As one of the oldest and highest-ranking universities in the world, Cambridge is a magical place to visit. Filled to the brim with beautiful architecture, insanely smart people, and lots of history, this university town is a must-do day trip from London. Looking for other day trips from London? Try Cardiff, Stonehenge & Salisbury, or St. Albans!
A little history
The earliest record of Cambridge University dates back to 1209 when groups of scholars convened at the ancient Roman trading post of Cambridge. Peterhouse College was founded in 1284 and is the first college at Cambridge. Pembroke College arrived next. King Henry VI laid the first stone at King’s College. Erasmus was a professor around 1516, working on textbooks and a translation of the Greek New Testament, leading him to be one of the leading scholars of the Northern Renaissance. Henry VIII founded Trinity College in 1546.
Today, there are 31 self-governing and teaching colleges whose mission is to “contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence“.
Notable alumni include Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Francis Bacon, Charles Darwin, Jane Goodall, Alan Turing, Erasmus, Keynes, Thomas Malthus, Milton Friedman, Vladimir Nabakov, John Donne, John Milton, Lord Byron (who kept a pet bear in his room because he couldn’t have a dog), Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, John Cleese, Eddie Redmayne, and John Harvard.
As the top university in the world, it is practically a breeding for the world’s elite: it has graduated 15 British Prime Ministers, 23 foreign heads of government, 9 monarchs, Oliver Cromwell, and three signers of the Declaration of Independence. Wow. If that doesn’t make you want to visit, I don’t know what could!
Naturally, I wanted to visit all 31 colleges, but alas not all are open to visitors and many have early closing times. The ones I did visit, however, were absolutely beautiful and I highly recommend you to visit as many as you can whilst there on your day trip!
Getting to Cambridge:
- Trains to Cambridge depart from either Kings Cross or Liverpool Street Station.
- Return tickets during off-peak times are £16.50 or £10.90 with a railcard.
- During the week, tickets to Cambridge range from £3.95 and £15.20 each way with a railcard and £6 and £23 each way without.
- There are a couple 45-minute train rides to and from Kings Cross each day, but the rest of the trains range from an hour to an hour and a half.
- The Cambridge train station is about a mile from the town centre, so be prepared for a nice little walk straight into town.
While you’re there:
- The town itself is very walkable and has a lot of shopping and restaurants ~ when it’s crowded, be sure to make a booking for lunch or go early!
- Have a game plan for which colleges you want to visit ~ there are so many and each of them has such beautiful architecture. I like to think that we saw some of the prettiest ones!
- Colleges can be closed when it’s not term time or during examination periods. They also have different opening hours, so be sure to do your research online. The colleges in the centre of town usually have visitor information as well!
- A couple of the colleges (like King’s and St. John’s) charge a small fee to enter, but it is incredibly worth it! Be sure to have cash on hand as they only take credit cards for expenses over a certain amount.
- Cambridge also has free museums if you’d rather see them instead of spending the day looking at the colleges.
Downing College wasn’t originally on my list but I just happened upon it while walking into town from the train station. It was founded in 1800 and has around 425 undergraduates and 250 postgraduates. It also apparently has a strong music and theatre tradition. The neoclassical buildings were really pretty and different from the majority of the other buildings in Cambridge.
Emmanuel College has the reputation of “the friendly college”. It also has some of the best examination results in the university as well as one of the biggest endowments. The Chancellor of the Exchequer to Elizabeth I founded the college in 1584. Today, the college has about 600 students total. John Harvard is a notable alumnus.
Sidney Sussex College
Sidney Sussex College was founded in 1596 and has about 600 students. Oliver Cromwell attended the college but never graduated, but his head is buried beneath the college’s ante-chapel. It ranks fourth highest among Cambridge colleges in Nobel Prizes won by alumni.
St. John’s College was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort. The goals of the college are the promotion of education, religion, learning and research. 9 Nobel Prize winners, 6 prime ministers, 3 archbishops, 2 princes and 3 saints have graduated from the college. Today, about 870 people attend the college. The college was sprawling, with many buildings, each with its own unique architecture. Also, the Bridge of Sighs (see below) has its home at St. Johns, so be sure to visit. It’s beautiful.