A student’s guide to Cambridge

Cambridge, one of the UK’s two iconic university cities, is a popular destination for visitors who come the bask in the idyllic setting, collegiate stories and English history. On my first trip though, I was lucky to be able to delve deeper than the top-level tourist veneer. Here to visit a good friend, and Cambridge PHD student to boot, I was shown a little more of the “secret lives” of Cambridge’s student population.

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Sorting into a Residential College

“It seems a bit like Hogwarts here” I remarked to my friend (I’d end up saying that a few more times over the course of the visit), “Do you get sorted into houses as well?”

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Actually, turns out that is kind of true. Every student needs to apply for their chosen college, and in order to study at the university, they also need to be accepted by one. Each of the 31 colleges have their own claims to fame; Kings is the biggest and most well-known, St John’s is the wealthiest (and the college best suited to me according to Buzzfeed, thank you very much), while three colleges – Murray Edwards, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish – are women’s only.

So our first morning my friend, a proud student of the fine Selwyn college, took me to breakfast in the student hall. Cue another Harry Potter reference from me. Obviously.

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Fun fact – Cambridge’s university and colleges were originally approached to film some scenes for the Harry Potter films, but the cost was too high so they went to Oxford instead.

You can take a tour of almost all the colleges, however they each have different closed days and the more popular ones (eg Kings, St John’s, Trinity) charge an entrance fee, although this is waived if you’re visiting with a Cambridge student.

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Attending a formal dinner

Every college will host their own ‘formal dinners’ on a regular basis. Students can pay around £5-6 for a three course meal, which is hosted in their college’s dining hall. They can also bring 3 guests along with them, so students can also arrange to attend other college dinners. So one night we sat down for a three course meal in the dining hall of Gonville & Caius, where Stephen Hawking is a current fellow.

Punting the river Cam

Punting is a quintessential Cambridge activity for any visitor, where you’ll be regaled with stories from Cambridge’s history, a roll call of notable alumni and tales of student tomfoolery. There are plenty of punting companies in the city, and you can choose to go with a group, or enjoy a more intimate journey on a privately guided tour.

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Exploring Cambridge city centre

Cambridge CBD has plenty of shopping, cafes and pubs to keep you busy as well. You can enjoy a tipple at institutions that have hosted the greatest minds in modern history, sample some of the famous, hand-made fudge, or buy some university-inspired merchandise. Ps – if you’re looking to blend in, or convince folks back home of your university credentials, buy college merch, not the hoodies with the university shield on it. And remember to keep an eye out for the city’s many cyclists!

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Have you visited Cambridge before? Let me know what you though in the comments!

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