One Day In Cambridge, UK – All The Best Bits

what to do in cambridge in a day

Walking in front of two insipidly dressed undergraduates one day in Cambridge, eavesdropping on their intellectually baffling conversation it suddenly occurred to me why Cambridge is the way Cambridge is. You possibly wouldn’t pick up on the disappointments of this town if you only had one day in Cambridge because it’s easy to be impressed by its beautiful architecture and awe-inspiring citizens, but it has often bewildered me why this English university town, despite a healthy smattering of impressive ingredients just isn’t better.

After debunking a maths equation, the conversation went like this : “So this is the first time in 4 years that I’m going to get Christmas off. I won’t need to be studying for exams. I might leave town for a couple of weeks.”

And there it was, the reason why beyond a wholesome punt on the River Cam, and a walk by world-famous colleges, Cambridge often disappoints me as a UK day trip destination. It’s full of people who get excited about theorems and very little else and don’t see the use in making time for the lovely little things in life, like food, socialising and aesthetics. I wonder if the residents of Cambridge even appreciate the designs by world-famous architects as they move between classes or are they purely here for an education?! They’re certainly not here to shop, and lord knows they can’t be remotely interested in food and drink!

Still, there are plenty of things to do in Cambridge for a day and it continues to appear on ‘best towns in the UK’ lists every year. It’s undoubtedly handsome and impressively grand, it’s just a shame you can’t couple that with great food and fun stuff to do (punting aside of course). But we have visited Cambridge dozens of times over the years and we’re constantly scouring local websites for new places opening up or hidden gems so if anyone knows how to make the most of Cambridge it’s us! So how can you have the best day in Cambridge? What’s worth seeing? And, is there anywhere decent to eat? Read on my friend and we’ll help you have a great trip to Cambridge, England.

fun things to do in cambridge for a day

Where To Stay In Cambridge

It is more than possible to make a day trip to Cambridge from London on the train (practical tips at the end of this post) but if you can, book a night in a hotel in order to make a full day of it. But where to stay in Cambridge? We love the University Arms on Regent Street because it’s what the rest of Cambridge’s establishments should be modelling themselves on. A classically designed hotel with really smart choices aesthetically and oozing quality and attention to detail. Many rooms have views or even a balcony overlooking Parker’s Piece (one of Cambridges many green spaces) and traditional roll-top baths to top off that luxury experience. 

Location-wise you’re only a 5 minute walk to the main market square and next door to some of the best choices for eating establishments. Click here for the best deals at this Cambridge hotel, it’s not as expensive as you may think!

So Why Make A Visit To Cambridge, England?

Cambridge is obviously famous and well known for its university, that you can’t deny. It has spawned some of the greatest thinkers from the last 500 years – incredible brains attached to men called Newton, Darwin, Hawking and Fry, just to name a few. In this town discoveries have been made which have changed the world forever, like the theory of gravity, the splitting of the atom, the discovery of electrons and neutrons and the cat flap. A visit to Cambridge just makes you feel more intelligent by manner of being there!

And due to the length of time Cambridge has been a university town (it’s the second oldest UK university after Oxford), many of the original buildings are still standing and are waiting ready to impress any visiting tourists. Beautiful and ancient, Cambridge is worth a day of anybody’s time.

Couple all of this with an opportunity to try your hand at punting and pray that you don’t end up on the bottom of the River Cam and a Cambridge trip should go right to the top of your list. It’s an especially good choice if you are wanting to plan a day trip from London too, visiting Cambridge from London is so easy (more travel tips at the bottom of this article).

It’s a beautiful city, we know you’ll love it, so without further ado – check out our Cambridge itinerary… 

Trinity College in Cambridge

What To Do With Your One Day In Cambridge

Have a Chelsea Bun at Fitzbillies. 

I may be jumping the gun a bit by placing this as the first thing to do on your Cambridge day trip; perhaps you’re more of a coffee and cake in the afternoon kind of person? But whether like me, you can’t turn down a sweet treat for breakfast, or you’d rather wait till 2pm, it’s a must that you make a trip to Fitzbillies at least once on your trip to Cambridge. It’s an institution. 

They’ve been famous since 1920 and still keep their ancient family recipe for the Chelsea Bun a secret. However, their reputation for the delicious sticky pudding does not remain concealed – former Cambridge alumni, Stephen Fry, is a big tweeting fan of the sweet bready swirl and the business continues to post its products out to people all over the world. It would be wrong to walk past this Cambridge tourist attraction and not sample its wares.

There’s a large cafe-restaurant out the back of the store and despite its lack of character people queue for ages to sit and eat. We much prefer the more casual coffee-shop section on the right-hand side of Fitzbillies where the tables are cramped and you have no other option but to eavesdrop. The shop-front retains a lot of its old-style personality and the big windows provide a view to the busy Cambridge street beyond. Plus, the Climpson and Son coffee is really good!

Chelsea bun at Fitzbillies in Cambridge
things to do in Cambridge - eat a chelsea bun at Fitzbillies

Punting – One Of The Most Romantic Things To Do In Cambridge

Definitely one of the most romantic things to do in Cambridge but also one of the best uses of time and a lot of fun! Many people arrange a day out in Cambridge just to punt because it’s a truly marvellous English past-time. But, if you only have 1 day in Cambridge and you’re trying to see all of its attractions, a punt along The Cam is a wonderfully efficient way of accomplishing this!

Apart from seeing some of the Cambridge landmarks, like the Bridge of Sighs, the Wren Library and Mathematical Bridge, you also get some of the best views of the Colleges from the water. In fact, some of the most recognisable postcard-pictures of Cambridge are scenes snapped from the river.

In order, going from north to south here is a list of the great university buildings you will encounter…

  • Magdalene College
  • St John’s College
  • Trinity College
  • Trinity Hall
  • Clare College
  • King’s College
  • Queen’s College

Get Your Guide do an excellent 45 minute punt-tour which is usually taken by Cambridge College students who offer up some interesting tidbits of information about the sights, and usually a smattering of college stories too if you’re lucky! Cambridge students do have a bit of a reputation for frivolities.

Otherwise, you can hire a punt from several spots along the river and all are competitively priced – don’t be afraid to barter though, negotiations are received amicably.

which colleges can you see from the backs
bridge of sighs in Cambridge
mathematical bridge cambridge day trip

Wander The Cambridge Backs For The Best Views Of The Colleges

‘The Backs’ are literally the backs of the colleges which run along the River Cam, and if you don’t have time to go punting on your day out in Cambridge then you really must make a bit of time by the river on foot. The city has 31 colleges in total and not all back onto the River Cam but some of the most impressive do. Unlike Oxford, it’s not possible to wander around the grounds of Cambridge’s most impressive colleges without paying so wandering the Cambridge Backs is the best way to see some of these beautiful buildings for free.

The section of The Backs where you will get the best architectural views is the area around North and South Paddock, Fellow’s Garden and King’s Backs. But regardless of the colleges, this has to be one of the prettiest walks in Cambridge – it’s park-life to the max and a joy to stroll through the overhanging willows and ancient trees. 

King’s College from the River Cam
wander the backs for things to do in cambridge
cambridge day trip

Check Out Some Cambridge Tourist Attractions

So, apart from the Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge which you have probably seen from your punting session, there’s not a lot more to report! In some Cambridge travel guides the Corpus Clock gets a mention but honestly, I bet there are more beautiful or interesting time-pieces on the mantel-pieces of local pensioners. It’s just weird. And, it doesn’t even keep great time! Still, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, make your way to the corner of Trumpington and Bene’t Street.

However, in my books, a walk down Trinity Street from the Corpus Clock is well worth an hour of your time. I say an hour because you will want to see the Medieval Round Church at the north of the city and you’ll want to dip into as many college entranceways as you can, before finishing your walk along Trinity Lane.

The Round Church, or Church of the Holy Sepulchre, dates back to 1130AD and is the 2nd oldest building in Cambridge, after the Tower of St Benets. Fittingly it’s one of the best places to go in Cambridge for an overview of the city’s history. The church is no longer used as a place of worship but they put on a pretty decent 20 minute video about Cambridge’s history and its influence in Christianity. It’s a place often overlooked by tourists and a bit of a Cambridge hidden gem but the staff are so lovely and enthusiastic, the exhibition is a delight, the outside grounds would make for a lovely photo-shoot and you can arrange walking tours here too.

just one day in Cambridge to walk around
cambridge in a day
1 day in cambridge

Visit King’s College Chapel

At £9 a ticket, you’d like to think you were getting value for money. Fear not – the architecture of Cambridge’s most beautiful chapel is breathtaking! But you’re going to leave with a crick-neck because you won’t to be able to take your eyes off the fan-vaulted ceiling (largest in the world) and the beautiful stained glass windows. Many would consider this a priority tourist attraction on a visit to Cambridge and it tends to not disappoint.

Alternatively, if you fancy some spine-tingling acoustics, Choral Evensong is free to anyone wanting to hear the 45 minute service (you must stay for the full service). Many students go on to sing in professional choirs so you can well imagine the wonderful noise you are about to witness.

You can purchase your tickets from King’s College Chapel on King’s Parade or if you are coming for evensong go to the front gate of the college on King’s Parade 30 minutes before the service. (Click here for a timetable of all the College Choral Evensongs in Cambridge)

a visit to cambridge - Kings College chapel

For The Best Views Of Cambridge…

Climb to the top of St Mary’s Tower. It only costs a few quid but the birdseye view, especially of King’s College is incredible. The tower closes at 5.30 in summer but in winter, at the earlier time of 4.30pm you can just catch a beautiful sunset over Cambridge if you make it up there last thing. 

Where To Eat In Cambridge

Thankfully you are only in Cambridge for a day as beyond that you’d probably run out of decent places to eat! It’s quite the disappointment really. Still, at least you got breakfast right with the Chelsea Bun!

Honestly, I’m still amazed at the lack of good pubs in Cambridge every time I visit. This is England, right? Even The Eagle, which is probably the most famous pub in Cambridge, does shockingly bad food. Of course, it does have some pretty interesting facts attached to it – like how it was the place DNA was discovered and the WWII graffiti by airmen covering the ceiling and walls in the RAF bar. But still, it’s absolutely filthy and you will stick to the floor, if not the table! 

So, where to eat in Cambridge you ask? Well, the Indian bloke on the market does a mean samosa. And another good Cambridge Market street food vendor is Arepa’s Station for Venezuelan goodies, the locals are really raving about this place.

market square in Cambridge

Actually, if there’s one dish that actually does ok in Cambridge, it’s the UK’s national dish – the curry. Vedanta on Regent Street keeps its menu small but consistently delivers good southern Indian cuisine. And, Prana on Mill Road has won the English Curry Award in recent years.

If you’re not strapped for cash, Cambridge actually has more than its fair share of high end and Michelin starred restaurants (Check out the Michelin Guide website for its recommendations), It’s just a shame there aren’t many mid-price range places. Do let me know if you discover any!

Top Tips For Visiting Cambridge For The Day

Visiting Cambridge from London is easy. Trains to Cambridge depart from Liverpool Street and King’s Cross several times an hour and a return ticket costs approximately £20. It’s a 20-minute walk or 5-minute uber ride to the edge of Cambridge’s main tourist area from the train station.

Alternatively, Get Your Guide do a Cambridge One Day Trip leaving from London Bridge at 9am on a coach.

If you are arriving by car, parking can be expensive. We found the cheapest car park in Cambridge to be the Queen Ann Car Park on the A603, which is just a 5 minute walk to the edge of town.

Some may argue that one day in Cambridge is never enough, and it’s true – there are a few more great things to do in Cambridge than are listed here. There are a handful of acceptable museums (we particularly like Kettle’s Yard but weren’t too impressed by The Fitzwilliam), and if you visit during May Week (beginning of June) there is no end to the exciting possibilities on offer as the students celebrate the end of exams with parties, events and performances. But ultimately, Cambridge is small enough to make a good day trip, especially if you’re wanting to visit more of the UK from London. Don’t let my light-apathy put you off  – we still love a day out in Cambridge, I just somehow feel like it’s missing a bit of va-va-voom that other UK cities seem to do so much better. Let me know your thoughts though – I’m always interested to hear other’s opinions!

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