London is great; we can all agree on that. Yet, it’s the sort of complicated love that demands you get away from the object of your affection every once in a while. A week on a sun-scorched beach would be ideal; however, for those of us who haven’t been blessed with endless financial resources, day-trips are the perfect solution to the I-need-a-break-but-I-have-no-money dilemma, and if you’re considering a quick out of town excursion, look no further than Cambridge. Steeped in history, abounding in magnificent architecture, charming alleys, indie boutiques and only an hour away from London – what more could you possibly wish for? Here’s a couple of not to be missed spots in England’s brainy capital.
King’s College Cambridge
Having visited both Oxford and Cambridge, I’m ambivalent about the colleges’ visitor policy. For those who live and study there, it must feel a little bit like a zoo, with a constant stream of tourists treading the grounds of these venerable institutions and curiously eyeing the occasional resident, a specimen of the intellectual breed that is an Oxbridge student caught in their natural habitat. I find the discrepancy between the colleges’ residential aspect and their status as (paid) tourist attractions tricky to negotiate. Nevertheless, King’s College is well worth a visit - the ticket gives you access to the college grounds (that is, a manicured lawn you can’t step on unless accompanied by a Senior Member of the College) and the chapel which prides itself on the largest fan vault in the world, and some prime examples of medieval stained glass - an impressive feat of architecture indeed.
Entry: £6 pounds (concession), £9 (adults)
Cambridge Market, Market Square
Frankly, Cambridge Market has none of the quirkiness of Camden nor the olfactory overload of Borough: it’s a market in the most conventional sense of the word rather than an Instagram hotspot, which – although slightly underwhelming for a spoiled Londoner – is actually quite refreshing. What I particularly appreciate about it is its local feel. Forget throngs of tourists elbowing their way to the stalls, phones at the ready; although it certainly attracts visitors, Cambridge Market feels much more like a place where you’d casually pick up some veg for dinner. If you’re a vintage enthusiast, there is a great selection of second-hand books and a wonderful stall selling gorgeous pre-loved coats and Nordic jumpers at fairly reasonable prices.
This one, admittedly, made it onto the list by coincidence: I happened to walk past it and wandered in only because of the irresistible announcement “Free admission” that screamed at me in bold letters. Kettle’s Yard, as it turned out, is an intriguing hybrid of historic house and art gallery. Originally the abode of an art collector Jim Ede and his wife Helen, it remains virtually unchanged from its days as a family home, and every decorative arrangement of stones (of which there are many) has been meticulously preserved as Ede would have had it, making the house not just a display of modern art, but also a consummate exercise in interior design. As soon as you go upstairs, the unassuming entrance hall transforms into a succession of airy, spacious rooms, furnished and decorated with real flair, which somehow manage to appear both stripped-down and eclectic. The distinction between the domestic and exhibition spaces is blurred by the fact that you’re encouraged to sit down in armchairs dotted around the place, to be able to fully appreciate Ede’s painstaking conception, specifically designed to be approached from different angles. It’s possibly one of the most unique art galleries I’ve ever been to, and I can’t recommend it enough.
The Fitzwilliam Museum
A cross between The National Gallery and the British Museum on a much less intimidating scale, The Fitzwilliam Museum ticks all the boxes. Egyptian mummies? Check. Iconic French Impressionists? Check. A collection of silver from the 15th century to the present day? Check. They also run free (mock horror) temporary exhibitions. The one which is on at the moment derives inspiration from the writings of Virginia Woolf – it’s worth a visit if you enjoy the works of contemporary women artists, and a bit of a disappointment if you’re interested in Woolf herself.
Independent stores & boutiques
One of the things I loved the most about Cambridge were the quirky independent boutiques and colourful vitrines which provide plenty of opportunities for quality window shopping – the kind of stores you can appreciate on a strictly aesthetic level without actually buying anything. From traditional handmade Polish crockery to wildly colourful home decor, there’s something there for everyone. Not to mention the bookshops! Tucked away in inconspicuous alleys, the independent stores give you an impression of rummaging through a book collector’s attic, with rows upon rows of unique vintage gems. As far as modern ones go, make sure to visit Heffers - a Waterstones on steroids, it’s nothing short of a book emporium worthy of a celebrated university town and stocks an impressive array of board games as well as some beautiful stationery from Cambridge Imprint.
Whenever I travel, I stand by this one golden rule: regardless of how thrifty you’re trying to be, your visit is not valid unless you’ve had a taste of the local food. And so, the first stop on the gastronomical map of Cambridge is Fitzbillies and their celebrated Chelsea buns, made according to a secret recipe which dates back to 1920 - exactly the kind of indulgent fuel you need on a day jam-packed with sightseeing. If all this walking gives you a bigger appetite, I would recommend grabbing a sourdough pizza from Aromi, a Sicilian cafe a stone’s throw away from King’s College - it should be easy enough to find, just follow the ridiculously long lunchtime queue.
Chelsea bun: £2, Aromi sourdough pizza: £5-6