Cambridge, England: City of Dreaming Spires

by Cheryl Pendry, PassPorter Featured Columnist
Last modified 03-10-2011

Photo illustrating International Travel - Traveling

The world's top universities attract more than just students these days. They are also magnets for visitors, with hundreds of years of history on display in buildings still used for learning. Institutions like Oxford and Cambridge in England and Harvard in Boston have plenty worth seeing.

Having already taken a detailed tour of Oxford in the first part of these features, it’s only right that we look at Oxford's biggest rival -- the University of Cambridge.

University of Cambridge photo
University of Cambridge

The beautiful campus of the University of Cambridge.

Like Oxford, Cambridge is about an hour north of London on the train and it too is often referred to as the “city of dreaming spires." Like Oxford, if you have a car, the only realistic option is to abandon it to a park and ride bus service, as parking fees are high and getting around the narrow streets is not a simple task, with many closed to traffic.

Perhaps all these similarities with Oxford can be traced to Cambridge’s history. Founded in 1209 by scholars who left Oxford after a fight with local townsmen, a fierce rivalry grew between the two universities. That rivalry remains to this day and is put to the test each year in sporting fashion with the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race along the River Thames.

This year's Boat Race was on Sunday, April 2. It was the 152nd in the series and more than a century on; the results are always close. Oxford’s victory this year was their fourth in five years. Despite that, overall Cambridge is still in the lead, having won 78 races since 1829, compared to Oxford’s 73.

Perhaps Cambridge’s success on the water is partially explained by the River Cam, which flows past most of the University’s main colleges. This offers visitors a unique view of the colleges that you don’t really get in Oxford. In the summer months, the river is full of punts, a flat bottomed boat without a keel, which is propelled by pushing a pole against the river bed.

First introduced as pleasure craft in the early twentieth century, punting may sound simple and you can hire your own, but trust me, it might be safer to hire one that’s chauffeured for you. We’ve seen the problems that some people get into, with their punt going round and round in a circle. There are many companies offering punts for hire, some of which are crewed by students in the summer months. If you want an extra bit of tradition, then go for a company where the chauffeurs wear straw hats and waistcoats. It’s like stepping a hundred years back in time.

And as you cruise along the River Cam, you’ll cruise back in time even further, seeing colleges that date back more than 550 years. Operating in a similar system to Oxford, Cambridge has 31 colleges, with a population of around 20,000 students.

Of these, the most visited is King’s College, mainly due to the spectacular chapel, which took over a century to build. Today it’s the home of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a Christmas Eve tradition that is broadcast across the world and often sees people queuing for up to 12 hours to get in to see it live. There’s a lot to see at this college and there is a charge for admission.

Another world famous Cambridge college is Trinity, where Sir Isaac Newton made calculations that changed our understanding of the universe, although the actual falling apple incident is said to have happened at his home some miles away! Like Christ Church in Oxford, this college has also taken a starring role in films, most famously in the Oscar winning Chariots of Fire, where it was the setting for the race around the courtyard.

Something else similar to Oxford is the Bridge of Sighs, based on the original in Venice. The difference here is that while Oxford’s spans a street on dry land, Cambridge went for the more traditional approach and built theirs over the River Cam. It's part of St. John’s College. They had to adapt the design slightly though, adding bars to stop students trying to climb back in after a late night out!

Other colleges can be seen from the River Cam and the fields behind the river, which are known as the Backs. Clare College, first founded in 1326, had to be completely rebuilt between 1638 and 1715 after the mediaeval buildings were destroyed by fire. At the south end of the Cam is Queen’s College, home to the Mathematical Bridge. Originally built in 1749, it was rebuilt to the same design twice, most recently in 1905. At first, it was believed that this wooden bridge was built without screws or bolts, but that’s not actually the case. Other myths include the idea that Isaac Newton was responsible for this bridge – something he’d have been hard pressed to do, as he died 20 years before it was built! It’s also been claimed that the odd design of this bridge is something to do with students taking the bridge to pieces and then being unable to put it back together again, but there’s no foundation to those claims either.

Away from the River Cam, as there is in Oxford, there’s the option to head upwards and get a bird’s eye views of the city spires. To do so means climbing up 123 steps to the top of the Church of Great St. Mary’s in the main market place, but it’s a climb worth making for the superb view.

In the square below, there’s a market every day of the week and although offerings do change from day to day, there’s usually food and crafts of some kind available daily. On Saturdays, this market is complimented by a market in All Saint’s Garden, opposite Trinity College, which is full of artists and craftspeople selling their homemade goods.

This is one of the main differences that we noticed between Cambridge and Oxford. Although Oxford seems to have a better range of big name shops, it lacks the unique markets that Cambridge offers. Cambridge seems to be a more vibrant city, whereas a lot of Oxford life is based around the colleges. Although the colleges do dominate parts of Cambridge, it’s a city that attracts a lot of local people, as well as being home to students and welcoming visitors. On our visits to Oxford, it seems to have a bigger proportion of visitors and students.

So which of the two do we prefer? This is a difficult question to answer. My heart will always lie with Oxford – and I’ll certainly always support them in the Boat Race – something to do with having a close friend who studied there. If I had to just pick one of the two beautiful university cities to visit on a day trip out from London for example, I think Cambridge would just edge Oxford out for its vibrant markets and the amazing views from the Backs and the River Cam, something that Oxford sadly can’t boast.

Whichever you choose to visit, you’ll certainly be swept away by the dreaming spires of the colleges in each city, something very different to Harvard, but there are similarities between all three, as we’ll explore in the final part of this series.

About the Author:
Cheryl and husband Mark live in England and love to travel, particularly to Disney, and they have made numerous visits to destinations across America and Europe. They recently completed their tour of every Disney theme park around the world, which culminated in their visit to Japan, including the Tokyo Disney Resort. Click here to view more of Cheryl's articles!

Recent International Travel Articles:

Planning a Trip to Disney Theme Parks in Asia

Planning a Trip to Disney Theme Parks in Asia

A Disney Parks Planning Article

Tokyo Disneyland -- Easy Day Trips

Tokyo Disneyland -- Easy Day Trips

A Disney Parks Planning Article

Hong Kong Disneyland -- Easy Day Trips

Hong Kong Disneyland -- Easy Day Trips

A Disney Parks Planning Article

Disneyland Paris Easy Day Trips

Disneyland Paris Easy Day Trips

A Disneyland Paris Planning Article

Bistro Chez Remy at Disneyland Paris

Bistro Chez Remy at Disneyland Paris

A Disneyland Paris Dining Review

More Related Links:
Harvard, Massachusetts: University Town
The San Diego Zoo - Getting There on the Gray Line From Disneyland

The San Diego Zoo - Getting There on the Gray Line From Disneyland

A Disneyland and Southern California Review

Driving to Disney With Your Dog

Driving to Disney With Your Dog

Tail-Waggin Travel Tips That Give Your Dog a Vacation, Too!

Taking a Disney Cruise out of Galveston, Texas

Taking a Disney Cruise out of Galveston, Texas

A Disney Cruise Line Review

Cruising with Special Needs - Part 2: Wheelchairs

Cruising with Special Needs - Part 2: Wheelchairs

A Disney Cruise Line Planning Article

Reader Comments:

Hello to you all. I am looking at planning a trip for my daughter and I to England. Of course we want to visit most of the tourist things, but would also like to see some castles and vist the countryside, like the showed in the movie the Wedding Date. If anyone has any helpful information on hotels, places to eat and anything or anywhere to visit I would appreciate your advice. Thank you so much. smiley for :) Carla

     CEK40 on September 16, 2006 @ 11:32 pm
We were just in England this past May/June and had a wonderful time! smiley for :) I would advise picking up Rick Steves books on both London and Great Britain as a starting point for planning your vacation. I used them on the recommendation of someone else who had been to England recently, and we planned our trip using them almost entirely and had a fantastic vacation. All of the bed and breakfasts we stayed in were from his book on Great Britain. If you would like further info as far as where we went and where we stayed, please feel free to PM me. smiley for :)

     stretch2864 on September 17, 2006 @ 2:02 am
You'll love England, although I am a bit biased on that count... an image Most people come to London, which I would recommend, as it's a beautiful city, packed with things to see and do. If it's your first trip, ideally I'd allow at least four or five days just for London and a few days for outside the capital if you want to see the countryside around London.

The first thing to decide is really how long you can stay for - trust me, there's plenty to keep you busy here! an image Then you need to decide when to visit. The weather is reasonably warm from about the end of March to probably the end of September, although you can get rain at any time of the year. It will be quieter if you avoid school holidays here, which run from about the third week of July to early September. Schools also have a week off in late May, two weeks around Easter and a week off in late October. I hope that helps. an image

Outside of London, there are plenty of options for seeing the countryside and castles. We're lucky enough to have the world's most beautiful castle (that's what the marketing says and I believe it! an image ) Leeds Castle just a few miles down the road from us. It's probably about an hour away from London on the train. Other options of places to visit on a day trip from London include the famous university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, Windsor, which is of course home to its own castle and the nearby famous college town of Eton. You can also visit Canterbury Cathedral easily in a day from London and further afield is Bath, with its Roman baths and beautiful Georgian architecture, and Stonehenge.

If you need any more information, please feel free to PM me or post away any other questions and I'll do my best to answer them. I love helping people coming over to visit our beautiful country. an image

     chezp on September 17, 2006 @ 4:47 am
I agree with Cheryl, Leeds Castle is definitely worth a visit, it's beautiful and the grounds are too an image. I don't know if you would want to travel that far north but York is a beautiful city, one of my favourites. There are lots of cobbled streets and The National Railway Museum as well as the Jorvic Centre, there is so much to do.


     BritDisFan on September 17, 2006 @ 5:19 am
Ooh I forgot something... an image With Karen mentioning York makes me think of something else - Stratford with its Shakespeare links is another great place to visit as well. an image

     chezp on September 17, 2006 @ 6:12 am
Shameless plug for the North West here, but you could also try Chester (lovely Roman town) or spend a couple of nights in the Lake District.

     mattnkatsmum on September 18, 2006 @ 5:02 pm
You will love England.
London (and Mark and Chezp) are wonderful.
Chester was beautiful, too. an image

In truth, I loved my entire trip to Britain, Ireland and Scotland an image

     duck addict on September 18, 2006 @ 5:07 pm
I went to England 15 years ago on a 10 day tour of England and Scotland. It is a beautiful country. I loved the changing of the guard and the Tower of London in London. Wales was absolutely gorgeous. We visited Warwick Castle and climbed the steps to the towers. I went in mid august and there was an art festival in Edinburgh, Scotland (I believe they have it every year at this time). Lots of street theater and musicians. I would love to go back (take me with you an image )

     minemoz1 on September 18, 2006 @ 5:39 pm
< quote >
We visited Warwick Castle and climbed the steps to the towers.

Warwick Castle is beautiful - I spent three years at university in that area and it's also got Stratford Upon Avon in the same vicinity as well. It made for some lovely weekends out. an image

< quote >
I went in mid august and there was an art festival in Edinburgh, Scotland (I believe they have it every year at this time). Lots of street theater and musicians. I would love to go back (take me with you an image )

You're right - there are a number of festivals in Edinburgh at that time of the year, the Edinburgh Fringe the world's big arts festival with all sorts of performances during it - literally every type of art you can think of is there. an image There's also the Edinburgh Military Tattoo and a multitude of other festivals during that time - you can find the full details here

     chezp on September 19, 2006 @ 1:44 am
I picked up the Rick Steve's book you recommended (Great Britain). Did you do his whole 3 week tour? Or did you break it up?

From his estimates for cost, I am figuring:

Airfare $3000 ($750 per person)
Surface Transportation $2000 ($500 per person)
Room & Board $8000 ($100 per day per person)
Sightseeing/Entertainment $2400 ($30 per day per person)

Total = $15, 400!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Plus souvenirs/shopping

Does that sound right?


     maggieworkman on June 15, 2007 @ 8:29 am
I think that estimate is way too high. I have seen a lot of airfare sales to Europe for roughly $400.00 round trip recently. I would opt for a week stay in an apartment in London. There are many flats available for rent by the week. You would have more room than in a hotel and could make many of your meals. Eat in pubs at lunch for your main meal, which are generally cheap but very good.

As far as transportation, as a resident of the US you can buy a subway pass while here in the US for as many days as you want ( 5 days, 7 days, etc.). You can get anywhere in the city using this pass and it even works on the buses. If you decide to stay outside of London to see the countryside, I think renting a car would be the most economical and stay in Bed and Breakfasts. Don't forget though about driving on the "other"side of the road!smiley for ;) There is also a "group" ticket you can buy (I forget the name) that includes admission into many of the sights in London such as the Tower of London, the London Eye, etc. This will save lots of money also. If you want to go out to Windsor, or other places but don't want to rent a car, you can ride the train from central London. Or, if you want, you can buy a tour which costs from $50.00 to $75.00 per person to go to places like Leeds, Canterbury, Stonehenge, Warick Castle, Stratford Upon Avon, etc.

We have been to London several times and honestly, you could spend 2 weeks in London alone and not see the same thing twice. We also drove around the countryside, Wales and Scotland, which was very fun. There are many ways to cut costs and still have a great time. smiley for :D

     blondie on June 15, 2007 @ 5:59 pm

     stretch2864 on June 17, 2007 @ 10:37 pm
Part II~smiley for :D

As far as expenses, I will try to list approximate amounts based on the length of time that we were there.

Airfare: This will vary depending on the time of year that you go. Summers tend to be more expensive while the winter months tend to be less expensive with some deals to be had. We went in May which is considered “shoulder” season between prime travel season and the off season. We ended up spending around $800 per person on American from Minneapolis.

Surface Transportation: This again will vary based on the modes of transportation used. We opted to rent a car for our time in the English countryside. Including insurance because generally your own auto insurance will not cover foreign rentals, we spent about 425 British pounds or approximately $800 US dollars for a week's rental. Gas is another consideration. You buy it by the litre in the UK. The price per gallon translated into US dollars (based on last year's trip) was approximately $9.00 a gallon. We rented a Ford Focus which is a compact car, and it cost around $75 to fill it up when we stopped. Another option is the train. One of the physicians that I used to work with used the train to travel all over England and Scotland. I'm not sure of the exact cost. One disadvantage is that you can only go to where the train goes which limits some of the backroads touring. Of course if you have no desire to drive on the left hand side of the road from the right hand side of the car, this might be the way to go. I did get used to driving eventually (and even thought it was kind of fun), but I know I made my family nervous! Cabs to our hotel in London and back to Heathrow cost approximately 45 British pounds or around $90 US dollars. The London Underground or the Tube was the best value in my estimation. We could travel all over London per day for around 14 British pounds for the three of us, or approximately $28 US dollars. There are passes that you can buy in the US ahead of time which will give you unlimited Tube travel for varying lengths of time for an even cheaper rate. This can be paired up with something called the London Pass which gives you discounted admission to some of the big attractions in London. I think you need to decide how many of these things you are really going to do in order to make it pay off. Keep in mind that many museums in London are free anyway.

Room and Board: While touring England at large, we stayed in bed and breakfasts in each town we stayed in. All the ones we stayed at were listed in Rick Steve's book, and I would recommend all of them. In York we stayed at the Sycamore; in Conwy we stayed at the Castle View B&B (which was the cheapest of them and our favorite as the hosts were such charming people), in Chipping Campden we stayed at Sandalwood House (which had a resident cat named Bobbi), and in Windsor we stayed at the Langton House. I probably liked the Langton House the least as it was more dark and Victorian looking than the others. However there aren't a lot of B&Bs recommended by Rick Steve's for Windsor, so I would say it was adequate. Prices listed in Rick Steve's book were fairly accurate. The night we arrived in London we stayed at the Holiday Inn M4J4, and it was very nice. The price was around 180 British pounds or $350 US dollars. When we stayed in London itself, we stayed at the Holiday Inn London-Kensington. This was a very nice hotel which resembled the neighborhood flats. We paid around 900 British pounds for 5 nights or around $1800. I found both the hotels via recommendations on . There are definite differences amongst various areas of London. The Kensington area is very nice, and we never felt unsafe while we were there. The nice thing is that the hotel was right across the street from a Tube station which was great for getting around the city. There were also a lot of little neighborhood shops and restaurants within a few block radius of our hotel. As far as food, what you end up spending can vary greatly. We found that by eating the big English breakfasts that were served in the B&Bs, we didn't need much more than a snack before eating dinner. This saved some money. Also we found that by buying some food at the neighborhood grocery store (Sainsbury) in London, we could do breakfast and a couple of light dinners in our hotel room. It is fun anyways to see the different foods found in English grocery stores. We usually did dinners in modestly priced restaurants. ASK is a pizza/pasta restaurant that was very good, and found in several locations throughout England.

Sightseeing: I guess it depends on what you end up doing as far as how much per day you will spend. Based on the things we did $30 US dollars per day might be a little on the low side. We found that because everything is so expensive that we didn't spend much as far as souvenirs etc. I did splurge and buy a purse at Harrod's but that was about it. If you plan to do much shopping at all, I would definitely budget accordingly.

Maggie~I know you and your family would have a wonderful time in the UK. Hopefully this will help you a bit with your planning. If you have any other questions, please feel free to PM me.

     stretch2864 on June 17, 2007 @ 10:45 pm
Wow Vicki! Thanks for the great information. Can you tell me if any of the B&Bs you stayed in had rooms for 4?

I was thinking we could maybe go for 2 weeks? But his 3 week trip looks so nice! I'm not sure what I would cut out.

I'm going to finish reading his book and then I may have more questions. Thanks so much. That really helped. I will look up the places you mentioned.


     maggieworkman on June 17, 2007 @ 11:24 pm
What great information Vicky - you're making me think that I should re-visit some of the places you went to. I haven't been to Conwy Castle in about 20 years and it's probably about 10 years now since I was last in Stratford and York.

Maggie, I do hope you guys will come over for a visit - we've got a beautiful country here and we'd definitely arrange a PassPorter meet for you! smiley for :waytogo:

     chezp on June 18, 2007 @ 1:44 am

     stretch2864 on June 18, 2007 @ 1:49 am
chezp;1642463 >What great information Vicky - you're making me think that I should re-visit some of the places you went to. I haven't been to Conwy Castle in about 20 years and it's probably about 10 years now since I was last in Stratford and York.

Maggie, I do hope you guys will come over for a visit - we've got a beautiful country here and we'd definitely arrange a PassPorter meet for you! smiley for :waytogo:

Chez, you and Mark should definitely re-visit some of the great areas of your country! Conwy, of all the places we visited, was still my favorite. smiley for :D I was talking to one of my friends this weekend, and she wants to make a return trip to England. So we may have plans in the works for a January 2008 trip! It would really be great because her aunt has a flat in Kensington where we could stay. :woot:

     stretch2864 on June 18, 2007 @ 10:32 am
chezp;1642463 >Maggie, I do hope you guys will come over for a visit - we've got a beautiful country here and we'd definitely arrange a PassPorter meet for you! smiley for :waytogo:

I second that. I live about halfway between York and Conway so we might be able to organise a meet around that.

I'm sure you'll have a fabulous time. England is a beautiful country and I'm sure you'll have a marvellous time.

     mattnkatsmum on June 18, 2007 @ 10:58 am
blankView all 18 comments in forum thread

So what do you think? Click here to share your comments, feedback, and experiences on this article and topic!

(Note: You must be a member of our PassPorter Message Board Community to leave comments. Join today for free!)

Updated 03-10-2011 - Article #598 

Subscribe to our free e-mail newsletter, PassPorter News, published for more than 50,000 opt-in subscribers worldwide. As an added bonus for subscribing, you will receive a 20% discount coupon for the PassPorter Store -- no catch! We respect your privacy and never sell or rent our subscriber list.

Copyright 1998-2016
by PassPorter Travel Press, an imprint of MediaMarx, Inc.

PassPorter ~ 1998-2016 ~ 18 Years of Making Dreams Come True!
Publishers of bestselling travel guidebooks and proud recipients of 13 national book awards
Questions? Check our Site Map and visit our Help Desk to learn how to contact us online and by e-mail.
Please feel free to link to this page so that other vacationers can find it.

PassPorter in the News