwyn one of the best Cambridge colleges to visit.
4 Gonville and Caius
Simply known as Caius (and pronounced “keys”), this is the fourth oldest college. There seems to be a correlation between oldest colleges and the ones that have ended up on this list of the best Cambridge colleges to visit. Gonville and Caius is 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 fairytale 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 Cambridge college to visit. Every time I stopped by 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 treetops of Sidney’s 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 (though you obviously can’t see it, it’s still interesting knowing it’s there).
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.