Our day out in Cambridge came about thanks to a kind invitation from the University Arms (gifted stay).
Rumoured to be Cambridge’s oldest hotel, the University Arms has been standing guard over the city’s windswept Parker’s Piece for over a century. Beginning life as a turreted coaching inn, before falling victim to 1960s functionalism and its fondness for tarmacked carparks, the University Arms has assumed many guises.
However, and following its most ambitious makeover yet, this Cambridge institution has now taken on a new role: this time as Cambridge’s coolest hotel.
Following an £80 million refurbishment and a helping hand from architect John Simpson and designer Martin Brudzinksi, the University Arms – a now portico fronted vision in white – is the place to come for sophisticated cocktails, mouth-watering meals and afternoon tea enjoyed amongst crowded mahogany bookshelves.
For anyone wondering where to stay in Cambridge, the University Arms also offers 192 beautifully appointed rooms and suites, with each suite themed around one of Cambridge’s illustrious alumni.
Featuring lofty Edwardian ceilings, lead-lined windows and Farrow and Ball hued walls, this glittering renovation has resulted in a hotel that is perfectly positioned between past and present; a place of Edwardian proportions, filled with twenty-first century luxuries.
Having browsed photos of the hotel online and – admittedly – having spent very little time in Cambridge, we jumped at the chance to enjoy a complimentary stay at this newly reborn hotel. With an autumn chill already biting at the heels of summer, and the leaves beginning to turn from green to red, it seemed the perfect time to finally make a visit to Cambridge and with it, this dazzling new hotel.
Regent’s Street, Cambridge, is perhaps not the place you’d expect to find a grandiose, columned building. A busy high street, filled with boutique shops, little eateries and – perhaps unavoidably – food giants such as Pizza Hut, this street is not the city’s most handsome.
However, all this is soon forgotten once you pull up at the University Arms.
Arriving outside the building’s newly-designed entrance (the former car park has – thankfully – been replaced by a portico fronted turning circle), our car doors were promptly opened by hotel staff. ‘Concierge and Valet will take care of your car’, a smiling member of staff promised as we headed inside.
Entering the vast entrance hall and the heady smell of geranium hit us. The masterpiece of London’s Victorian perfumers, D. R. Harris & Co, this wall of scent was immediately evocative of warm summer nights, flowering cottage gardens and afternoon cricket matches.
Picked specifically for the University Arms, the scent was – undeniably – Cambridge, bottled.
An almost atrium-like lobby, the entrance to the University Arms – with its large bank style doors and windows – is filled with natural light and on this particular day, warm August sunshine. Featuring traditional Cambridge blue timber panelling, monochrome marble flooring and subtle art-deco lighting, the lobby sets the tone for the wider hotel: a place of timeless glamour, mixed with impeccable Cambridge etiquette.
Having been checked in, we were kindly led to our premium suite – Number 401.
As mentioned, each of the University Arm’s 12 suites are inspired by Cambridge alumni, from Stephen Hawking to our own host – Virginia Woolf. Featuring artwork and photographs of these alumni, each suite also features a carefully curated bookshelf relating to the individual, masterminded by Heywood Hill of Mayfair.
Walking into the (enormous) room and we were hit by a bibliophile-inspired paradise. A whopping 290 square foot, the room – a cool blend of powder blue and mustard yellow – featured a large sitting area, king sized bed, writing desk, large dressing room and a bathroom that could rival that found at Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace.
However, and despite the impressive size of the room, it was the smaller details that stood out. Throughout the room, brand new books – each relating to the life and work of Virginia Woolf – were dotted around; by the bed, next to the bathroom and on the large bookshelf. A writing desk – reminiscent of the one Ms Woolf would have used – sat in the corner; a bronze reading light arching over it. On the walls hung portraits of Virginia Woolf, and bottles of whiskey and cut crystal glasses glinted on a sideboard.
The dressing area even featured a pretty dressing table and stool, with some of Virginia Woolf’s most famous pieces carefully piled on top of it.
Luxurious, but also highly personalised and brilliantly eclectic, the room was perhaps the best part of our day out in Cambridge. Making a cup of tea, we spent our first two hours here lounging on the sofa and browsing through the books; making the most of our literary bubble.
A former coaching inn, the University Arms has long been a place to stop for a plate of food, a pint of beer and a cosy place to rest one’s head.
However, what’s on offer today is likely to be world’s apart from the mutton stew or local ale that would have been once offered.
Today, the University Arms is home to the Parker’s Tavern – a gorgeously designed English brasserie serving up classic British dishes, all cooked with imagination and care. Think steaming dishes of slow cooked spaghetti bolognese, roasted pave of lamb and creamy bowls of Cambridge Burnt Cream.
The vision of head chef, Tristan Welch, the menu reminded me of the sort of thing we might eat on the High Table at Oxford, albeit with more flair, flavours and nuances than my college’s poor chef could have ever imagined. It was certainly British, familiar and local, but at the same time filled with surprises.
Walking through the bar and into the restaurant – another Martin Brudzinski triumph – and it was difficult not to feel relaxed, perhaps even sleepy. Lit by soft lighting, glowing bulbs and flickering candles, the bar and Parker’s Tavern were both decorated with thick, blue velvet sofas, Victorian like wallpapers and deep yellow leather chairs. Indeed, it was a truly stunning place to eat during our day out in Cambridge.
Sat next to the window – with views of the sun casting its last rays over Parker’s Piece – we ate until we could eat no more; saving just enough space for the ‘pick your own’ gelato option for desert. Surrounded by the buzz of chatting friends, celebrating families and erudite professors deep in conversation, we sat backed and soaked up every minute of our time in Parker’s Tavern.
It was University life all over again, except not quite as we remember it.
The cost of a main course at Parker’s Tavern starts at £16.
After a hearty meal, pass back through the Tavern and towards the University Arm’s cosy library space.
With a large, open fire taking centre stage and the surrounding room filled with bookshelves, red velvet sofas and couples enjoying an after dinner aperitif, the Library is a place for relaxation, pots of tea and obligatory book browsing.
As we noticed (enviously) you can also enjoy the University Arm’s celebrated Afternoon Tea inside the Library; watching as the leaves blow across Parker’s Piece with a melt-in-the-mouth plum pudding scones, slices of iced saffron and rose cake and Duke of Cambridge Tarts.
Likewise, for those hoping to float down Cambridge’s waterways on a punt, or lounge in the nearby Parker’s Piece, then the hotel also provides beautifully created picnics, designed by Head Chef, Tristan Welch. In terms of things to do in Cambridge, this pretty picnic is high on our lists.
Aside from its homely interiors, world class restaurant and quiet Library, the University Arms also offers guests access to its Cambridge blue bicycles and a small, but high quality gym. For those looking for somewhere beautiful to wed, or a venue simply to spice up the dreaded staff away day, then the hotel’s stunning Ball Room is also available for hire.
With beautiful stained glass windows and wood panelled walls, the room reminded me of a Cambridge college hall.
Having spent just one night reviewing the University Arms, we are confident to say that this is surely one of the city’s most exciting and beautiful hotels. A unique blend of Cambridge college life, country manor chic and fastidious designer detail, this special hotel is one you’ll want to return to again and again; with a new suite, new book and new dish to sample each and every time.
Having (we hope) sufficiently detailed where to stay in Cambridge, we thought it might be helpful to include a few ideas for a day out in Cambridge. Below is a brief outline of the highlights of our visit to Cambridge, including suggestions for cosy spots to eat, handsome colleges to explore and world-leading museums to investigate.
The Old Bicycle Shop
Having arrived for our day out in Cambridge, we immediately headed to The Old Bicycle Shop; a bar and restaurant that had come highly recommended.
Outwardly, this stripped back restaurant may not seem of enormous historical importance – yet the Old Bicycle Shop commemorates what is fondly thought to be a Cambridge institution. Prior to becoming a cafe, this spot once housed Howes Cycles – a resident on Regent Street for 173 years. Thought to be the place where Charles Darwin once bought his bike, Howes equipped generations of Cambridge alumni with Humber bikes to Swifts, Granta bikes to Lea-Francis models.
Today, the Old Bicycle Shop plays homage to its 2-wheeled past, and not least via its name. Walk inside and you’ll discover a rustic feeling restaurant decorated with former handle bars fashioned into lights and saddles used as ornaments.
Not only beautiful, the restaurant also offers an excellent and locally sourced menu. Try their sweet potato pancakes or black rice pudding for a healthy, vegan treat.
From one Cambridge institution to another: Fitzbillies.
Opening it doors on Trumpington Street in 1920, Fitzbillies has long been the place to come to enjoy its illustrious Chelsea Bun. A carefully guarded secret, the bun’s recipe is the stuff of legends – the mixture creating what is claimed to be one of the world’s stickiest treats. Glistening with golden syrup and plenty of cinnamon, these buns are worth a visit to Cambridge in themselves.
If buns don’t quite float your boat, then Fitzbillies offers a lovely wider menu, filled with a selection of mouth-watering cakes and savoury dishes, including a fantastic brunch menu.
Be warned, the place does get very busy and unfortunately it does not take bookings – so you may have to wait a little while to be seated. However, it’s more than worth the wait.
Had we been staying another night in Cambridge, we would have certainly enjoyed dinner at Trinity restaurant.
Nestled in the heart of Cambridge, its windows glowing nightly with candles and soft lighting, Trinity is a relaxed and romantic spot. Offering fresh and beautifully presented dishes, Trinity has also, incredibly, been named one of top foodie hotspots in the UK; quite the feat for a restaurant that only opened in 2017.
Now, no day out in Cambridge would be complete without a drink in one of the city’s many watering halls, and where better than one that overlooks the city’s River Cam?
The Mill, situated (perhaps unsurprisingly) inside an original 19th century mill, is regularly cited as being one of Cambridge’s most iconic pubs. Although diminutive in size, the Mill offers outdoor seating in the summer (next to the idyllic Millpond) and cosy fires and board games in the winter. It also offers up hearty pub grub, including that iconic British dish: ham, eggs and chips.
Like Oxford, Cambridge is a city that has grown from its University; every alleyway, pebbled street and leafy road leading to one of its 31 colleges. Indeed, the University forms the city’s veins and lifeblood; remove them and you’d be left with an empty vessel.
During a day out in Cambridge, it therefore goes without saying that you must take the time to visit at least a few of these historic colleges. With no one college the same and each proudly harbouring its own identity, architecture and atmosphere, visiting the Cambridge colleges is a fascinating and beautiful experience.
King’s College, Cambridge
Now, no University should have its favourite college – but it’s difficult to overlook the spectacle that is King’s College and its gothic Chapel. Positioned in the very heart of historic Cambridge, King’s College, was founded by Henry VI in 1441 and completed during the reign of Henry VIII. Its chapel – boasting one of the world’s largest fan vaults – is worth a visit alone.
Visit when the Chapel’s world famous choir are practicing and you’ll even hear soaring harmonies escaping the ancient doors.
Access to King’s College is not cheap, with an adult ticket costing £10. However, the ticket then offers you limitless access to the college for 12 months. Once inside, you’ll be able to roam not only the Chapel, but the college’s beautiful grounds – watching as punts drift lazily down the River Cam.
Peterhouse College, Cambridge
Unlike King’s College, many of Cambridge’s colleges offer free entry to the public (during certain times of the year, including during the summer break). One such college is the quietly beautiful Peterhouse. Claimed to be the oldest Cambridge college, founded by Hugo de Balsham, Bishop of Ely in 1284, Peterhouse has witnessed not only the Reformation, but the English Civil War.
The smallest of Cambridge’s colleges, we entered Peterhouse to find that we had the college almost entirely to ourselves.
Welcomed by smiling porters, we explored its historic dining hall and chapel, before walking around its peaceful quads. Although perhaps not top of your list for things to do in Cambridge, the Hall at Peterhouse is magnificent.
Completed in 1290 and in use for over 700 years, the Hall is said to be the oldest collegiate building in the entire University.
In particular, pay careful attention to the William Morris designed stained glass windows and the minstrel’s gallery, lined with historical portraits.
The enormous, neo-classical building that houses Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum is difficult to miss. Dwarfing the small antique stores that fill Trumpington Street, this grand pillard museum was built in 1845 and quickly became one of the city’s most handsome buildings.
Housing a collection of 114 paintings bequeathed to the University by Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion, the Museum is today a leader in fine-art conservation. Offering visitors the chance to browse an ever expanding collection of items ranging from the Ancient Egyptians through to the paintings of Whistler, the Fitzwilliam Museum is a must see during a day out in Cambridge.
Free to enter, the Museum has some fantastic permanent and temporary exhibitions, including the beautiful ‘Fans Unfolded’ exhibition and the prints, etchings and lithographs of Whistler.
Walk Cambridge’s cobbled streets and you’ll soon notice the city’s abundance of antique stores. Indeed, from retro vinyl stores to specialist and eye-wateringly expensive antique shops, Cambridge is full of rare and beautiful treasures. As such, and in terms of things to do in Cambridge, ‘antiquing’ should be top of your list.
If you have time, be sure to pop by The Old Chemist Shop Antiques Centre, the family run John Beazor Antiques and The Hive. Each offers a different era (and with it, price range) of antiques – and can easily fill a spare morning.
In terms of second hand bookshops, we were more than a little intrigued by Sarah Key Books, The Haunted Bookshop. Said to host two resident (bookworm) ghosts, this hidden little bookstore not only brims with supernatural tales, but beautifully illustrated books. Pop in as dusk falls for a truly atmospheric experience.
After many years of overlooking Cambridge (perhaps a little unfairly) in favour of Oxford, our stay at the University Arms and our day out in Cambridge, forced us to admit at least one thing – if you are yet to visit Cambridge, you must do so – immediately.
Indeed, we’d urge you to take the time to check in at the University Arms, before wiling away the hours with piles of books, afternoon tea and sumptuous feasts. Hire one of the hotel’s Cambridge blue bikes and wheel your way through the city’s cobbled streets; a handmade picnic on your arm. Explore centuries old chapels and colleges, antiquarian treasures and prepare to get your fingers sticky, thanks to a Fitzbillies bun.
And when you’re done? Head back to your hotel for a cocktail, before sinking into one of the University Arm’s velvet sofas; watching as dogs and runners sprint across Parker’s Piece.
Indeed, living the college life at Cambridge needn’t be all that hard – as the University Arms ensures, it can be downright luxurious.