Dropping into a city for one day and getting a good feel for it is never easy and absolutely requires a little advanced research. We had a few clear ideas of what we wanted to see and do to make the most of our day trip To Cambridge from London on a recent vacation.
Our visit was driven by two things: We wanted to get a feel for Cambridge University as a possible college choice. And Teen Traveler wanted to follow in the footsteps of some of her favorite characters in a book that’s set in Cambridge.
Here are my best tips for getting the most out of your own day trip to this University town from London.
Top Tips For a Day Trip From London To Cambridge With A Teen
Touring Cambridge University
Cambridge University has more than 30 colleges. They are are a bit like the houses at Hogwarts: your homebase for three years, where you live, dine and socialize. All classes are university wide.
Several colleges have been around since the 1400s and some are only a few decades old. They each have their distinct character and culture and some wildly varied architecture that reflects when they were built. All the ones in the city center are the older ones and look like the Cambridge you see in tv shows and movies.
They don’t offer U.S-style college tours so we booked a 90-minute walking tour for a general tourist audience that would be led by a Cambridge student or alumnus. It’s a good way to get an overview of the city and have the most historical colleges pointed out to you. We also got to hear a few of the more entertaining, and likely apocryphal, local legends about various campus landmarks.
Our alumna-led tour started and ended in front of Kings College, which dates to 1441.
We got to see the Corpus Christi College quad and walked by the Eagle Pub, where two Cambridge Fellows had a ground-breaking epiphany in DNA research (also, Will and Geordie like to drink here in the PBS series Grantchester).
We passed by the wooden Mathematical Bridge, crossed the river Cam to see Queens College, then walked passed the backs of Kings, Clare and Trinity colleges. We circled back across the Cam past the Senate House, where the colleges’ graduations take place, before returning to Kings College gate.
Don’t Miss Kings College Chapel
Whether you go in on a tour or on your own, you’ll have to pay a £10 fee to enter the grounds of King’s College. The entries are timed but once you’re in you can wander around as much as you like.
We timed our tickets to coincide with the end-time for our walking tour, which worked out well.
The main attraction is the iconic King’s College Chapel. If a movie or tv show wants a single shot that places the action in Cambridge, chances are it will be of this chapel from across the College’s back gardens.
They began building the chapel in 1446 and it wasn’t completed until 1547. It has the largest fan-vaulted ceiling in the world (meaning the vaults look pleated like paper fans instead of having a flat facade). It’s quite pretty and very impressive, especially for the time when it was built. The stain glass windows are beautiful; take a close look at the dogs. And be sure to note Rubens’ “The Adoration of the Magi” behind the altar.
You can spend time exploring the back meadow, which is probably lovely when the weather is good, and say hello to the college’s two cows. The grass was rather brown from a summer heatwave and it was very sunny, so we didn’t linger as much we thought we might.
Punting on the Cam
Most tour companies offer a combined walking and punting tour. And you might as well book it because once you’re there it’s hard to resist the temptation to get on the river.
Scudamore and Granta are the two biggest companies that offer punting tours. You’ll find smaller outfits around town, too. Their tours are going to be fairly similar but local people we talked to told us that the Granta folks are nicer to work with. So we booked a tour with Granta by adding it tour our walking tour.
Punting wasn’t quite what we expected. The Cam is very shallow and the boats are flat-bottomed and too shallow to have benches. We sat on cushions on the floor with six other passengers, half of us facing forward and half of us facing backward (which is awkward for taking photos).
The tour covers some of the same history as the walking tour but there are some things you can only see from the river, such as Kitchen Bridge at St. John’s College, which is modeled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. And you can see more colleges from this vantage point.
Our punter was a local resident and it was interesting to hear his perspective on the city in contrast to that of the alumna who led our walking tour.
A bit of Advice: You can rent a boat and do your own punting. Don’t. It’s harder than it looks and most people we passed on the river we’re not getting very far. Also, it’s not unusual for inexperienced punters to lose their balance and fall in, which is rather embarrassing.
Cambridge Restaurants, Cafés & Pubs
There are plenty of places to eat in Cambridge; some clearly aimed at student budgets and others priced for faculty and visiting parents. I don’t think you can go too far wrong with walking by places and seeing what looks good to you.
If you want something less expensive, there are a good number of cafés and pubs (of course) and a daily Cambridge outdoor market between St. Mary’s Street and St. Mary’s Passage, which starts across the street from Kings College. It has prepared foods, fresh produce and knick-knacks.
The characters in Mistletoe and Murder, the book that led us here, spend a lot of time in Fitzbillie’s Tea Room eating Chelsea buns and lemon cake while pondering clues. So we started our day with a late breakfast here. They have a couple of locations but you want to go to the one at Trumpington and Pembroke streets, which has been there since 1922 and is much bigger than it looks from the outside.
They are famous for their award-winning Chelsea buns, which are like cinnamon rolls with raisins and a sugar glaze replacing the cinnamon and sugar. Rich ordered one because we figured somebody had to. It’s not our thing, but if you have the sort of hardcore sweet tooth that likes Crispy Crème doughnuts you’ll probably like these.
Teen Traveler order an almond macaroon cookie and a cup of hot cocoa. This was the most inviting and indulgent looking cup of cocoa I’d seen in a while. And she reports that it tasted as good as it looked.
I had a pot of very high-quality Earl Grey tea and a scone with clotted cream and raspberry jam. The scone was so light it was like eating air with clotted cream and jam on top; fantastic! They have heartier breakfast options, too, including egg dishes and Chelsea bun French toast, which has to be outrageous.
The advantage of punting at Granta is that they have a pub next to their dock with a huge outdoor deck. As we were sitting down we saw people sharing a baked camembert topped with nuts and honey that looked amazing. But it was in the 80s that day and we agreed it was probably too warm to tuck into a plate of melted cheese. If we ever come back in the fall, I will make a beeline for it.
We all had fish & chips with fresh haddock and a side of mushy peas that were made in house with fresh mint to make them a bit summery and tastier than mushy peas usually are.
We took an afternoon break with some rich, full-fat ice cream from the Cenu Cacao chocolate shop. Bene’ts Café next door has gelato that a lot of people were eating and it looked good, too. I’d say you can’t go wrong with either, so pick the one with no line.
Shopping in Cambridge
Shops in the city start closing down fairly promptly at 5:00 or 6:00. Had we known that we might have put our punting off to later in the afternoon because we ran short on time afterward. there a few bookstores we wanted to check out and didn’t get to.
Among them: The quaint Haunted Bookshop tucked away down St. Edward’s Passage, enormous Heffer’s, a notable book emporium on Trinity Street, and the Cambridge University Press on the corner of Trinity and St. Mary’s streets. Oxfam has a used bookshop on Sidney Street. If you like perusing used book shops I imagine Cambridge would be an interesting place to do it.
There are a few shops along the main drag where you can buy Cambridge t-shirts, hoodies and other gear. They all have pretty much the same items. If one doesn’t have the color and size you want just try another.
Most other shops around Kings College were too pricey for actual shopping but were fun to browse.
Wandering Around Cambridge Town
Leave some time to wandner around town, check out some of the colleges and enjoy the bucolic scenery.
Not all the colleges are open for the public to wander around. Signs at the entrance will make it quite clear whether or not you are welcome. We were able to walk around Pembroke and Newnham colleges and both were quite lovely. When you do explore the colleges always walk around the outside of the grass quad; crossing the grass is a privilege reserved for university Fellows.
Keep a look out for the Corpus Clock at the corner of King’s Parade and Bene’t Street. It’s bizarre and compelling. The clock has no hands or numbers; LED lights indicate the hours, minutes and seconds. If you walk by it on the hour listen for the rattle of chains and the sound of a hammer hitting a coffin. This reminder that time passes is reinforced by a Chrono phage, a giant time eating grasshopper sitting atop the clock’s face.
If you have time seek out the small, 12th century Round Church at the corner of Bridge and St. John’s streets. It’s small and indeed round with other unique architectural details and nice stained-glass windows.
Make sure to cross the Cam and wander along some of the paths on the other side. It’s remarkable how quickly this bustling city turns into countryside. We saw a bunch of cows wandering along the paths and munching on the grass meadows.
Rural Grantchester, a popular location for students to picnic and swim, is just a short way downriver.
The city has quite a few museums that delve into art, archeology and even polar expeditions, but if you want to fit those in along with your other sightseeing you would need to stay overnight and have a second day.
Getting To and Around Cambridge
Cambridge is an easy train ride from London’s King’s Cross station. Check the schedule carefully because roughly every third train is an express train that takes about 50 minutes. The other two make local stops and take about 70 minutes. The train station is a mile from Trumpington Street/Kings Parade, which is the main drag.
There are buses that run from the station but we didn’t want to figure them out. We walked into town and back again, which was a lot of walking on top of all the sightseeing. But you can catch a taxi at the station for about £7. You can rent bikes at the station, too. The road right around the station requires some care but once you’re in the center, Cambridge is a fairly bicycle-friendly town— if you can remember to stay to the left.
If you don’t want to deal with trains you can book a bus tour. But book one that just takes you to Cambridge. Some try to combine Cambridge with Oxford and they’re each a full day excursion in their own right.