Hotel Review: The Varsity in Cambridge ‘boutique hotel heaven’

The Masters Penthouse Suite at the Varsity Hotel

The Masters Penthouse Suite

The Varsity Hotel & Spa splashes on the River Cam in the heart of Cambridge. A  mortar board’s throw away from the colleges of Jesus, King’s, Queens’, Magdalene, St John’s, and Trinity.  Only an hour by train from London, perfect for all-year round punting, shopping, quad and cloister hopping and maybe seeing a darling sprog graduate.

The 48-room boutique hotel is tucked down a quiet side-street next to the bridge over the River Cam that gives the city its name. It’s an independent, new-build, new-looking hotel owned and run by a clutch of Cambridge alumni and signed up by Mr and Mrs Smith. The original plan was to build apartments but spotting a gap in the market for an upmarket, modern, comfortable hotel at the heart of the fusty town, the eclectic Varsity Hotel and Spa was born.

Love Letters greet you on the walls of reception, dark wood-panelled walls lead to book-lined shelves onto rooms with magnificent views over the city. The huge penthouse suites with their floor-to-ceiling windows are dressed minimally – the wow factor is through the glass out on the terraces with views onto the trees, spires and towers of this magnificent ancient skyline.

Skyline from the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

Picture Postcard Perfect – the rooftops from the Varsity Hotel

The Varsity Hotel Cambridge

The Masters Suite at the Varsity Hotel and Spa, Cambridge.  Rooms from £182 – £350 for the penthouse.

The Varsity is boutique hotel heaven.

Tick all the boxes for the rain shower, full bath, Elemis toiletries, fluffy robes, Hypnos mattress, mini safe, Illy espresso machine, travel bible Conde Nast Traveller on the vast coffee table, triple-lined thermal curtains, iPod docking station and two, yes two, large flat screen televisions. No, not my wedding list from the Grand Arcade’s John Lewis, but the full spec. of the rooms. What was missing was a mini bar but, perhaps, best left out if we want to leave with a boring First rather than a hung over 2:2.

The Varsity Hotel Cambridge

Sixth Floor Suites with four-poster beds at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

We are told by Danielle from the Front Desk that there are no hidden extras – so free wi-fi throughout, a bottle of water, tea and coffee and turn down service all included. Ephemera from guests and owners are placed on the shelves.

Alan Greenhalgh at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Each of the rooms is different and has its own quirks – ours, a shiny peddle-car and a copy of  the amusing Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint by William Shakespeare. It felt right to be declaiming poetry perched in a glass and steel  ‘ivory’ tower overlooking a city so full of art, literature, science and now more love.  We had no complaints and this blog serves as a love letter to The Varsity.

Rooftop Bar at the Varsity Hotel

Rooftop Bar at the Varsity Hotel

The stunning roof terrace bar on the seventh-floor is open even in the autumn afternoons and evenings. Forget New England, there are spectacular ‘fall’ scenes for leaf peepers to be had here and it’s the best spot to watch the fireworks on Midsummer Common on Bonfire Night. During the summer there is the ‘Skyline Cinema’,  in association with The Cambridge Film Trust, which shows cult, classic and contemporary movies and cocktails on the rooftop.

Spa at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

Spa at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

To take off the chill there’s the hotel’s spa next door with a long warehouse-style gym, treatment, sauna and steam rooms and a circular Jacuzzi  – almost passable for one of those ‘infinity’ pools as the river meanders by the window.

The River Bar and Steakhouse at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge

Steaks and Cocktails on the River Cam

The River Bar and Steakhouse

Proper cocktails, interesting starters such as filo-wrapped prawns and perfect steaks.  Marco and Ben help look after the bar and restaurant – their attention to detail is superb, it’s been a while, probably the 1930s, since I was asked if I wanted my martini ‘wet or dry.’ Cocktails are from £6.50 to £9.50 and bottles of wine from £19.50 – all the classics are there.

The River Bar Steakhouse & Grill Cambridge

Steak at the River Bar Cambridge

28-day aged steaks are served on wooden boards with hand cut potato wedges, choice of sauces including a tangy bourbon and barbecue one and most importantly the steaks come cooked as ordered. A juicy rare 10 oz Sirloin Steak will set you back £21.50. Will, one of the owners of the place tells us they take meat seriously, even introducing a popular steak and wine masterclass (£40 per person, which includes a three course meal and wine) to celebrate four cuts of meat –  fillet, sirloin, rib-eye and much-missed rump. A good match for our tasty steaks was the Chianti Classico, Castello di Monestero 2008 (£27.50.) Angus, the appropriately named chef, works his magic from the tiny well-lit kitchen and sends out other delights such as roasted lobster with cheese macaroni (£18) and local venison & Black beer short crust pies (£15.00).

The River Bar Steakhouse and Grill

The River Bar Steakhouse and Grill

The decor detailing is superb – Moroccan filigree pendants hang side-by-side with filament lamps lighting up faux oil paintings of the long-deceased in this 18th century bonded warehouse, in the old part of the hotel. The place has warmth, charm, great service and looks out romantically across the Cam.

Full English Breakfast

The full works for breakfast at the Varsity Hotel

Make friends with the staff as it’s back in the dining room in the morning for the delicious full Monty breakfast with black pudding and dusted white bloomers. It’s a sort of home-from-home right down to the squeezy sauce bottles on the tables proving ‘we’re cool but not trying too hard.’

River Cam Punting

River Cam Punting


Drink in over 800 years of history with a punting tour along the ‘Backs’ of the colleges – it’s a source of pride amongst the guides that their tours consist of ‘truths and untruths.’ It’s your job to spot the porkies. Did you know that before Isaac Newton invented gravity, buildings were built from the top down? You can actually check this in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica on display in the Wren Library at Trinity College.  

King's College, Cambridge

King’s College, Cambridge

For about £15 for 45 minutes, in all weathers, it’s a peaceful way to wallow in the slow pace of academe and architecture.

Great St Mary's - the heart of Cambridge

Great St Mary’s – the heart of Cambridge

If you wanted to fit into college life, you could sleep at the Varsity hotel sixty nights of each term,  wander round rather than attend any lectures and, up until recently,  you could have got your degree. As long as you had a room within three-mile radius of the nearby Great St Mary’s Church and proved the number of nights you had spent locally you would qualify for an award.

The Varsity’s Complimentary Walking Tours on Saturdays

Sam Wolfe, our guide on an hour walking tour provided by the hotel gave a fascinating insight into life of undergraduates and notable fellows. Sam, with his smart suede brogues whisked us around the ins and outs of college life, detailing the graduation ceremony which involves a lot of Latin, parading in fours, kneeling and the pulling of fingers.

The second floor rooms of William Wordsworth at St John's Cambridge

The second floor rooms of William Wordsworth at St John’s Cambridge

He showed us the rooms of neighbouring undergraduates Wordsworth and Wilberforce. The stained glass windows that have alumni burning in hell, the raised eyebrows from the recent increase in the cost of the formal hall dining in college – about £8 for three courses, and the gossip on Prof. Hawking’s portrait in Gonville and Caius (pronounced ‘keys’ after re-founder, plain old, rich, John Keys decided to change his name after living in latinate Padua). Oh, and by the way, graduates don’t wear mortar boards – or ‘squares’ as they’re known locally, but college photographers carry a few in case you need to convince your far-off granny that you did indeed get a ‘proper’ degree. Sam should write a book, he’s studying at St John’s and is a master of all the detail, plus he’s the right chap to tap up for tickets to one of the illustrious May Balls – £350 a pair! We’ll stick to a simple pint in The Eagle where scientists Crick and Watson interrupted lunch in 1953 to announce they had discovered DNA – “the secret of life.” The Varsity Hotel plays its part, too, in college life, providing the accommodation for the talent that come to play at the events – and even dispensing 10,000 mojitos for a May Ball that had  the hotel staff muddling mint for a whole shift.


Most of the property in Cambridge is owned by the colleges. Shops have students’ rooms above them and life goes on much the same as it has in this market town for hundreds of years. However the magic of ‘ye olde worlde’ has been rubbed off by chain after chain of restaurants, beauty outlets and half-rate coffee shops. These chains have hung the place out to dry. If you are after Crabtree & Evelyn, The White Company and Carluccio’s you won’t be disappointed. But hard-to-find boutiques, organic cheese shops and crafts are to be cherished when found.  Roberto Pintus, General Manager of the Varsity Hotel, with his Milan flair,  has organised for about 75 independent shops to get together to produce a more authentic shopping experience with a map and guide.

The Varsity Hotel Cambridge

As you can see the whole city from the hotel and there’s 24 hour room service, you may actually never leave your room…

After our night’s term ended we were sorry to be ‘sent down’ to London.

Highly recommended.

The Varsity Hotel & Spa, Thompson’s Lane, Cambridge CB5 8AQ

Telephone: 01223 306030
On twitter @Varsity_Hotel


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