As Emirates launches its route to London Stansted, we explain how to spend a day in the nearby city that’s synonymous with academia
Your guide to spending 24 hours in Cambridge
It’s rare to find a city so closely tied to a single institution within it, but one of the world’s great universities indisputably dominates Cambridge. The gentle waft of academia gives it its character. All the finest buildings – and there are many – belong to the university’s colleges. The overall atmosphere is bookish, and the odds of being run down by a cycling undergraduate at any given moment are extraordinarily high.
At times, Cambridge dives so far into its own mystique that it feels detached from reality. It’s a place that wants to examine the world rather than be a part of it. This adds a considerable dose of twinkly magic – and as Emirates starts flying to nearby Stansted Airport on Friday, June 8, Cambridge’s studious monuments are a lot easier to reach.
09.00 Polar opposites
Set up with the remnants of a fund designed to help the families of a doomed Antarctic expedition, the Scott Polar Research Institute sets its sights on the Earth’s far north and south. Still an active research organisation, it also hosts a museum about the Arctic and Antarctic – along with the explorers that have tried to tackle both.
There are letters and artefacts from the brave, pioneering expeditions – including the Scott mission that was beaten to the South Pole by a few days, then perished in the ice on the way back. But the Arctic section concentrates more on the people who live there – with sealskin canoes from Greenland, insights into reindeer herding and tales of the Siberian shaman. It’s a little old-fashioned in presentation, but frequently fascinating.
11.00 Walk and learn
The Tourist Information Office runs a whole host of themed, guided walking tours, but the best one for an introduction to the city, the university and its quirks is the £23 (Dh118) King’s College and Backs Tour. This takes in a few of the university colleges while telling the story of how Cambridge went from strategic inland trading port to world-renowned centre of academia. The tour heads along to the “Backs” – the gardens and lawns at the rear of the colleges, from where the best photographs can be taken – but the star attraction is King’s College. And, in particular, its chapel, which was built over a century, largely under the instruction of three British kings called Henry.
The main chapel area has an astonishing fan-vaulted roof – this was the first time the technique was ever tried – and is lined with huge stained glass windows. This makes the interior marvellously colourful, and casts an almost ethereal light as you’re looking down to the other end.
13.00 Sicilian special
Set up by a Sicilian family, Aromi’s lunchtime queues form outside for very good reason. The long, rectangular pizzas are exceptional, at least in part thanks to the pitch-perfect bases. But the focaccia sandwiches – also costing £4.90 (Dh25) – are incredible too, with the parmigiana option particularly mouthwatering. If there’s room, the dolci cabinet should tempt you into diet-breaking, too. Ah, perhaps there’s room for one cannoli ...
14.00 Eclectic treasures
The university museums cover a gamut of topics, and are all free to enter. The big boy of these, however, is the Fitzwilliam, which comes with a shamelessly OTT marble-drenched lobby area, then hosts a heavyweight art collection upstairs. Titian, Van Gogh, Constable, Monet, van Dyck and Rodin are all represented, but the perhaps lesser-known artists to look out for is the heavily stylistic, borderline cartoonish Stanley Spencer. Downstairs, it’s all about collections from around the world. This ranges from the astonishingly dull cabinet after cabinet of porcelain to the rather impressive Egyptian tombs and mummy cases.
16.00 Messing about on the river
If Cambridge has one obligatory rite of passage, it is going punting. Which is basically propelling a wooden boat along the River Cam using a long wooden pole. This isn’t quite as easy as it sounds, and requires a bit of technique. But the staff at Scudamore’s will give you a run-through if you hire one yourself – which costs £27.50 (Dh141) per hour. Alternatively, get them to do the hard work – it’s £19 (Dh98) for a 45-minute tour.
17.30 Choral history
It’s time to head back to the King’s College Chapel to watch its world-famous choir perform – as it does every evening at 17.30, apart from on Sundays. The choir, a mix of boys and male undergraduate students, often tours worldwide out of term time and has been going since the 15th century.
For alternative evening entertainment, take a quick look at the railings anywhere in the city centre – they’re bound to have flyers for harpists, classical recitals, poetry evenings and comedy revues plastered all over them. St Botolph’s Church on Trumpington Street is a particularly good example for such railing-based promo blizzards.
19.00 Meat treats
Charcoal is the key ingredient at the Pint Shop, which cooks just about everything over it. The simple but stylish wood-heavy dining room serves up local produce where possible, does some excellent flatbread kebabs, and some even better spit roast chicken with chilli sauce for £12.50 (Dh64).
Rest your head
The Felix is just to the north-west of the city centre, and takes over a handsome 19th-century former surgeon’s home and council building.
The look is kept contemporary, and there are heavy art leanings – especially in the Graffiti restaurant, which matches pink chairs with several original works. Luxe touches include heated floors in the bathrooms. Doubles cost from £135 (Dh692).
The new direct Emirates route from Dubai to London Stansted Airport launches this weekend. Returns cost from Dh2,495. From Stansted, Cambridge is a half-hour train journey, with tickets costing from £10.40 (Dh54). For more information go to www.visitcambridge.org