After living in this beautiful and historic English town for a year, I’m sharing the best things to do on a Cambridge day trip.
London is an amazing city, but what really made me fall in love with England was Cambridge. And we lived there for a year, so I had time to soak in all the comes with living in a historic university town, including walking the cobblestone roads every day, being surrounded by thousands of years of such incredible history, and watching the all the beautiful college gardens burst into full bloom during spring and summer.
If you have time for a day trip to Cambridge from London (or anywhere else you’re visiting), do it! There’s literally something for everyone in Cambridge – go if you’re into history, architecture, science, literature, art, or even just hoping some of that genius that passes through Cambridge rubs off on you.
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What to do in a day in Cambridge
While this is a guide for a Cambridge day trip, I’ve packed enough suggestions in that you could keep busy for a week (or more, I took me basically the whole year to finish visiting all of the colleges). Since I had so much time explore, I’ve added the things I really loved, many of which were off the standard tourist track repeated daily by the busload during the busy summer travel season.
If you need to squeeze your Cambridge visit into one day, here are the things I wouldn’t miss:
- Wander the grounds of a few Cambridge colleges
- Go punting! I don’t think any trip to Cambridge is complete without it
- Attend Evensong at King’s College Chapel
That should cover a few hours, so I’d plan the rest according to what you’re most interested in!
A quick bit of history about Cambridge
Cambridge was founded in 875, and a university was established in 1209 when scholars fled Oxford after disagreements over who had authority to appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury. There has long been a bit of a rub between town and gown, dating as far back as the middle ages when the local craftsmen were accused of overcharging the students for goods.
The oldest college at the University of Cambridge is Peterhouse, built in 1284. Since then, thirty more colleges have been established. Famous university alumni run the gamut from Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking to Lord Byron and Sylvia Plath.
Things to do in Cambridge, England
1 Visit a College (or a few)
Stepping off the crowded streets of Trumpington and King’s Parade and into college grounds feels like you’re entering a sanctuary from the outside world. It’s easy to get transported into another time, with ancient, ivy-covered towers, 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. Some of the most popular and prestigious colleges include King’s College, Trinity College, and St. John’s College. While I would definitely include these on your list of places to visit in Cambridge, I’ve listed my five favorite colleges of the University of Cambridge here that are a bit more off the beaten path. Most of these colleges have gorgeous architecture and stunning gardens, and typically there aren’t large groups of tourists. Plus, all of these five colleges are free to visit.
The best time to visit Cambridge is generally spring as almost all of the colleges are open and their beautiful gardens are in bloom. Many of the college grounds are closed to visitors during exam time, which is usually late May to June.
Here is a bit more about the most popular colleges in Cambridge to visit:
Trinity College was established in 1564 and is the second largest college in Cambridge by count of undergraduate students. It has produced 34 Nobel Prize winners, the most out of any college from either Oxford or Cambridge University (kind of some serious pressure if you get in!).
A statue of Henry VIII (yes, that Henry) stands over the entrance at the great gate as founder of the college. If you look closely, you’ll notice that he’s holding a chair leg instead of a scepter, the result of a student prank from a long time ago.
Entrance info: The college is usually open to visitors from 10am to 4:30pm, and entrance tickets cost £3.50.
Once inside, stroll the Great Court, visit the Chapel, and make your way out to the Backs (which just means the Backs of the colleges along the River Cam).
St. John’s College
St. John’s is famous for a lot of reasons, like its extravagant May Ball and the Bridge of Sighs (which may be named after the famous one in Venice, but doesn’t look anything like it). Even so, punting along the College Backs and under the Bridge of Sighs on the River Cam is one of the most Cambridge things you can do.
St. John’s was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, and is one of the oldest and most prestigious at the University of Cambridge. The chapel, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott is absolutely stunning. This chapel might remind you Sainte Chappelle in Paris with all of its incredible stained glass windows.
My favorite building is the Old Divinity School, which is right across from the Great Gate on St Johns Street.
Entrance info: Entrance to St John’s college costs £10, children 12-17 are £5 and kids under 12 are free. The college is usually open 10am – 4pm. For more information about hours and closure dates, see the St. John’s visitors page.
King’s College Chapel is possibly the most popular tourist attraction in Cambridge. The College was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. The college chapel was built over almost a 100 year period – construction started in 1446, and the massive stained glass windows were not finished until 1531. The chapel claims the world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling, and features a painting above the altar called The Adoration of the Magi by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens.
If you want to get one of the most popular views of the chapel, then you’ll have to go around the backs where you’ll see it from across the river and the back fields.
Entrance info: Entry Tickets cost £9.00 or £6.00 (children aged 12-17). Entry is free for children 11 and under. These tickets give you access to the chapel and the college grounds. For opening hours, see the King’s College Chapel calendar.
2 Attend Evensong at King’s College Chapel
Evensong is a service of evening prayers, psalms, and canticles held by the Anglican Church. Most of the college chapels in Cambridge hold daily evensong, but the one at King’s College Chapel the most popular to attend as its choir is world famous.
The King’s College Choir was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI to provide daily singing in his new chapel. Today the choir is made up of sixteen choristers, young boys who typically start around the age of 8 and sing in the choir for several years (usually until their voice changes).
Evensong is typically held in the King’s College Chapel every day at 5:30 pm, but be sure to double check on the chapel calendar here for the day you’ll be attending. A line starts forming about 30 minutes ahead of time, so get in line early if you want to make sure you get a spot.
The King’s College Choir performs at most Evensongs. On Mondays, Evensong is performed by another group called the King’s Voices, which is made up of men and women that attend King’s College.
The chapel typically closes at 4 pm for visitors to prepare for Evensong. This is a religious service and it is free to attend. Please plan to attend the full ceremony as to not disrupt others worship.
3 Go Punting along the College Backs
The River Cam is central to life in Cambridge. Whether it’s punting, bumps, or cardboard boat races, the river is at the heart of so many events in Cambridge. The river is integrated into the town, and some of the best views of the colleges are when punting down the “Backs,” with stellar shots of the backs of King’s, Queens’, Clare, Trinity and St. John’s College.
Punting down the Backs can turn into a game of bumper boats on a crowded day, with the expert punters leading tours and breezing past, while tourists who’ve rented a punt of their own spin in circles while they learn by trial and lots of error (this was still me on my fourth time punting). For a bit slower pace, start at the Granta Place dock and head the opposite direction towards Grantchester for a serene ride through idyllic English countryside. You can also rent kayaks and canoes on the Grantchester route.
Booking a punt or a punting tour
They used to have people trying to sell you on punting tours while you walked down Trumpington and King’s Parade, but I think they’ve dialed that back a bit (it kind of felt like you were being accosted).
Scudamore’s offers self-hire punts and punting tours starting at 9 am, with the last tour leaving at 4:30 pm. They’re open 364 days a year (so every day except Christmas). Self-hire punts cost £33 per hour and fit 6 people including the punter.
A shared punt tour along the Backs lasts 45 minutes and costs £22 for adults and £12.50 for children 4 to 16 (under 4 is free). This means you’ll have someone punting the boat for you, so you can just sit back and relax. These tours are roundtrip, and include a bit of narration, though sometimes the “facts” seem to be a bit questionable.
You’ll get a bit of a discount for the self-hire punts and the tours if you book ahead of time online.
If you’re not interested in punting, you can walk along the Backs too for the same great views!
4 Climb the Tower at Great St Mary’s
Cambridge’s Great Saint Mary’s church is the official university church. It’s located right in city center next to the market square. A church has been on this spot since 1205, with the current structure built during the late 15th and early 16th century. The tower completed a bit later in 1608. By climbing up to the tower (cost is £5), you have a bird’s eye view of market square, King’s Parade with King’s College Chapel, and the rest of the colleges lining the street.
5 Take a Historic Walking Tour of Cambridge
I took a Cambridge walking tour after living in town for several months, and still saw so many new things I’d never noticed before and learned all about the history of buildings I walked past every day. The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and added so much depth to my understanding of Cambridge. If you’re planning a day of sightseeing in Cambridge, a walking tour is a great way to kick things off.
Here are a few options for Cambridge Walking Tours:
Visit Cambridge Walking Tours – These tours are put on by the tourism board of Cambridge, and run between £10 and £25 per person. They offer a Cambridge Highlights tour, or have more specialized tours, like one covering The Parker Library at Corpus Christi College.
Footprints Tours – If you want a chance to learn more about Cambridge from a local university student, book a two hour free walking tour with Footprints Tours. Tours run at 11 am and 2 pm daily.
6 Visit the Wren Library at Trinity College
The Wren Library was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the same person that designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Visit for the architecture, to see the intricately carved bookcases by Grinling Gibbons, or get a glimpse of rare books ranging from Isaac Newton’s first edition of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica to A. A. Milne’s manuscript of Winnie-the-Pooh.
The library is usually open from 12 pm – 2 pm Monday through Friday, and 10:30 am – 2 pm on Saturdays. No photography is allowed. For updates on closures and opening times, see the Wren Library tourist page.
7 Go for Afternoon Tea at Orchard Tea Garden in Grantchester
The walk between Cambridge and The Orchard tea garden in Grantchester was one of my favorite things to do on a sunny day. It’s about a two-mile walk through Grantchester Meadows and along the River Cam if you start around King’s College. You’ll be sure to encounter at least a few cows grazing along the way. Once you’re there, you can order some tea and scones with clotted cream and enjoy an afternoon in the orchard.
If you don’t have time to make it down to Grantchester, then opt for a spot within Cambridge for afternoon tea. Fitzbillies (famous for their Chelsea buns), Six (on the sixth floor of The Varsity Hotel, where you’ll get incredible panoramic views of the town), and The Ivy are all fantastic.
8 Visit The Round Church
Back in the 11th and 12th centuries, round churches were fairly common. Now, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, commonly known as The Round Church, is one of only four round medieval churches still standing in England today.
The congregation that previously met at the round church outgrew it, so now it houses an exhibit about the history of Cambridge. Entrance to the Round Church costs £3.50 for adults, £1 for children 12 to 18.
9 Visit the Fitzwilliam Museum
The Fitzwilliam Museum is an arts and antiquities museum in Cambridge. They have a great permanent collection, as well as some interesting temporary exhibits. I saw special exhibits by the cartoonist Ronald Searle, as well as a collection of William Turner’s watercolors. The museum is open 10 am – 5 pm Tuesday through Saturday and 12 pm – 5pm on Sundays. Entrance to the Fitzwilliam is free, though donations are appreciated.
10 Grab Lunch or Dinner at a Pub
A Cambridge day trip isn’t complete without a trip to the pub. The Eagle on Bene’t St lays claim to fame as the place where Francis Crick proclaimed his discovery of the “secret of life” in 1953 after he and James Watson determined the structure of DNA in the Cavendish Laboratory across the street. I appreciated the plaque acknowledging the invaluable contributions made by Rosalind Franklin to this discovery, though it did take until 2013 for this commemorative addition. The pub also includes the RAF bar, with graffiti from World War II airmen covering the walls and ceiling.
While not as historic, The Mill opposite Scudamore’s punting dock on Granta Place is a fun place to grab a drink and enjoy a rare warm and sunny afternoon next to the river.
Where to grab a quick bite in Cambridge
If you’re looking for a quick meal in Cambridge city center, we’ve got a few favorites (these are all linked on the map below):
Aromi – This is my favorite spot for a quick lunch in Cambridge. It’s located right in city center, and the pizza and flatbread is delicious. They also have amazing hot chocolate and gelato. There’s usually a line around lunch, but it goes quickly.
Bread & Meat – The name makes this place sound basic, but this little spot in the center of Cambridge has a lot more than just sandwiches. You can swap out bread for poutine or roasted veggies.
Honest Burgers – If you’ve got a craving for burgers, this is the place to go!
Hotel Chocolat – This is more if you need a little spot to warm up – Hotel Chocolat still has the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It’s located inside the Lion Yard.
If you’re looking for something super quick and inexpensive, most of the grocery stores have decent takeaway sandwiches (like M&S), or Pret a Manger is always a solid choice.
You can also venture over to the town market in the square to see what’s available. They usually have a few options for a quick meal.
Where to Stay in Cambridge
If you do plan to extend your day trip to Cambridge, here are a few suggestions on where to stay in Cambridge. The four-star Hilton Cambridge City Centre has spacious, contemporary rooms, and it’s located next to the Grand Arcade in the middle of Cambridge, so you’ll be walking distance to almost everything. The Varsity Hotel & Spa is a beautiful boutique hotel with a lot of charm, and has some of the best views of the Cambridge skyline.
For a unique experience at a great price, check out University Rooms. You’ll get a taste of what it’s like to be a Cambridge student as these are actual student rooms – they’re made available to rent when students or on vacation, like Easter, Summer, and a few dates in December before Christmas. Students fully clear out their rooms between terms and they’re fully cleaned and prepped for guests. By booking on University Rooms, you’ll also have access to the college dining halls (the food was usually meh, but the architecture was incredible), and student bars.
If you’re looking for more affordable options and rooms aren’t available on University Rooms, then Airbnb is a good option. Since almost all of Cambridge city centre is college grounds or shopping, most homes and apartments are a bit on the outskirts of town. Here are several Airbnb rental options that are still within walking distance to the center of town at a great price. If you’re new to Airbnb, use our referral link here for $40 off your first home booking.
How to get to Cambridge, England
Cambridge is a great day trip from London, but it’s also fairly easy to get to Cambridge straight from the airport. Here are a few trips on how to get to Cambridge depending on where you’re coming from.
From London: If you are traveling by car from London, 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.
The National Express also has buses that go from London to Cambridge. Rides can be as inexpensive as £4.70 and the fastest journey time is 1 hour and 10 minutes. The buses can be a bit more convenient as the bus stop is near city center, compared to the train station which is about a mile out of town.
From Stansted Airport: Cambridge is also an easy train trip from Stansted airport. Many of the smaller, European-based airlines like Ryanair fly in and out of Stansted, so Cambridge is a great option for your first day in England. Trains take between 30 minutes and an hour.
If you’re coming from Heathrow or Gatwick Airport, then usually a car or the National Express buses are the most convenient option. If you opt for the train, you’ll have to first go to London and then change trains to head up to Cambridge.
Map of Cambridge
We hope you have a wonderful time! Let us know if you have any questions about planning a Cambridge day trip!