How to Explore Cambridge Like a Local
Cambridge, England is the kind of city you could call a masterpiece.
The infamous university town is home to writers, artists, genius mathematicians, scientists (the secrets of DNA were discovered here), historians and students galore, all hoping to follow in the hallowed footsteps of their academic heroes. It’s also stunning. Littered with astounding college buildings, the cobbled streets spill over with independent stores, galleries and niche museums while the River Cam weaves leisurely through its parks and meadows.
You can always get a decent pint, see a brilliant show or find somewhere interesting to eat and it’d be easy to live, study and work in Cambridge for decades and still find quirky, cultural and relaxing things to fill every weekend with. It’s just that kind of place.
Here are some tips for making sure you tick off all the must-see-and-do things that no tourist can miss, with an added twist for each, so you can see Cambridge as a local and not just as a fleeting visitor.
Punting on the River Cam
Punting is the iconic Cambridge pastime. Much like traveling by gondola in Venice, the idea is to travel down river by propelling the punt (a flat-bottomed boat) using a long pole which doubles as a rudder – don’t be fooled, it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Pack a picnic and snuggle up under a blanket on a guided punt (a Cambridge University student will do all the hard work with the boat while telling you facts and stories about the college buildings as you float along) or give it a go yourself. Strip off your shoes and socks, plant yourself on the end of a punt, cling onto the pole and hope you don’t crash into any of the ancient university walls – or fall in!
The local’s twist: During the day the Cam is packed with tourists zigzagging their way under historic bridges and through narrow causeways, but in the evening, when the sun has set, they disappear and the braver locals embark on spooky by-night punting in search of wildlife. For a more luxurious river experience, you can order dinner by punt and sit down to sirloin steak, strawberries and champagne while someone else propels you along, or ditch the punt entirely and travel down the Cam on a paddleboard.
Touring the university college buildings
Official walking tours, science tours, ghost tours, architecture tours, private tours – you name it, there’s a tour for it. Take in the impressive majesty of Kings College, the pretty riverside Magdalene College or delve into the University library and learn about the eminent historians, scientists and writers who have wandered the city’s streets.
The local’s twist: Hire a bike to see the cobbled streets and looming colleges from a student’s perspective. First of all you will need to find a sit-up-and-beg bike with a wicker basket on the front (filled with books) for true authenticity. Second, be prepared to have to cycle round huge groups of European student visitors who don’t know where they are going. Once you’ve got your balance it’s easy to peer through archways and into college courtyards without getting caught up in queues. You might even get mistaken for a student and be able to sneak in!
Taking in famous local beauty spots
Whatever you do, you have to tick off the top three: Christ’s Pieces, Jesus Green and Midsummer Common.
Christ’s Pieces in the center of town is a Victorian park filled with perfectly manicured flower beds and is ideal for having lunch in between shopping stints. Nearby is Jesus Green – it backs onto Jesus College, hence the name – and is a good spot for watching novice punters from or playing an afternoon match of tennis. When it isn’t being overrun by cattle or traveling funfairs, Midsummer Common is the best place to settle down with a book but there is also Parker’s Piece, a sports ground in the center of Cambridge where you can see local cricketers in action, and the meadowy Backs which run along the river and are fringed by the college gardens are always worth a stroll.
The local’s twist: While the above tourist staples are stunning and each drag the countryside into the city, it’s Grantchester Meadows (home to the highest concentration of Nobel Prize winners in the world) that locals and students flock to when in need of an escape. A half hour walk from the city center (also accessible by punt and canoe if you have an hour or so to spare) Grantchester is perfect for a decadent English afternoon tea, cozy pub lunches and a wander to Byron’s pool (named after the poet who is rumored to have swum there). You can even go river swimming – locals traditionally jump in on New Year’s Day.
Pub lunches in iconic haunts
If you are looking for a decent pint and a British pub lunch, the loveliest (and most famous) Cambridge establishments to visit are:
- The Eagle, with its ceiling scrawled on and signed by soldiers posted to the city during World War II
- The tiny Free Press which turns up in almost every novel written about the university town
- The Pickerel Inn which is one of the claimants for oldest pub in the city
- The Granta, which is nestled on the river surrounded by punts and cows that wander in off the nearby meadows
- The Maypole, a favorite with students and is close Jesus Green
The local’s twist: It’s the pubs and independent restaurants off one of Cambridge’s most busy and multicultural streets, Mill Road, that are the most character-full. There’s The Empress (stacked with board games and keeps pigs in the garden – they eat Bombay mix), the Kingston Arms (cozy and cramped but serves incredible food), the Cambridge Blue (excellent cider and a lovely beer garden) and the Devonshire Arms (a nook of a pub that supports independent brewers) are worth a trip to name just a few.
Need-to-know and Need-to-do
- Try the Chelsea buns at Fitzbillies bakery, they’ve been made using the same recipe for around 100 years
- Walk up Castle Mount to see a panoramic view of the city from its highest point
- Watch out for local pranksters Charlie Cavey, who plays his guitar from inside a bin, and Rob Thompson, who recreates film scenes around the city
- Visit the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse for plush red velvet seats and wine with your film
- Wander the rooms of the Fitzwilliam Museum for inspiration
- Potter about the Cambridge Botanical Garden for a breath of fresh air
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