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Wren Library – How to Visit in Cambridge (2024)!

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Wren Library in Cambridge is one of the world’s most famous and beautiful libraries located in Trinity College.

Designed by Christopher Wren in 1675, it houses over 80,000 rare volumes, medieval manuscripts and incunabula. 

There are also some intriguing artefacts on display such as a lock of Isaac Newton’s hair and a controversial first copy of Winnie the Pooh. 

It’s well worth visiting if you’re in the city and is completely free of charge. But, it’s good to know that it is only open to the public for two hours a day.

You also have to enter through ‘The Backs’ as a non-student and this can be a little complicated if it’s your first time navigating the city.

So, in this guide, I’m going to explain how to visit the Wren Library in Cambridge with opening times, detailed directions and what to expect on your visit!

How to Visit Wren Library Cambridge

Wren Library history 

Trinity College is one of the wealthiest colleges in Cambridge and was founded by King Henry VIII. 

Since its foundation in 1546, the college had been collecting books but they needed a secure place to store them.

Sir Christopher Wren designed this grand library in 1675. Wren also famously designed St Paul’s Cathedral after the Great Fire of London. 

As the River Cam tended to flood every year, the library was built on the upper floor of Nevile’s Court to prevent any water damage.

It was funded by subscription and cost £15,000. It opened up for college use in 1695. 

Trinity college Cambridge
Nevile’s Court, Trinity College

For its time, this was the most impressive library in the British Isles due to the grandeur of the architecture and the innovative large windows that let in natural light for readers. 

Over time, the college has amassed a collection of over 80,000 historic volumes, 1250 medieval manuscripts, 750 incunabula, and countless modern manuscripts.

It’s now a Grade I listed building and is still a working library and administration office for students, staff and fellows of Trinity College.

Wren Library Cambridge

Why is the Wren Library famous?

Today, this incredible library is famous for many reasons. Firstly, it’s famous because the legendary architect Sir Christopher Wren designed it.

The large windows flood the room with natural light to help readers which was a first in Britain for its time. 

Another is due to the prized collection of rare books. The library owns countless rare masterpieces such as Shakespeare’s First Folio, Isaac Newton’s Notebook, Principia Mathematica and even handwritten notes by Robert Oppenheimer.

Finally, Trinity College is one of the most famous and prestigious academic institutions in the entire world. 

Their extensive alumni include Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, William Makepeace Thackeray and Alfred Tennyson. 

Also, three kings of The Royal Family studied here including HRH King Charles III and six Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom!

It’s amazing to think that so many of these great minds could have walked through this very library and used the collection. 

Wren Library Cambridge

Can you visit Wren Library in Cambridge? 

Yes, the library is open to the public throughout the week but you should know that entry times are very limited for non-students and non-fellows. 

I’ve been to Cambridge a couple of times now and the stars have never aligned before, so this time I was determined to make it happen!

The opening hours for visitors are just two hours per day. So, it’s important that you check the opening times before you go.

Wren Library in Cambridge

Generally, the Wren Library is open from 12 pm – 2 pm on weekdays and 10.30 am – 12.30  pm on weekends during term time. 

The last entry is around 10 minutes before they are due to close. They are quite strict on this and the doors will be locked shut. 

The library may close for holidays, special events or exhibitions. Weekend opening hours are also subject to change. I would always check the official website for updates or call ahead to double-check. 

Can’t make it? They have a virtual tour of the library you can access here and many of their collections can be found in the Wren Digital Library. 

Wren Library Cambridge

Is Wren Library free to visit?

Yes, the library is completely free to visit and you don’t need to book to visit either. 

Although it’s free entry, donations are always appreciated for the conservation of the library.

They have a small gift shop selling postcards and souvenirs to remember your visit if you’d like to donate this way.

Wren Library Cambridge

How to get to the Wren Library in Cambridge

So, finding the public entrance to the Trinity College library can be quite complicated if you’re not a student or staff as you’re not allowed to walk through the Trinity campus.

Google Maps will direct you to Trinity College’s Great Gate and the reception team will not allow you to pass.

To avoid that, I would head straight to Garret Hostel Lane which leads off from the Tudor Trinity Lane. It is one of my favourite streets in Cambridge and I even wrote a post about it! 

After you reach the end of Trinity Lane and turn the corner, you need to turn right onto Garret Hostel Lane. Click here for a Google Pin. 

Trinity Lane Cambridge
Trinity Lane Cambridge
Trinity Lane

Before you reach the Garret Hostel Bridge, walk through the large black gate as if you’re heading to GHL Punts.

Enter the campus and you’ll see the security team in bowler hats and then it’s just a short walk straight ahead to the entrance of the Wren Library with a teeny sign pointing the way to Nevile’s Court.

Wren Library Entrance
Wren Library Entrance

You need to wait to be greeted into the library from Nevile’s Court and then you’ll be given an information sheet on the history and highlights. 

You’ll also be briefed on the rules of visiting the library like keeping your voice down, not using flash and not photographing an original copy of Winnie the Pooh due to copyright reasons. 

On busy days, there may be a small queue once you arrive as the library is very popular and they have a capacity limit. But, it’s well worth waiting for so, hold fast. 

Inside Nevile's Court
Inside Nevile’s Court

Things to see in the Wren Library 

As you make your way up the staircase to the library, you’ll pass plenty of portraits of Trinity graduates like William Lamb. 

Also, look out for the statue of Alfred Lord Tennyson. He is most famous for his Idylls of the King, a retelling of the Arthurian Legends. 

Then, you enter this spectacular library from the landing and let me tell you, I was in awe of this place.

The architecture, the bookshelves, the busts – it was like stepping into a fairytale!

Wren Library staircase
Wren Library Staircase

Historic bookshelves

I absolutely loved the contrast of the white ceilings and monochrome floors with the dark wooden bookshelves.

Many of the heraldic details on these shelves were made by master carver Grinling Gibbons. 

There are 80,000 books on display including first editions and incunabula (books printed before 1501). 

They also have thousands of medieval manuscripts with hand-scripted calligraphy and artwork that cover a range of subjects like music, medicine and astronomy.

You can’t explore the bookshelves as these are roped off to the public and you can’t touch any of the books either. 

However, they do have many of their most precious volumes in display cases for you to browse.

Wren Library
Wren Library bookcase

Lord Byron’s statue and busts 

At the end of the hall, you can see a life-size statue of Lord Byron that was created after his death. He died in Missolonghi of fever whilst he was fighting for Greek independence in 1824. 

It was carved by the Danish sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and has been here at the library since 1845.

I have to admit, I am not a huge fan of Lord Byron’s literary works but I am aware of many of his scandalous escapades and affairs. He was the ‘bad boy’ rake of the era. 

Byron supposedly had a relationship with his half-sister and had many publicised affairs with high society ladies like Caroline Lamb. 

She described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” and their heated affair ended catastrophically.

After they split, Caroline famously sent him some of her pubic hair in a fan letter signed “from your wild antelope”. 

Wren Library Lord Byron Statue
Lord Byron statue

His controversial reputation is the reason why the statue was initially rejected by Westminster Abbey and Poet’s Corner before finding a forever home here.

Byron did leave a lasting legacy in Ada Lovelace, his only legitimate daughter with Lady Byron. She filed for divorce after just one year of marriage. 

Ada is famous in her own right as a mathematician and writer and is seen as one of the first computer programmers. 

There is even an Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate the unseen women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

She didn’t study here though as Trinity College only started admitting women in 1975. 

Virginia Woolf famously tried to access the Wren Library in 1928. She was turned away as she wasn’t accompanied by a male fellow.

You’ll also notice many marble busts of ‘famous men of Trinity’ by Louis-François Roubiliac and some are of renowned authors such as William Shakespeare. 

Wren Library statues and busts

Quirky items on display  

Although most of the bookshelves are roped off, they do have some display cabinets with an array of items that may surprise you. 

They often rotate these displays so there’s always a reason to go back and see more.

I visited the day after the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron’s passing. That’s why there were lots of seats set up for the memorial and wreaths were placed on his statue.

They had some great pieces of Byron on display including miniature copies of his classic poem Don Juan and his cap. 

Lord Byron display Wren Library

Here are some other curious items you can find in the cabinets;

Shakespeare’s First Folio – Just like the British Library, the Wren Library have a copy of Shakespeare’s first collection of his plays from 1623. It’s considered one of the most influential books ever published.

Isaac Newton’s hair – Probably not what you expect to find in a library but you can see some of Isaac Newton’s items as he attended Trinity College. This includes a lock of his hair! Also, you can find Newton’s Apple Tree outside the front of the campus by the Great Gate.

An original copy of Winnie the Pooh – A. A Milne and Christopher Robin Milne both attended Trinity College and a first edition of Winnie the Pooh can be found on display. You can’t take photos of this due to copyright reasons as Disney own the rights!

Isaac Newton's Hair Wren Library
A lock of Isaac Newton’s Hair and other items

How long do you need to visit the library?

I would say you need around 30 minutes or so to visit the library. You could spend a lot more time or less depending on your interests. 

It’s a large space but visitors can only access a small section and the bookshelves are roped off. But, this doesn’t spoil the experience at all.

If you’re a book lover and avid reader like me, you’ll be in your element as this is a bibliophile’s paradise. 

I spent around an hour browsing as I loved checking out all the books and the items in display cases. I also had a great chat with one of the staff about the conservation of the books etc. 

This is one of the most impressive historic libraries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting as the architecture was so outstanding.

Wren Library Cambridge

Photography in the library 

You are allowed to take photos inside the library but you must not use flash.

The only thing you’re not allowed to take photos of is the first edition copy of Winnie the Pooh due to copyright reasons.

Also, as it’s a working library, students/fellows/readers may be studying. So, try not to capture them in your photos! 

Wren Library Cambridge

Is the Wren Library worth visiting?

Yes, the Wren Library is well worth visiting if you find yourself in Cambridge.

Not only is the room stunning but there are some incredibly rare literary items on display that you can’t find anywhere else.

It’s the perfect place for bookworms and I would have loved nothing more than to study here or cosy up with a good book between the shelves. But, alas I’m not a fellow!

You have nothing to lose as it doesn’t cost a penny to enter. The only downside is the opening times are quite restrictive and it takes some planning. 

Don’t skip a visit to the majestic Wren Library in Cambridge. It really is a haven for book lovers.

Wren Library Cambridge

My top tips for visiting 

  • Check opening times – this library is only open for two hours a day to the public. So, always check opening times before you go. If in doubt, call ahead to confirm.
  • Visit early – I would get to the library for opening time as it’s popular and you may have to queue at busy times. 
  • Accessibility – it’s an old building and you do have to climb a flight of steps to enter. There is no lift to access the upper floor.
  • Head to The Backs – you can’t walk through Trinity College campus if you’re not a student or fellow, head to The Backs and enter through Garrett Hostel Lane. 
  • Consider a weekday – weekends can be busy and there’s usually a queue due to capacity limits. I went on a Saturday and it was crammed. Consider a visit during the week for a quieter experience. 
  • Food and drink – you can’t take food or drink inside the library. 
  • Toilets – there are no public toilets on campus, so make sure to pop to the loo before you go!
How to visit Wren Library Cambridge

Check out the Pepys Library next

If you love your historic libraries then I would recommend heading over to the Pepys Library in Magdalene College next. 

This is Samuel Pepys’ personal library that he bequeathed to the college following his death in 1703.

You can’t take photos inside the room and you must store your bags in the library office before you enter.

However, it is well worth visiting as there are some fabulous historic works on display such as Sir Francis Drake’s personal almanac.

You can also see Pepys’ famous diary written in a 17th-century shorthand which only a few academics can translate nowadays.

I was blown away by this historic library and the gold paint on the bookshelves was so well preserved it looked like it was painted yesterday!

Again, the library is free to visit but it is only open for two hours a day to visitors from Monday to Saturday. It’s always closed on Sundays.

I would recommend checking the opening times online before you go.

Pepys Library Cambridge
Samuel Pepys’ Library

Are you looking for more things to do in Cambridge?

Cambridge is filled with colleges, libraries, bookshops and Dark Academia buildings and you will never get bored of exploring. 

After you leave Trinity Lane, make sure to check out Senate House Passage. It’s one of my favourite streets as it has an elaborate entrance to Gonville & Caius College.

Senate House Passage
Senate House Passage

You can go punting on the River Cam to see ‘The Backs’ with famous bridges like the Bridge of Sighs and Mathematical Bridge. 

This is the only way that you can see some of the famous colleges that make up Cambridge University as the grounds are not often open to the public.

Bridge of Sighs Cambridge
Bridge of Sighs

The entry hall of the Fitzwilliam Museum has one of the prettiest interiors I’ve ever seen with classic columns and statues. They also have some fabulous art exhibits. 

There are oodles of other museums to choose from like the Museum of Zoology and the Sedwick Museum of Earth Sciences.

Fitzwilliam Museum Entry Hall
Fitzwilliam Museum Entry Hall

King’s College Chapel has an incredible vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows which will take your breath away. Look out for King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s initials on the Tudor Choir Screen.

Indulge in a Chelsea Bun from Fitzbillies or dine in The Eagle pub, the oldest pub in Cambridge, which can be found on King’s Parade along with the quirky Corpus Clock.

If you wanted to see the best views of the city, I would head up to Great St Mary’s Church Tower. From here, you can get some incredible views of King’s Parade and beyond. 

There are also other landmarks to see like the Round Church, Reality Checkpoint, and Cambridge Castle Mound. 

King's Parade Cambridge
King’s Parade from Great St Mary’s Tower
King's College Chapel
King’s College Chapel

Read more of my East Anglia travel guides

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Harry Potter guide for Lavenham – Real Godric’s Hollow

The best things to do in Lavenham

Save Visiting Wren Library for later!

How to visit the Wren Library Cambridge