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.


  • Excellent riverbank location in Cambridge's collegiate heart

  • Elemis treatments, Jacuzzi and spa

  • Yoga and city views on the roof in summer

Smith extra

Late check-out (12.30pm), and a room upgrade (subject to availability)

In the know

Also need to know:

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

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.

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.

Mr and Mrs Smith reviews

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.

Accommodation details


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


0.3 mi / 0.5 km from city centre

General facilities

  • Valet parking
  • Spa
  • Aerobics instruction
  • Exercise gym
  • Internet services
  • Room service
  • Lounges/bars
  • Onsite laundry
  • Restaurant

Dining information


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.

Top Table:

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

Last Orders:

The River Bar shuts at around 11.30pm each night (12.30am on Fridays and Saturdays, food orders till 10.30pm). On weekends, lunch is served from 12 noon to 4.30pm. After hours, there's always a decanter of brandy to be plundered in the first-floor lounge.

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.

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.


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