x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Cambridge is in a class of its own

My kind of place: Iyat Hussain gives a lesson on the best that the university city of Cambridge has to offer.

Punting on the river Cam is a time-honoured tradition but a rather difficult skill to master, as many tourists find out. Liam Davenport for The National
Punting on the river Cam is a time-honoured tradition but a rather difficult skill to master, as many tourists find out. Liam Davenport for The National

Why Cambridge?

The English city of Cambridge, 89 kilometres north-east of London, is most famous for the 31 colleges that make up Cambridge University. The oldest college - Peterhouse - was founded in 1284; dotted around the city centre, the university in all of its guises, from Gothic to modern, forms a unique architectural backdrop to an enticing array of shops, restaurants, cafes, markets, museums and galleries.

Whether you feel like browsing in antiquarian bookshops, tracing the footsteps of famous alumni such as Charles Darwin or Isaac Newton, enjoying a retail fix or lounging by (or on) the River Cam, Cambridge offers something for everyone.

A comfortable bed

The Varsity Hotel & Spa (www.thevarsityhotel.co.uk; 00 44 1223 306030) is tucked away in pretty backstreets near green spaces and the river, and yet only a few minutes walk to the city centre. The rooms, which are named after the colleges, are fresh and modern and some have spectacular panoramic views. (For views try "Emmanuel" on the fifth floor, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a terrace overlooking the rooftops.) Double rooms range from £159 (Dh900) to £550 (Dh3,115) for the Master Suite. (Prices include Wi-Fi, breakfast and use of the gym and spa.) The rooftop bar is fabulous for an elegant drink above the treetops.

Hotel Du Vin (www.hotelduvin.com/locations/cambridge; 00 44 1223 227330) is another well-situated and popular option. Weekday rates start from £189 (Dh1,070) for a standard double including breakfast. Suites are also available from about £335 (Dh1,897).

Find your feet

A good place to start is King's Parade, a beautiful street next to two major landmarks - King's College and King's College Chapel (www.kings.cam.ac.uk). It is lined with lively cafes and shops, so you can soak up the atmosphere before entering the grounds of Kings College via the Gatehouse. (Tickets for the grounds and Chapel: £7.50/ Dh42). To your right on entering Front Court sits the world famous Chapel, a splendid example of late Gothic architecture with the largest fan ceiling in the world, founded in 1441 by Henry VI. From here you can walk down to the Cam and cross a bridge to "the Backs" or college gardens for lovely views of the Chapel and colleges.

For an overview of the city choose from a variety of two-hour official tours leaving from the Tourist Information Centre on Peas Hill at 11am and 1pm Monday to Saturday (1pm Sundays), tickets £17.50 (Dh99) or £8 (Dh45) for under-12s (www.visitcambridge.org/official-tours).

Meet the locals

Cambridge is home to more than 18,000 students, most often seen whizzing between lectures on rickety bicycles. Most colleges are open to the public, except during exam time in May and June. For a taste of the truly privileged Cambridge student life, step off the busy streets into a quiet college courtyard. One of the most accessible and memorable is Front Court at Emmanuel College (www.emma.cam.ac.uk, entrance via the Porter's Lodge on St Andrew's Street) where under-arch views of a 17th-century chapel by Christopher Wren await you.

Book a table

Fitzbillies Restaurant at 51- 52 Trumpington Street is a Cambridge institution, perfect for tea, homemade cake and lunch. The all-day Browns Bar & Brasserie on the same street serves an inexpensive classic menu in a converted 18th-century building with a spacious colonial feel.

Gourmands will enjoy the Michelin two-star restaurant Midsummer House (www.midsummerhouse.co.uk; 00 44 1223 369299), just outside the city centre near the river, offering sophisticated dining with a modern twist on classic French cooking. A three-course lunch costs £40 (Dh226).

The Bistro du Vin at 15-19 Trumpington Street (00 44 8447 364253) offers an excellent value four-course Sunday lunch (£22.95/ Dh226 or £9.95/Dh56 for children under 12) in a former university building.

Shopper's paradise

For boutique shopping on cobbled streets, head to Green Street. Modish shoe shop (www.modishonline.co.uk) is a favourite for its commitment to upcoming and idiosyncratic designers. If you are tempted by jewellery and looking for something unique, Cellini at 4 Rose Crescent (www.cellini.co.uk) boasts over 8,000 designs created in its own workshops. Gentlemen will find Savile Row tailoring on Trumpington Street at Ede & Ravenscroft, which, since 1689, has dressed the British Establishment (www.edeandravenscroft.co.uk). If you really mean business, the smart Grand Arcade indoor shopping centre offers more than 60 premium and high street retailers (www.grandarcade.co.uk/stores.aspx).

What to avoid

Watch out for speedy cyclists when crossing the road, and pack something warm - the flat "fenlands" of East Anglia mean it gets very chilly.

Don't miss

On a sunny day, there is nothing like hiring a "punt" on the Cam and cruising along the river behind the main colleges. You can operate the boat yourself by standing at the back and pushing a long wooden pole into the river bed, gondolier style. Alternatively, hire a classically dressed Englishman to do the hard work. Punts are available from Scudamore's at Magdalene Bridge (www.scudamores.com; 00 44 1223 359750) between May to September from 9am until dusk; £22 (Dh124) per punt per hour.

Go there

Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to London in just under seven hours from Dh4,715 return, including taxes. Cambridge is an easy day-trip from central London, with fast trains from King's Cross station taking just 50 minutes (www.firstcapitalconnect.co.uk).

twitter Follow us @TravelNational

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.