The Top 11 Things To See When You’re Visiting Cambridge
The beautiful city of Cambridge has plenty of magnificent sights that you will stumble over simply by wandering around its streets.
In a stroll from Magdalene Bridge to King’s Parade, you’ll pass the remarkable 12th century Round Church, the grandeur of St John’s College and Trinity College (the two wealthiest colleges in Cambridge), down the elegant, narrow Trinity Street, to emerge in front of the breathtaking Gothic spires of King’s College Chapel. The historical parts of the city are incredibly well-preserved, and there is a wealth of things to see.
In this article, we take a look at Cambridge’s best sights and places to visit, from medieval grandeur to fascinating museums.
1. The Fitzwilliam Museum
Cambridge’s answer to London’s British Museum and Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, the Fitzwilliam is a museum of art and antiquities, which is another way of saying that there are quite a lot of different things to see in there. There’s the Egyptian Collection, including mummies, brightly painted sarcophagi, and remarkably preserved models of boats and labourers, intended to be taken into the afterlife to serve their wealthy owners there. There are the paintings, including Italian masterpieces by Titian, Veronese, Bellotto and Canaletto, an impressive collection of landscapes, and a broad range of works by French impressionists. And there’s the vast arms and armour collection, covering Europe, Asia and the Middle East. There’s beautiful ceremonial armour, including horse armour, but also some examples of armour that in all likelihood saw real use in a battle.
These are just three of the Fitzwilliam’s many collections; it’s one of those museums where it’s hard work to see everything that you might find interesting on a single visit, and it’s best to come back several times (luckily, entry is free). There are also illuminated manuscripts, fine printed books, coins, Islamic art, ceramics, and particular collections focusing on the Ancient Near East, Cyprus, Nubia and Sudan. If you enjoy neoclassical architecture with lots of marble, even the building itself is a treat.
2. The Sedgwick Museum
Nowhere near as grand as the Fitzwilliam, what the Sedgwick museum lacks in marble reliefs it more than makes up for in charm. It’s not a particularly modern-looking museum, with its exhibitions in traditional walnut cases that date back to Victorian times, and the few nods to interactive technologies mostly not working all that well – but that’s a lot of the fun of it.
If you don’t mind its cosy appearance, the Sedgwick museum’s collections are highly impressive. A museum of earth sciences, it houses a collection of around two million rocks, minerals and fossils, spanning 4.5 billion years. As you move from section to section, you can see the geological development of the Earth, and then the evolution of the earliest species for which we have a fossil record. Particularly notable are the ichthyosaur skeletons, purchased from Mary Anning, which grace the aisles of the museum. You might also enjoy the Beagle collection of rocks and fossils collected by a young Charles Darwin on his voyage around the world on the HMS Beagle, which began when he was just 22.
3. The Round Church
You’ll know the Round Church when you see it – it’s quite distinctively, well, round. There are only four medieval round churches surviving in England, with cross shapes predominating. They were all built during or after the time of the Crusades, and so are thought to have been inspired by Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which was consecrated in 335 AD and is believed to be on the site where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. The Round Church in Cambridge (also officially called the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) is actually quite a lot rounder-looking even than its inspiration in Jerusalem.
Built around 1130, the Round Church is decorated in a simple fashion on the inside, combining its ancient original stones and a sympathetic 19th century restoration. It also houses a visitor centre, including an exhibition on the impact of Christianity in Britain. And while you’re there, you could call by the Cambridge Union – that sits directly behind the church.
4. King’s College Chapel
Probably the most famous sight in Cambridge, King’s College Chapel is a beautiful example of delicate Perpendicular Gothic architecture. It was built from 1446 to 1515, plus further embellishments that were completed by 1536 – including the chapel’s famous stained glass windows. Henry VI, who commissioned the chapel, laid the first stone himself, although he did not live to see the building completed. Remarkably, it survived the Civil War intact despite being used as a parade ground for Parliamentarian soldiers. In the Second World War, the stained glass windows were removed to keep them safe from bombing, and so were reinstalled after the war, cleaned and undamaged.
King’s College Chapel is perhaps best appreciated not from King’s Parade – where the view is normally crowded with tourists – but from a punt along the Cam, where the gardens run from the chapel to the river, giving you an unobstructed view. Of course, to see the full majesty of the wonderful stained-glass windows, it’s best to go inside on a clear, sunny day, so that sunlight bursts through them and illuminates the chapel in glorious colours.
5. The Leper Chapel
There’s quite possibly no building in Cambridge with a more interesting history than the Leper Chapel. While most of Cambridge’s historic buildings were commissioned by kings and bishops, in part to display their wealth and influence, the Leper Chapel represents everyday life in medieval England. It was built in 1125, making it the oldest surviving building in Cambridge, and was at that time part of the buildings of a leprosy hospital that stood on the outskirts of the city.
The leprosy hospital was effectively a charitable endeavour, and in 1199 King John gave permission for a three-day fair to be held, in order to raise funds to support the lepers. The fair, Stourbridge Fair, became the largest in medieval Europe, and was held until 1933. That’s despite the fact that there had been no lepers there since 1279. A revived Stourbridge Fair is now held at the Leper Chapel every year, though it doesn’t reach the size of its medieval predecessor.
6. The Mathematical Bridge
The Mathematical Bridge quite possibly holds the record for being the Cambridge sight that has the most myths and urban legends around it, with tour guides inventing new ones with reasonable regularity. For instance, it’s often suggested that Isaac Newton built the bridge without using any fastenings, and it stayed in place solely through some manner of engineering wizardry. However, as the bridge was built in 1749 and Newton died in 1727, this is not entirely plausible. Some versions of this story are told with a different famous name, or with the idea that students then took it apart to see how it stayed up, and couldn’t put it back together without using nuts and bolts. In fact, fastenings were a part of the design (William Etheridge’s design, not Isaac Newton’s) all along, although initially they were iron spikes, since replaced by nuts and bolts.
It’s a pity that the bridge has been talked up by urban myths, because it’s decidedly interesting even in its own right without them. Its design was an impressive work of engineering for its time, using timber in a very efficient way – for those interested in engineering, it’s worth taking a closer look, perhaps with an informed guide.
7. The Bridge of Sighs
Like the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford, Cambridge’s Bridge of Sighs is named after the one in Venice despite having very little in common with it architecturally. Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs spans a road, while Cambridge’s crosses the River Cam from one part of St John’s College to another. This location means that it’s a key landmark on any punting tour of Cambridge; most people only get to see it from the water, though it’s in daily use by St John’s students.
The bridge was built in 1831 for purely practical reasons, because St John’s was expanding and an additional river crossing was required. But with the kind of attitude that has made Cambridge as beautiful as it is, the architect decided to go with a romantic covered bridge with Gothic windows and spires, instead of anything more mundane.
8. The Market Square
There has been a market on Cambridge’s Market Square since Saxon times, and it’s still flourishing today. Originally, it was filled with buildings, but these were cleared after a fire in 1849, to be replaced by temporary stalls. The market is there every day of the week, with different stalls on a Sunday, and it’s a fun and lively place to explore. There are stalls selling fruit, veg, bread and other groceries where some people do their normal shopping, but much of the market is dedicated to clothing, crafts, artisan foods and other such things that make it a good destination for tourists too.
On one side of the square is the university church of Great St Mary’s, which has a spire that offers fantastic views over the city. On another is the Cambridge Guildhall, the grand building that is the seat of Cambridge City Council.
9. The Botanic Gardens
Opened in 1846, Cambridge University’s Botanic Gardens cover 40 acres of reasonably level ground, and contain a plant collection of over 8,000 species. There’s a lake, restored glasshouses that date to 1860, and one of the earliest rock gardens in Britain. It’s a beautiful place to walk through or even have a picnic in on a summer’s day, and there are live music events held there throughout the warmer months as well.
But the Botanic Gardens aren’t just there for tourists to enjoy. They’re also a vital research tool for the University of Cambridge. The Department of Plant Sciences has facilities there, and the Sainsbury Laboratory, where research is undertaken into plant growth and development, is also on the site. Any budding biologist should definitely take the time to explore the many sections of the gardens, including one garden dedicated to genetics and a glasshouse that focuses on the plants that existed before the evolution of flowers.
10. Ely Cathedral
The fenlands of Cambridgeshire were once known as the ‘Holy Fen’ because of the number of beautiful churches and cathedrals that could be found there – as this list demonstrates (and we’ve been very selective). Even in this setting, Ely Cathedral stands out as spectacular. The cathedral was built by the Normans in 1083 in a Romanesque style. However, one of the cathedral’s most striking features is its central octagonal tower, which lets in light through its stunning stained-glass windows – and this was only built in the 14th century, following the collapse of the previous Norman tower in 1322.
The cathedral is also notable for its sheer size – its 75m nave is one of the longest in the country. Because the land around the cathedral is so flat, it looks even larger and more magnificent than it might do in a different setting.
11. Audley End House
One of the greatest country houses in England in its time, Audley End House is located just outside Saffron Walden, near Cambridge. It was built in the early 17th century and was for a time the size of a royal palace, and in 1677 it was bought by Charles II to serve exactly that function. In 1701, it was returned to the Earl of Suffolk, whose family had built it. They demolished about two-thirds of the house, leaving it at its current size – which is still vast.
Audley End is now in the hands of English Heritage, who run the house as it would have been at various times in the past; so visitors can see the lives of Victorian servants in the Service Wing, and how horses were cared for the Stable Yard. The parkland was landscaped by the famous gardener Capability Brown in 1762, and they have become just as much of a tourist attraction as the house.
Image credits: cambridge riverside; punts; fitzwilliam; sedgwick; round church; king’s college chapel; leper chapel; mathematical bridge; bridge of sighs; market; botanic gardens; ely cathedral; audley end house.