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. In this guide to Cambridge, you’ll find the best colleges to visit when visiting Cambridge and key tips for your day trip to Cambridge.
Cambridge University: 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.
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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 from London!
*updated December 2018
Getting to Cambridge:
- Trains to Cambridge depart from either Kings Cross or Liverpool Street Station.
- Return tickets during off-peak times are £17.30.
- During the week, tickets to Cambridge range from £9 and £25 each way.
- 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 center, so be prepared for a nice walk straight into town when you get in.
Useful information while you’re visiting Cambridge:
- 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 center 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.
The Colleges at Cambridge University
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 in total. John Harvard is a notable alumnus.
Christ’s College was founded in 1505 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII. It houses about 600 students and notable alumni include Charles Darwin and John Milton.
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.
Founded in 1326, Clare College is the second oldest college at Cambridge. It’s famous for its chapel choir and its gardens that overlook the River Cam. It houses about 800 students and is considered one of the most popular colleges.
King’s College, probably the most famous college of Cambridge, was founded in 1441 by King Henry VI. Its chapel is an amazing example of late Gothic English architecture. The Chapel was built over a period of 100 years from 1446-1531. It has the world’s largest fan vault ceiling (my favorite kind of vaulting!), Peter Paul Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi as the altarpiece, and stained glass dating from the 16th century. I was absolutely floored upon walking in and you will be too. I could’ve stayed there for hours! #obsessed
St. John’s College
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 this college. St. John’s 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.
Jesus College was established between 1496 and 1516. It was much more spacious than the other colleges we visited, which was nice. The chapel (which we didn’t see) was founded in the 12th century, is the oldest university building in Cambridge still in use. The college has about 800 students.