Cambridge is a wonderful place of new and old. The university and its architecture have existed since the 13th century, and some of history’s most influential minds and people have passed through. But, as a student city, you can’t miss the stark influence of young faces and new ideas.
Cambridge is famous for its world-class university, its gorgeous architecture, and its weird and wonderful activities like punting. The city has a variety of beautiful sites to see, such as King’s College Chapel or the Bridge of Sighs. And to escape the city’s bustle, you can head to Grantchester or the botanic gardens.
So whether you’re here for the history, the architecture, the stunning surroundings, or the punting, you’ll find so many other things that catch your eye on this list of 21 things Cambridge is known and famous for.
1. The university
When you first mention Cambridge, often the first thing that comes to people’s minds is the city’s famous university, aptly called the University of Cambridge. The university consistently ranks among the top universities in the world alongside its British rival, Oxford.
The university is key to the city. Unusually, the city originally formed because of the university, rather than the other way around. Nearly all the land in the city is owned by the university or the 31 different colleges that the university is broken down into.
Trinity College is the richest and biggest college, having been founded by King Henry VIII in 1546. Peterhouse College is the oldest, and Corpus Christi College is the only college to have been founded by townspeople.
As of 1992, the city is also home to another university, Anglia Ruskin University (or ARU). It is an up-and-coming university, with over 26,000 students. It was ranked 117th in the Complete University Guide’s 2022 league table.
2. Nobel prizes
With such a prestigious university, perhaps it’s no surprise that Cambridge has produced a few Nobel prizes.
But, in fact, the university’s academics and alumni are responsible for a whopping 96 Nobel prizes. If Cambridge were its own country, it would rank fourth in the world (behind the USA, the United Kingdom and Germany).
32 of these Nobel Prizes have been in physics, and 32 of the winners came from Trinity College alone.
3. River Cam
A central feature of the city is its famous river, the Cam. The river runs through the center of the city, weaving in and out of the various colleges which line its banks.
Unusually, the name of the river comes from the name of the city (Cambridge). For most places, this is the other way round and the river is named first.
And with such a prominent river comes one of Cambridge’s most famous activities: Punting!
Cambridge is known for this bizarre activity which sees tourists and students alike slowly bobbing along the river in wooden boats, reminiscent of Venice’s canals. The wide wooden “punts” (as they are known) are steered by a person at the back who maneuvers it with a long pole.
You can hire a trained guide to punt for you, or if you’re on a budget it can always be fun to hire the punt, so you can do it yourself. It is well known that the official punt guides make up fake facts about the university anyway, to make their days a bit more fun!
5. King’s College Chapel
The most famous image of Cambridge is King’s College Chapel. Look at any Cambridge brochure or Google result, and you’ll likely see this stunning feature of Cambridge architecture first.
The chapel was built between 1446 and 1515, as commissioned by a series of English kings. The very first stone was laid by Henry VI himself. It is one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture in the UK and Europe.
It is the most popular site for tourists to visit in the city, so try visiting on a weekday to avoid the main crowds.
Just south of the main center of Cambridge is Grantchester. The village is known for its quaint pubs and quintessentially English village charm.
The village is also home to Grantchester meadows, a place of great natural beauty and calm. It is common for students to punt the 3km from the city center in order to relax and picnic in the meadows, or to visit the town’s pubs.
Wild swimming in the meadows, where the water is much better quality than Cambridge’s city center, is also a popular activity.
You may expect a student city to have a few libraries here and there, but the university has over 100 libraries! Its main University Library is one of six deposit libraries and holds over seven million books.
The prettiest library belongs to Gonville and Caius College and is found right next to Senate House, where lucky students graduate at the end of their degree.
With the university developing and growing over time, the city has a beautiful variety of architecture built from the 11the century right up until the modern day.
Colleges such as Pembroke or Corpus Christi College boast some of the university’s oldest architecture, while the Sidgwick and West Cambridge Sites have examples of classic 1960’s architecture. Buildings such as the Seeley Library have won architecture awards, but their modern designs polarize opinion.
The Round Church is one of four round churches still in use in the UK and was built around 1130. The oldest building is the St Bene’t’s Church, built in the early 11th century.
Bikes everywhere! Cambridge is well-known as a city of bikes and if you visit, you’ll be sure to find rows of bikes locked alongside every street. There are also bikes available to hire if you want a quick way to get around yourself.
The city is very flat which makes it a great place to cycle around. And, on the roads, the bikes rule.
The city has plenty of bike lanes and bike-only zones. One-way systems in the city are specifically designed to dissuade travel by car and make it accessible for this eco-friendly and quick travel method.
10. Fitzwilliam Museum
The Fitzwilliam is the university’s main museum. It was built in 1816 and has remained a central part of the Cambridge culture ever since.
The museum is home to one of the best collections of ancient and modern art in western Europe, with over half a million artworks and objects. Works by famous names such as Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, and Cézanne feature here.
And the best thing: admission to the museum is free to the public.
My personal favorites include Cézanne’s L’Enlèvement (The Abduction) or Ford Madox Brown’s The Last of England.
And for an alternative gallery, check out Kettle’s Yard. This unique gallery is located in a Cambridge house and has a beautiful collection of 20th century and contemporary art.
11. University Botanic Gardens
If you’re looking for a break from the touristy crowds of the city center, make your way to the Cambridge University Botanic Gardens, just a ten-minute walk away.
The gardens cover about 160,000m2 and contain over 8,000 plant species from across the world. It’s no surprise the gardens are so popular with scientists, gardeners, and walkers alike.
Interestingly, the highest ever UK temperature of 38.7°C was recorded in the gardens in July 2019.
Fitzbillies is the most famous café in the city and the quintessential Cambridge café experience. Founded in 1920, it has been a popular destination for coffee and food lovers for now over 100 years.
Amongst the locals, Fitzbillies is best known for its Chelsea buns. Sort of like a cinnamon roll, the bun is lighter and is glazed while the bun is still hot, making the bun sticky and sweeter.
The population’s love for cinnamon buns apparently dates back to the Second World War, when locals would look forward to the treat of a Chelsea bun alongside their rations.
13. Castle Mound
For the best views of the city, you should head to Cambridge Castle, or Cambridge Mound as it is known by the locals.
Most of Cambridge is very flat, so this mound to the northwest of the city provides great views of landmarks such as King’s College Chapel and St John’s College Chapel.
And it’s only a five-minute walk from the city center!
Punting isn’t the only way to travel on the river Cam. The city is also famous for its rowing, a popular sport amongst students and locals alike.
Throughout the year, Cambridge’s 31 colleges compete against each other on the Cam. The biggest event is known as May Bumps and requires teams to win by bumping into the backs of their rivals’ boats.
And for the most professional rowers, there is the “Boat Race”. Every year, Cambridge competes against its long-time rival Oxford, in a 6.8km race across the river Thames, in London.
It is estimated that 15 million people watch the event live on television each year. Cambridge has won the Men’s race 85 times to Oxford’s 80 and the Women’s race 45 compared to Oxford’s 30.
The Footlights is a theatrical comedy club at the university, run by and made up of its students. Many former members have gone on to have significant comedy and acting careers in the UK and beyond, such as Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, and Stephen Fry.
You can see a Footlights show, as well as a variety of other plays and student drama, at the Amateur Dramatic Club (or ADC as it’s known amongst the students).
16. Bridge of Sighs
No, this isn’t Venice. This bridge is, however, inspired and named after Venice’s own Bridge of Sighs.
The bridge is completely covered and crosses over the river Cam, connecting the Third Court and New Court of St John’s College. It is a popular site for tourists punting along the river, as a beautiful site of Gothic revival architecture.
17. Market Square
Unlike a lot of England’s cities, Cambridge is lucky for having an open-air market in the city center every day, aptly located in Market Square.
The market serves a variety of authentic and foreign food, from Chinese to Nigerian, Brazilian to Greek. A fruit and vegetable stall, flower stall, sweet stall, and even bike repair stall (among so many others) make the market what it is today.
18. Scientific discoveries
Thanks to its prestigious university, Cambridge has been the home of so many scientific discoveries dating back to its founding in the 13th century.
Most famously, the structure of DNA was discovered in Cambridge by Francis Crick and James Watson. As the legend goes, the two scientists barged into the Eagle pub to announce their discovery to the world. The anecdote is commemorated by a plaque in the pub, which also serves its signature ale, Eagle’s DNA.
Other key scientific advancements made by Cambridge University alumni include Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, and Alan Turing’s work on AI.
An offshoot of the tree under which Newton developed his theory of gravity stands in front of Trinity College. But it’s not actually the real tree, as many claim.
Though Cambridge F.C. is not known for being an especially good football club, the city of Cambridge does have a claim to fame when it comes to football.
The 1863 Cambridge rules, which were created and played on Parker’s Piece (a grass area in the center), influenced the creation of the standard rules by the Football Association later that year.
Before this, football had no official and consistent rules. Who knew a simple group of students playing football could be so influential?
Cambridge is and was home to many of literature’s great writers and poets. A huge number of successful writers were educated here, from John Milton to Zadie Smith, William Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath.
Ted Hughes, UK Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998, attended Pembroke College from 1951 to 1954. Famous author and essayist Robert McFarlane currently lectures with the English Faculty and at Emmanuel College.
The university also has its own publishing press, the Cambridge University Press. It is the oldest university press in the world, as created by King Henry VIII. It is also the Queen’s Printer.
And yes, confusingly, Cambridge is also known for its cows. Compared to many other cities in the UK and abroad, Cambridge is very rural. So much so that a population of cows is free to roam many of the city’s popular grassy areas.
On your walk down to Grantchester, you are sure to pass many cows milling around on the paths and munching on the grass. Sometimes, if you’re lucky (or unlucky), they may even pay a trip to the Mill pub. This popular pub is completely outside, making a great location to greet some of Cambridge’s cows, as well as its ducks!
So there you go… 21 things that Cambridge is known and famous for. Say hi to the cows for me on your next visit!