Cambridge at Christmas – a Guide

st joh,ns college

Home of the world-famous Carols from King’s Christmas Eve broadcast, Cambridge, England, is a beautiful city to spend Christmas in.  Aside from the carol service, there are plenty of things to do in Cambridge at Christmas to give you that warm festive feeling.  From punting on the River Cam to Christmas shopping down cobbled lanes, you can enjoy a wide variety of activities and experiences in Cambridge.  Plus, as one of the driest cities in the UK, you can rest assured that your winter break in Cambridge will be crisp and cool but with less chance of it being a washout.  This guide includes details of the most charming locations in Cambridge, the best Colleges to visit, where to eat and details about those all-important Christmas lights.  So step into Christmas at Cambridge with me.

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Things to Do in Cambridge at Christmas

Listen to World Famous Carols at King’s College Cambridge

Carols from King’s is traditional Christmas listening for households the world over on Christmas Eve.  However, the carol service that’s shown by the BBC is pre-recorded in early December.  Although there’s also a live service on Christmas Eve, it’s not the one that’s broadcast.  It’s possible to apply to attend the actual Christmas Eve service, A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, but tickets are about as sought after as tickets for the World Cup (apply during the first two weeks of November to be in with a chance). 

However, don’t dismay, this is a guide to Cambridge at Christmas so there has to be a happy ending right?  Thankfully there is. If you visit Cambridge during November or the first week in December you can go to one of the Evensong services at King’s College at night, for free, and have a similarly Christmassy musical experience.  The exquisite beauty of the Chapel combined with the sound of angelic voices floating in the air will bring a tear of Christmas joy to your eye.  Check the King’s College website for times and dates of this winter’s services (University term time only).

Experience Cambridge Punting in Winter

punting in cambridge

Get all the Christmas and winter feels with a tour along the River Cam on a punt.  This is a typical Cambridge activity and is one not to be missed during your Christmas in Cambridge. 

Hunker down under the warm blankets provided and feel the mist brush your cheek as it rolls in off the river.  Whether you’re on your own or with a loved one, punting is one of the most romantic things to do in Cambridge at Christmas.  A huge benefit of punting in Cambridge in winter is that you get to have more of the river to yourself, which means less worrying about crashing into other boats and more space to see the iconic Cambridge sights.

To really make the most of your winter punting experience, book for the annual Christmas event, Christmas Carols on the River.  Don’t forget your gloves.

Putting in Cambridge details

Price: £80 – £90 for a private tour (max 6 passengers), £20 – £30 for two on a shared tour with Traditional Punting Cambridge

Duration: 45 minutes

Step into a Historic Cambridge College

a cambridge college

A trip around some of Cambridge’s 31 Colleges should definitely be on your list for a winter break in Cambridge.  In fact, I’m not sure there’s anything more Cambridge at Christmas than walking the hallowed courtyards where all manner of famous alumni have stood. 

The most iconic Cambridge colleges to visit at Christmas

Peterhouse – the oldest College in Cambridge, founded in 1284. 

St. John’s – you don’t need to risk getting stuck on the icy tarmac this winter for your holiday break.  Spend Christmas at Cambridge, take a photo of the Bridge of Sighs at St John’s College, grab a panettone from Limoncello and everyone will think you went to Italy all along. 

Queens’ – for the curious Mathematical bridge.  Legend has it that the bridge was constructed without any screws to hold it together, deconstructed as part of a bet, and then couldn’t be put back together again.  Far be it for me to cast aspersions but who doesn’t love a good fairy-tale at Christmas time?

king's college cambridge

King’s Collegethe classic Cambridge College, head to The Backs for the best photo opportunity.

Christ’s – to follow in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, who studied here and whose rooms have been restored (but you’ll have to ask really nicely to be in with any chance of seeing them, as they’re not officially open to the public).  Even if you can’t see his rooms, the three ornate courtyards will lead you out to the Darwin garden where you can take a photo of yourself with his statue.  Whilst you’re here, check out the gorgeous Fellows’ garden and the Old Library. 

Darwin Tip

Visit Fitzwilliam Street to see the house that Darwin stayed at in Cambridge in 1836. Look for the plaque that marks the spot.  There’s another plaque dedicated to Darwin above Boots on Sidney Street.

Have a Harry Potter Moment

harry potter shop cambridge at christmas

A trip around a Cambridge College or two might have you feeling like you’re in a Harry Potter book. If you’re a fan and want to carry on that magical feeling, paying a visit to the independent Harry Potter gifts shop in Cambridge at Christmas might be the best Christmas gift you could get.  Head to 17 Rose Crescent for all your wizarding wonders.

Get Your (Ice) Skates On

What could be a more wintery experience than going ice skating?  There’s plenty of room to show off your best triple salchows and toe loops at the Cambridge Ice Arena, on Newmarket Road.  Curling (playing) and ice hockey (watching) are also available, booking advised.

For extra Christmas thrills head to Parker’s Piece and take a spin on Cambridge’s very own big wheel. 

Take a Winter Walk in Cambridge

Cambridge has so many green spaces to explore that a more sedate, and equally traditional, winter activity to engage in when spending Christmas at Cambridge is to set out on a brisk winter walk. 

A stroll around Wandlebury Country Park is a great choice, particularly if you want to add a sighting of a Highland cow to your Christmas to-do list. The cute creatures are used here to keep the grassland in order.  Wandlebury also boasts an Iron Age ring walk and a gorgeous tree-lined avenue leading to a Roman Road.  Once you’ve finished, visit the Gog farm shop next door to fill up on winter treats. 

For a more central stroll, check out the Botanical Garden, at the end of Station Road.  Located close to the train station, the hot and humid glasshouse here makes a great change from all the crisp winter air.  The dedicated winter garden ensures there’s something interesting to see whatever the season. If you’d prefer a riverside walk, check out this article on the best walks in Cambridge for suggestions.

Explore a Polar Museum

Christmas at Cambridge is a great opportunity to take some time to enjoy one of the many museums in the city.  There are museums to suit all sorts of interests.  However, to really amp up that winter feeling, a trip to the Scott Polar Museum has to be number one on your list of things to do in Cambridge at Christmas.  Here you’ll find a history of polar exploration alongside fascinating and personal exhibits from both Arctic and Antarctic expeditions.  Marvel at the meagre food rations and old-fashioned winter wear.  Don’t miss reading the extremely moving last letters home from Scott and his fellow explorers before they met their frozen end. 

If the thought of all that ice makes you too cold, head to the Museum of Zoology instead. You can pretend you’re in Night at the Museum as you walk under the giant whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling.  There’s a whole range of creatures to discover, including some of Darwin’s own specimens.

Visit Impressive Churches and Other Religious Sights

round church cambridge
The Round Church, Cambridge

Cambridge has an abundance of churches and when better to visit some of them than at Christmas, even if you’re not religious. 

Older than Cambridge University, the Round Church on Bridge Street dates back to 1130 and is a beautiful architectural sight.  Alongside a standard visit, you can also book a guided walk which takes in the Round Church.

The less well-known All Saints Church, on Jesus Lane, has an incredible interior.  This Victorian place of worship was designed by significant artists in the Arts and Crafts movement, including William Morris.  Inside is a riot of design and colour, it’s an absolute hidden gem in Cambridge.

Even if you don’t make it for the carol service, King’s College Chapel is worth visiting for the fan vault roofing alone.

One of the latest additions to the sights of Cambridge is the award-winning Cambridge Central Mosque on Mill Road.  Visitors can admire the incredible architecture and design of this eco-friendly building.

Do It for the Christmas Gram

orchard street
Orchard Street

Cambridge is overflowing with quaint streets and ancient buildings to fill up your Christmas Insta stories with.  For maximum image appeal, these are the best streets to head to:

portugal place
  • Portugal Place
  • Orchard Street
  • Free School Lane (Old Cavendish lab entrance)
  • Trinity Lane
  • The Backs
  • Senate House Passage
  • Castle Hill or Great St Mary’s Church tower (for bird’s-eye views of the city)
  • Grantchester village
cambridge street

Take in a Show

There’s something about seeing a show at Christmas that makes it an extra special experience.  Pantos are a classic UK Christmas activity and Cambridge doesn’t disappoint.  The two large theatres, the Cambridge Arts Theatre and the Cambridge Corn Exchange typically have a Christmas panto or winter show. 

There are also plenty of smaller venues with great reputations that are worth checking out.  The University’s Amateur Dramatic Club puts on performances at the ADC Theatre (also home to the Cambridge Footlights) and the Mumford Theatre plays host to a varied lineup.  For a more intimate venue, catch a show at the Corpus Playroom or upstairs at the Town and Gown.

Cambridge’s Christmas Markets and Shops

independent shops cambridge

There are still some independent local shops to be found in Cambridge. Show them some love by paying them a visit. Wander down King’s Parade, Benet Street, Trinity Street, Green Street and Magdalene Street and you’ll come across them. 

If, like me, you love nothing more than browsing for Christmas reads, don’t miss the Haunted Bookshop in St Edward’s Passage and a Cambridge institution (and this writer’s employer in her misspent youth), Heffers Bookshop.  It’s been recently acquired by Waterstones but still retains an independent air, for now at least.

To find gifts with a difference, visit the shop at the Fitzwilliam Museum and the University Museums shop on King’s Parade. They have a great selection of unique items to choose from.

Cambridge’s markets also offer a great option for hunting for Christmas trinkets and gifts. Check out All Saints Garden arts and crafts market on Trinity Street. If you’re looking for food-based gifts (for you or someone else), right next to the market are two fabulous shops, the Cambridge Cheese Company and local chocolatiers, Hill Street.

The central market square is good for independent stalls and gift shopping on Sundays in the run-up to Christmas.

For a wide variety of international food shops, go a little out of the centre to Mill Road.  If you want a change from sprouts and Christmas pud, this is the place for you.

Stroll Around Mill Road Winter Fair

For one weekend in early December Mill Road in Cambridge is closed to cars and instead, throngs of pedestrians take their place.  The Mill Road Winter Fair is a Christmas tradition in Cambridge and has the crowds of people to match. 

Follow your nose to try a plethora of international street food, let your feet tap to the musical acts and get a head start on your Christmas list from some of the craft stalls at the Christmas fair.  For the latest dates and details check the Mill Road Winter Fair website.

Cambridge Christmas Lights

Whilst there are plenty of things to do in Cambridge at Christmas, you might be wondering where can I see Christmas lights in Cambridge. Here’s my list of the best places to see those magical twinklers that make you feel like you’re in your very own Christmas movie.

Rose Crescent – a pedestrian lane adorned with pretty Christmas lights and plenty of bright shop displays to keep your Christmas list growing.

Green Street – a traditional cobbled street with independent shops and restaurants.

Magdelene Bridge (pronounced Maud-len) – one of Cambridge’s many bridges is adorned with loads of sparkles just for winter.

John Lewis window display – when the annual mega-curtain of lights switches on the world feels a tiny bit brighter and Christmas has officially begun.

Cambridge train station – there’s usually a fun Christmas tree outside for you to go and get your Christmas selfies with.

The Guildhall on the Market Square – by day the market square can seem a little in need of love and attention but lit up at night, and with a Christmas tree next to the Guildhall, the magic Christmas light fairy dust makes it seem so much prettier.

The Corpus Clock – although not a Christmas light as such, don’t miss the opportunity to view the Corpus Clock at night to see an illuminated and ornate symbol of time being eaten up.

Christmas at Wimpole Estate and Anglesey Abbey Winter Lights – two wonderful National Trust winter light trails (tickets required).

Where to Eat and Drink in Cambridge at Christmas        

pickerel inn cambridge

It’s Christmas, so that can only mean a feast of food and the odd Christmas tipple. For a small city, Cambridge has a wealth of pubs, bars and restaurants.  If your ideal Christmas drink takes place in the corner of a dusky old-fashioned pub, with the scent of a burning fire wafting through the air and traditional ales on tap, Cambridge has got you covered.  There are also plenty of alternatives if you prefer your festive food with a more modern ambience. 

The Eagle

Ghosts and ghouls are said to haunt this place (ask about why there’s always a window open upstairs even in winter).  Along with the ethereal realm, the pub is also home to a historical ceiling in the back bar and is the place where the announcement of the discovery of DNA was made.  Crick and Watson, scientists at the university who discovered DNA, used to drink at the pub.

Cambridge Blue

If you like real ale then you must add a visit to the Cambridge Blue to your list of things to do in Cambridge at Christmas.  It’s a ‘proper pub’ experience.

The Pickerel Inn

Speaking of proper pubs, the Pickerel Inn is an absolute beauty of an old-time drinking establishment.  Loads of wood panelling, low ceilings and a good amount of nooks and crannies to take a break from the cold in.

The Winter Terrace at The Gonville Hotel

For a more modern place to take a break from all that Christmas shopping, head to the Winter Terrace.  Here you can enjoy specially crafted Christmas cocktails in a luxurious setting.  A great option if you’re on a romantic weekend break in Cambridge.

Varsity Hotel Roof Terrace

Snuggle into your favourite winter jumper and brave the winter weather on the rooftop bar at the Varsity Hotel.  With fabulous views across the Cambridge skyline, it’s worth the risk of frostbite.

Limoncello

Being both a deli and an amazing Italian restaurant means if you like what you ate, you can buy the products to try to recreate it afterwards. Dining takes place on the rooftop where a gazebo-style roof and heaters will keep you warm and dry in winter.

La Margherita

Of all the many restaurants in Cambridge, this is my favourite. Family-owned for decades, the service and food here are nothing short of excellent. The profiteroles filled with ice cream and topped with melting chocolate sauce are worth visiting for alone.

The Orator Brasserie and Bar

To experience a bit of the Cambridge student life, go for a meal at the Orator. Located in the Cambridge Union Society building this is not your average student bar. It’s opulent, historical and has fabulous food.

misummer house

Midsummer House

This is one to save for a special Christmas celebration.  And I do mean really special.  Book a table at the Michelin-starred Midsummer House if you’ve got a reason to push the boat out.  The prices might mean the rest of Christmas is cancelled but you’ll have had a dining experience to remember for Christmases to come.

Best Place for Hot Chocolate in Cambridge

hot choc in cambridge at christmas

As soon as the mince pies hit the shops, that’s the green light to indulge in some gloriously decadent hot chocolate creations.  Is there anything better for warming chilly winter hands than on a mug of swirling sweetness?  The best spots to defrost in are:

Thrive

The vegan hot chocolate specials in this independent café are so tempting, you might have to try them all.

Charlie’s

If you like lashings of marshmallows then Charlie’s is the place for you, they even come in their own little Kilner jar. The Nutella option might also tempt you.

Parker’s Tavern

This one is more about the sumptuous surroundings of the bar than anything else but the hot choc here is still tasty.

Fitzbillies

You can’t have Christmas at Cambridge and not visit Fitzbillies. This place is more Cambridge than Stephen Hawing and Stephen Fry put together.  There are two of these sticky bun-pushing emporiums, one on Trumpington Street and the other on Bridge Street.  A good excuse to have not one but two Chelsea buns, all in the name of fairness of course.

Where to Stay in Cambridge

After a day stuffed with Christmas activities, city walks and plenty of delicious food, you’ll be glad of a comfy place to rest your head.  I use Booking.com for many of my hotel reservations as it has consistently good prices. 

Christmas treats

Gonville Hotel

Home to the marvellous Winter Terrace and gorgeous boutique rooms, alongside feature bedrooms for an extra special stay.

University Arms

Voted the smartest place to stay in Cambridge by Vogue magazine.

Varsity Hotel and Spa

Located close to the river and with a rooftop terrace for panoramic views of Cambridge. Rooms are beautifully designed and most include underfloor heating as standard.

Christ’s College Cambridge

Fulfil your dream of staying in a Cambridge College. Accommodation is basic but the location is right in the centre and the historic College surroundings are unique.

Budget options

Ibis Cambridge Central Station

A standard Ibis hotel conveniently situated next to Cambridge train station.

Madingley Hall

A 16th-century country house located out of the centre but with a price to reflect the less central location. Enjoy the Capability Brown-designed gardens during your stay.

Booking.com

How to Get to Cambridge

Regular direct trains will take you to Cambridge from London King’s Cross in 50 minutes.

Use Voi escooters and ebikes to get around once you’re in the city.  Download the app and get free new rider credit with my link.

Parking in Cambridge

Parking in Cambridge is expensive.  If you can, come by train, it’s far more relaxing than trying to find affordable parking in Cambridge. However, if you do travel by car there are a few economical options. 

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