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Hotel Highlights

  • Excellent riverbank location in Cambridge's collegiate heart
  • Elemis treatments, Jacuzzi and spa
  • Yoga and city views on the roof in summer

Overview

The Varsity Hotel & Spa may have rooms named after colleges, artworks based on famous alumni and donnish decanters of brandy to hand, but there's nothing studenty about it. It's set in the riverside heart of Cambridge, has a spotless health club and Elemis spa attached, and from its seventh-floor rooftop you can catch the best views in the city. Academically gifted, this one.

Smith Extra

Here's what you get for booking The Varsity Hotel & Spa with us:

A bottle of red or white wine in your room, and late check-out (12.30pm)

Facilities

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The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge - United Kingdom

Need To Know

Rooms

48, including four suites.

Check–out

11.30am, but flexible subject to availability and a charge, depending on the time. Earliest check-in, 3.30pm.

Rates

Double rooms from $197.73 (£116), excluding tax at 20 per cent.

More details

Rates include the Continental buffet breakfast; hot dishes are also available (from £6).

Also

The Glassworks Elemis spa is housed in a Conran-designed building next door (you have to pop out into the street to get there). In addition to well-priced facials, massages and beauty treatments, you can book in for reflexology, aromatherapy and waxing. Yoga, pilates and boxercise classes are held in the beamed gym and, in summer, on the hotel roof. There's also an Aveda hair salon.

At the hotel

Glassworks Elemis spa with gym,Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna, roof garden, TV lounge (with decanters of brandy and whisky to hand), DVDs and CDs available, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: flatscreen TV, DVD and CD players, iPod dock, bottled water, Elemis bath products. Suite guests get Nespresso machines, a selection of books, and access to an iPad and Wii on request.

Our favourite rooms

With floor-to-ceiling windows in most rooms, it's a crime against viewpoints not to go as high up the hotel as possible – stick to the north or east ends of the building if you can. We were wowed by the objêts-d'art-dotted Master's Penthouse Suite on the sixth floor, which has two glass walls, a long balcony where you can ogle Cambridge's most famous bits, and a colossal four-poster; a room made for dirty weekending. The smallest rooms, Graduate Doubles, are on the weeny side, but fine for a quick city stay.

Poolside

There's no pool, but bring swimwear if you fancy a soak in the spa's river-view Jazuzzi.

Packing tips

With historical architecture (and architectural history) around every cobbled corner, a camera is obligatory. Don't forget swimwear for the Jacuzzi. If you plan on punting the Cam (and you should), bring clothes you don't mind getting damp. NB No one really wears mortarboards.

Also

All public areas are accessible to wheelchair users, all bedrooms are accessible by lift, and some have been specially adapted for mobility-impaired guests.

Children

This hotel is better suited to couples - leave the children at home!

Food & Drink

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The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge - United Kingdom

Hotel Restaurant

Looking out over the water at mediaeval Magdalene College, the River Bar is a sophisticated split-level take on a traditional steakhouse, with warehouse-style exposed brick walls, a smart little coffee/cocktail bar and a grilling fixation.

Hotel Bar

Big beefy wines and competent cocktails are served in the River Bar, but it's more of a pre-dinner drinks place than somewhere to hole up for an evening.

Last orders

The River Bar shuts for food and drink at around 11pm each night, but after hours, there's always a decanter of brandy to be plundered in the first-floor guest lounge. No lunch is served on Sundays.

Room service

Staff will bend over backwards for you 24 hours a day, but the menu of drinks, snacks and light meals should cover most in-room cravings.

Smith Insider

Dress code

Blend in with all the students' parents staying for the weekend, and go for pastel-toned Home Counties casual, paired with a beam of maternal pride.

Top table

Downstairs by the window, looking out over the river – the view's better upstairs, but the atmosphere's a bit buzzier below.

Local Guide

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The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge - United Kingdom
Eat, drink, see, do: local favourites and more…

Worth getting out of bed for

Varsity Hotel runs morning yoga sessions in its panoramically endowed roof garden in summer, and every Saturday, hosts walking tours of Cambridge which take in all the juicy bits of the university city’s academic and architectural history. Close by is a quartet of big-hitter colleges – St John’s, Trinity, Magdalene (whose library contains Pepys’ diaries) and King’s – all of which make an inspiring wander (some charge for entry). Over the bridge, at the top of Magdalene Street, Kettle’s Yard art gallery showcases some fascinating modern works, whereas the Fitzwilliam Museum beyond King’s showcases the university’s hoard of arts and antiquities. Varsity’s Quayside position makes it ideal for messing about in boats – hire a punt (with or without a chauffeur) from Scudamore’s (+44 (0)1223 359750) next door and set out on the Cam.

Local restaurants

Varsity's within easy reach of almost all Cambridge's headliners. Big daddy is Victorian villa Midsummer House (+44 (0)1223 369299; www.midsummerhouse.co.uk), the twice Michelin-starred shrine to molecular gastronomy where Daniel Clifford has been hosting quiet culinary revolutions since 1998. A lower-key city stalwart, 22 Chesterton Road (+44 (01223 351880; www.restaurant22.co.uk) occupies a terraced house just out of the centre, and has a cosy, intimate feel, like dining in a Dickensian parlour. The menu changes monthly and features studied British dishes with occasional glances over the Channel. Closer to the hotel, by Magdalene Bridge, Galleria (+44 (0)1223 362054; www.galleriacambridge.co.uk) is a competent Frenchie – and, in summer, its little balcony over the river is the most scenic spot to eat in Cambridge. Côte (+44 (0)1223 311053; www.cote-restaurants.co.uk) at the end of the road on the corner of Bridge Street, is the acceptable face of chain French dining. Jamie’s Italian (+44 (0)1223 654094; www.jamieoliver.com/italian), a short walk away on Wheeler Street, plays the same role for rustic Italian fare.

Local bars

Bridge Street is lined with watering holes, many of them thronging with students. Magdalene College’s pet pub and one of the city’s oldest, The Pickerel (+44 (0)1223 355068), is a black-beamed, low-ceilinged affair, serving good real ale. Although it’s always packed with tourists and King’s students, The Eagle (+44 (0)1223 505020) on Bene’t Street is worth a quick visit for its World War II graffiti, supplied by carousing RAF airmen, and its historic value as the site DNA-pioneers Watson and Crick chose to announce their discovery of ‘the secret of life’.

Local cafés

Close to Varsity on Bridge Street, Bridges Patisserie (+44 (0)1223 300 800) is an unexpected café-noodle bar combo. Clowns (+44 (0)1223 355711) on King Street is a friendly, family-run Italian café that serves reliable, unpretentious pasta, coffee and cakes in a cheery, if creepily clown-themed, environment.

+ Enlarge
College-lined banks of the Cam

The Varsity Hotel & Spa

Thompson's Lane, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire CB5 8AQ, United Kingdom

The Varsity Hotel & Spa is Cambridge's most central hotel, on the quayside opposite Magdalene College, with its main entrance off a side street.

Planes

London Stansted's the closest airport, about 45 minutes' drive outside Cambridge. Helicopters and private planes can land at Cambridge Airport, three miles away.

Trains

Cambridge station is on the other side of the city, a little over two miles away. There are regular direct services to London (Liverpool Street and King's Cross) and Birmingham, and easy connections to other UK cities. Buses into the city centre from the station are frequent.

Automobiles

No, no, and no. Cambridge's centre was designed to maximise driver confusion and render parking impossible. London's an hour away down the M11, but if you're bringing a car contact the hotel for parking advice – there's none on site.

Reviews

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The Varsity Hotel & Spa - Cambridge - United Kingdom

Anonymous review

by Fairfax Hall , Gin Smith

At last. I have a place at Cambridge, and I can look down on the rest of the world. To be precise, I’m standing gin and tonic in hand, seven floors up, on the roof terrace bar of the Varsity hotel, with views in every direction of the dreaming spires, watching people scurrying below. Converting the roof into a stunning brushed-wood bar was a brilliant idea. As is, in fact, the Varsity ho…
Read more

The Varsity Hotel & Spa

Anonymous review by Fairfax Hall, Gin Smith

At last. I have a place at Cambridge, and I can look down on the rest of the world. To be precise, I’m standing gin and tonic in hand, seven floors up, on the roof terrace bar of the Varsity hotel, with views in every direction of the dreaming spires, watching people scurrying below.

Converting the roof into a stunning brushed-wood bar was a brilliant idea. As is, in fact, the Varsity hotel in general. The founders noticed that the town was missing a cool place to eat, sleep, drink and be pampered (yes, it has a spa as well). So they found a space right in the heart of the action, on the banks of the river, smack in the middle of the world-famous centuries-old colleges, and they built a modern, slick, fully mod-conned yet quietly unassuming boutique hotel. Genius. And little wonder – the founders being Cambridge grads. Indeed, everyone we meet in Cambridge seems to be switched on – our taxi driver even has the scoop on how the boys managed to build the hotel.

It’s an entertaining tale of a dispute between previous owners and the council, which our cabbie says ended with one side walking away from the property leaving the taps running. It was a year, he says, before anyone found it and by then the foundations were so irreparably damaged that the entire building was unusable. Turns out the tale isn’t quite the truth, but anyroad, so the property sat neglected until the current owners unpicked the legal mess, razed the building to the ground and built the Varsity.

Refreshed from our rooftop sharpener, we make our way down a level, to our room. There is also a four-poster bed, a massive flatscreen TV, a monsoon wet room with Elemis products and fluffy white bathrobes. A floor-to-ceiling window comprises one whole side, dominating it – stand next to the glass and you might as well be standing outside. It’s not the biggest room I’ve ever been in, but the window makes it feel airy.

In the morning, having slept like kings (well, our room is called Kings, named after a college at Cambridge, as are all the rooms), I make a strong pot of freshly ground coffee and order up breakfast. After a full English for me, and fruit salad and a pain au chocolat for Mrs Smith, boating along the backs beckons – so-called because the college lawns ‘back’ onto the River Cam.

Punting, these novices discover, is a dog-eat-dog world. But once you’ve got the hang of it it’s rather fun. For me, that means moving forward while avoiding falling in; for Mrs Smith it translates as reclining into cushions, soaking up the sun and the sights. Oh, and there are sights. As we pass a portly chap regaling his family with stories of the punting glories of his youth, he is blindsided by Japanese tourists and pitches headfirst into the river.

Still chuckling, we park our punt pretty much outside the door and head to the hotel’s Glassworks Spa. Mrs Smith has booked in for Aveda treatments with names like ‘Outer peace’, which involve aromatherapy, hot stones and products she is positively cooing over. I opt for a sports massage, then try out the steam room and sauna. Deciding both are a bit like hard work, I flop instead into the Jacuzzi. Positioned in front of a huge window looking out over a riverside path, it’s ideal for people watching. One-way glass means those passing can’t resist checking their reflections in what seems a big mirror – unaware that a few feet away I’m in my bubbly tub ogling them.

Amazing how doing nothing for a few hours works up an appetite; so we pop round the corner to the hotel’s restaurant, the River Bar Steakhouse and Grill. Greeted by a buzzing bar, we grab a table overlooking the river, and get stuck into a carnivores’ dream of a menu. There is nothing that reaffirms one’s sense of man after a few feminine hours in a spa, like a massive hunk of red meat, served perfectly rare and washed down with a potent Malbec.

Retreating to our room, we take in that gorgeous river view one last time. I can’t help but say once again to Mrs Smith how intelligently this hotel uses light and glass to accentuate its best feature: the location. Perhaps if you spend long enough hanging around these hallowed walls, intellect seeps in by osmosis. After all, I’ve only been in Cambridge for a couple of days and already I’m feeling rather clever. Well, I did suggest this weekend away.

The Guestbook

Whenever you book a stay at a Smith hotel with us, we'll invite you to review it when you get back. Read what other Smith members had to say in The Varsity Hotel & Spa's Guestbook below.

 

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

I liked the great location, nice hotel, friendly staff, yummy breakfast.

Don’t expect

Bigger beds would be better.

Rating: 10/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

We had one of the penthouses on the 6th floor – lots of space and great views.

Don’t expect

The bathroom was too small for a penthouse, although it looked like the other penthouses had bigger bathrooms. We were in room 614.

Rating: 8/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

The room was fantastic with incredible views of Cambridge. The staff was very helpful and friendly. Previous occupants had left their keys in the room and because we had the inconvenience of having someone come up to collect them we were given a free bottle of wine, which was nice. It's a great hotel; I would highly recommend it.

Rating: 9/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

Excellent staff, good location and a comfortable room.

Rating: 10/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

The staff and the whole atmosphere was excellent.

Don’t expect

Parking could be better.

Rating: 9/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

I liked the great location.

Rating: 7/10 stars

GoldSmith

Stayed on

We loved

This is a stylish and well appointed hotel with all the modern amenities you would hope for. Excellent rooms, a superb rooftop bar (weather permitting) and excellent adjoining Steakhouse restaurant that offered just the right size portions to keep both me and Mrs. Smith happy. They make a good espresso Martini, as well. The Elemis Spa is a little on the small side with only a jacuzzi and steam room, but the treatments are excellent and very good value.

Don’t expect

The Lounge Bar was a little on the quiet side and was a little awkward to walk into, but with so many other amenities nearby, it wasn't a problem at all.

Rating: 10/10 stars

BlackSmith

Stayed on

We loved

The hotel was right in the middle of Cambridge, close to all the tourist attractions. There was a gym and a spa to use. too.

Don’t expect

The parking could be better.

Rating: 7/10 stars

SilverSmith

Stayed on

We loved

We stayed in room on the fifth floor with large panoramic window with great views over the rooftops of Cambridge.

Don’t expect

When booking, ask to have a room on the opposite side of the hotel to the courtyard service road to the left of the hotel (when viewed from the front doors looking at the hotel). On a previous occasions we were woken up by bin men at 7am, which is far too early!

Rating: 7/10 stars