Why all bookworms should visit Cambridge
I may be biased, but this University city is one of the best places for bookworms to visit. With an abundance of bookshops and libraries to explore, colleges to visit and green spaces to relax in, this feels less like a city and more like a haven away from it all. Of course, you will still find the wealth of shopping opportunities that you would expect to find in a place of this size, but let’s be honest, no bookworm is visiting Cambridge simply to update their wardrobe; they are visiting to follow in the footsteps of some extremely famous literary alumni.
Famous writers of Cambridge
Cambridge may not hold the title of the oldest university in the English-speaking world, that instead goes to its English rival, Oxford, but it has seen many successful writers graduate from its 31 different colleges.
Cambridge’s most distinguished graduates include poets Thomas Shadwell, Lord Bryon, Lord Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes as well as modern classical writers like Vladimir Nabokov, E.M. Forster, A.A. Milne and Man Booker Prize-winning author Dame Iris Murdoch.
Authors still writing today, that once wandered the prestigious college halls, include Book Prize nominee Zadie Smith, historical novel writer Sebastian Faulks, the controversial Salman Rushdie, the loveable Stephen Fry and the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, Maggie O’Farrell.
Where to stay when visiting the city
Located close to the Botanic Gardens, the Clayton definitely offers a touch of luxury to your stay. The marble bathrooms, hardwood headrests and bedroom colour schemes will welcome you after a long day of exploring. For bookworms though, it will be the library that draws you full attention. Make sure you enjoy a pre-dinner drink or afternoon tea here during your stay or simply recline into a large leather chesterfield to admire their bookshelves and leather-bound editions.
Refurbished in 2018, this isn’t just one of the best hotels in Cambridge, but in the UK according to Conde Nast Traveller, and one of the top 100 hotels in the world (2019) according to Time Magazine. This former coaching inn is a true bibliophile’s dream with the hotel library playing homage to Cambridge’s academic heritage, the walls lined with classics and specially chosen books. Head to the bedrooms, 12 of which are named after famous alumni including Byron and Tennyson, where you will find a further selection of books to enjoy throughout your stay.
If all of this isn’t enough, head to the toilets where literary records, like The Wind in the Willows, play through the speakers which I am sure will help anyone with a shy bladder.
For those that would prefer to spend time further out of the city, Ely is just 16 miles away and is, in itself, a wonderful cathedral city to visit.
Poets House, once owned by a local author, is a uniquely styled boutique hotel dating back to the 1900s. Each of the 21 rooms has a beautiful William Holland copper bathtub and are decorated to give a sense of opulence.
Don’t forget to visit The Sonnet Bar to sample one of their signature cocktails.
5 Things to See and Do While in Cambridge
Bibliophiles will relish the opportunity to wander the many bookshops and libraries that can be found in and around Cambridge, but if this is your first visit to the city, there are also many non-bookish things that I would recommend you consider doing.
#1 College tours
No visit to Cambridge would be complete with a walk around a college or two. With 31 in total to choose from, all picturesque and historical in their own rights, it is easy to feel overwhelmed when deciding which ones to choose.
Ones not to miss include:
- Kings College – where EM Forster, Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie and model Lily Cole studied
- Trinity College – where A.A. Milne, Vladimir Nabokov, Lord Byron, and travel writer William Dalrymple attended
- Emmanuel College – Sebastian Faulks, Maggie O’Farrell, and actor Richard Attenborough all resided here.
- Newnham College – novelist and critic Margaret Drabble, Dame Iris Murdoch, and Sylvia Plath were educated here.
- Girton College – author and journalist Wendy Holden studied here.
- Corpus Christi – Christopher Isherwood, Christopher Marlowe attend university here.
- Queens’ – actor and writer Stephen fry resided here (it was also during his time at Cambridge that Stephen Fry met Hugh Laurie and together they went on to recreate P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series for national TV).
- Jesus – where Coleridge attended
- Caius – where the poet Laureate Thomas Shadwell and comedian Jimmy Carr graduated from
- St Johns – home to William Wordsworth during his time at Cambridge.
If you decide you would prefer not to wander the colleges alone then there are several tours available instead including one provided by the Cambridge Alumni.
#2 Punting on the River Cam
When the sun is shining there is nothing more relaxing than a punt on the river. You can either self punt along (although let me tell you it is far harder than it looks) or opt for a guided tour that will not only provide you with the peace of mind that you are not going to fall in, it will be an opportunity to gain knowledge about each of the colleges as you pass by.
Whichever way you decide to travel down the River Cam it is both an iconic and quintessential way to spend an afternoon.
#3 Explore the Fitzwilliam Museum
There is no way you can wander the streets of Cambridge and miss this museum: the outside of this neo-classical building itself is something of beauty. Inside is just as magnificent, with antiquity exhibitions to modern-day collections all being housed here.
Make sure to allow enough time to explore though as you will find more than half a million stunning works of art, floors of historical artefacts and various exhibitions and shows inside.
#4 Kings College Chapel
If there is one college more iconic and recognisable then the rest at Cambridge it is Kings College and the chapel itself is spectacular. This is where new students matriculate when they arrive at the college, it is where concerts are held, and for the lucky few sometimes a lecture will take place here.
The chapel itself is the oldest surviving building within the college site with the foundation stone being laid 1446.
#5 Botanic Gardens
With more than 8000 plant species, from British wildflowers to tropical glasshouses, this garden was originally founded in 1762 to aid the teaching of medical students at the university and is still used today for the study of ecosystems in an attempt to further our understanding of sustainable growth for many things including food and fuel.
If you are interested in horticulture then they offer tours and a number of different clubs to improve your skills but should you just wish to wander through the gardens to look at some of the more unusual plants on-show then they also offer self-guided options as well.
Places all book lovers should eat and drink
With 31 colleges and a large student population, there is no shortage of restaurants, cafes and bars to choose from, but if you only have a short amount of time in the city, there are a few places any self-proclaimed book geek should visit.
#1 The Pint Shop was once the home on E.M. Forster it is now the home of craft beer and traditional pub grub with a modern twist.
#2 If you are a fan of both crime fiction and Lord Byron a trip to Grantchester, just outside the city, should be added to your list. Firstly, it is where the TV detective series of the same name, written by James Runcie, is filmed and secondly, The Orchard Tea Garden at Grantchester was once home to Lord Byron.
#3 The Eagle Pub is arguably one of Cambridge’s most famous pubs. Located right in the centre of town, this watering hole is accredited with being the location where Crick and Watson, back in 1953, announced for the first time that they had discovered DNA, an event mentioned in Watson’s book, The Double Helix. To mark the occasion the pub created its own craft beer called DNA.
It is also believed that a number of Shakespeare’s plays were performed here which the famous Bard himself was said to have attended.
#4 Ok so not necessarily directly related to books, but because of its fantastic literary name, the Espresso Library, it has to be added to this list. This cafe pays homage to the interests of the founders and therefore there is a unique feel when you wander into this speciality coffee shop-cum art gallery-cum cycle cafe-cum bar. With so many themes going on, it is difficult to pinpoint its exact theme, but regardless of this, it is a space that you have to visit at least once.
#5 The Indigo Coffee House is in the perfect location next to The Haunted Bookshop and across the courtyard from G.David Bookshop which means that after you have finally removed yourself from searching the bookshelves for new reads, you can replenish your energy with a coffee and cake stop here.
#6 No visit to the city would be complete without a stop off at Fitzbillies which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2020 and with 2 cafes now open at either end of the city, whether you simply want to pop in for one of their famous Chelsea buns, loved by many including Stephen Fry, or stop to enjoy a fancy champagne afternoon tea, there is plenty of opportunities to enjoy this well-known Cambridge institution.
Bookshops and Libraries to Explore
As one would expect from this scholarly city you will find several well-known bookshops including Heffers and Waterstones as well as numerous independent bookshops to peruse.
Do not be deceived by this little bookshop, once you walk through the door you will be welcomed by a warren of small rooms, corridors, stairways and even a basement crammed full of both new books as well as rare collectables. Walk through the rooms at the front of the shop which houses the newer editions to the back room where you will find more than 4000 beautiful bound books either on shelves or behind glass to preserve them.
Just across from G.David’s in St Edward’s Passage, you will find this gem of a second-hand book shop that first opened back in the 18th century (although Sarah Key Books took over in 1993). The beautiful books gracing the shelves in this particular bookshop, however, are not alone. It is believed by many that they share the space with a few lost spirits; even the current owner admits to feeling the presence of a mysterious supernatural entity.
More for academics, the Cambridge University Press publishes reference books, textbooks and journals. Even if you are not interested in the books housed inside however, they also sell plenty of souvenirs and as it sits on the site of the oldest bookshop recorded in the country. Bibliophiles flock here simply out of respect for its history.
A favourite with University students looking to snap up a bargain read or a second-hand copy of a required course read, this bookshop sells everything from modern-day novels to rare antique books as well as a selection of audiobooks.
Located just outside the city, Pluralbelle Books is another fantastic, second-hand book that stocks all genres from all time periods, modern and antiquarian books. This is not your typical bookshop, however, but a warehouse. Today, they are predominately an online bookseller, but that doesn’t mean you cannot go and wander around their bookshelves for yourself.
#6 Books at Cambridge Market Square
Amongst the fruit and vegetables, you will find a selection of stalls selling freshly made food, vintage goods and books. Expected perhaps in such an academic location, but a surprise none-the-less, these stalls sell all manner of pre-loved titles. For me, it is the perfect place to search for a new book as it reminds me of those booksellers that you find lining the banks of the River Seine in Paris.
If you decide to stay at Poet’s House, I challenge you to walk past Toppings and not go in. Once inside, I then dare you not to buy anything. The real treat here is the wealth of signed first editions that hit you as soon as you cross the threshold, while once further inside you will see books on all topics by authors from around the world.
#8 Wren Library
If you visit no other library when in Cambridge, Wren library at Trinity College is the one. Housed in a building designed by Christopher Wren and dating back to 1695, this library has some of the world’s most coveted manuscripts including A.A. Milne’s original Winnie the Pooh and Sir Isaac Newton’s notebooks as well as more than 70,000 books printed before 1820.
Finally, for anyone who loves literature events, the Cambridge Literary Festival runs two large events each year – one in the Spring and one in the Winter – as well as numerous one-off masterclasses or evenings with well-known authors throughout the year.
As a British city, with a rich literary history, it is easy to see why bookworms love this city so much.
Have you visited this wonderful city? What other sites or landmarks of literary significance would you recommend to others?
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If you are based within the UK or the US and prefer to support independent bookshops, then you can find a full list of all the books and authors mentioned in this article on our bookshop page.
This article has been produced in collaboration with Hotels.com but all views are my own.
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