Cambridge Top 10
There exist a million guides to Cambridge that probably tell you the same thing: to rub this statue, to eat that burger, to see those infamous glass flowers. And those are all great ideas. (OK, maybe not the rubbing.) But as a local who’s lived and loved Cambridge from many different angles, I think a fresh look at the “must-do” list is in order. The following suggestions may not be the most traditional, but consider it a good mix of the real, the ruminating, and the rosy. Unbeaten path, ho!
Go candlepin bowling.
Trying to describe why this is a traditional sport in New England is like trying to explain why a duck-billed platypus is a mammal. For technical and historical reasons that have long passed us by, we’re now left with this strange, beautiful pastime. You will find existential joy in a small ball, a polished lane, and 10 stick-straight pins that scatter about during the three rolls per frame. No matter how hard you try, you will be terrible at this game, but so will everyone else—it’s designed that way. (No one in recorded history has ever bowled a perfect score.) A great local spot to play is Lanes and Games near Alewife, a no-frills joint with cold beer, wing nights, and a requisite canon of pinball machines.
Escape to a secret garden.
I’m sure there are plenty of serene parks and blooming beds that you’ll encounter in your Cambridge adventures, but this particular spot takes the cake for its jaw-dropping surprise wonderland factor. With full expectation that I will be flogged accordingly for letting this cat out of the bag, I’ll proceed and recommend to everyone the Cambridge Center Roof Garden. Here me out: First, you enter through the parking deck at Kendall Square. Take no mind of the temporary concrete and fumes. Simply take the elevator to the roof, open the magic glass door, and bask in the perfectly landscaped public park in the sky—lush, manicured, quiet. Bring a picnic, or simply a book, and daydream in peace.
Cruise along Memorial Drive on a Sunday.
Bicycling in Cambridge is certainly pleasant, but nothing dares compare to the invincible joy of sailing along Memorial Drive on a Sunday afternoon, when the otherwise bustling roadway is closed off to car traffic. (In-line skaters have a field day, too, coasting alongside the Charles River.) Bring your wheels, rent them, or hop on a Hubway bike. For a brief moment, the world is your safe, smoothly paved oyster.
Get serious about vintage.
Fashionable thrift and secondhand stores are a dime a dozen, but Cambridge is blessed with legit vintage shopping for the discerning set. My favorites include Poor Little Rich Girl, an extremely organized consignment boutique stocked with designer lines, covetable accessories, and incredible retro coats; Oona’s, an avant-garde hipster’s fantasyland with fierce-but-wearable representation from every decade; and the deliciously unironic Cambridge Antique Market with multiple floors of vendors purveying everything from ‘50s kitchenware to whole-fox stoles—head, tail, and all.
Revel in purist food-geekery.
Cambridge’s voracious appetite for artisanal food has given rise to the singular food boutique. Grillo’s Pickles has all crunch cravings covered, with fridges packed to the gills with small-batch brines, while Follow the Honey satisfies your inner urban beekeeper with fine honeys from around the world (including raw local New England wildflower varietals). And though Formaggio may sell all kinds of delicious things, they steal hearts aplenty with their world-class cheese collection alone.
Witness cool bands before they get cool.
If I were looking for under-the-radar bands, I’d put my money on seeing a show at the Middle East Upstairs on any given night, with any given lineup. Here’s the logic: Within this intimate room, adorned with subtle Moorish curves and glinting cans of beer, the front stage plays host to bands that most likely will grace larger (and more crowded and/or expensive) venues the next time they roll into town. These are the indie pups, the up-and-comers, the just-shy-of-blowing-up. And imagine how fantastic it will feel to say, “Oh, I saw them last time they were here. And they were awesome.”
Walk a bridge—any bridge.
To get the best view of Cambridge (Boston doesn’t look too shabby, either), just find the nearest bridge and, you know, cross it. In the meantime, get an unfettered view of the skyline, the Charles River, and your own mankind. Any will do. The Longfellow “Salt-and-Pepper” Bridge, extending from Kendall Square to Beacon Hill, has the added thrill of witnessing the elevated Redline subway zip by. The Boston University Bridge offers lovely vegetation (if not geese) and connects Cambridgeport with BU. But my favorite is the Mass. Ave Bridge, with the world seemingly stretched infinitely about you, the road’s length measured out in hand-marked Smoots. (I’ll let you Google it.)
Drink a lot of good coffee.
How else do you think locals properly function? I’m sure there’s a direct correlation between the presence of grad students and properly roasted and brewed coffee, but you could have a field day doing a classy caffeine crawl in Cambridge. Here’s a good list to start your research: Hi-Rise Bakery, Toscanini’s, 1369 Coffee House, Clover, dwelltime, Area Four, Voltage, Simon’s, Flour, Crema Cafe...
Go beyond for better books.
Nothing’s really wrong with the Coop, but if you want something with more soul than a Barnes and Noble (which owns ‘em, by the way), I’d recommend two of my favorites. The independently owned Harvard Book Store is worth a hearty browse. They have impeccable merchandising, both upstairs for new releases and downstairs for used titles, and you can steal a peek at the illustrious Paige (the resident book-printing-on-demand robot). But my perpetual crush belongs to MIT Press, with its royal mix of popular science and sleek-sexy academia, plus a smart selection of periodicals. If you happen to be nearby during their occasional loading-dock sales, expect your day to be filled with marked-down book-buying nirvana.
Eat and drink exceptionally well.
If you’ve done your research, you know that spots such as Craigie on Main, Bondir, and Oleana are darlings of the food world, and well-deservedly so. But if reservations look dire, you’d be no worse off at similarly delicious, quietly stunning spots like Rendezvous, Ten Tables Cambridge, T.W. Food, or Hungry Mother. Finish it off with a nightcap at cocktail den Brick and Mortar, and you’ll be in splendid shape.
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Somerville-based Christine Liu is the online managing editor at America's Test Kitchen (home of Cook's Illustrated) in Brookline, MA. In her spare time, she writes and jumps rope and scours old-timey corners of New England. Her writings on local food, drink, and lifestyle have been published in The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, and Budget Travel. Christine is often seen indulging her penchant for small pleasures, like squirting sriracha on noodles, sipping negronis at midnight, and taking her MacBook for refreshing little walks. Find her at @liuliuliu and cmliu.com. Photo by Jenna SchererMore by Christine Liu