“Cambridge is heaven. I am convinced it is the nicest place in the world to live. As you walk around, most people look incredibly bright, as if they are probably off to win a Nobel Prize.”
– British crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah on Cambridge
On March 14 one of the greatest scientist the world has ever known passed away in his home in Cambridge. Diagnosed with ALS at age 21, with doctors predicting he would only have two more years to live. He lost all ability to move but there was one thing that was always active: his genius brain. He managed to make the mystery of the universe understandable to everyone and became an inspiration to millions. Professor Stephen Hawking ‘broke boundaries with his mind’.
A week after his passing I got the opportunity to go to Cambridge and catch a little glimpse of the life Hawking must have lived in his early days in this incredible city. Cambridge just breathes genius brains. And one of those genius brains is my ‘little’ brother. He studies Law at the world famous Corpus Christi College that was founded in 1352, which makes it the sixth-oldest college in Cambridge.
Now, I am not quite the genius but I am smart enough to take you with me through the city of Cambridge. Home of many famous people like Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, documentary filmmaker Sir David Attenborough, actors Tom Hiddleston (The Avengers), Stephen Fry (Wilde), Eddie Redmayne (Theory of Everything, which was filmed in Cambridge), Hugh Laurie (House), Naomie Harris (Skyfall), Sir Ian McKellen (The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings) and many, many more.
How to get to Cambridge
The easiest way to get to Cambridge is to fly into London Stansted and then take the train, but if you are already located in central London you can also get a train from the stations London King’s Cross and London Liverpool Street. Tickets from Stansted to Cambridge are around £10 (€11, one-way) and from central London to Cambridge are around £25 (€28, one-way). Trains leave two to three times per hour, depending on the time of day. It’s so easy, even I could manage it.
While staying with my brother, I got the unique opportunity to have a sneak peak of what it’s like to live in Cambridge as a student. And from what I’ve seen, it’s a million miles away from what it’s like to live as a student in – for example – Amsterdam. Cambridge is designed for students, scientists, professors and anyone with a good amount of brains. Bars close at 11pm during the week and around midnight during the weekends, so students either have to start drinking early or simply drink a few beers and go to bed. My brother and I could only find one club in the entire city and it wasn’t even open. On the other hand: Cambridge is filled with small bars and traditional, cozy pubs where young students as well as older professors can enjoy a few drinks. Life in Cambridge is all about studying hard, rowing clubs, exclusive parties and making friends from all over the world. Most students live in a small dorm room in one of the 31 colleges and it is not unusual to have a room next to the office of a dull professor, who might be up to discovering a way to teleport ourselves into the future.
A typical day in the life of a Cambridge student mainly consists of attending classes in one of the ancient colleges, studying quietly in his dorm or a fancy library, getting dinner in the dining hall (the Great Hall in Harry Potter is real!), drink a beer with some friends in the local pub and go to bed early.
Each college has its own coat of arms, colors and rowing team and you will often see students wear those colors and arms. It is a sign to show what college you go to and students take great pride in that. You can kind of compare it with Harry Potter and his Gryffindor scarf, but then in real life. When you get enrolled into on of the Cambridge University colleges, you get access to a wide variety of events and exclusive societies and you will be a member of that club for life. You can attend very fancy events like the May Ball (which is held every year since the 1830s to celebrate the end of the academic year. Fun fact: budgets for the May Ball can range between £100.000 and £400.000 or more!) and you get free access to all the colleges and the Cambridge Union Society. The ‘Cambridge Union’ is a debate and speech club which has hosted many famous figures such as the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, Judi Dench, Clint Eastwood and many, many others. From what I’ve heard, being part of the exclusive ‘Cambridge Club’ has its great perks.
Things to see and do in Cambridge
There are 31 colleges to be found in Cambridge, all built between 1284 (Peterhouse) and 1977 (Robinson College). Some of them are somewhat hard to find, but others are impossible to miss. With my brother and his college card I got the privilege to visit most of the colleges and forgive me when I say I can’t always remember which name belongs to which building. Here are my five personal favorites, the first three are absolute ‘must-visits’:
- King’s College. Home to the world-famous Chapel Choir in the majestic King’s Chapel, when you say Cambridge, you say King’s.
- St. John’s College. Hosts one of the biggest anual May Balls, only available to Johnians and their guests, with a ridiculous budget of over £400.000 and spectacular fireworks. Home to a handful of Nobel Prize winners and you can also access the Kitchen Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, both featured in the Oscar-winning film ‘The Theory of Everything’ about the life of Stephen Hawking.
- Trinity College. Out of the 98 Nobel Prizes, 32 have been won by members of Trinity College. Home to quite some British royals as well.
- Corpus Christi College. This is my brother’s college and it is amazingly beautiful, but it can be hard to get into when you are not a student or guest. It is said to be hunted by some ghosts but fortunately they did not come to visit me during my stay. The famous Corpus Clock is also located in this college and can be viewed from the outside. Every Friday and Sunday there are ‘formal dinners’ in the college hall, when all students dress up in smokings and gowns.
- Pembroke College. My personal favorite. Small, beautiful and it may have been the home of a certain Tom Hiddleston (also my personal favorite).
Track down movie locations
I highly recommend watching ‘The Theory of Everything’ before visiting Cambridge, just to have a feeling of what life in Cambridge must have been like in the 60s, when professor Stephen Hawking was ‘just’ a young student. A small part of the movie was shot in Cambridge itself and for film fanatics like me it is fun to see the locations in real life. The Kitchen Bridge and the Bridge of Sighs, located at St. John’s College, are both featured in the film when Hawking and his future wife Jane Wilde share their first kiss. Other locations are the bridge leading into Trinity Hall, Trinity Lane and Hawking’s real-life home on Little St. Mary Road.
Rent a punt on the River Cam
Another great thing to do while you are in Cambridge on a sunny day is to rent a punt, a flat-bottomed, slightly unstable little boat. Sort of like a gondola, but a punt is propelled by a long pole and a gondola with an oar. It’s kind of hard to navigate the boat at first but you have to keep practicing! It is a great way to navigate the River Cam and to see all the beautiful colleges from a different perspective. You can get your own guide who can tell you all these amazing stories about the city but you can also just rent a punt and have a relaxing afternoon on the water. There are multiple places to rent a boat but I highly recommend Scudamore’s. You can find them at Mill Lane on the riverside.
See a show at the Cambridge Arts Theatre
This super cute, small theatre was founded in 1936 by the world-famous economist John Maynard Keynes and has helped launch the careers of many famous actors like Ian McKellen (‘Gandalf’), Emma Thompson (Harry Potter) and Derek Jacobi (The King’s Speech). If you have the time, go check out a show at the theatre! Ranging from smaller student groups to West End productions. My brother and I were so fortunate to see a smaller version of The Jungle Book. So much fun!
Hang out at Jesus Green
After a long day of classes or an exhausted stroll through the city there is no better way to relax than to hang out at the largest park in Cambridge, Jesus Green. There are tennis courts, there is a public swimming pool, a skate park and it is large enough to play a game of cricket with friends. Despite the size of the park, it is very cozy with many students having a picknick or a glass of wine.
Get lost in an old bookstore
I always like to think of myself as a bookwurm but to be very honest with you: I am not. I love reading, I love getting lost in bookstores, sniff the pages, read the covers, dream about all the books I still need to read and imagine the giant bookcase I am going to have when I buy my own appartment. But honestly, I’ve only read two books in the past six months. Sad, isn’t it? But I still LOVE (yes, in capitals) bookstores. Luckily, Cambridge is all about books. From big, three-story high stores to hard-to-find dusty, old, little shops somewhere tucked away in an unknown lane. If you have time, please get lost in Waterstones on 22 Sidney Street. You’ll love it.
Where to eat and stay
Places to stay
In the rare case you know someone who studies at one of the Cambridge colleges, you can try to get an actual guest room (the coolest way to get to know Cambridge!) or you can try to get your hands on one of the rooms in Christ’s College. But otherwise I recommend staying at the beautiful Ibis Hotel, located right outside the train station or the older and cozier Earl of Derby.
Places to eat
So many options! Cambridge is full of cute little restaurants and bars and many of them have an awesome history. Like cake shop Fitzbillies on Trumpington Street that was once (indirectly) saved from bankrupcy through a tweet by actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Or The Eagle, founded in the 1600s, that served as a RAF bar in the Second World War. It is also the place where James Watson and Francis Crick announced they had discovered the ‘secret of life’, also known as the structure of DNA.
Other recommendations? Eat a crêpe with strawberries, vanilla ice cream and Belgian chocolate at Benet’s Cafe, get a famous bubble waffle at Cambridge’s first waffle cafe Bubble Tap, enjoy some nice Italian food on the river side at La Mimosa or taste some delicious fudge with unique flavors at the Fudge Kitchen. Whatever street you pick, there will be an excellent restaurant.
Have you ever been to Cambridge? What is your favorite part about the city?