Cambridge sits across the Charles River from Boston like a naughty and fascinating older sibling. Home to two famous institutions of higher learning, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this wonderful Left Bank is and loaded with cafés, bookstores, and world-class museums. Steeped in history, literature, and the spirit of the American Revolution, this leafy little city began as George Washington’s headquarters and became home to Maine’s most beloved poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Room with a View
The Cambridge Royal Sonesta’s riverside retreat is one of Boston’s best-kept secrets. The hotel sits on the bank of the Charles River with 180 ° views of the Boston skyline-glorious by night. Rooms are priced by the glass or by the bottle, i.e., views that range from stellar to breathtaking. The contemporary art collection is a knockout with over 700 works displayed throughout the capacious hotel. The concierge offers a map and guide to the collection, which can be cruised in under three hours – two, if you’re in a rush. The Warhols, Stellas, Oldenburgs, and LeWitts will blow you away, and those are just the allstars. I counted 30 blueprints and designs by Buckminster Fuller in a nondescript hallway, from the sublime to the ridiculous – wonderful. There is a Josef Albers minding its own business over the copy machine.
The hotel’s aptly named ArtBar with outdoor seating on the riverbank is perfect on a balmy fall evening. Preppy gents on my left discuss golf strategies as boats pass and passengers wave. Stylish women on my right compare the day’s conquests: a colorful scarf and “cute” dog carrier. Boston’s beautiful skyline shimmers across the River. Not bad.
Wining and Dining
Food at ArtBar is locally sourced, and Chef D’Andro lists his New England farms, beekeepers, fisheries and smokehouses on the side of his menu like a new-age board of directors. Tasting menu standouts include a roasted trout resting on a pillow of silky mashed potato, and a quartet of briny raw oysters with a sweet-sour pomegranate foam ”” I could eat several dozen. My companion admired his à ¼ber-simple preparation of two enormous Georges bank sea scallops, expertly seared and served straight up with a few herbs and a sprinkle of the most amazing sea salt – I have never tasted better.
I recommend you skip the lobster corn dogs. Almost every other table is enjoying them, and I just don’t get it. I am from Maine, okay, so to me this preparation seems a real cultural offense. But, truly, there is no accounting for taste. I get over it quickly with the chef’s rhubarb crumble, which cuts through any lingering anxiety like a warm knife through sweet butter.
For the record, the hotel’s second bistro, Café Dante, makes a perfect Gray Goose martini, and their sturdy Italian wine list doesn’t disappoint. The cocktail crowd can be overwhelming at Danté so take your vitamins and do a few push-ups before making the scene. Best to go in the early evening unless you’re in the mood for a mob.
In-town options are many and varied. In Harvard Square, don’t miss gastro-pub Russell Square Tavern whose brunchy menu delights and comforts all day and all night. They do an amazing fried poached egg ”” try it. The beer list is respectable, local, and ever-changing. I sipped a hoppy BBC Steel Rail Extra Pale Ale and watched Vincent, the adorable oyster shucker, prying open the day’s catch.
Don’t miss the L.A. Burdick chocolates where I picked up some adorable chocolate mice for the kids and a penguin for myself. The kids say they don’t like chocolate. Speaking for all of us, it is a big fat lie ”” what we don’t like is BAD chocolate. No chance of bad chocolate at L.A. Burdick. My penguin, filled with silky and unctuous chocolate truffle and flavored with orange, is a real wow.
There is an exquisite walking-running-biking trail that the Sonesta calls a “jogging path.” Guests can trot or meander as far as they want, past MIT, across the B.U. and Harvard Bridges and all the way up to Harvard Square and back. All told, that stretch is about 8 miles. For the less ambitious like me, I “walk it off” in about 40 minutes, to MIT and back. Cool off in the Sonesta’s salt-water pool with retracting walls and ceiling in summer that allows guests to feel they’re dogpaddling in the Charles.
Family-friendly, the Museum of Science is just around the corner. Check out the IMAX theatre’s ever-changing hands-on activities-the museum’s lightning storm is dazzling. If you don’t like crowds of sniffly kids, be warned: this world-class science mecca is a very popular spot. CambridgeSide offers relaxing riverboat tours, a great way to get your bearings. You’ll pass MIT, the Fenway, iconic Citgo sign, the Boston University campus and little church where Martin Luther King, Jr., preached early sermons. Highlights include wild graffiti under the bridges and crazy salad of local lore and gossip from the tour guide. Kids dig a calming hour on this legendary river and adults seem to chill as well. Note: the boat offers a small bar with wine and beer, which doesn’t hurt.
Check out MIT’s amazing public art collection, a 20-minute walk from the hotel. One of the best public art collections in the country, this campus-wide treasure boasts works by Calder, Picasso, Jennifer Bartlett, Maine’s own Louise Nevelson and many more, with design superstars like Alvar Aalto and Harry Bertoia represented as well. Best of all, the collection is mostly outdoors and free. The wild contours of Frank Gehry’s Stata Center set the freewheeling tone with shiny surfaces that appear to twist and wiggle in the sun.
But it’s not too serious here: MIT is also home to the world’s only museum of pranks, IHTFP Gallery, named for the unofficial motto of MIT (“I Hate This ”¦ Place” ). Most impressive prank: A police car atop the MIT dome with uniformed policeman at the wheel. Particularly impressive: the policeman holds a box of donuts. Learn how they got that police car up there in the first place at the IHTFP Gallery.
From MIT, it’s a short T-ride to Harvard Square. A leafy walk through historic Harvard Yard gets you to the Sackler Museum and their massive collection of ancient art from Europe, Africa, and Asia, plus several galleries of modern art on loan from the Fogg Museum, now closed for renovation. The 1927 tuxedoed self-portrait of Max Beckmann is as wry and dry as the best Grey Goose martini.
It’s another short stroll to Harvard’s Museum of Natural History, home to a 42-foot Kronosaurus, an enormous Triceratops, and whale skeletons big enough to stand up in. Kids murmur “cool” as they run their hands over real meteors from outer space and peer into a 1,642-pound amethyst geode. I’m charmed by the museum’s collection of 3,000 glass Blashka flowers, minutely detailed models created at the turn of the 19th century as teaching aids ”” amazing. In short: the Harvard museums are a gas.
On the Boards
I bid a fond au revoir to Cambridge with a matinee performance at A.R.T., the American Repertory Theatre, of Marie Antoinette, “Heads Will Roll” – just the kind of barbed tragi-comedy I’m in the mood for. If your idea of comedy includes a mean girl’s descent into madness. Ricardo Hernandez’s set design is elegant and vibrant , the shocking palette works. The costumes and lighting are brilliant, and Marie herself doesn’t disappoint. In a word: GO.
Art Soaked Retreat
When I’m in the mood for an arty and enlightening getaway, Cambridge is at the top if my list. Leave the car at home – it’s a couple of stops via the T (red line) across the Charles to the intriguing parallel universe that is Boston’s Left Bank. Enjoy!
Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo is a freelance writer and creator of EpicuriousTravelers.com.