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King's College chapel (centre) viewed from the river. The beautiful Clare College is to the left; the white building to the right is fellows rooms in King's College.
Go punting on the river at Cambridge - it will be the most enjoyable part of your visit and the best way to see inside the colleges.
Statue of King Henry VIII in the gatehouse of Trinity College. What does Henry have in his right hand?
All Saints Passage has some interesting shops: a great cheese shop, interesting ladies underwear and a gentlemen's tailor.
A relatively new point of interest is this clock in Corpus Christi college's new library on the corner of King's Parade and Benet Street. Yes, it is a locust at the top of the clock and it moves.
A plaque on the wall of the Eagle pub. One of the few to show where great Cambridge thinkers worked.
If you have an interest in heraldry then you will like Cambridge. This is the (huge) crest over the top of the main gate into Christ's College. Similar crests can be found over the gatehouses of most of the colleges but see St John's College and Trinity College.
this is what tourists get to see most of in Cambridge - wonderful old buildings, close packed and within easy walking distance. This picture shows the beautiful Clare College (left) and King's College (right).
Garrett Hostel Lane bridge by Trinity Hall (the attractive new library is next to the bridge). Note the number of punts and this picture was taken in November - in summer there are many more making this the best place to wait for someone to fall-in the river while punting. There is always something to see here and the views into the colleges are sublimely beautiful.
View the Cambridge photo gallery.
This page provides free, biased tourist information about the town of Cambridge, England with a slant towards physics in Cambridge.
If you want more information about Cambridge then the official tourist site is www.visitcambridge.org. The telephone number for the Cambridge Tourist Information Office is +44 (0)1223 464 732. We recommend the walking tours of the city that they organize.
Cambridge is famous for its university, currently one of the best in the world, and its scientists. It is the town where: the atom was first split, where the structure of DNA was discovered, where Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution, where Newton developed his theory of gravity, where the order of human DNA was first discovered, where the electron and neutron were discovered, where Stephen Hawking of black-hole fame used to live and work. It has been home to some of the great thinkers of the last 500 years.
What to see and do in Cambridge
Cambridge is small and the historic town centre can only be visited on-foot - no vehicles are allowed. Expect to walk for most or all of your visit. Better still, spend an hour on the river - easily the best way to see the beauty of Cambridge. There are no hills in the centre of town.
Go punting in a boat on the river - it's great fun and you get the see the best of Cambridge from the river. A group of 5 persons can go together for between GBP 30 - 50. Punts can be rented by the hour from three locations on the river. If you are new to Cambridge then go punting along the Backs of the colleges. Chauffeur punting is also available.
King's College chapel (1446) - wonderful gothic perpendicular architecture with an almost flat ceiling that was the wonder of its day. Famous Rubens painting "Adoration of the Magi" (1634) hangs over the alter.
Mathematical bridge in Queen's College - viewed from Silver Street bridge - this was the first bridge to ever be designed and built using mathematical principles.
Gatehouse to Trinity College - statue of King Henry VIII holding an orb and old wooden chair-leg. Find-out the tradition surrounding the chair-leg. See the photo gallery.
View of the river from King's College bridge - great view of King's Chapel, King's College, Clare College and the Backs (gardens around the river). Not accessible if the College is closed.
View of the river from Garrett Hostel Lane - nice view of Clare fellows garden, Clare bridge, Trinity Hall, Trinity gardens but the main reason to go here is that it is the most congested place on the river for punts and if anyone is going to fall in it is likely to be here and it is very funny to watch. Best viewed on a hot summer day when the river is busy. Be prepared to wait but you will not be disappointed.
Magdalene bridge - lovely view of Magdalene College gardens and good place to sit and take refreshments.
Corpus Christi College clock - corner of King's Parade and Benet Street. New, modern design with flashing lights and a mechanical insect crawling over the top. Watch you don't get injured by a cyclist if you step out into the street to take a photograph of this monster.
Cambridge is a pretty, old town and it is worth visiting because it's small and you can easily walk around it in a day. It escaped the destruction of the second world war, unlike many other towns in England, so it has old buildings and it still has narrow, medieval streets.
The University is organised into subject departments (like Physics, Chemistry, English, History, Modern Languages) and into colleges (where students live and get some teaching). The colleges are a distinctive inter-disciplinary feature of Cambridge life and much older than the departments. Colleges are more like medieval monasteries than just places to sleep and eat. Many of the colleges are old (like Peterhouse or King's College or Trinity College) and some are old and rich (like Trinity College). The older colleges nearly all have fine old buildings and it is these buildings that you will see if you come to visit Cambridge.
Getting to Cambridge
Cambridge is located about 45 miles north (70 Km) of London. There are good train and bus services to Cambridge from London (King's Cross and Liverpool Street stations) and it is possible to get to Cambridge from the East Midlands, via Peterborough. Cambridge is also linked by train to other towns in East Anglia, such as King's Lynn, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.
The train station is inconveniently located about 2 km south from the centre of the town. It is possible to walk to the centre or there are buses and taxis.
The bus station is close to the centre of town in Drummer Street and visitors can easily walk from Drummer street to the main tourist sites.
University - a brief history
The university was founded in the twelfth century by academics from Oxford University who didn't like Oxford. The oldest building from that time is the Erasmus Building in St John's College but the oldest surviving college is Peterhouse. Cambridge and Oxford are similar distances from London: Oxford lies to the west of London and Cambridge to the north. The distance was sufficiently great that the ruling monarch could not travel from London to either town in mediaeval times in one day. This was an advantage for academics if the monarch acted on impulse and thought a few executions would boost morale! The distance provided a useful cooling-off period.
The University has evolved slowly over the centuries and for much of the time it has been more like a collection of monasteries than the University that exists today. Seven hundred years ago if you came to Cambridge you studied Latin, Greek and Theology and lived in houses with your teachers who were generally priests. The colleges evolved to become very much like monasteries that concentrated on teaching. Things changed after 1536 when King Henry VIII suppressed the monasteries in England and Cambridge changed its interests to study science and learning outside of Theology and the Classics. However, Cambridge colleges have preserved a strong connection with the old monastic traditions, which shows that Cambridge has been slow to change its traditions. For example grace is said in Latin before formal meals. A rather less charming tradition was that women could not get degrees at the University of Cambridge until 1948 although women had been coming to Cambridge to study for over 100 years by 1948 and taking the same examinations as male students. Indeed, only in 1998 did the University finally get around to awarding degrees to some women students who should have graduated before 1948.
To gain entrance to the University students still needed to pass exams in Latin until about 1970 and until about the 19th century academics were expected to remain celibate. Theology remained one of the main subjects for study until the industrial revolution. Isaac Newton spent more time working on theology than he did on mathematics or physics. During the years of the black-death in medieval times there was a shortage of priests to bury the dead so a college was founded at Cambridge just to boost the numbers of priests - it was called the "body of Christ", Corpus Christi, and the college still exists to this day.
King Henry VIII was an English King who liked to have his own way. He created the Church of England by a reformation that separated it from the Roman Catholic church so that he could have a divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon and widow of Henry's dead brother and former king. To strengthen his rule he dissolved the Roman Catholic monasteries in England, adding to his political power and wealth. This suppression could have badly affected Cambridge but King Henry did not destroy the colleges in Cambridge, probably because he valued the technological advantage that might derive from harnessing the great thinkers there - he was a great promoter of technology in the British navy, for example. As well as establishing the Greenwich naval academy (the reason the 0 degree meridian passes through Greenwich, England) he also endowed Cambridge, most notably Trinity College, Isaac Newton's college and the college of many other famous mathematicians and scientists. It remains the most magnificent of the colleges in Cambridge and the college for the aristocracy to attend (most recently Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales). It's not surprising then that Trinity College is one of the wealthiest institutions in Great Britain and, reputedly, it does not need the income it derives from student fees; it now derives its wealth from the land it owns, particularly Felixstowe docks (the major container port in the UK) and from the science parks around Cambridge.
It has always been a sign of status to found a new college in Cambridge and if you could get it named after you then you had made it to the top. Some of the names of the older colleges sound rather grand now: Gonville & Caius, Pembroke, Sidney Sussex, Selwyn. However, some of the more recent names do not yet have the same ring, for example, Robinson College (named after a man who made his fortune renting televisions in the 1960s). Doubtless in two hundred years time the name will sound better.
Towards the end of the 19th century wealthy patrons started giving money to create departments for study, instead of colleges. In science this allowed Cambridge to attract the best minds. This started the intensification of interest in science in Cambridge that resulted in the discovery of the electron, the neutron and the splitting of the atom.
In the 1980s the UK government introduced a system of rating the departments of universities on a scale 0 to 5, with 5 being the top grade. If a department got a score of 5 it received additional money from the government and the department was more likely to get research grants. All Cambridge's departments scored 5 and Cambridge shot to the top of the academic league and started collecting large sums of money. So large that the university embarked upon a major expansion of buildings. A number of other universities were given research ratings of 5 for their departments and the government introduced a new 5* rating to try to differentiate between the top universities. Virtually all Cambridge departments scored 5* - Cambridge stayed top. The money was used to do more top class research in Cambridge - the virtuous circle the government wanted to create but, unfortunately, Cambridge was too good and was taking too much money - other universities were complaining, particularly when poorly performing departments started to close. The money going to Cambridge was cut back but Cambridge remains at the top of the pack in the UK and is regularly in the top 5 universities in the world.
Unfortunately, the university does not welcome tourists but if you have a special interest in physics there is a wonderful, small museum in the New Cavendish, Thomson Avenue, on the west of Cambridge. It is possible to walk there but you need to be fit. There are buses out there but it is not worth visiting unless you have a special interest in physics. On display are: James Clark Maxwell's old desk, the apparatus used to discover the electron, the apparatus used to discover the neutron and some of the earliest X-ray photographs. There are also wonderful old photographs of Cavendish researchers over the last 130 years. This museum is a little gem. Unfortunately, you cannot just turn-up to enter the museum, you must book a time to visit in advance.
There is a museum about polar research in the Scott Polar Institute on Lensfield Road that is within reasonable walking distance of the centre.
The Whipple museum is centrally located on Free School Lane but it is largely a collection of old scientific instruments often of no particular connection with Cambridge. Not our favourite.
If you like art museums then the best is the Fitzwilliam Museum on Trumpington Street. It is a simply the best in Cambridge and well worth a visit, particularly if it is wet or cold outside. The tea shop is worth a visit and the shop sells some interesting jewelry.
When to visit Cambridge
The best time to visit Cambridge as a tourist is in the spring, summer or autumn because Cambridge has many beautiful gardens to admire. The gardens are mostly all located close to the river that runs through the middle of the old, historic town centre. The gardens are most beautiful during spring (when crocuses bloom in large numbers) and summer (best time for punting). Access to the colleges is restricted in May and June due to examinations and post-exam celebrations. It is better for the tourist to avoid the 6 weeks from early May until mid-June.
The weather in Cambridge during winter is often cold, wet and misty.
Cambridge's weather is relatively dry for England. Recent summers have been hot and often dry with good weather extending almost to the end of October.
The river is a place of continuous entertainment during the summer months because it is popular to go out in boats on the river and travel by them through the colleges. The boats are an unusual flat-bottomed construction and are propelled using a pole that is pushed against the river bed - the boats are called "punts" and it is very popular to go "punting". Punts can be rented by the hour at three locations on the river in the centre of town. Not only does punting give the tourist the best view of the inside of the colleges but punting is also a very relaxed mode of transport - away from cars and vehicle noise. It can be a very romantic journey for courting couples but it can also be a very wet journey if one falls into the river while attempting to use the punting pole (beware of the pole sticking in the mud). Punting is very safe for passengers apart from when embarking and disembarking.
We recommend young, fit persons to rent a punt and try punting. It will be the highlight of your visit because it will be surprisingly amusing and enjoyable. It generally costs about GBP 20 - 30 per hour to rent a punt - allow at least one hour for punting but not more than two hours. Try to to take some food to eat on the river. You can get up to 6 people in a punt but we recommend not more than 5 people. It should not cost each person more than GBP 10 to go punting. Punts for viewing the colleges and their gardens can be rented from: beside Silver Street bridge (access from Mill Lane), The Mill Pond (access from the side of the Granta Pub on Newnham Road), Trinity College (access from Garret Hostel Lane, next to the footbridge) and Quayside next to Magdalene bridge. Punts for use on the upper-river can be rented from Mill Lane. The upper-river is also very beautiful but it does not go near the colleges, instead it heads out into the country south of Cambridge and eventually reaches the lovely village of Grantchester. It takes a whole day to punt to Grantchester and back but there are some excellent locations for pick-nicking and there are some good pubs in Grantchester. We particularly recommend the Orchard Gardens for morning or afternoon tea - unlike any other tea-room you have ever experienced! Beware: punting to Grantchester is only for the fit, young and experienced punter. The river is muddy. Tourists should stick to The Backs (of the Colleges).
There are also chauffeur punts in which a professional does all the hard work of punting. It is more expensive and altogether more sedate and less fun but you will not fall into the water and you will be given an explanation of what you are seeing. An unpleasant side of punting is the numerous chauffeur punt "touts" - young people strolling around the town trying to sell you a punting tour at a premium price. Just ignore them and go to the locations where chauffeur punts are available, notably Silver Street Bridge.
Punting is great fun and is one of the things tourists must do when visiting Cambridge.
If you are going to use the pole when punting then it is strongly recommended that you remove all precious belongings from pockets before starting, in case you fall in and lose them in the water. This applies to wallets, handbags, mobile phones, car keys, house keys, money and so on. If you are canoeing then try to put all valuables into a container that can be sealed against water and that floats. Canoes are available to rent but they have a habit of turning-over and all contents go into the river - a punt will never turn-over by accidnet. It's one thing to walk back to the car wet another thing to stand in the street wet with no keys!
Punting on the river is fun for well-behaved children. Minimum age for using the pole when punting is probably 14 years. Children should normally be passengers or use the paddle also provided. Life-jackets are available where you rent the punts.
Note that during May Week (first week of June) and for most of the month of May (during exams) many of the colleges are closed to visitors.
In the first half of June is a week known as May-week - a Cambridge chronological mystery. All university exams are over by then and the students want to relax with: parties, open-air drama, rowing races on the river, all-night balls in the Colleges and general mayhem. Most of the events are open to the public and ticket prices are usually low (to watch the rowing races is free), the exceptions being the College balls (May balls) where prices are high and tickets are usually sold-out in April. If you are tempted to go to a May-ball then only go to one in a college that sits along the Backs (the college backs onto the river Cam). Suitable colleges are: Queen's, King's, Clare (special recommendation), Trinity Hall, Trinity, St John's and Magdalene. It is essential to get a ticket for a May Ball before you travel to Cambridge - do not expect to be able to buy a ticket on the day you visit - May Balls sell out months in advance.
Bumping races on the river
A visit to the bumping races on the river is well worth while during May-week (generally the first week of June) but it means an excursion outside Cambridge to the north east about 3 miles away. Races are in rowing boats called "eights", not the punts used in the centre of town. It's possible to walk or take a bicycle to the correct section of the river - a car is probably inadvisable unless you are familiar with the area because there is no parking. It would be difficult to go to the bumping races and visit Cambridge in one day - one would probably need two days.
Directions: bumping races are best viewed from the north bank of the river opposite a pub called The Plough at Fen Ditton. To get there from the centre of town: walk eastwards along Jesus Lane to Midsummer common, then cross the common heading north-east towards the river, follow the river in an easterly direction, when the common ends follow the road aptly called Riverside until you come to another park called Stourbridge Common, follow the footpath and take the footbridge across the river to the Green Dragon pub, continue to follow the footpath eastwards along the river, pass under the railway bridge, continue along the almost straight section of river called Long Reach (this is part of the river used for bumping races) until you come to a sharp left bend in the river (opposite The Plough pub) - take-up a position anywhere between this bend and the next bend for a prime viewing place for the bumping races.
Bumping races are dangerous, manic events - there has been at least one death in the past. The river where the races start is narrow and has several bends. Twelve boats each with eight oarsmen and one cox (for steering) start racing in a line up-stream with a short distance between each boat. The objective is to bump the boat in front and to avoid being bumped by the boat behind. A canon is used to start each race and there are about ten races each day for four days. First races start at about 10.30 and the fastest boats race at about 16.00. The narrow tow-path by the river is lined with hundreds of students and the whole event is a frenzy of action during racing (lasting at most about 5 minutes) and a great place to meet and chat between races (about 30 minutes).
Walking in Cambridge
Cambridge is crowded with tourists between April and September. Most arrive and depart by coach in the same day and don't get much past Silver Street Bridge and King's Parade. Many of the colleges now charge tourists for admission and restrict the times of access for visitors. Typical admission charges are about GBP 3. Note: we recommend a different walk into the centre of Cambridge through the green, leafy Backs of the colleges (see Where to walk).
The centre of Cambridge is accessible only to pedestrians and within the colleges there are virtually no vehicles. A good walking map of Cambridge is the most useful purchase you can make.
Where to walk
Most tourists arrive on tourist buses or coaches on Silver Street outside Darwin College. Most tourists then walk over Silver Street bridge and turn left onto King's Parade and walk north until they are outside King's College gatehouse. This route can be busy, tourists are harranged by touts trying to sell chauffeur punt rides and there can be road traffic on Silver Street so it is not always pleasant.
An alternative route that is safer, avoids traffic and takes you through trees is to stroll north from Darwin College through the Backs by the side of Queen's Road and then go through the back gate of King's College (if it is open to visitors) or to go a little further north to Garret Hostel Lane and take this pedestrian route, with bridge, into the centre of town. When in the wooded area of the Backs look out for an old, worn stone used for mounting horses - it is close to Queen's Road on a footpath and close to Clare College.
Some interesting facts about Cambridge
What to avoid in Cambridge
There is a wide selection of postcards on sale in Cambridge. A personal recommendation goes for the cards produced by a Cambridge company called Cambridge Portfolio - the photographs are all beautiful views of Cambridge and must have been staged painstakingly. Cambridge Portfolio also makes calendars that are good gifts for Christmas.
Places to stay in Cambridge
The Cambridge Tourist Information Office can help you find accommodation in Cambridge - telephone +44 (0)1223 322640.
The quality of food supplied in Cambridge restaurants has improved greatly over the last 10 years so it should be possible to get something that satisfies. Prices are comparable to London.
Cambridge used to be over-provided with bookshops but recently numbers have fallen to a more manageable level.
Unusual or interesting