If you thought Cambridge was all countryside air and bucolic riverside walks, then, well… you’re spot-on. Did you know there’s a herd of happily grazing cows near the city centre? There is, and they’re really rather cute. The locals, of course, just walk straight past. But cute cows! How udderly heartless. Quaint Cambridge has been an official city since 1951 – awarded that status on account of its illustrious university – and, heifers aside, the city also punches way above its compact size when it comes to cultural goings-on.
Don’t know where to start? Then our pick of the absolute best things to do in Cambridge should come in handy. Our selections range from number-one tourist site King’s College Chapel to a museum dedicated to polar exploration and the homely, understated Kettle’s Yard art gallery. If you’re hungry, never fear – the best restaurants in Cambridge can sort you out for excellent pub grub and Italian fine dining. And the city’s best hotels offer pretty good food too.
Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere.
Find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world.
Best things to do in Cambridge
What is it? The national pastime of Cambridge and one of the best ways to see the city. And the good news is you don’t even need to work your own arm muscles.
Why go? To get within sniffing distance of Cambridge and not go punting is like going to Pisa and not seeing the leaning tower. The brave and the skilled do the stick-bit themselves, but if you’re a first-timer book a gondolier-like guide to navigate the River Cam for you.
What is it? Some 40 acres of gorgeously green (and pink and yellow and red…) botanic gardens owned by Cambridge University, where you can earnestly study horticulture or snooze on the lawn.
Why go? Cambridge’s botanic gardens are an Arcadian paradise hidden behind a fairly nondescript entrance at the station end of town. What sets them apart from other city gardens is the woodland vibe. Lose yourself in a maze of lush foliage and leave all your troubles behind.
What is it? A student’s eye view of the world-famous university, giving visitors an insider’s introduction to its most beautiful nooks and crannies.
Why go? As a city, Cambridge is pleasingly compact and easy to navigate on foot. The same is true of the university, which dominates the centre. Take a stroll through and around the institution with those who know it best as a guide: real-life Cambridge students.
What is it? The most homely art gallery you’ll ever come across (because it used to be someone’s home).
Why go? Kettle’s Yard was once the residence of Jim and Helen Ede. Thanks to Jim’s job as a curator at the Tate Gallery, the couple filled their home with artworks by famous names like Barbara Hepworth and Joan Mirò. Then, in an act of extreme generosity, the Edes gave it all to Cambridge University. You can now visit it and see the art lovingly arranged around the house, which still feels like a home.
What is it? Cambridge is well known for its sheer barrage of bikes. Because of this, the city is well set-up for riders and locals on foot are used to dodging wayward wheels.
Why go? Given its modest size, Cambridge is best navigated by bike. There are loads of places to hire them from and you can lock them just about anywhere. While there are plenty of cycle lanes, you’ll notice that many locals go rogue and ride on the pavements. Cambridge really is a cyclist’s paradise.
What is it? A lovely village pub to refuel at after a walk (or punt) along the river to Grantchester. Make the most of the fresh air in their extensive garden.
Why go? Cambridge is blessed by beautiful surrounding countryside. One of the easiest ways to get a taste of this is with a short walk to nearby Grantchester. A pint in the garden at the Green Man pub is one of the best ways to reward yourself for the exercise.
What is it? An independent arts venue where you can see comedy, music, theatre, spoken word, movies and more.
Why go? The Cambridge Junction must be one of the best UK music venues outside London. It makes some canny programming choices, is run by a friendly team and offers everything from alternative rock and folk to one-off Edinburgh Fringe previews from top stand-ups.
What is it? Cambridge’s first-rate art and antiquities museum where you can marvel at objects from around the world.
Why go? The Fitzwilliam is owned by Cambridge University and, like Oxford’s Ashmolean, is a treasure chest of a museum. Unlike the supersized British Museum in London, the Fitzwilliam is home to enough diverse trinkets, ornaments and paintings to make you marvel, but not enough to give you brain-overload. Plus, it’s free entry.
What is it? The stunning gothic chapel that dominates the centre of Cambridge. It’s a must-visit, even if church-spotting isn’t your sport.
Why go? Every December the Christmas Eve carol service is broadcast from King’s College Chapel, giving sherry-filled adults the chance to embarrassingly cry over the first crystalline bars of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Relive this tradition with a visit inside the breathtaking chapel itself – then head round the corner for drinks at the Eagle.
What is it? A niche museum that’s all about Cambridge University’s world-class polar research.
Why go? Fancy yourself a bit of an explorer but only ever manage to take day trips around the UK? Well, the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute will introduce you to genuinely intrepid (and cold) historic explorations of far-flung corners of the globe, all from the comfort of Cambridge. Free entry.
What is it? Sure, it’s a bookshop, but what a bookshop! It’s a palace of literature.
Why go? If there’s a city in the UK where a person shouldn’t have to apologise for being a bit of a geek, it’s Cambridge. Feed your inner bookworm until it bloats and blossoms into a beautiful butterfly at Heffers, the oddly named bookshop where browsing and buying are both a pleasure.
What is it? A very large and bizarre clock designed to make you fear the incessant ticking away of each moment on earth. Just don’t head here if you actually need to know the time.
Why go? The Corpus Clock is on the front of the Taylor Library at Corpus Christi College. It’s less a clock (although apparently it is accurate every once in a while) and more of an art piece. The marvellously creepy insect straddling it appears to ‘eat’ time – a reminder that we don’t have as much of it left as we think.