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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

My Kind of Place: Cambridge, UK

This quintessentially English university city is globally important and a great place for a summer break 

The Backs at St John's College, Cambridge. Courtesy Visit England/Iain Lewis
The Backs at St John's College, Cambridge. Courtesy Visit England/Iain Lewis

Why Cambridge?

An ancient, quintessentially English city with outstanding medieval architecture, a lovely riverside setting and attractive open spaces, Cambridge, which has existed since at least 875AD, is almost synonymous with its globally renowned and important university, dating from 1209.

The University of Cambridge is made up of 31 individual colleges set in and around the city centre. Up to 18,000 students and 11,000 staff give it a rarified, expectant atmosphere; curiosity and intelligence thrive, as well as a sense of striving and possibility, and this seems to rub off on visitors. It’s also a city of business and, outside the centre, industries from pharmaceuticals to finance and technology have made it their home.

Thanks to its position on the River Cam, this town deep in East Anglia was never cut off from the world, starting as a prosperous inland port through which goods headed to nearby towns, the North Sea and beyond. From Newton, Darwin and Wordsworth to John Cleese and the decoding of the human genome, Cambridge colleges – some having produced more Nobel prizewinners than entire countries – continue to inspire. Best of all, most are surprisingly open to the public (though some have an entry charge), and the city itself is easy to get around.

The world-famous Fitzwilliam Museum has impressive collections in its Ancient Near East and Islamic Art galleries; it’s open daily and entry is free.

While it’s possible to do a day trip from London, why not stay for a night or two to really soak up the atmosphere? To plan your trip, visit www.visitcambridge.org

A comfortable bed

Cambridge is home to a small number of high-end boutique hotels, the best of which currently is The Varsity Hotel & Spa, which is close to the river overlooking Magdalen College. The five-year-old, six-storey building has 44 quiet rooms and great views from the rooftop terrace and restaurant, while the attached 17th-century warehouse houses an Elemis spa, salon, gym and Jacuzzi, and, separately and directly on the riverside, the River Bar Steakhouse & Grill. Double rooms cost from £165 (Dh794) per night including taxes, breakfast and use of the healthclub facilities.

King's College and The Backs, Cambridge. Courtesy www.visitcambridge.org
King's College and The Backs, Cambridge. Courtesy www.visitcambridge.org

Another option, if you are interested in getting a slightly more up-close taste of university life, is to stay in one of the colleges. Many of them open up their accommodation during holidays, and some, such as the historic Westminster College, have rooms to rent year-round. It has 38 recently refurbished rooms, five of which are doubles and the rest singles. These cost from £75 (Dh360) per night for a single and £109 (Dh524) for a double. There are also two self-contained cottages.

Find your feet

Cambridge is easy to wander around, though its winding streets make it quite easy to get lost in. A walking tour is a good way to familiarise yourself with key landmarks and learn more about what lies behind the beautiful facades. An official public tour with a registered guide costs from £12 (Dh58) per person and includes any entry fees. Book online at www.visitcambridge.org or at the Visitor Information Centre at the Guildhall in the town centre, which is open daily.

Meet the locals

Nothing beats wandering into an old college and having a cup of tea in a wood-panelled refectory or cafe, but if you prefer something more structured, Fitzbillies cake shop on Trumpington Street is one of the oldest bakeries in the city and a good all-day choice for an early morning coffee, brunch, lunch or afternoon tea, though it is best known for its signature Chelsea buns, batch-cooked and usually piled temptingly in the window.

Book a table

Cambridge now has hundreds of high-quality restaurants, offering global cuisine from Thai street food to traditional British. The River Bar Steakhouse & Grill on the Quayside has a good view of the river and Magdalen College from the mezzanine window seats. Steaks use 28-day, dry aged beef and cost from £24.50 (Dh118), served with chips and garnish; starters include pan-fried mussels with chilli and lemon (£9.95; Dh48). The decadent puddings (£6.95; Dh34 each) include hazelnut slab brownie, with salted chocolate sauce and marscapone, and baked bread and butter pudding glazed with Seville orange marmalade.

At the upper end of the scale, Cambridge now has two Michelin-starred restaurants. The one-star restaurant, Alimentum, makes up for its less-than-central location with an extremely inventive, satisfying and good value lunch menu: three courses costs just £35 (Dh168) per person, with a choice of six dishes at each course and changing, seasonal menus. Think beetroot with goat’s cheese and lovage to ox cheek with truffle sweetbreads, sea bream with cauliflower or wood pigeon with brassica and peanuts.

Shopper’s paradise

Cambridge town centre has all the large brand retailers you will find in any British high street but also has a top-class selection of local designers, shoemakers and craftspeople in beautiful, charismatic old shops.

What to avoid

Touts will stop you in the street and try to offer you discounted walking tours and punting trips. Resist these and only give your business to licensed providers; illegal punt touts are not registered with the river authority. Confusingly, some tout-like personnel do work for reputable companies. Take care to look left and right when crossing the road, as the city’s cyclists travel at uncompromising speeds.

Don’t miss

Punting on the river. On a sunny day there’s no better way to see the city. Scudamore’s is the oldest company in Cambridge and offers shared punting tours from £16 (Dh80) per adult for 45 minutes; you can also hire a whole punt by the hour, from £36.75 (Dh177) per boat. If you can’t afford punting, take a walk along the Backs, a pretty stretch of parkland with footpaths, beside the river.

Getting there

Etihad, Emirates and British Airways fly direct from the UAE to London from Dh3,000 return, including taxes. Whether driving up the M11 or taking the train from King’s Cross or Liverpool Street, Cambridge is under 90 minutes from London (train tickets cost from £14 [Dh67] return if booked in advance; www.thetrainline.com. Cambridge is also just 20 kilometres from Newmarket, Suffolk, which is considered the home of thoroughbred horse racing.

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