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The contemplative spirit of Cambridge is the perfect foil for anyone exhausted with the bustling and distracting cityscape of London. Here by the River Cam, this charming city just an hour north of London reveals it quiet beauty with ease.

A true college town, the University of Cambridge is actually a collection of more than 30 separate colleges, many of which date back more than five centuries. Though this city is often overshadowed by Oxford to the west because of its richer history, Cambridge is more picturesque, less crowded and easier to walk.

Reminders everywhere tell visitors that this is a place of learning and inspiration. Gothic chapels and archways loom over pedestrian streets, and narrow alleys open up to attractive storefronts, bookstores and inexpensive streetside pubs and cafes.

Students punt down the river in their flat-bottom boats and campus lawns are trimmed to immaculate, golf course-like perfection. Cambridge is the perfect place to spend a tranquil day or two and is very easily accessible by rail.

Of course, the main reason to visit Cambridge is its colleges. So many visitors flock to these impressive halls of learning each year that some of the more famous campuses now charge nominal admission fees.

Many try to protect the studious environment by limiting where tourists may explore. Small signs warn visitors to stay off the grass.

All this aside, several of these campuses are a must-see. Trinity College, near the heart of the city, stands among the prime attractions. Founded by Henry VIII (he of the six wives), it's the largest and wealthiest of the Cambridge colleges.

Visitors pass through a archway flanked by octagonal towers, with a statue of the king standing above. The Great Court inside evokes the stately feel of the college, with an enclosed landmark fountain.

It's a setting brimming with tradition. Look up, and there's the clock tower where students begin their race around the square at the strike of 12, as depicted in "Chariots of Fire." (The movie scene was shot in Oxford, but the real race happens here.)

Inside the adjacent chapel is a place of somber reflection. The walls are lined with names of college members killed in the world wars, and looming above the altar is a painting of St. Michael defeating Satan.

Trinity College lends itself to a pleasant stroll around its grounds, past the library designed by Sir Christopher Wren and over a bridge spanning the Cam. Here one can idle while watching students and tour guides punting skillfully down the river with a long pole.

King's College graces the city just a few blocks to the south. Its chapel is a major landmark, and the campus' dramatic, flanking gateways, spires, chimneys, archways and huge Gothic windows present a stunning sight. Started by Henry VI in 1441, this college is one of the oldest in the city.

After beholding the carpet-like Front Lawn, many visitors head straight for the chapel, an architectural marvel with soaring, fanned arches reaching 80 feet high, and spectacular stained glass depicting many scenes and stories from the life of Christ.

Patterned on St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, the King's College chapel is a football field long and boasts elaborate choir stalls and a wooden screen with the carved initials of King Henry VIII and his then-queen, Anne Boleyn, who later lost her head.

Visitors get a brochure at the entrance that offers a detailed tour of the chapel and the rest of the campus, describing the other buildings and leading visitors toward the scenic back lawn.

Farther south, Queen's College is arguably the most beautiful campus of them all, first founded in 1448 by Margaret of Anjou, the college sits astride the River Cam and is connected by the famous Mathematical Bridge. Buildings like the colorful Old Hall offer tributes to medieval artistry.

There are other campuses at Cambridge, many that are smaller and in some ways more charming than the legendary ones. A number invite visitors to have a look around for free, one of the perks of visiting a city where the exterior architecture alone offers so much to admire.

But colleges are not the only reason to visit this fair city. The street scene is inviting and unpredictable. Take a stroll and you might encounter an affable musician playing his guitar from inside a litter bin for tips, or even an English lad wearing a Sabres jersey.

The streets are full of little discoveries - from quaint shops and cafes to all kind of retail shopping. Walk along one of the main roads, St. John's Street, and pop into Heffer's, a popular bookstore. It's one of many bookshops to choose from.

Finally, no one can do justice to Cambridge without mentioning its many fine churches and museums. They dot the city as reminders of a reverent and scholarly past. The Fitzwilliam Museum and the Kettle's Yard complex are two museum standouts, and many small parish churches remain open to visitors during the day in hopes of small donation.

Before you hop the bus back to the train station, check out some of the retail storefronts. Because this city caters to students, some of the prices are lower than what you'll find in London.

By the time you leave, you'll be ready to root for Cambridge to beat Oxford in the big annual boat race.

If you go

Nonstop trains from London regularly make their way to Cambridge from the Liverpool and King's Cross stations, both easily accessed by subway. Several buses take visitors to the heart of town for a nominal fare. City bus tours are also available.

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