Originally opened as a hotel in 1834, the University Arms has undergone an £80m transformation by architect John Simpson and the interior designer every hotelier wants to work with, Martin Brudnizki, adding a glamorous new facelift to its elegant, historic bone structure.
And the general vibe?
The white stone building, with its striking Corinthian-style pillars and grand entrance, sits on Cambridge’s lush Parker’s Piece (an open green). Parquet flooring, Cambridge Blue walls and locally inspired artwork gives it a fresh but quintessentially Edwardian English vibe, and the dapperly dressed concierge swiftly appears to greet you good day.
Cosy up in the library, complete with dark, wooden-panelled walls, weathered rugs, velvet mustard armchairs, red leather sofas and antique chests of drawers. Take a seat in the scalloped blue window booth and sip on a gin and tonic, or nestle by the flickering log fire and flick through Orwell on Truth (the book collection is curated by Heyward Hill, one of the oldest book shops in the country) or the day’s papers.
Which room should I book at the University Arms?
There are 192 bedrooms, split into cosy, classic, superior and suite categories. Each one is thoughtfully equipped with city guides and access to free bicycle hire. For a real indulgence, book Franklin (named after DNA discoverer, Rosalind Franklin) where dark mahogany tables, burnt orange velvet chaiselongues and mid-century writing desks topped with brass lights create a vintage air.
A mirrored drinks trolley comes with bottles of port, sherry and single malt whisky while bedside tables are ready-stocked with scientific literature. On a sunny day, open the double doors onto your own private balcony and whittle away the hours watching cricket matches on the field opposite.
Light and airy bathrooms are just as opulent as the bedrooms, with free-standing baths, marble sinks, rain showers and underfloor heating.
What’s good to drink?
Head to the Art Deco-inspired bar, where marbled wallpaper is meant to reflect the inside of a book and well-dressed waiters in yellow bow ties mix own-version negronis.
The extensive wine list features predominantly New World reds, whites and rosés as well as English options from Norfolk vineyards. Try a glass of the smooth Parke’s Tavern Claret, or the 2015 Chianti Rufina with full-bodied, spicy plum tones.
If you’re looking for something sweeter, opt for one of the signature cocktails, each inspired by a person, place or event in Cambridge’s history. We loved the Mccalmonts Mansion, made with Cambridge Dry gin and fragrant lavender cordial.
For gin lovers, order a tasting flight of local gins from the Cambridge Distillery including Anty, Japanese, Cambridge Dry, Truffle and, in the near future, Parker’s Tavern’s own variety.
The hotel is home to Parker’s Tavern, a British brasserie with chef Tristan Welch at the helm. After three years working in Mustique (and, prior to that, at Le Gavroche and Glenapp Castle (read our review here), Tristan has returned to his home town, creating a menu that celebrates East Anglian produce. Expect homely classics, such as fish cakes and potted shrimp, alongside hearty pies and roast meats.
For a rich start to your meal, order the silkily smooth truffled duck egg on toast, with truffle-mushroom mayo and sherry vinegar, or try the creamy, slightly spiced coronation chicken served with sweet chunks of grilled apricot, nuggets of almonds and crisp butter lettuce.
Mains are hearty, from tender duck served with creamed potato and al dente bitter spinach to roast suckling pig with crisp crackling, sweet juices and smoky braised fennel.
For those with a very sweet tooth, the Duke of Cambridge Tart is a must. A reinvention of a historic pudding, the sticky treacly spiced marmalade filling on a buttery pastry base comes with a generous dollop of thick clotted cream.
Those with a savoury tooth are also satisfied, with a choice of three cheesy desserts. Our recommendation goes to Welch’s indulgent rarebit on toast (if you’ve got room, that is).
What’s the breakfast like?
A lavish affair. Tables are spread with homemade granola, Suffolk brie, platters of Chapel and Swan Smokery salmon, Wiltshire parma ham, Suffolk salami, loaves of sourdough and Danish pastries (filled with rhubarb, passion fruit or apricot) from Watford’s Flourish Bakery as well as honeycomb from the bees at Dittisham.
If you’re after something hot, the creamy porridge made with local organic oats and a drizzle of honey is as comforting as it gets, but the Parker’s Tavern breakfast -complete with home-cured bacon and crispy, pressed potato hash browns – will keep you fueled for the whole day.
Is the University Arms family-friendly?
There are no family rooms but extra beds (for children up to the age of 16) can be put into the larger bedrooms for an additional charge. Food-wise, Parker’s Tavern offers a children’s menu at both lunch and dinner, featuring classics of spaghetti bolognese, fish cakes and chips and cones of soft-serve ice cream for dessert.
What can I do in the local area?
As well as cycling around the city’s colleges and parks, pay a visit to the newly re-opened Kettle’s Yard – part art gallery, part home – and its carefully amassed collections of paintings, ceramics and furniture.
If you want to explore Cambridge’s foodie scene, join the queue at Fitzbillie’s for their renowned sticky Chelsea buns, head to Jack’s Gelato for a scoop of salted treacle in a chocolate cone, or relax over a lazy brunch of green shakshuka at the Cambridge Cookery School.
On a sunny day, do like all visitors do and try your hand at punting down the river. In the colder months, cosy up in the library with afternoon tea.
Join one of the daily hotel tours at 6pm to learn about the history of the hotel. You’ll gain all manner of local gossip, from what was eaten at the Queen’s coronation feast on Parker’s Piece to why there’s a copy of Wind in the Willows in each bedroom.