5 Ways to Learn Something New in Cambridge

I love learning new things, especially about history, but also about languages, art, architecture, flowers, cities and everything in between. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cambridge in the last couple of weeks and I’ve discovered some new (and rediscovered some previously experienced) ways to learn something new while in the city.

The Fitzwilliam

I hadn’t ever heard of the Fitzwilliam Museum when my friend Heather talked about it the other week. When I said as much, she insisted we visit because “you can’t come to Cambridge and not see the Fitzwilliam.” So we did just that.

Like a miniature British Museum, the Fitzwilliam has a plethora of items for you to see. While we did a high speed trek through the rooms, since we had several things to see in one day, you could spend hours upon hours in there.

Some of the highlights of the museum are the Egyptian room, the Roman room, and the floral painting rooms. They also have a ton of amazing paintings, including one where a beached whale was uncovered after being painted over hundreds of years ago. (You can learn more about this painting before you see it, here.) Also make sure you book in to check out the rotating exhibit that changes every few months. Currently they have a couple displays called the Human Touch and Scent from Nature. We didn’t know about the Scent from Nature display until after we left, so I definitely want to return to check it out before it leaves at the end of August.

Important info:

Bonus: If you want to preview the collections before your visit, or you’re stuck too far from Cambridge, check out an overview of their collections here.

Kettle’s Yard

If modern art is more your thing, make sure you check out Kettle’s Yard.

Kettle’s Yard consists of two different parts, the home, and the exhibit. The exhibits are constantly changing and feature modern artists. The house is an intimate look into the home Jim Ede shared with his wife Helen. In the 1920s and 30s, Jim was a curator for the Tate Museum in London and called himself a “friend of artists.” When he moved to Cambridge in 1953 he created a home where he could host budding artists, teach them and support them. He displays art from his favorite artists in his home for all to see. In 1970 he completed an extension to his home with more space to display art and host cultural events like workshops, lectures and small concerts. In 1973 when he moved to Edinburgh, he left his house to the University of Cambridge. His request was that they maintain the house just as he left it so people from all walks of life could come learn about art and maybe be inspired. And while they change some small things with temporary modern artists’ displays, I think Mr. Ede would approve.

The house tour was only about 45 minutes but our guide was very knowledgeable and there were surprises around every corner. Even if you’re short on time, check this place out.

Important info:

Bonus: If you’re far from Cambridge you can take a virtual tour of the home here! They also host archived art and other images on their website. Their collection database is also a great opportunity to learn more about the pieces in the house. Because it was a house first there aren’t informational signs next to the pieces the way there are in museums.

The Museum of Cambridge

Just next door to Kettle’s Yard is the Museum of Cambridge. As we entered the sweet lady behind the counter asked us if we were sure it was that museum we wanted and not Kettle’s Yard, but as we had just come from Kettle’s Yard, we did indeed want to visit the tiny but information packed museum.

The 17th century building that houses the Museum of Cambridge was at different points in its history, a private dwelling, a coaching inn and a pub. The building itself is an interesting thing to see, especially if you’re American and are not familiar with very old timber frame structure buildings.

But what the building houses is the real treasure. Started in 1936 the museum is a collection of pieces of local, social history that are “related to the everyday life, customs, and traditions of the local people of the area.” Things range from antique items used to run the pub and clean houses to local pieces of significance tied to the University of Cambridge.

The volunteer at the front desk urged us to read all the signs as they told the best stories and I’m glad she did. While I try to read most signs in museums they often get glanced over, especially if they are lengthy and not well placed. The Museum of Cambridge though had succinct, interesting bites of information that left me fascinated. It’s definitely worth it to make time for this quaint museum. Add it to your itinerary when you visit Kettle’s Yard and make a day of it!

Important info:

  • Entry Cost: standard £6 – Student (13-18) £4.50 – Children 12 and under free
  • Opening Hours: Thu-Sat 1000-1700; Sun and Bank Holidays 1100-1600
  • Location: 2-3 Castle St, Cambridge, CB3 0AQ
  • Phone: +44 1223 355159
  • Email: enquiries@museumofcambridge.org.uk

Bonus: Their gift shop is locally themed and has several items from local makers and artists.

Cambridge University Botanic Gardens

A fifteen minute walk (according to Google Maps) South from the center of Cambridge on Hills Rd will find you at Cambridge University’s Botanic Gardens (this takes you to the Station Road Gate). These gardens were so lovely even in the depths of summer after all spring’s glory has faded. I learned a lot too from the signs posted, and there is even more to learn if you book a learning visit with a guide.

Founded in 1762 the gardens were originally located in the center of Cambridge. By 1825 interest in the gardens was waning. The gardens were moved to their current location and redesigned to be more interesting and beautiful. In the 1930s a second 20 acres of land was donated to the University to expand the gardens further to what you see today. You can read all about the history of the gardens, before or after you go, here.

The 40 acre of sprawling gardens is home to over 8,000 species of plants from all over the world. From a giant redwood to desert cacti, to plants growing on the banks of the lake, there’s something for everyone. My favorite section was the scent garden which, as its name would imply, was full of flowers with a strong odor, but don’t be fooled, they don’t all smell good. (You’ve been warned!)

If I lived closer to Cambridge I would absolutely become a “friend” of the garden. For £44/year (£75 for a couple), you can enjoy free entry to the gardens year round. There are several places to sit and just enjoy the surroundings and I think if you live in the city this is the perfect place to do it.

Important Info:

  • Entry Cost: Gift Aid Adult £7 – Children 16 and under and University Students are Free
  • Opening Hours: April – September 1000-1800
    (In June and July the garden is open until 2000 on Thursdays)
    February, March, and October 1000-1700
    January, November and December 1000-1600
  • Location: 1 Brookside Cambridge CB2 1JE
  • Phone:  +44 (0) 1223 336265
  • Email: enquiries@botanic.cam.ac.uk

Bonus: If you don’t live close to the gardens you can view them virtually through their Wellness Wanders.

Take a Walking or Punting Tour

In the heart of the city of Cambridge you can hardly look anywhere without seeing really old, really grand buildings. There are several chapels and halls and one building even dubbed “the Wedding Cake” for it’s grandiose symmetry. And most of the buildings, you guessed it, belong to the University, or actually, more specifically, they belong to the colleges of the University. Colleges at Cambridge have nothing to do with the actual school work but everything to do with housing students, feedings students and giving them a place to worship. (Think Harry Potter Houses but in real life). The best way to see and learn about these colleges is to take a walking tour of the city. If you’re lucky and things are open (like they were pre-end of the world), you can even go inside the colleges. (Read up on your specific tour before you go to avoid being disappointed).

I’d suggest taking a tour that takes you into King’s College and their “chapel.” Which, originally built for 12, that’s right, TWELVE students, is larger than most churches and absolutely spectacular to behold. The stained glass alone is worth the viewing. It tells the stories of the bible and is the original glass from the 1500s. During WWII it was painstakingly removed piece by piece to save it from destruction due to possible bombing by the Nazis. After the war it was replaced piece by piece. I can’t imagine the intricacy that took.

Usually walking tours are about one to two hours long and guide visitors around the center of Cambridge. There are several different companies and tours on TripAdvisor and since I didn’t book either of the tours I’ve been on, I can’t suggest a specific one but I can assure you that if it’s got high ratings on TripAdvisor, it is usually good (that’s how I found Dominika and the Creepy Krakow tour).

If walking around Cambridge doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then maybe you’d like to see the colleges from the comfort of your own boat. Or punt as they call them. Punts are flat bottomed boats that can hold anywhere from 4-10 people depending on their size. Punting tours are a great way to learn about the colleges, the city and the River Cam all from the comfy seat of the boat. You also get the added bonus of watching people who are brave try to self-punt their own little boats. It’s actually quite entertaining! Plus you can get some amazing photos from the slow moving boats as they pass the colleges. Especially as this is an angle not often seen by people other than in the colleges or on the river.

We have gone punting with Scholars Punting and Let’s Go Punting and both experiences were great. But there are several to choose from on Trip Advisor and most have really good reviews.

Important Info:

  • Entry Cost: Varies and Pre-booking is a necessity for all tours.
  • Opening Hours: Again, this varies, but make sure you look at the weather as both of these are mostly if not entirely outdoors.

And there you have it. I hope I’ve imparted some wisdom today on how you can gain some wisdom in Cambridge. It truly is such a beautiful little city and I feel so privileged to be able to visit it as often as I do. Let me know if there’s anything else you guys would be interested in learning about Cambridge!

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