Cambridge is one of the most well-known cities in England as it’s synonymous with the world-renowned Cambridge University, founded in 1209. The city has some of the most amazing architecture in all of England, which makes it easy to see why Cambridge is a popular day trip destination.
Between the picturesque cobbled streets, the towering ancient walls, the long history of scholars and inventions and the canal running through the city, Cambridge is a special place to visit. Add to that the charm of the students riding their bikes to and from their classes, the university vibe is rich and vibrant.
Cambridge is a nice change of pace from busy London and has such a distinctly scholarly feel to it. Being the fourth oldest university in the entire world, it’s easy to understand why. And especially being home to famous names like Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking and Sir Isaac Newton.
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Due to the large student population within 31 colleges, there is so much to see and do, as well as eat and drink. Whether you decide to partake in a walking tour or rough it on your own, Cambridge is a completely compact, walkable city. This Cambridge day trip will guide you through all the best sights to see and how to best use your time.
How to Get to Cambridge
Cambridge sits about 50 miles north of London in the county of Cambridgeshire. The Cam river flows through the city, with plenty of green space and parks surrounding the university, giving it a leisurely, but stately feel.
With non-stop service leaving from Kings Cross or Liverpool Street station in London, a train ride to Cambridge is quick and easy. You can expect to arrive in Cambridge in somewhere between 50 minutes to 1 1/2 hours depending on which route you take.
If you prefer to drive, depending on which end of London you depart from, it’ll take just one to 1 1/2 hours. If you do decide to make the drive, there’s a great Park and Ride for only 3 quid for up to 18 hours!
So with all that said, a day trip from London to Cambridge is absolutely doable!
Great St Mary’s Church
A visit to Great St Mary’s Church is the perfect way to start your day in Cambridge. St Mary’s has been the University Church since 1209 and is still the spiritual hub of Cambridge today. Not only do you want to visit the church for the history, but for the bell tower!
The bell tower is worth a climb for the phenomenal panoramic views of Cambridge and it’s a good way to orient yourself with a map of your day. There’s only one caveat; you must climb up a very narrow spiral stone staircase, with 123 steps! This is definitely not an activity for the claustrophobic, but I managed to make my way and it was completely worth it for the views.
There is a small entrance fee for Great St Mary’s, but so worth it. I will say the fees I found online were different when I arrived so you may want to contact them beforehand for accuracy, if you’re on a budget.
Cambridge Walking Tour
I don’t always think it’s necessary to take walking tours, but in Cambridge I highly suggest doing so and I would plan this for right after you visit the bell tower. Because there’s so much to see in Cambridge, a walking tour will ensure you get to visit all the main historical sites, as well as receive the history and sometimes quirky commentary by the guides.
Because of the times we’re currently living in, as of January 2022, do keep in mind that none of the 31 colleges were open for visitors. Unfortunately, this has been the case for nearly two years now, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth seeing from the outside! For inside tours, you’d probably need more than one day.
From ‘free tours’ to paying tours, there are a host of companies to choose from.
Footprints Free Walking Tour runs a great tip-based tour and is always excellent.
Otherwise, I highly recommend the Cambridge: Walking Tour led by Alumni with Kings College which has a set fee, you can find out more on Get Your Guide.
During the two hours, I enjoyed hearing facts about the colleges and surrounding buildings I would’ve missed out on otherwise.
The sights included on this tour for planning purposes are:
- Corpus Christi College
- Pembroke College
- St Catharine’s College
- Clare College
- Kings College
- River Cam
- The Senate House
- Trinity College
And then you’ll also learn about:
- Cambridge Five
- History Of The Town
- Student Life At Cambridge
- University Ceremonies
- Famous Graduates And Their Little Known Stories
- The Famous Finishing Story
I believe under different circumstances, tours would include access to the colleges, which makes it really worth the price, but as I stated, that’s not possible at the moment. If your heart is set on the entrance to a college, be sure to check the status before your trip to Cambridge.
The Mathematical Bridge
If you’re taking a walking tour, you’ll most likely head over to the famous Mathematical Bridge. But if you’re touring about on your own, this is a stop you don’t want to miss!
The bridge is a part of Queen’s College and is one of the most recognizable features of Cambridge. The ‘Mathematical Bridge’ as we now call it, is built entirely with straight timbers, despite maintaining its arched shape.
Myths grew at one point that Newton had designed the bridge and thus was known as ‘Newton’s Bridge’ for a time, but we know this is not true as it was designed by William Etheridge. The credit, however, largely goes to James King who defied the engineering odds to construct this special little bridge.
While you’re at the Mathematical Bridge, you’ll also have a chance to see all the famous punting on the river. This is a great place to stop and now have some leisurely time.
Punting Down the River Cam
If the weather is good, you don’t want to miss a chance to punt down the River Cam. And even if the weather isn’t great, punting is still available with blankets and worth the ride.
A punt is a flat bottomed boat, which is pushed across the water using a quant pole. This is a popular method of seeing some of the colleges within the university from a different angle, as well as the Bridge of Sighs, the second Cambridge bridge you must see.
Punting was first introduced at the start of the 20th century and has since become a popular local activity. It’s very reminiscent of the canals in Amsterdam. Gliding down the river is about as leisurely activity as you can get and is great to fit in your day after you’ve gone on a walking tour.
You can choose from self-punting, although not quite so relaxing, or you can pay for a tour like this shared tour for up to 4 people.
Chelsea Buns at Fitzbillies
A day trip to Cambridge from London is not complete without indulging in some Chelsea Buns. Fitzbillies is famous for these gooey buns and they have a mighty history.
Fitzbillies was founded in 1920 by Ernest and Arthur Mason, using ‘demob’ money from the First World War. You can even still see their initials in worn-out gold letters on the shop front!
They were the sons of local bread baker ‘Ticker’ Mason, so naturally, the boys specialised in fancy cakes, Chelsea buns. Fitzbillies quickly became the cake-shop of choice for the university and townspeople.
Fitzbillies amazingly kept baking during and after the Second World War, during the days of rationing, when the Chelsea buns became a real treat.
Then in 1998, a devastating fire tore through the building and it took nearly two years to rebuild. But they kept on going! They began baking offsite and selling Chelsea buns in the shop next door, where their Coffee Shop now stands.
There was even more devastation in 2011 for the famous buns when Fitzbillies went through hard times, like many bakeries, and closed due to bankruptcy. Then thanks to social media, someone posted a lament to the Chelsea Buns on Twitter. And it was that tweet, seen by current owners Alison Wright and Tim Hayward, that kept the Chelsea Buns alive!
Nine years later, they’re thriving with two locations on either side of town; Trumpington St and Bridge St, both serving up the makeshift ooey-gooey cinnamon roll with currants, the Chelsea Bun.
King’s College Chapel
Whether you’ve climbed the bell tower, participated in a walking tour, punted down the River Cam or have just been meandering through Cambridge, there is absolutely no way you haven’t seen King’s College Chapel by now. And this is without a doubt, a must-visit location, being the oldest surviving building of the college and most iconic building in Cambridge.
This incredible feat of architecture, founded in 1441 by King Henry VI, has the largest fan-shaped ceiling in the world. The Late Gothic Chapel of King’s College is decorated with “The Adoration of the Magi” by Rubens and has beautiful stained glass windows, more resembling a cathedral than a college chapel.
Luckily, visitors have now been welcomed back to the chapel and you can book your spot for a self-guided tour. Or you can attend an Evensong service in the evenings at 5:30 pm. This is a super unique way to experience the chapel for free and by candlelight.
The Eagle Pub
Learn all about the history of The Eagle Pub, it’s the oldest pub in Cambridge and right in the heart of the city, mere minutes around the corner from King’s College Chapel.
The Eagle was opened in 1667 as the Eagle and Child. Because of its phenomenal location, it become a favourite for scientists and thinkers alike.
There’s a story that goes that on February 28, 1953, Francis Crick, who worked at the nearby Cavendish laboratory, made an announcement at the pub during lunch. He said that he and his colleague, James Watson, had discovered “the secret of life.” Turns out the two had actually cracked the double-helix structure of DNA! and it marked a pivotal moment in science.
If you were also wondering how they discovered DNA at lunch?! Well, that’s with the help of Rosalind Franklin. They were looking at the x-ray she sent across when they discovered it. Her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely unrecognized during her life. After the protest, in 2010 Rosalind’s name was finally added to the DNA statute.
Outside the pub, you’ll see a plaque commemorating this pivotal moment in science, and they even serve an ale called DNA.
But before all that, The Eagle was first a favourite for soldiers and airmen. During World War II, RAF and American airmen frequented the courtyard of the pub, where you can sit outback. Inside they apparently used candles to burn graffiti of their names and nicknames on the pub’s ceiling in the evenings. The graffiti was preserved and you can still catch a glimpse of this wartime art even today.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
Since most of the day has been spent outside, next head inside to the Fitzwilliam Museum, the best place to step back in time. The Fitz is known for being the most astonishing museum outside of London in all of the UK.
The museum is home to over half a million pieces of art that date as far back as 2,500 BC. The beautiful building has impressive collections and some stunning pieces of artwork. It’s a big place, but very well laid out with paintings, ancient artefacts, jewellery, textiles, arms, armour and more.
The Fitzwilliam Museum has free entry, but does require pre-booking online and is definitely worth a visit.
The Round Church
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or The Round Church as it is known, is located on the corner of Round Church Street and Bridge Street. It is one of only four medieval round churches to survive after the First Crusade of 1097. The four include this one, Temple Church in London, St John’s in Little Maplestead, Essex, and Holy Sepulchre in Northampton.
The chapel is cosy and appealing for visitors and it’s well worth popping in to look at the interesting architecture and wall displays.
Cambridge University Botanic Garden
If you still have time and it’s a lovely day, visit the Cambridge University Botanic Garden. Stretched over 40 acres, this heritage garden boasts over 8,000 plant species from all around the world. The gardens are divided into different sections, including the Mediterranean Beds, Scented Garden and Stream Garden. There are also several glasshouses full of tropical rainforests, desert flowers and alpine flora.
And don’t forget the wonderful tearoom and cafe, both with lots of vegan options.
Well, I hope you’ve seen what a wonderful day you can have in Cambridge on a day trip from London. You can absolutely see all the sights in one day, even in the winter when the days are short, and leave feeling much more educated and enlivened!
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.