The historic university town is finally getting the stylish hotel it deserves.
Ever since Isaac Newton more or less invented modern physics in Cambridge in the 17th century, the city has been a locus of innovation. When I visited, I saw a graft of the tree whose falling apple gave the Trinity College fellow his aha moment about gravity, and I poked my head into the Eagle, the pub where James Watson and Francis Crick announced their discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953. There are now roughly 4,500 science and technology firms, from start-ups to giants like Apple and Amazon, in the low-lying area the media has dubbed “Silicon Fen.”
You might not be aware of these developments, however, while wandering the town’s medieval center. Enter the gates of almost any of the 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge, and you’re likely to find magnificent Gothic architecture, cloistered gardens, and tightly clipped lawns. But the high streets and shop-lined alleys, the cafés and theaters, have a spirited, cosmopolitan energy, and now the city has a hotel to match.
The newly refurbished University Arms, Cambridge (doubles from $265) was founded in 1834 as a 15-room coaching inn. Over time it was expanded piecemeal in an ungainly amalgam of styles. A two-year overhaul has reimposed order, creating a 192-room entity with a graceful porte cochère by architect John Simpson. But this understated exterior doesn’t prepare you for the exuberance and wit inside, where designer Martin Brudnizki plays with the history and iconography of Cambridge and England. The pattern of the hallway carpets echoes the university’s blue-striped necktie. Prints of churches, birds, boats, bicycles, and other things English people like hang salon-style in the public spaces. An audiobook of The Wind in the Willows is piped into the restrooms.
The suites, painted in soothing English country-house blues and greens, are named after famous Cambridge graduates: Byron, Tennyson, Newton, Darwin. Each is decorated with portraits of its eponymous writer or scientist. I stayed in a top-floor suite devoted to Renaissance playwright Christopher Marlowe. Its bathroom occupies a turret with immense arched windows overlooking Parker’s Piece, a large, open commons. (You have to close the blinds, or hope that the people in the boot-camp classes and pickup soccer games below are too distracted to notice your ablutions.) Books are everywhere — on étagères and dressing tables, and in the ground floor’s clubby library. They’re not just props, but well-chosen new releases and classics you can actually imagine reading.
On a Saturday night, Parker’s Tavern (entrées $14–$63), the hotel’s restaurant, was filled to capacity with both hotel guests and locals. Chef Tristan Welch, a Cambridge native who has cooked in Paris and the Caribbean, puts a global spin on traditional English dishes. I sampled a rich risotto, with Somerset truffles and salty-sweet Berkswell cheese, and the wondrous Duke of Cambridge tart, a thick slab of muscovado custard with marmalade and candied citrus peel.
The next morning, I lounged on cushions while the cheerful, chatty Max Thompson of Rutherford’s Punting used a long pole to propel our small, flat-bottomed boat down the Cam. This narrow, tranquil river winds through “the Backs” — the postcard-perfect grounds of some of the more famous colleges, including St. John’s, King’s, and Trinity. After this quintessential Cambridge activity, I revved up with a Chelsea bun, the signature currant-filled pastry at Fitzbillies, and hopped onto one of the bicycles for hotel guests, which are painted powder blue, the official school color. (Cycling, typically with a basket embellishing your prow, is the preferred method of transport among locals.) I followed a path southward along the Cam, through a necklace of parks and fields — finding some of the fabled cows that freely roam the city’s green spaces—to the hamlet of Grantchester. There, at the Orchard Tea Garden, you can buy a cuppa and cake at a pavilion, sink into one of the folding deck chairs under the apple trees (just like Rupert Brooke, E. M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf used to do), and fall into an English pastoral delirium. On my way back to the city, I swung onto Mill Road, which I learned about by Googling “hippest neighborhood in Cambridge.” Amid the antique shops and ethnic restaurants, I stumbled upon Urban Larder, which was hip indeed, and served an indulgent pressed sandwich.
Related: England's Next Foodie Destination
Cambridge’s scientific breakthroughs get all the press, but the city also has transcendent art. In the 1950s, Jim Ede, a former Tate curator, reconfigured a cluster of stone cottages into a home for himself and his wife, filled it with paintings and sculptures, and opened it as a gallery that he dubbed Kettle’s Yard. Ede was friends with the great English Modernists Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Alfred Wallis, and he placed his large collection of their works, as well as pieces by Joan Miró, Constantin Brancusi, and dozens of other artists, alongside meticulous arrangements of stones, flowers, pottery, and driftwood. Recently reopened after a two-year renovation, it’s an enchanting place, with a newly expanded auxiliary space that showcases contemporary artists who fit the Kettle’s Yard ethos, including, during the coming year, Louise Bourgeois and Oscar Murillo. Architects Adam Caruso and Peter St. John took design inspiration from Kettle’s Yard when they converted an Edwardian stable into the Heong Gallery, just inside the gates of Downing College. Its two rooms, flooded with natural light, house temporary exhibitions of artists as diverse as Ai Weiwei and children’s book illustrator Quentin Blake.
In a slender row house just outside the city center, I found Restaurant Twenty-Two (tasting menus from $52). The simply decorated ground floor contains just a few tables and chairs. The staff is friendly and astute. My fellow patrons ranged from Instagram kids to a party of natty octogenarians, who I imagined were university dons. When I visited, the $32 set lunch menu included warm bread made with Guinness; a peppery watercress and potato soup; a plate of braised carrots dusted with dukkah, an Egyptian nut and spice mix; and a velvety ragoût of coco beans, Parmesan, and spring onions. After only a few bites, I realized I was eating one of my favorite meals ever. Like Cambridge, it was innovative, intelligent, and sublime.