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As you know I love to plan and organize. But even if you spend hours reading blogs by people who live in the place you want to visit or asking locals questions on forums, I think that’s still not the same as actually experiencing a city with< a local. So that’s what I wanted to do when I visited Cambridge in the UK… and I also knew who I wanted to do it with.
Sylvie and I met Jamie when we were in Los Angeles in 2012. We'd stayed at the same hostel in West Hollywood and kept in touch after our trip. As a policeman in Cambridge, Jamie knows his city like no other and so I asked him if he wanted to be my guide on a ‘Cambridge with a local’ trip. He did and when Sylvie agreed to come along as well, we decided to make a weekend out of it so that we wouldn't have to rush things.
My first time on the Eurostar
Although my dad and I go to London annually, we've actually never taken the Eurostar. I always thought that was a bit strange, but my dad wanted to save miles by flying and as a claustrophobic he’s also a bit scared of passing through the Euro Tunnel.
So, my first time on the Eurostar! How was it? Well, I don’t think I’ll ever be flying to London again.
Sylvie and I took the train in Leuven around 7 am to arrive in Brussels Midi around 7.30 am. That would leave us with half an hour before the Eurostar would take off – perfect, as we had to be there at least 20 minutes in advance for check-in.
Eurostar provided us with a complimentary return ticket and which was great was that we got a ticket in business class to go from Brussels to London St. Pancreas and a ticket in economy class to come back. That way we could experience the difference between the two booking classes.
When we arrived at the Eurostar area at Brussels Midi there was quite a long line for check-in. With our business tickets we got to skip that line and go through immediately.
When you walk towards the platform there are signs indicating if you need to enter the platform on the left or on the right, depending on the number of your coach. Your tickets get checked once more when you board and then you just find your seat number.
The seat numbers we originally got were facing away from the driving direction, but as our coach wasn't even half full, we got to switch seats without a problem. Riding business class on the Eurostar is a synonym for eating. We were offered food and drinks the entire time: croissants, bread, a warm breakfast dish, fruit, coffee, tea, orange juice, water… It all tasted well and personnel serving us was really friendly.
From London to Cambridge
After we’d arrived at London St. Pancreas we just had to cross the street to King’s Cross to take the train to Cambridge. Trains between London and Cambridge run pretty frequently and the trip takes about 45 minutes.
A couple of minutes after we’d arrived in Cambridge Jamie came to pick us up and we were good to go.
I normally would have planned out this entire weekend but as now the whole purpose of the trip was to experience the city of Cambridge guided by a local, I left everything to Jamie and although I still love to plan, I also must admit it was pretty nice to be able to wander around without looking at a map every ten minutes.
That wasn't the best part about exploring Cambridge with Jamie, though. The best part was that he was able to tell us things about the city we would have never learned from guide books or online forums. He told us about housing prices, criminality, festivals and local customs. On top of that he knew so much about the history of his city that I was in complete awe by the end of the weekend.
Cambridge is actually a pretty small city. I would even compare it to Leuven, where I live. That said, I loved every inch of it. The historic center is really beautiful and can easily be done on foot.
A walk through Cambridge center
We started our walk at the Parker’s Piece park. From there we walked onto Parker Street. If you get there, you’ll then see the bus station on your right side with the Christ’s Pieces park behind it. If you cross the street and take the street to the left, however, you get to the Grand Arcade, an indoor shopping mall where I bought some Nikes to go dancing.
We walked through the Grand Arcade to get to King’s Parade where we visited King’s College and King's College Chapel.
After that we walked on to Trinity Street where we saw Trinity College. There’s a nice little crafts market there on Saturdays.
At the crossing of Trinity Street and Bridge Street, you’ll find the Round Church. This church was built around 1130, making it one of the oldest buildings in Cambridge. Jamie got quite upset here, though, as I was more impressed by the giant lollipop outside the candy store facing the round church.
Facing the Round Church we turned left to get to the water. You could see people punt here, something we would try the next day. Now we just settled for a drink on the grass, watching the punts slide through the water.
Because we’d gotten up really early to catch our first train we decided to spend a calm evening at Jamie’s, ordering Chinese and watching a film. On our way back we walked through a park where… cows were grazing! I'd never seen cows roam around freely in a park, but apparently that's normal in Cambridge. They're the natural lawnmowers of the city and the park was even equipped with special gates so that people could easily get in and out, but the cows couldn't.
After a good night’s sleep, Jamie prepared us some delicious breakfast. No eggs and bacon but muesli, yogurt and fresh fruit (mmm!) before we spent our last hours in Cambridge. We first headed to the punts and were surprised when Jamie, a Cambridge local, told us he'd never punted before. He was determined to try it, though, and so we didn't take a guided punt ride but put Jamie in charge.
Now, what is punting? When you first see it, it'll remind you of the gondolas in Venices. Punt boats are long rectangular boats without any steering wheel or engine. The punter stands at the back of the punt and pushes it forward using a long stick. By pushing in a certain direction, he or she also uses the stick to steer.
It quickly turned out you really need to know how to punt and master the technique for it to go smoothly. Experienced punters guide their punts smoothly through the water and have no problem maneuvering. We didn't quite get to that point during our first try, but we did get to see Cambridge from the water, which was pretty cool, and for Jamie it was quite the workout.
Transportation and activity costs
During my trip to the city of Cambridge, I tried to keep a list of what I spent on what. I thought I’d share it with you so that you might have an idea of what a trip to Cambridge might cost. Below you'll find what we've spent on transportation and sights.
From Brussels to the city of Cambridge
We bought a weekend return ticket for the train to go from Leuven to Brussels and back. Weekend tickets can be used from Friday evening until Sunday evening and are 50% off of the normal ticket price. We paid €6,2 per person for our return ticket Leuven-Brussels.
We received complimentary Eurostar tickets for this trip, but if we'd had purchased them ourselves we would have paid €99 for a return ticket in economy class. I kept an eye on the prices and tickets seemed to be cheapest if you booked a lot in advance (I think you can book up to two months in advance with Eurostar). Eurostar sometimes also does special promotions, which are definitely worth looking out for. However, if you're planning a last minute trip your tickets will be more expensive, especially if you want to travel on peak dates and times (Monday morning, Fridays, Sunday evening …).
After we’d arrived in London we had to get the train to Cambridge. Because we weren't going back the same day, we took an open return ticket for £44. Yes, traveling by train is extremely expensive in England. With an open return ticket, you can do the ‘there’ part of your journey within five days after buying the ticket and the ‘return’ part within the month.
During our visit
When Jamie picked us up at the Cambridge train station we took a cab to quickly get to the town center. It’s £5 from the train station to Parker’s Piece park. The rate is higher on Sundays (£5,5) and doubles after midnight.
There are several colleges and other historic buildings that you can visit in Cambridge. Because we were only there for a short time and wanted to enjoy the nice weather by walking outside, we only visited the King’s College Chapel and grounds. The entrance fee was £7,5 per person at the time of my visit. Quite expensive, I thought, but the Chapel and grounds certainly were worth a visit.
Luckily, we didn't have to book a hotel room. Jamie was so kind to let us stay at his place for the night, but as he lives in Meldreth, right outside of Cambridge, we had to take the train there. A super off-peak single ticket between Cambridge and Meldreth is £2,9 per person.
Lastly, we paid £22 in total for an hour of punting. This is the rate if you decide to punt yourself. If you want a guided tour with a punter from the punting company, it costs a lot more. There are different tours, starting at about £12 per person.
Besides the costs listed above we also spent some money on food and drinks, but as we stuck to street food and fish and chips, those costs were small.
Where to stay in Cambridge
Check Booking.com for an extensive list of options for all budgets and needs.
If you're looking for an apartment rather than a hotel, I recommend checking airbnb. Sign up through my link and get a discount on your first stay.