Literary City Guide | Cambridge, England

They say the sky is the same everywhere. [...] But above Cambridge—anyhow above the roof of King’s College Chapel—there is a difference. Out at sea a great city will cast a brightness into the night. Is it fanciful to suppose the sky, washed into the crevices of King’s College Chapel, lighter, thinner, more sparkling than the sky elsewhere? Does Cambridge burn not only into the night, but into the day?
— Virginia Woolf, Jacob's Room

Tour Guide: Rachel Helen Smith


Rachel Helen Smith is a freelance writer and communications specialist. She first came to Cambridge to study English Literature at Sidney Sussex College, and now she’s glad to call the city home. She lives with her husband, Martin, who is a paleontologist. (All photos by Rachel Helen Smith)


Relationship to Cambridge: I first came to Cambridge as an undergraduate student. I returned a few years ago when my husband got a job at the university.

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Emily Brontë

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Rachel Khoo

Writing soundtrack: Peace and quiet

Pen or Pencil: Pen. Always black ink, never blue.

Coffee or Tea: Coffee every time; I hate tea. 

Paperback or Hardback: Paperback 

Good Reads


G David. G David, or David’s Bookshop, is nestled between King’s College and the Guildhall. As well as two rooms of bargain books it has large collection of antiquarian books, maps and engravings. 

The Haunted Bookshop. A higgledy-piggeldy crooked house crammed with illustrated children’s titles. If you’re looking for something specific you can search their stock online.

The Angel Bookshop. This tiny shop may not have been open very long, but it has already become a favourite. Don’t miss the bargain basement. 


Cambridge University Library. Cambridge has over 100 libraries, and whilst the ‘UL’ may not be the most beautiful, it is the largest. It holds over eight million books, many of which are available on open shelves, but make sure you check the rules before you plan a visit. There are regular exhibitions open to the public and occasional special events.

Wren Library, Trinity College. This treasure-trove is open to the public during limited hours each day. The collections include Newton, Shakespeare and Winnie-The-Pooh.


Cambridge Wordfest. Held twice a year, in the spring and winter, Cambridge Wordfest is the city’s very own literary festival. Its patrons include Dame Gillian Beer, the novelist Ali Smith and the nature writer Robert Macfarlane – all Cambridge locals. 

Toppings & Company Booksellers. The charming town of Ely is a 30 minute drive from Cambridge, but Toppings makes it worth the journey. This small shop has an impressive list of events and readings, as well as a small cafe.

Chain stores. Both Heffer’s and Waterstones are located in the center of Cambridge and run regular author events and signings.

Festival of Ideas. Every autumn locals and visitors can share in the rich intellectual and creative life of the University during the Festival of Ideas.


Literary Cambridge Tours. Tours on various topics are available on request.

Theatre. The University’s student theatre, the ADC, has an illustrious list of alumni including Sir Ian McKellen, John Cleese and Trevor Nunn.

Good Eats


Hot Numbers. As well as serving amazing coffee from their very own roastery, Hot Numbers hosts acoustic evenings. Now customers can also spill over into the adjoining gallery, Williams Art. If it’s too busy, Urban Larder or Limoncello are both nearby.

Michaelhouse Café. The calming ambience of this converted Church more than makes up for the slightly high prices and the lack of free Wi-Fi.

The Orchard, Grantchester. Afternoon tea at The Orchard is a true Cambridge tradition, immortalized in Rupert Brooke’s poem The Old Vicarage, Grantchester. Whether you arrive on foot or by punt, be sure to enjoy a scone, visit the Rupert Brooke Museum, or do as Virginia Woolf did and go skinny-dipping in Byron’s pool.


Michelin Stars. Down past the station, Alimentum has always been popular – and now it even has its very own Michelin star. If that’s not enough, try Cambridge’s only two-star Michelin restaurant, Midsummer House.

Pubs. City-center pub The Eagle is supposedly the spot where Crick and Watson declared that they had discovered DNA… and it also does good fish and chips. A short drive out of town, The Hole in the Wall and Three Horseshoes, Madingley offer something a little more up-market.

Italians. Aromi offers a range of mouthwatering Sicilian delights. If you struggle to find a seat, try the neighboring restaurant – Jamie’s Italian – or the student favourite, Clowns (on Kings Street).

Cambridge Brew House. A relaxed atmosphere, a seasonal menu and an on-site brewery are at the heart of this pub’s success. For more meat, beer and merriment, try The Pint Shop.


Fitzbillies. Fitzbillies is a Cambridge institution that was famously rescued from closure after Stephen Fry objected on Twitter. Why not stop in and try a famously sticky Chelsea bun?

Cambridge Market. Head to Market Square where you’ll find plenty of baked goodies to tempt the taste buds, including the popular stall Earth’s Crust. If you’d prefer to enjoy the hustle and bustle from a distance, the Marks & Spencer café has a perfect view of the colorful market stalls.

Afternoon Tease. This café is a recent addition to Cambridge and is run local baker Jo Kruczynska. Her delicious cakes are also sold in a range of other places across the city, including the Cambridge Folk Museum and the local foodie favourite, Urban Larder.

Cream Tea. For a traditional English cream tea, try Harriet’s Tea Rooms, Auntie’s Tea Shop, or avoid the tourists and head to one of the city’s many hotels for a touch of class.

“I find Cambridge an asylum, in every sense of the word.” -A. E. Housman

“What institution is more majestic than Trinity College? [...] There are towers and battlements and statues, and beside these things there are cloisters and gardens and bridges. There are charming rooms in a kind of stately gate-tower [...] And in the rooms is the best company conceivable.” -Henry James, English Vignettes (1879)

LA NEW8.jpg

Rachel's 5 Favorites

1. Favorite view: The river at dusk from Clare Bridge

2. Favorite place to write: At home, or else in the Butterfield Café, Downing College

3. Favorite museum: Kettle’s Yard

4. Favorite coffee shop: Hot Numbers

5. Favorite thing about Cambridge: Culture, culture, culture