Cambridge was founded in 43AD by the Roman emperor Cantabrigensis, but remained an insignificant market town until the foundation of the university. Cambridge was founded in the late 1220s, supposedly by students fleeing Oxford after one of their number was lynched by hostile townsfolk. Rivalry has existed between the two institutions ever since – epitomized by the annual Boat Race on the River Thames.
Cambridge is a quiet and picturesque town and what sets it apart from Oxford is "the Backs" – the green swathe of land that straddles the River Cam, providing beautiful views over the backs of the old colleges. The façades of these same colleges dominate the layout of the town centre, lining up along the main streets (most of the older ones date back to the late 13th and 14th centuries). There are thirty-one university colleges in total, each an independent, self-governing body, proud of its achievements and attracting a close loyalty from its students.
The most famous is King's College, founded by Henry VI in 1441. Disappointed with his initial efforts, he cleared away half of medieval Cambridge four years later to make room for a much grander foundation. The present complex is largely neo-Gothic, built in the 1820s to a design by William Wilkins.
However, Henry's workmen did start on the college's finest building, the much-celebrated late Gothic King's College Chapel. Committed to canvas by Turner and Canaletto, and eulogized in three sonnets by Wordsworth, it's now best known for its boys' choir. The choir derives its world-wide fame from the annual broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (heard by millions all over the world), together with its many recordings and international touring programme.
During the 19th century the curriculum broadened with new subjects such as natural science and history being introduced. The number of students increased dramatically, however it was only in 1947 that women were awarded degrees. In the meantime, the city and university had been acquiring a reputation as a vanguard of scientific research. Its alumni have been awarded with more than ninety Nobel prizes and it has become a major international player in the lucrative electronic communications industry.
Cambridge is an extremely compact place, and you can walk round the centre (visiting the most interesting colleges) in an afternoon. If time permits, a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum is recommended. Built in the mid-19th century, the beautiful Neoclassic building houses a string of private collections. The Lower Galleries contain a wealth of antiquities including Egyptian sarcophagi and mummies, in addition to a bewildering display of European ceramics, Far Eastern applied arts and Korean ceramics.
The Upper Galleries concentrate on 19th and 20th century European painting and sculpture including works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet, Renoir, Delacroix, Cézanne and Degas. British painters featured include Blake, Constable, Turner, Hogarth, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Stubbs. There are important Italian and Flemish sections and the post-1945 gallery includes pieces by the likes of Lucian Freud, David Hockney and Henry Moore.
Punting is the quintessential summer pastime in both Cambridge and Oxford. Handling a punt (a flat-bottomed boat ideal for the shallow waters of the Thames and Cherwell rivers) is not as easy as it looks, but it is a lot of fun. In Cambridge, punt rental is available at the boatyard at Mill Lane, at Magdalene Bridge and at the Rat & Parrot pub on Jesus Green. In Oxford, try the Magdalen Bridge boathouse or the Cherwell boathouse by Wolfson College. Five people make the ideal group (four sitting and one punting). If you find it all too daunting you can always hire a chauffeur punt from any of the rental places.
If possible avoid visiting either university town in summer, when the students are replaced by hordes of tourists and foreign-language students. Due to summer crowds, the more popular colleges restrict their opening times and several have introduced admission charges. Bear in mind, too, that during the exam period (late April to early June), most colleges close their doors to the public at least some of the time.