An introduction to Cambridge
Cambridge is one of the best places to visit in the UK and we want your time in this wonderful city to be as fulfilling as possible. With this in mind, we have put together the following guide to help bring the city to life for you:
- A brief history of Cambridge
- Why you should be visiting Cambridge
- Getting around the city
- What to see in Cambridge
- Famous names of Cambridge
- Travelling to Cambridge
Further ideas and suggestions of things to do and places to visit in Cambridge are available in our blog posts. If you can't wait until your visit then our virtual Cambridge walking tour allows you to get a closer look as you explore the city on foot and by punt.
A brief history of Cambridge
Cambridge has played a hugely important role in both UK and world history, evolving to the global hub of learning and science we know today. To try and condense the history of Cambridge into a few soundbites is no easy task given the rich heritage of the city. Our blog post outlines in some detail the key historical events of Cambridge from prehistoric times to present day. As a snapshot, the most important milestones are summarised below.
Cambridge as a settlement dates to prehistoric times with archaeological evidence dating back 3,500 years. Further evidence of occupation through the Iron Age dating back to the 1st century BC was found at Castle Hill. This location was later deemed to be of huge strategic importance by the Romans. After the Romans had withdrawn from Britain in the early 5th century, the Anglo Saxons arrived from North of Germany and they built the first bridge over the river. This is close to the site of Magdalene Bridge we see today.
The Anglo-Saxon settlement was known as “Granta-Bridge” and over the years, this name evolved to become “Cam-Bridge”, thus giving the city its name. After the Saxons, the Vikings came across in the 9th century. The Vikings established a port on the River Cam and in doing so, a burgeoning river trade developed in the town. Cambridge remained a thriving in-bound port until the beginning of the last century.
After the Vikings, Cambridge was invaded by the Normans and in 1068, two years after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror built a castle on Castle Hill. The castle was later used as a county jail up until 1842. The mound it was built on is still there today and offers a unique view of the city landscape.
Cambridge is of course famous for its University, the 2nd oldest University in the English-speaking world. The University was established in 1209 with the oldest Cambridge college being Peterhouse which was founded in 1284. There are now 31 Cambridge Colleges located across the city, with the most recent being Robinson College, founded in 1977.
In 1446 King Henry VI began the build of King's College Chapel, but it wasn't until 1544 and the reign of King Henry VIII that it was completely finished. This was a period of time that also encompassed the War of the Roses. King's College Chapel is the finest example of Perpendicular Gothic architecture anywhere in the UK. Today, it is one of the most popular places to visit in Cambridge.
During the English Civil War of the 1640s, the town of Cambridge was controlled by an ex-student of Sidney Sussex College, Oliver Cromwell. More recently, during World War II, Cambridge became an important military centre for the East of England region. The University played its part during the war with both St John's College and Trinity College hosting meetings of senior military leaders in preparation for the D-Day landings of 1944. More significantly, Alan Turing, a brilliant mathematician who studied at King's College Cambridge, is estimated to have saved 2 years of war time and 14 million lives through his work in cracking the Enigma code.
In 1951, the historical impact and status of Cambridge was recognised and it was granted its city charter. By 2021, the population of Cambridge has swelled to an estimated 145,000 with Cambridge still hugely influential on the world stage and continuing to shape global affairs to this day.
If you would like to walk through history, our virtual Cambridge walking tour provides the perfect platform to do so. During our tour, we visit landmarks dating back to the 8th century through to modern day. We take great care to ensure that each landmark is viewed in its full historical context and we help showcase why Cambridge is one of the best places to visit in the UK.
Visiting Cambridge UK
There are 13 cities named Cambridge in the world but we only recommend visiting Cambridge UK! The city is a wonderful place to visit all year round with each season providing another spectacular perspective of the city landscape. However, by visiting Cambridge UK in the spring and summer months, you are able to experience the city at its prettiest. For visitors at this time of year, it is easy to see why Cambridge is one of the best places to visit in the UK. Cambridge looks especially beautiful during these months with its abundant green open spaces and awe-inspiring city views providing an unforgettable experience.
There are many beautiful Cambridge gardens to enjoy in and around the city centre with most of them open to visitors all year round. The best way to appreciate the stunning gardens up close is by taking one of the Cambridge walking tours and combining this with a spot of punting. By going punting on the Cam, you will enjoy unbroken views of some of the most breath-taking places to visit in Cambridge.
If you are planning on visiting Cambridge to tour the Cambridge Colleges, then the best time to do so is in early spring or from July onward. Many of the Cambridge colleges close their doors or have limited entry between the months of April and June due to exams taking place. The end of this period leads to the many post-exam celebrations that dominate the city and the infamous May Balls.
If your heart is set on visiting Cambridge during this exam period, all is not lost as there are plenty of other places to visit in Cambridge at this time. These include the Round Church, the Corpus Clock and Great St Mary's Church. All of these landmarks are a staple part of the many Cambridge walking tours available and can be visited all year round. You are also able to go punting on the Cam with punts available to hire throughout the year, lockdowns notwithstanding.
Getting around the city
The city itself is relatively small and the cobbled streets are easy to navigate. With some planning, you should be able to squeeze the best places to visit in Cambridge into one day of sightseeing. Our walking tour of Cambridge map can help you achieve this. As well as highlighting the most popular routes for Cambridge walking tours, the map also highlights the main landmarks in the city. The one thing you won't find outlined on our walking tour of Cambridge map are cycle hot spots, namely because there are bikes everywhere.
Cambridge is known as Cycle City for good reason and has the highest proportion of cyclists in the UK. There are many beautiful places to visit in Cambridge and avoiding cyclists while under their spell is likely to be one of the biggest challenges you will face on your Cambridge day trip. For the more adventurous, hiring a bike and exploring the city on two wheels can be great fun and an exhilarating way to experience the city. If you are looking for a more relaxing experience, then punting on the Cam provides a more laid-back option!
What to see in Cambridge
If you are short of ideas on what to see in Cambridge, here are a few to get you started. These and many more famous landmarks are available to view on our virtual tour, allowing you to maximise every minute you spend visiting Cambridge.
- Corpus Clock – made of 24 carat gold, named one of Time Magazines best inventions of 2008; features one of the most terrifying characters of Cambridge, the “Chronophage” or time-eater.
- Queens' College - founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou, the wife of King Henry VI and subsequently re-founded by Elizabeth Woodville in 1465; one of only two Cambridge colleges to be spilt by the River Cam.
- The Round Church - one of the most popular places to visit in Cambridge; 1 of only 4 medieval, round churches remaining in England; built in 1130 AD by the Fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre.
- Old Cavendish Laboratory - home to the 22 Nobel Prize winners who worked there and some of the world's most profound scientific discoveries, from the splitting of the atom to cracking the DNA code.
- The Bridge of Sighs - found in the grounds of St Johns College; the only covered bridge in the city and its most photographed; well known for its striking Neo-Gothic stonework; the most beautiful of the 9 Bridge of Sighs in the world, another reason to go punting on the Cam.
- The Mathematical Bridge - a world renowned feat of engineering, subject to many myths around its construction; built by William Etheridge in 1749; sited at Queens' College, connects the two halves of the College.
- St Bene't's Church - built in 1020, dating back to the Anglo Saxons, this church is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in all of Cambridgeshire, celebrated its 1000th birthday in 2020.
- Wren Library - one of the most famous libraries in the world and one of the most iconic places to visit in Cambridge; home to over 70,000 priceless manuscripts published before 1820 including works by Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare and AA Milne; situated at Trinity College and best viewed by punt.
- King’s College Cambridge and its Chapel - built across the reign of 5 Kings from 1441 to 1544; the second largest chapel in Europe notable for its original stained glass windows and the world’s largest fan vaulted ceiling. If you are unsure of what to see in Cambridge, this is the one landmark to visit.
- Emmanuel College - an especially popular destination for Americans visiting Cambridge; renowned for training the Puritan ministers who led the emigration to New England in the 17th century; home to John Harvard who studied there in 1632; the site of a Chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
- Xu Zhimo memorial stone - this white Beijing marble stone can be found in the grounds of King's College Cambridge and is inscribed with lines from "Saying Goodbye to Cambridge Again"; one of the most sought-after places to visit in Cambridge for Chinese visitors.
Famous names of Cambridge
To many people, Cambridge is synonymous with its famous Cambridge alumni and the 109 Nobel Prize winners who studied at the University. Cambridge has produced a litany of great thinkers and innovators across the centuries who have all stamped their mark on history. For many tourists visiting Cambridge, it is an opportunity to re-trace their footsteps by walking the very same cobbled streets and by punting on the Cam. Some of the famous Cambridge alumni include:
Science - Cambridge has shaped scientific thinking for centuries and has been home to many of the worlds most famous scientists from Sir Stephen Hawking to Francis Crick and James Watson who cracked the DNA code. Others include: Charles Darwin, Sir Christopher Cockerell the inventor of the hovercraft, Patrick Blackett, Ernest Rutherford, Sir Joseph John Thomson who discovered the electron in 1897, James Chadwick who discovered the neutron in 1932 and Michael Foalem the NASA astronaut and first Briton to walk in space.
Literature and The Arts - Samuel Pepys, one of the world’s first diarists studied at Magdalene College where his famous diaries are available to view. Others include: AA Milne, Sylvia Plath, Lord Byron, Rudyard Kipling, Salman Rushdie, EM Forrester, Sebastian Faulks, Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Xu Zhimo, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy, Julian Fellowes the creator of Downton Abbey, Clive James, Mary Beard, Zadie Smith and Douglas Adams, author of "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" who was born in Cambridge and later studied at the University.
Politics – Cambridge has a long tradition in shaping the political landscape of the UK, albeit Oxford has produced twice as many Prime Ministers. Sir Robert Walpole studied at King's College Cambridge and was appointed the very first Prime Minister in 1721 and William Pitt the Younger who studied at Pembroke College, was the youngest ever Prime Minister aged 24 in 1783. Other famous Cambridge alumni in the world of politics include the first Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman, the President of India Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed and William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson who led the movement that brought slavery to an end in the British Empire. Oliver Cromwell was born near Cambridge in 1599 and his head was buried in the grounds of Sidney Sussex College.
- Mathematics – Isaac Newton spent his entire academic life at Cambridge, becoming a fellow at Trinity College and later the Lucasian professor of Mathematics; Newton was also the first scientist to be knighted. Others who studied Mathematics at Cambridge include Paul Dirac, Alan Turing and Charles Babbage. Babbage studied at Peterhouse, the oldest Cambridge College and is widely known as the father of computers having designed the first ever computer “Difference Engine.” John Maynard Keynes, the founder of modern macroeconomics, was born in the city in 1883 and studied Mathematics at King's College Cambridge.
Entertainment – Cambridge has produced many household names who have delighted and entertained millions over the years. These include Oscar winners Eddie Redmayne, Olivia Colman and Sam Mendes. Redmayne studied at Trinity College and won an Oscar for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”. Other famous Cambridge alumni in the world of entertainment include: Sir Ian McKellen, John Oliver, David Mitchell, Robert Webb, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and John Cleese. Some of the famous people from Cambridge who were born in the city include Olivia Newton John and Sir Richard Attenborough, the acclaimed actor and film director from films such as Jurassic Park, The Great Escape, Cry Freedom and Ghandi.
Music – Cambridge is home to one of the world’s most famous bands with Roger Walters, Syd Barrett and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd all having gone to school and grown up in the city. Matthew Bellamy of Muse was also born in Cambridge and other local musicians include Katrina and the Waves, King's Singers and drum and bass artists Logistics and Nu:Tone.
Travelling to Cambridge
Travelling to Cambridge is very straightforward with excellent transport links available. The city is extremely accessible and Cambridge is one of the best places to visit in the UK by train. Travelling to Cambridge from London is particularly convenient with frequent trains available. On average, there are 3 trains leaving London per hour and with journey times of only 48 minutes, your London to Cambridge day trip couldn't be easier.
Cambridge does have an excellent road network and is well connected to many major road routes. However, with severe traffic congestion a daily occurrence, utilising one of the many Park and Rides is recommended.
We hope our guide to Cambridge has provided a useful overview of the city and that you are convinced on the merits of visiting Cambridge UK in person. If you need persuading further or if you would like help planning your Cambridge day trip, then our virtual tour of Cambridge is at your service.