Oxford University predates Cambridge, but by the early 13th century, scholars began coming here, too. Eventually, Cambridge won partial recognition from Henry III, rising or falling with the approval of subsequent English monarchs. Cambridge consists of 31 colleges for both men and women. Colleges are closed for exams from mid-April until the end of June.
The following listing is only a sample of the colleges. If you're planning to be in Cambridge a while, you may also want to visit Magdalene College, on Magdalene Street, founded in 1542; Pembroke College, on Trumpington Street, founded in 1347; Christ's College, on St. Andrew's Street, founded in 1505; and Corpus Christi College, on Trumpington Street, which dates from 1352.
Caution: Students at Work -- Because of disturbances caused by the influx of tourists, Cambridge limits visitors, or excludes them altogether, from various parts of the university. In some cases, a small entry fee is charged. Small groups of up to six people are generally admitted with no problem; you can inquire with the local tourist office about visiting hours. All colleges are closed during exams and graduation, on Easter and all bank holidays, and other times without notice.
The adolescent Henry VI founded King's College on King's Parade (tel. 01223/331100; www.kings.cam.ac.uk) in 1441. Most of its buildings today date from the 19th century, but the construction of its crowning glory, the Perpendicular King's College Chapel, began in the Middle Ages. Owing to the whims of royalty, the chapel wasn't completed until the early 16th century.
Henry James called King's College Chapel "the most beautiful in England." Its most striking features are its magnificent fan vaulting, all in stone, and its great windows, most of which were fashioned by Flemish artisans between 1517 and 1531 (the west window dates from the late Victorian period). The chapel also boasts Rubens's Adoration of the Magi and an ornamental screen from the early 16th century. The chapel is famous for its choir and musical concerts. You can call the college for concert dates and times.
Insider's tip: For a classic view of the chapel, you can admire the architectural complex from the rear, which is an ideal picnic spot along the river. To acquire the makings of a picnic, head for the vendors who peddle inexpensive food, including fresh fruit, at Market Square (Mon-Sat 9:30am-4:30pm). You can also get the makings of a picnic at a major grocery store, Sainsbury's, 44 Sidney St. (tel. 01223/366891), open Monday to Saturday 8am to 10pm and Sunday 11am to 5pm. E. M. Forster came here to contemplate scenes for his novel Maurice.
The chapel is open during college term, Monday to Friday 9:30am to 3:30pm, Saturday 9:30am to 3:15pm, and Sunday 1:15 to 2:15pm and 5 to 5:30pm. During the term, the public is welcome to attend choral services Monday to Saturday at 5:30pm and on Sunday at 10:30am and 3:30pm. During school vacations, the chapel is open to visitors Monday to Saturday 9:30am to 4:30pm and on Sunday 10am to 5pm; it is closed from December 23 to January 1. It may be closed at other times for recording sessions, broadcasts, and concerts.
An exhibition in the seven northern side chapels shows why and how the chapel was built. Admission to the college and chapel, including the exhibition, is £5 for adults, £3 for students and seniors, and free for children 11 and younger.
On St. Andrew's Street, Emmanuel (tel. 01223/334200; www.emma.cam.ac.uk) was founded in 1584 by Sir Walter Mildmay, a chancellor of the exchequer to Elizabeth I. John Harvard, of the American university that bears his name in another city called Cambridge, studied here. You can stroll around Emmanuel's attractive gardens and visit the chapel designed by Sir Christopher Wren, consecrated in 1677. Both the chapel and college are open daily during sunlight hours.
Insider's tip: Harvard men and women, and those who love them, can look for a memorial window in Wren's chapel dedicated to John Harvard, an alumnus of Emmanuel who lent his name to that other university.
On Trumpington Street, Peterhouse College (tel. 01223/338200; www.pet.cam.ac.uk) attracts visitors because it's the oldest Cambridge college, founded in 1284 by Hugh de Balsham, the bishop of Ely. Of the original buildings, only the hall remains. It was restored in the 19th century and has stained-glass windows designed by William Morris. The chapel, called Old Court, dates from 1632 and was renovated in 1754. Ask to enter at the porter's lodge.
Insider's tip: Almost sadly neglected, the Little Church of St. Mary's next door was the college chapel until 1632. Pay it the honor of a visit.
On Silver Street, Queens' College (tel. 01223/335511; www.quns.cam.ac.uk) is the loveliest of Cambridge's colleges. Dating back to 1448, it was founded by two English queens, Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI, and Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. Its second cloister is the most interesting, flanked by the early-16th-century half-timbered President's Lodge.
Admission is £2 for adults, free for children 11 and younger accompanied by parents. A printed guide is issued. From October 27 to March 14, hours are daily 1:45 to 4:30pm; March 15 to May 18 Monday to Friday 11am to 3pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4:30pm; May 19 to June 21 closed; June 22 to September 28 daily 10am to 4:30pm; September 29 to October 26 Monday to Friday 10:45am to 4:30pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 4:30pm. Entry and exit is by the old porter's lodge in Queens' Lane only. The old hall and chapel are usually open to the public when not in use.
Insider's tip: Queens' College's wide lawns lead down to the "Backs" (the backs of the colleges), where you can stroll, sit, or go punting. Take in Mathematical Bridge, best viewed from the Silver Street bridge, dating from 1902.
St. John's College
On St. John's Street, this college (tel. 01223/338600; www.joh.cam.ac.uk) was founded in 1511 by Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, who launched Christ's College a few years earlier. The impressive gateway bears the Tudor coat of arms, and the Second Court is a fine example of late Tudor brickwork. The college's best-known feature is the Bridge of Sighs crossing the Cam. Built in the 19th century, it was patterned after the covered bridge in Venice. It connects the older part of the college with New Court, a Gothic Revival on the opposite bank, where there is an outstanding view of the famous "backs." The Bridge of Sighs is closed to visitors but can be seen from neighboring Kitchen Bridge. Wordsworth was an alumnus of this college. Visitors are admitted from March 3 to October 28 daily 10am to 5:30pm; it is also open Saturday and Sunday in November and again in February at the hours given. Admission is £2.80 for adults, £1.70 for seniors and children 12 to 17, free for children 11 and younger. Visitors are welcome to attend choral services in the chapel.
Insider's tip: The Bridge of Sighs links the old college with an architectural "folly" of the 19th century, the elaborate New Court, which is a crenellated neo-Gothic fantasy. It's adorned with a "riot" of pinnacles and a main cupola. Students call it "the wedding cake."
On Trinity Street, Trinity College (not to be confused with Trinity Hall; tel. 01223/338400; www.trin.cam.ac.uk) is the largest college in Cambridge. It was founded in 1546 by Henry VIII, who consolidated a number of smaller colleges that had existed on the site. The courtyard is the most spacious in Cambridge, built when Thomas Neville was master. Sir Christopher Wren designed the library.
Insider's tip: What's fun to do here is to contemplate what went on here before you arrived. Pause at Neville's Court where Isaac Newton first calculated the speed of sound. Take in the delicate fountain of the Great Court, where Lord Byron used to bathe naked with his pet bear. Why a bear? The university forbade students from having dogs, but there was no proviso for bears. Years later, Vladimir Nabokov walked through that same courtyard dreaming of the young lady he would later immortalize as Lolita. For admission to the college, apply at the porter's lodge. Trinity College is open to visitors March to November Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm. There's a charge of £2.20 adults, £1.30 seniors and children, and £4.40 for families.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.