WHY GO: Because, with MIT, Harvard and Google within blocks of each other, Cambridge encompasses the highest concentration of brainiacs in the country. Don’t you want to tap into that? Walk though Harvard Yard or the MIT Campus on a humid spring evening, and you may stumble across a world-renowned scientist in passionate debate with a student or two. Cambridge, on the Charles River, is fun and funky and has some of the best restaurants in Boston. Plus, the not-so-fuddy-duddy Harvard Museum of Natural History has a few surprises in store.
Things To Do In Cambridge, MA
SEE: Harvard Museum of Natural History. Harvard maintains 9 museums, but one of the best is the Harvard Museum of Natural History with an exhibit formerly considered a Wonder of the World. In the late 1800s, German glassmaker Leopold Blashka (and later his son) created incredibly lifelike flora and fauna for the then-named Harvard Botanical Museum (now the Harvard University Herbaria). Used by professors to teach Botany, a shipment of these models was held up in customs as authorities were convinced that they were live plant matter. Preserved in hip-level glass cases, these fragile works of art are indistinguishable from the real things and are truly breathtaking. They will be even more so in a new gallery opening in May 2016.
But that’s not all this marvelous museum, which would be endorsed heartily by Indiana Jones if he were a real person, has on offer. A large Komodo Dragon model lays next to a reproduction of a Pigmy Human skeleton, there’s an actual Dodo Bird skeleton, real Hissing Cockroaches, 300 mounted Hummingbirds of every kind, boards of mounted insects that wouldn’t look out of place in an art museum, a 4.5 billion year old meteorite you can touch, an incredibly diverse rock and minerals display, and thousands of other natural specimens.
After an extensive upgrading, old-school meets new school in galleries that include the multi-generational favorite, “frozen zoo” dioramas, along with videos, touch screen aps and other technological innovations to engage the most jaded adults (you had the kids in the whale skeleton room, around which the museum was built in 1874).
The brand new Marine Life in the Putnam Family Gallery will boggle your mind. Lighting effects create the illusion of movement even though there is no water, and the East Coast, Atlantic Ocean creatures are keenly sculpted works of art. To get the most out of this museum and the attached Peabody, plan to spend a couple of hours. Open daily 9-5, $12 adults, $8 kids. Includes admission to Peabody Museum.
VISIT: Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology. While the Museum of Natural History is all about the natural world, The Peabody concentrates on Human Culture from ancient times to modern. At any given time, only 3/10ths of 1% of the museums holdings is on display which makes it exciting for the repeat visitor. A current exhibit, The Arts of War, features war dress from islands off of South America that incorporates sharks tooth sword, coconut husk armor, and puffer fish helmet. Incredible. Open daily 9-5, $12 adults, $8 kids. Includes admission to Harvard Museum of Natural History.
VISIT: Harvard Art Museums. Formerly separate entities, the Fogg, Arthur Sackler, and Busch-Reisinger Museums are currently all one. Linked by a dramatic interior courtyard, you’ll see the best of Miro, Monet, Mondrian, Calder, Asian art, Religious Icons, and works from ancient to modern from all parts of the globe. It’s the MFA writ small, and a joy to see. Open daily 10-5, $15 adults, under 18 free.
VISIT: The Boston Science Museum – on the Charles River Bridge. How do wind turbines work? What does a real human skull look like? Can you make bolts of lightning indoors? You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy one of the best interactive science museums in the country. Hovering above the Charles River on a Charles River bridge, and within walking distance of Cambridge hotels, this massive institute will consume a good part of a weekend. If you want to see every IMAX movie and live presentation, it could take much longer.
DO: For something completely different, paddle one of the most scenic sections of urban river in the country with The Charles River Friday Night Kayak and Barbeque; $75 includes guide, kayak rental, food and beverages or 2-hour Sunset Tours ($49).
DO: Bike the Charles River Bike Path for phenomenal views of Cambridge and Boston on this all day 27-mile loop.
Where To Eat In Cambridge, MA
EAT: Puritan & Company. A bit out of the way in up-in-coming Inman Square, Chef Will Gilson’s rustic/refined/eclectic restaurant is fast becoming a city favorite. Housed in the former Puritan Cake Co. factory, talismans like a 1920’s oven and chef’s hutch from Gilson’s family farm, function as hostess desk and serving station respectively. Sandblasted wooden walls from a Cape House that wash washed out to sea then reclaimed, filament bulbs over communal tables, and the bustling of chefs through a peekaboo into the kitchen coalesce into a space that melds artisanal, industrial and farmhouse-ial to perfection. Order from old-fashioned manila file menus; offerings range from perfectly seasoned Swordfish Pastrami ($13), decadently gooey Gougeres ($6), caramelized cripsy-sweet signature Lamb Belly ($14), and a medley of toothsome Lamb Chop and Lamb Sausage with Hay Roasted Carrots ($26). It’s comfort food for a new era and highly recommended.
EAT: Locals love Catalyst for “organic,” farm-to-table dining. Whether you choose hand crafted Black Truffle Tortellini ($12! when was the last time you saw anything with black truffles for $12?) or Georges Bank Scallops ($29) or anything else on the seasonal menu, it’s sure to be a knockout.
EAT: Area Four. If you’re in the mood for great thin-crust pizza and cold beer, join the MIT students and profs here.
EAT: So good, they’ve expanded to four locations–Cambridge’s Central Square, and Boston’s Back Bay, South End, and Front Point–Flour Bakery & Cafe is run by a Harvard math grad who puts science and a little culinary magic into whipping up homemade versions of Pop Tarts, Oreos, and Fig Newtons that are nothing short of miraculous.
Where To Stay In Cambridge, MA
STAY: The Kendall Hotel @ Engine 7 Firehouse. Exceptionally friendly and cool-under-pressure staff at this fun boutique are adept at “putting out fires” – of the hotel-guest kind – which is not surprising, considering that this 77-room hotel was once a local firehouse. Built in the 1890’s in the Queen Anne style of the day, the firehouse had fallen into neglect, closed in 1993 and was slated for demolition. Enter Americana antique collectors, Gerald Fandetti and Charlotte Forsythe, who like many “adaptive reuse” visionaries, saw promise in this brick structure adjacent to the MIT campus and sought to bring it back to life as a boutique hotel. Now a Historic Hotel of America, the Kendall’s lobby celebrates its roots.
A lifelike Dalmatian statue greets you at the front door. A fire-engine door serves as a cocktail table in front of a small gas fireplace, fire brigade buckets hang behind a small reception desk. Old trunks, American crafts from the Victorian Age, Oriental rugs, broken-in wingback chairs, and lots of knickknacks coalesce into a comfortable, laid-back tableau, where MIT parents and professors, Google employees (an office is right across the street) and other high-tech industry workers, firemen and families congregate.
Luxurious rooms feature get-a-running-start-high beds and an eclectic collection of sturdy American antiques. Expect to find painted chests of drawers and toy pedal fire trucks in the corridors on each floor – a hit with tots who ride them up and down the halls. If you happen to be here on Mon-Thurs night, head up to the enclosed rooftop for a complementary hosted wine hour. City sunset views are superb. Each of the 77 rooms are unique – though for the most authentic stay, ask for one in the original firehouse dorm where brave firefighters once slept. A hot buffet breakfast is included with the room, and you can take your tray to the open-to-lobby Black Sheep Restaurant.
STAY: Royal Sonesta, Boston. Walk through the contemporary lobby and on your way to the elevators, you’ll pass, could it be, an original Andy Warhol? You can just about dip your toes in the Charles River from the front door of the Royal Sonesta, Cambridge – a hotel that has reinvented itself as a museum of modern art outpost. Art dealer Joan Sonnabend curated a collection of foremost artists, including Warhol, Stella, Dine, Serra and Mapplethorp, among hundreds of others, displayed throughout all public areas. Each sophisticated room features one-of-a-kind masterpieces from local modern artists, high-count linens, and riveting views of either Cambridge or the Charles River/Boston. The art here draws aficionados from all over the world, but there’s just too much to do within a few minutes walk of the hotel to hang around. You can grab an ice cream cone on the river promenade outside or peddle the Charles River Bikeway. The prestigious Boston Science Museum can be seen right outside the lobby window.
BUDGET STAY: Irving House at Harvard. Yes, Virginia, you can stay within spitting distance of Harvard University for under $100 night. Including hot breakfast. Part dorm, part boarding house, a cozy twin bed/shared bathroom space , right across from the Harvard campus,is mere $85 in winter. Manager Rachel Solem runs a green ship; breakfast is provided on washable plates, there’s a recycling bin AND a compost bin. Packaging is kept to a minimum. And, being fluent in environmentalingo, she recommends you park your car (ok, yes, near Harvard Yard) free in the guesthouse lot – another pleasant surprise in the parking hell of Boston – and walk everywhere.
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