Founded in 1630, the venerable college town of Cambridge has long been one of the nation’s intellectual centers. Anchored to the banks of the Charles River by both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the city blends its storied past and erudite character with a rich serving of arts and culture. Today, the stamp of gentrification on Harvard Square and the gleaming biotech development flanking M.I.T., a.k.a. “Genetown,” make it harder to tune into Cambridge’s legendary countercultural vibe of used bookstores and punk rockers. Still, theoutward-looking citizens, known as Cantabrigians, keep finding ways to express their funky, geeky flair, be it via political protests, copious bike lanes or science-driven cuisine and mixology.
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What better way to taste the brainy shock waves of Harvard Square, Cambridge’s commercial and spiritual epicenter, than to sample its indie bookstores? Stroll the loop of Brattle, J.F.K, Church and Mount Auburn Streets and you’ll find the Grolier Poetry Book Shop (the country’s oldestcontinuous poetry-only store), The Curious George Store (for children),Raven Used Books (literary and academic), The Million Year Picnic(indie and alternative comics) and Harvard Book Store (best all-around selection). Pop into Black Ink for eclectic and hipsterish gifts; Leavitt & Peirce, a circa 1883 tobacco shop, to stock up on pipes, pocketknives and chess sets; and in a building called the Garage, Boston’s own media and pop culture mecca, Newbury Comics.
Tucked among Harvard Square’s Georgian and Colonial buildings are dozens of bars and patios. For a down-to-earth cellar haunt, try Shays Pub & Wine Bar for a beer on tap like Harpoon Seasonal ($7), hand-cut fries ($5) and a splash of sunshine on the dog-friendly patio. On pedestrian Winthrop Street, The Red House, in an 1802 clapboard shack, offers a full menu, but you might try starters like asparagus and smoked salmon fritters ($8) and two-for-$1 oysters on the outdoor terrace. In colder weather, slip inside and warm your feet by the fireplace.
Hungry for humble or highfalutin? For a lowbrow Harvard Square institution, dine at Mr. Bartley’s, whose walls, festooned with Ted Kennedy portraits and Red Sox ephemera, resemble those of a dorm room. Burgers are named for famous folk and political issues, like the Big Papi, a double burger with Cheddar and barbecue sauce ($18.25) or Fiscal Cliff ($14.25), with bacon, blue cheese and spinach. Wash it down with an ice-cream frappé ($6.99). For fancier fare, try the Parsnip Restaurant & Lounge, where dishes recently included citrus scallop crudo ($16), roasted duck breast with bacon and date purée ($34) and lime crémeaux ($12). Endwith a drink in the sleek upstairs Parsnip Lounge overlooking Winthrop Square.
Take in a late show at the Brattle Theater ($11), the legendary art-house and repertory cinema where offerings range from film noir to a Bugs Bunny Film Festival. At the third-floor Comedy Studio ($15), stand-up artists like Mike Birbiglia, Eugene Mirman and Louis C.K. cut their teeth. For live music, Harvard Square’s freshest nightspot is the Sinclair, with a bar, restaurant, rooftop patio and 500-seat performance space that hosts acts ranging from Okkervil River and Old 97’s to King Sunny Adé. Try a cocktail like the tequila-ancho chile-Campari concoction Feisty Snake Woman ($12).
Avoid Cambridge’s parking-starved streets. Instead, take the MBTA’s squeaky Red Line subway, which bisects the city north to south and stops in other “squares” such as Central, Porter and Kendall, the latter home to M.I.T. Your morning can begin with a waterborne tour by renting a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard ($15 to $24 an hour) from Charles River Canoe & Kayak. Pilot your watercraft to the Charles River, then under the Longfellow Bridge and upstream to Harvard and beyond, with views of Boston landmarks like the Museum of Science and the Esplanade.
Jump into lunch mode at Clover Food Lab, run by Ayr Muir, an M.I.T.material scientist and Harvard M.B.A. grad; his super-fresh vegetarian fast-food joint has more than a dozen Boston-area locations, including four in Cambridge, with one in Kendall Square. Try the chickpea fritter ($7.70) or egg and eggplant sandwich ($7.70), and a side of killer French fries with deep-fried rosemary sprigs ($4.21). A second option: Commonwealth Cambridge, for a pulled chicken and Tater Tots sandwich ($13.50) on the patio by the Broad Canal and kayak dock.
Many visitors tour Harvard Yard. But why not M.I.T.? Download a map or mobile app or campus public art map, and then wander the campus, whose buildings are referred to by number. Highlights include the Frank Gehry-designed Ray and Maria Stata Center (Building 32), which pays tribute to famous M.I.T. hacks, or pranks, such as turning the campus’s Great Dome into R2-D2. There’s also M.I.T.’s List Visual Arts Center (E15), and buildings designed by I.M. Pei (class of ’40), Alvar Aalto and Eduardo Catalano. Outdoor art includes Henry Moore’s bronze “Three-Piece Reclining Figure” in Killian Court, and Pablo Picasso’s “Figure Découpée” (“Cut-Out Figure”) near the Sloan School of Management.
To study Cambridge’s innovative, D.I.Y. spirit, look no further than the MIT Museum. Exhibits include those documenting the history of artificial intelligence research and robots at M.I.T.; an extensive holography collection; and Arthur Ganson’s surreal kinetic sculptures — one depicts a tiny chair doing cartwheels over a cat.
Grab a coffee and a snack like garlic knots ($6) with pecorino and a red dipping sauce at Area Four. Or head over to the Meadhall gastro pub and beer hall. Perch yourself at its giant oval bar beset with banker’s lamps, andyour jaw might drop at the 100 beers on tap, with new brews rotating in each week.
Another less-traveled Cambridge neighborhood is Inman Square, near Central. The Druid, an Irish pub, is perfect for a pint and a tremendous fish sandwich ($11), as well as Irish music sessions each Saturday from 4 p.m. till around 9. Cambridge’s flaring culinary scene hit new heights with the arrival of BISq. Sitting at wood tables under amber globe lights, you might try outstanding small plates like roasted chicken ceviche ($10), cornbread blood sausage ($12) and a board of tiny pastries and sweets, called the “dessert charcuterie” ($6). For a culinary trip that feels like eating a science experiment, head back to Kendall Square for Café ArtScience. The ambience is lablike, and the food is wonderfully fussy, from smoked duck salad with foie gras “snow” ($14) to a perfect round of bison tartare ($34) to the strawberry lemongrass creamsicle ($15). The bartender’s “Le Whaf” cocktails turn liquids into breathable vapor, and the devices that hatch them, invented by a Harvard engineering professor, are also on sale.
A bar hop based in grittier Central Square begins at Brick & Mortar, acocktail nook that feels secretive, but the drinks are city-known; try the Bootsy Collins “rum, funk, pineapple, crack” ($11). Alternatively, brave the cramped Irish pub and restaurant Plough and Stars, where patrons transition from food to live music. Then there’s the celebrated Middle East and Zuzu complex, whose four stages host national indie rock acts and D.J.nights. For the true local dive bar encounter, poke your head into theCantab Lounge for cover dance bands and poetry slams. Or, get your nerd on at Pandemonium Books and Games, whose shelves and basement are Cambridge’s mother ship for genre books and gaming pursuits.
At Harvest, a Harvard Square classic, a three-course prix fixe brunch menu ($35) recently featured dried fruit fritters, the Tom Waits Nighthawk Diner Breakfast (“eggs and sausage with a side of toast, hash browns, over easy”) and Taza Chocolate Pâté. Then work off your meal with a peaceful walk along the banks of the Charles River (in the warmer months, Memorial Drive is closed to traffic on Sundays).
After a $350 million rehab by Renzo Piano, Harvard’s Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler museums ($15), collectively known as theHarvard Art Museums, have been retooled under one roof; the spectacular collection includes works from nearly every period of art history. Another top draw is the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The gallery featuring its intricately made botanical models, the “Glass Flowers,” recently reopened after an extensive refresh. The adjacent Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology is packed with giant totem poles, casts of Maya stelas and Penobscot birch bark canoes ($12 ticket admits you to both).
The Charles Hotel (1 Bennett Street; charleshotel.com; from $299) is a known haunt of Bill Clinton and Bill Gates when they come to Harvard. The rooms are classy and modern, and three restaurants, one bar, one jazz club, an outdoor bar in summer (and ice skating in winter), pool and fitness center, are all on site, making this the prime full-service home base in the heart of Harvard Square.
For a more B&B-like stay in a quieter, residential neighborhood, try the Mary Prentiss Inn (6 Prentiss Street; maryprentissinn.com; from $249), closer to Porter Square and a five minute walk to the Red Line. The gorgeously-renovated, former 1843 Greek revival home has colorful rooms furnished with four poster beds and antiques; two deluxe rooms off the garden deck have fireplaces and Jacuzzi bathtubs.