Cambridge’s Best Address: The Varsity Hotel & Spa – Review

By Olivia Emily

1 year ago

Olivia Emily checks in to this lovely, independent hotel

This ancient city is brimming with stories – find them in the cobblestone streets, spilling from the mouth of a punting tour guide, or by looking up at the old facades looming over tight passageways. Make a weekend of it and check into The Varsity Hotel & Spa, says Olivia Emily. A popular spot since 2011, The Varsity continues to please.

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Hotel Review: The Varsity Hotel & Spa, Cambridge

In Cambridge, you’d be forgiven for getting confused if someone told you they were off to The Varsity. This emphatically collegiate word (did you know, by the way, that ‘varsity’ is short for ‘university’?) in this definitively collegiate city refers to sports competitions, the student newspaper, a restaurant on St Andrews Street (now sadly closed) and, of course, The Varsity Hotel & Spa. This 46-room independent hotel – situated down a sleepy street on one side, and the buzzy quayside on the other – is unquestionably the best conclusion to jump to. Home to the city’s only rooftop bar, an all-day brasserie with panoramic views, a waterside steakhouse and a spa, why wouldn’t you be off to The Varsity?


The Varsity’s 46 characterful rooms feel like somewhere you could live – a space you’d find in your chicest family member’s house, perhaps – with understated furnishings, cosy rugs, delicate floral wallpaper, and raw wood furniture with matching oak herringbone flooring. Set across six floors, in keeping with this ancient city, it’s all very warm and very British – indeed, all fabrics and wallpapers are from established British brands such as Colefax & Fowler, Osborne & Little and Farrow & Ball – but with a modern, more homely energy.

A bedroom with balcony at The Varsity

(Paul Winch-Furness)

Step out onto your spacious balcony (if you opt for one of the larger Fellows rooms) complete with breakfast table and sitting area, and you’re greeted with one of the city’s best views (second only, perhaps, to The Varsity’s rooftop bar, Six). Gaze across the panoramic Cambridge vista lined with rows of red and sandy chimneys atop terraces; point out the parks, spot the spires, or wrangle to label the colleges rising up before you.

Complete with marble or sandstone bathrooms with underfloor heating and immersive showers, these rooms are sanctums to retire to after a sumptuous spa treatment, or a day pounding the cobbled pavement. With complimentary membership throughout your stay, The Glassworks Spa is a state-of-the-art space comprising a gym and studios equipped for yoga, pilates, aerobics and spinning classes. The main draw, however, is the bubbling jacuzzi that overlooks the river, the sauna and steam room, and the eight treatment rooms for sumptuous massages and refreshing facials.


The Rooftop Garden

Perhaps Cambridge’s most iconic and in-demand bar – especially in the summer months, when it is a serious suntrap – The Rooftop Garden at The Varsity is the city’s only rooftop terrace, with stunning panoramic views over the very-flat vista. Head here for a tasty cocktail and great music enjoyed from the comfortable sofas.

SIX Brasserie

Just below The Rooftop Garden is SIX, an all-day brasserie that continues the views with its floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor terrace. Enjoy it first thing for breakfast, at the weekend for brunch, or book in for lunch or dinner to make the most of the tasty menu, featuring pizzas, grills, dishes from the woodstone oven and a Sunday roast to boot.

The outdoor terrace at Six Brasserie

SIX Brasserie (Paul Winch-Furness)

The River Bar Steakhouse & Grill 

If waterside views are more your speed, head to the moodier The River Bar Steakhouse on the opposite side of The Varsity, by the quayside. And it’s not all steak (despite the name): locally sourced ingredients, plenty of plant-based dishes and a tasty dessert menu make this an ideal space for all. We recommend the salmon steak blackened with molasses and spices – delicious. All enjoyed with a tasty cocktail, of course.

Midsummer House

Stepping out of The Varsity, you’re but a stone’s throw from the two Michelin starred Midsummer House. Led by familiar face Daniel Clifford (of The Great British Menu), this riverside cottage stands alone on Midsummer Common, watching over the grazing cows in the summer months. The light-filled conservatory dining room is the perfect balance of formal and informal, with thick carpets, soft seats, and the most attentive of staff. With only a tasting menu on offer, relinquish to Clifford and Head Chef Mark Abbot; their experimental dishes, storytelling and delicate flavours are worth the trip to Cambridge alone. 


Being so close to Midsummer Common, venture off the beaten tourist track and go east along the river; here you’ll find rolling parkland and, if you time it right, plenty of student rowers splashing – and probably crashing – around. (Pro tip: stay on the south side of the river to avoid collisions with shouty coaches cycling alongside their crews.) 

Hitching a punt ride is a given in Cambridge and, though it seems like a tourist trap, the punt tours are well worth the down payment if you’d like to see the city’s oldest sights and learn more about Cambridge, its colleges, and its lengthy history. Staying at The Varsity, punt tours are literally right on your doorstep, leaving from the quayside. Fancy going it alone? Punts are also available for private hire so you can explore the city at your own pace. (Another pro tip: if the pole gets stuck, let it go. It’s you or the pole that’s falling in, and I know which I would choose…).

Aerial view of river Cam in Cambridge, United Kingdom

If you can’t find your sea legs, stay on dry land and explore the city. Stroll down the idyllic, always-bustling King’s Parade, grab a tasty ice-cream from local parlour Jack’s Gelato, and pay a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum for a dose of beautiful art. You could also stroll along The Backs, a stretch of the city showcasing the rear of some of the oldest colleges. If you’d like to step inside the hallowed halls, most colleges are open to visitors, though some for a fee. (Final pro tip: avoid the big boys like King’s, Queens’, Trinity and St John’s to avoid price tags and crowds, especially in the summer. Many central colleges, including Emmanuel, Downing, Gonville & Caius, Jesus and Magdalene are just as old, pretty and free to enter – just make sure you check their opening times before you arrive!).


Rooms from £131 per night. To book a stay, call 01223 306030 or e-mail [email protected].

Getting There

Cambridge is a breeze to get to via train, with frequent services from London Liverpool Street, King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, with the Thameslink service also passing through Blackfriars, City Thameslink, Farringdon, and London Bridge stations. Travelling as a family? Thameslink also offer £2 children’s tickets with any off-peak or super off-peak adult ticket.

Featured image by Paul Winch-Furness.