This Is The Ultimate Weekend Break For Book Lovers

By Olivia Emily

2 weeks ago

This pretty city has all of the history and culture a book lover could dream of


Looking for a literary staycation? With its blue plaques dotting every other street, London has been the home for many a writer and setting for many a book, while Bath is best associated with Jane Austen (and, more recently, Bridgerton). But what about Cambridge? With a storied history in both senses of the world, this is the best city escape for booklovers – and it’s just a short train ride from London. Here’s exactly why book lovers will love Cambridge.

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A Literary Staycation In Cambridge

Aerial view of river Cam in Cambridge, United Kingdom

Fascinated by Sylvia Plath, or intrigued by Stephen Fry? Captivated by the poetry (and backstory) of Lord Byron, or partial Samuel Pepys? Whatever your literary persuasion, there’s something to explore in Cambridge. As a student, I took that fact for granted: taxed by endless (endless!) reading lists, the last thing I wanted to do in my spare time was trace the footsteps of these literary luminaries. And now, years later, I realise my folly. So back I go.

Cut through by the slow-moving Cam punctuated by rowers, Cambridge barely meets city status in terms of size: the entire centre can be moseyed around in 30 minutes flat – max. And yet these quaint, winding streets house many marvels, from ancient buildings dating back to 1020 (that’s St Bene’t’s Church) to a honeypot rooftop bar (at Varsity Hotel’s Six brasserie) to Europe’s longest lido (on Jesus Green). While the city is easy to get to know on a surface level, historians, sports fans and art lovers alike can (and will) find captivating corners if they just pause, linger, and dig a little beneath the surface.

Exterior of University Arms, the perfect destination for a literary staycation

Exterior of University Arms

For a literary staycation, first thing’s first: make sure you check into the city’s best address, University Arms. Step inside the glorious foyer to see period touchpoints perfectly accompanied by modern refurbishment: think glimmering black and white floor tiles, super high ceilings, original wood and an eclectic mix of artwork lining the walls. Both Cambridge’s oldest and best respected landmark hotel dating back to 1834, this sandy coloured building occupies an enviable spot on Regent Street, right in the heart of the city, bordered on one side by a swathe of parkland, Parker’s Piece (the very same patch of grass on which Cambridge locals devised the defining rules of football back in 1848). Here, you can dine at in-demand restaurant Parker’s Tavern gazing across that park as the sun sets, the soft light refracting elegantly through soaring stained glass windows adorned with college crests. Start with a glass of fizz from the champagne cart (who can say ‘no’ to an ice bath brimming with bottles on wheels?), before tucking into East Anglian cuisine and produce, including the likes of Cambridge Gin-cured rainbow trout with smoked roe, perfectly chargrilled steaks, classic pies and fish and chips, and ending with an indulgent chocolate delice top with caramelised banana and popcorn. It’s very grown-up glamour, enveloped by wood panelling and lit softly with added flickers of candlelight on each table.

Back in your room – one of 189 light-filled, homely spaces – enjoy thoughtful, playful decor with each suite dedicated to a famed Cambridge writer or alum, with decor curated around their namesake, plus park views and a bespoke library curated by Heywood Hill of Mayfair. We stayed in the Hawkin suite, with tasteful space-themed decor and a modern painting of the famed physicist. There’s plenty of space to kick back with a glass of locally-produced wine – or, of course, a novel – with a sitting area and chaise longue ready to kick back and relax on while sipping tea from the gorgeous bespoke china illustrated with a line drawing of the hotel’s exterior.

A suite at the University Arms

After all of your city explorations (more on that below), ease the world away in the spacious bathroom, equipped with a huge walk-in rain shower and a claw-foot bathtub. British D R Harris products await your use, with fluffy towels and supersoft robes to dry off. If that’s not quiet enough, or you’ve developed some pesky shoulder knots, book a treatment at University Arms’ new wellness rooms tucked away in a soothing space on the ground floor; the Aromatherapy massage is an indulgent, utterly transporting experience. Literary lovers can even be further transported, elevating the experience with a specially selected audiobook.

From University Arms, Cambridge’s literary secrets are but a stone’s throw away: there’s Petty Cury, where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath first met; there’s King’s College, where EM Forster and The Apostles would wax lyrical on philosophy, and where a garden and marble memorial are dedicated to Chinese poet Xu Zhimo; and there’s Magdalene Bridge, which William Wordsworth mentions in his poem ‘Residence at Cambridge’. And plenty more – not to mention the University’s colleges and their enviable, seemingly bottomless collections of manuscripts and literary oddities. Some are open to visitors at specific times, including Trinity College’s Wren Library, Corpus Christi’s Parker Library and Downing College’s Heong Library, while the Giles Gilbert Scott-designed University Library also hosts exhibitions (Gilbert Scott is best known for designing our iconic British red telephone box, Battersea Power Station, Liverpool Cathedral and Bankside Power Station, which is now London’s Tate Modern). If Pepys really does pique your interest, Magdalene College’s Pepys Library is home to Pepys’ vast collection of books, manuscripts, documents and prints as well as his precious diaries offering unparalleled insight into the Restoration zeitgeist, all housed in the original oak bookcases he himself designed in 1666, all bequeathed to the college he attended.

The Library at University Arms

The Library at University Arms

While Cambridge is home to gorgeous cafes (don’t miss the Waterstones cafe after some bookish perusing), University Arms’ library lounge is the best spot in the city to recuperate after all of these literary explorations. With wall-to-wall bookshelves brimming with reads, the space is both light-filled and supremely cosy, channelling dark academic through Edwardian style interiors, best enjoyed with a hot drink and a novel in hand. Can’t decide which spine to crack open? God forbid! No problem: consult University Arms’ in-house book butler, who can pick out your next favourite read based on your tastes and interests, delivering their choices directly to your bedroom on a silver platter (shouldn’t all books be treated with such reverie?).

As a partner of the action, University Arms is also the best to stay for the bi-annual Cambridge Literary Festival, with select special events hosted here including intimate breakfast talks with prestigious thinkers and authors. The festival welcomes thousands to the city to enjoy big-name authors as well as philosophers and politicians in some of the University’s most prestigious venues (a festival ticket is a great way to get a sneak peek inside some of the colleges), all backdropped by this thriving cultural scene. In Spring 2024, this included Sathnam Sanghera on his latest book EmpireWorld, George The Poet on his book Track Record, Cambridge neuroscientist Camilla Nord providing a new perspective on mental health, Ian Dunt on his searing book How Westminster Works and Why It Doesn’t, and a debate hosted by New Statesman at the gorgeous Cambridge Union, ‘This house believes the Labour Party is not bold enough to fix Britain’. Timely. The Winter edition of The Cambridge Literary Festival will take place across the weekend of 23/24 November, with the lineup still to be announced – but it’ll undoubtedly have something for everyone.

Punting in Cambridge

Punting is a quintessential activity

Cambridge: Insider Tips

  • Get ice cream at Jack’s Gelato. There are two shops in the city, and don’t baulk at the queue: insiders know about queue jump. Just scan the QR code, place your order and waltz your way to the front.
  • Don’t miss the Fitzwilliam Museum. As grand on the outside as it is within, this world-class art museum hosts seasonal exhibitions – but paying a trip to the main collection is certainly worth your time.
  • Modern art lovers should try Kettle’s Yard, a smaller collection that’s a little walk outside of the city but worth the wander.
  • Cambridge’s best coffee can be found at Bould Brothers and Hot Numbers – opposite ends of the city.
  • If you’re intrigued by sculpture, head to Jesus College and embark on its free sculpture trail, featuring work by Anthony Gormley, Barry Flanagan, Cornelia Parker and plenty more.
  • Punting is a quintessential activity, and the tours are less of a tourist trap than you might think. Scudamore’s is the best company for guided tours, whether group or private – or book through University Arms for a private chauffeur tour of The Backs. Only the proficient should brave solo punt hire – it’s harder than it looks and the Cam, though shallow, is cold.

BOOK IT

Rooms at University Arms start from £204 per night including breakfast. universityarms.com 

Find out more about the Cambridge Literary Festival at cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Cambridge is easily accessible from London by train from, Liverpool Street, King’s Cross and St Pancras.

Find It: University Arms, 52-42 Regent St, Cambridge CB2 1AD