Cambridge on a Budget
“The People’s Republic of Cambridge,” that other major city across the Charles River from Boston, has a whole lot more to offer than just history and Harvard Yard. Get to know the real Cambridge like a local by wandering a bit off the beaten path, taking a page from the students, and adventuring outside the squares – for big savings.
First things first: when making Cambridge your home away from home, you’ve got to have a place to hang your Tricorn hat. Even though hotels in Cambridge can be at a premium during peak seasons, such as Harvard or MIT graduations or the Head of the Charles Regatta, it’s still possible to find a bargain. Two of the largest hotels situated directly on the Charles River, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge (Harvard or Central T Stops) and the Royal Sonesta (Lechmere or Kendall T Stops) offer rooms at about $100-$150/night to those who book well in advance, along with panoramic views of the Boston skyline. Several hundred-year-old bed & breakfasts, like Irving House (situated on the same street as Julia Child’s historic “Professor’s Row” home and e.e. cummings’ birthplace), offer charming, cost-effective options for all types of travelers with rooms starting at just $85/night during off-peak season (Harvard T Stop).
Cambridge (and its collegial population) embraced innovative startups early on, like VRBO.com and Airbnb.com, where travelers can rent a room or a “self-catering” house from one another for a fraction of the cost of a hotel. These options can be especially attractive and affordable during summer, when students and faculty need to sublet their spaces during semester break, during peak travel weeks, and for those traveling with kids or pets who need more room, privacy, or flexibility.
Another fringe benefit of being a “college town,” Cambridge holds its own as one of America’s best places for vintage, bargain & consignment shopping. (If you’re into that sort of thing, be sure to pack an extra suitcase for your thrift haul.)
For starters, the Urban Outfitters in Cambridge (Harvard T Stop) has a bargain basement! Down a discreet set of stairs at the center of the store, new-with-tags items ranging from wardrobe staples to scandalous fashion trends all find themselves on closeout in this best-kept-secret of a markdown mecca. Around the corner in either direction, Oona’s (Harvard or Central T Stops) has been outfitting Harvard students in vintage fashion since the early 1970s. Garment District (Kendall T Stop) is a local institution known for its “Buck a Pound” sales and its gigantic vintage stockroom (popular on Halloween). The Cambridge Antique Market (Lechmere T Stop) is five floors of well-priced vintage and antique finds where one could easily lose an entire day.
EAT & DRINK
One of the biggest perks to Cambridge’s pedigree as home to not one, but two world-class universities is that Cambridge is also home to a literal world of affordable ethnic cuisine – plus student-priced gourmet American fare – all within a few square miles.
After you’ve broadened your mind at a free Harvard lecture, loaded up an extra suitcase with bargain shopping, and worked up an appetite on a whirlwind walking tour, broaden your palate with a taste of Tibet, Afghanistan, the Middle East, Mexico, Turkey, Korea, Pakistan, or Ethiopia, all without a passport or spending a pretty penny.
Don’t fret: If your culinary horizons trend more toward comfort food and American classics, Cambridge also has “Happy Hour” and late-night specials aplenty. Area Four (Kendall T Stop) offers an oven-fired $12 “pizza and a pint” special nightly, and Newtowne Grille (Porter T Stop) is a “dive bar” famous with students and young professionals for its $4 cheese pizza served with each pitcher of beer. Dante at the Royal Sonesta (Lechmere T Stop) offers $2 gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches on Tuesday nights, and Charlie’s Kitchen (Harvard T Stop) has one of the best deals in town with a $12 double lobster roll (including French fries) served both inside the restaurant and outside in the beer garden.
Late night eaters luck out with the “Tales of Ordinary Madness” $5 menu every night after midnight at Bukowski Tavern (Inman Square, use Central T Stop), and $1 oysters at both Grafton Street and Russell House Tavern (Harvard T Stop) offered every night after 11 pm. If you’re looking for a clean mind, body, and soul after a night out in Cambridge, the Greater Boston Buddhist Cultural Center (Central T Stop) offers an $8 vegetarian lunch special, served overlooking the tea garden, which you can order up and then meditate in the adjacent temple while you wait.
Though drink specials per se are illegal in Massachusetts, you can always find a bargain by sampling local favorites from New England’s award-winning, up-and-coming craft breweries or small production wines, like Pretty Things or Narragansett beers and 90+ Cellars or Westport Rivers wines. (Hey, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin, and friends hatched the plans for a Revolution over pints at the local tavern!) When in Rome…go to the DIY Bloody Mary bar at East Coast Grill on Sundays (Inman Square, use Central T Stop) or act out your favorite scenes from The Social Network over a pint in a local pub (Harvard Square – use the Harvard T Stop).
Much like Brooklyn to Manhattan or Austin to the rest of Texas, Cambridge celebrates its witty, quirky, artsy sense of humor and smarts with a deep sense of pride. From the historic Harvard Lampoon building, which sits in the middle of Mt. Auburn Street and has a facade that looks like a face, to a 6-foot-tall replica gaslamp of the Statue of Liberty on a side street in Central Square, unique gems hide around every corner.
The best way to see what Cambridge is all about is by bicycle (using the new Hubway system for affordable rentals) or by foot (with subways and cabs always just a few blocks away when you need them). Plot a course through the squares up to the Charles River or Fresh Pond Reservoir and back, checking off a few sightseeing staples but keeping your schedule loose enough for spontaneity. During warm weather, pack a picnic or grab some takeout and head to Memorial Drive for biking, dog walking, or rollerblading (it’s closed to cars on Sundays in summer), a beautiful view of the Boston skyline and the crew teams on the Charles River, and Magazine Beach, at the end of Magazine Street in Cambridgeport, a central spot between three squares (Harvard, Central, or Kendall T Stops) perfect for hunkering down for the day with a large group (and just a block away from Trader Joe’s for replenishing supplies).
Too cold for the waterfront? Wintertime in Cambridge is just as beautiful and picturesque. For some truly memorable holiday stories, rent a pair of ice skates and take a whirl on the outdoor rinks at the Charles Hotel (Harvard T Stop) or Community Ice Skating (Kendall T Stop) for about a ten spot, then warm up with some sweets and hot cocoa at L.A. Burdick (Harvard T Stop) followed by a performance of the Christmas Revels.
With so much top-tier talent hanging around the various squares, any visit to Cambridge would be remiss in skipping the people-watching and arts-patroning. Before hitting the Museum of Science (Lechmere T Stop) or the Harvard Museum of Natural History (Harvard T Stop), which are must-sees, take some stock in Cambridge’s human capital before these folks move on to bigger & better things.
Artists like Tracey Chapman, Martin Sexton, and Amanda Palmer got their start by performing live (and for free) in Harvard Square’s “pit” and busking on the Harvard T Stop subway platform. Boston-bred comedians like Dane Cook, Pete Holmes, Conan O’Brien, and Eugene Mirman beefed up their funny bones at The Comedy Studio above the Hong Kong restaurant just up the block before going Hollywood. Guest lecturers from the highest ranks of government, religion, economics, pop culture and the arts pass through each month – some of their appearances free to the public, including author book signings at Porter Square Books and the Harvard Book Store. Say you saw them first by popping in on a free or low-admission live concert at local institutions like Club Passim, the Plough & Stars, or the Middle East. For a truly rowdy rendition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with two performances every Saturday night, hit “The Donkey Show” at OBERON by the American Repertory Theatre (Harvard or Central T Stops).
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Melissa is the founder & editor of Shoestring, a budget living magazine all about getting the Champagne life on a DIY budget, and also writes the DIY Boston blog for Boston.com, covering the local maker movement. As a nationally recognized sustainable lifestyle expert, Melissa has been featured on ABC Nightline News & other network news stations around the country, and has been featured in Good Housekeeping, BusinessWeek, US News & World Report, USA Today, MSN Money & Apartment Therapy, among other fine media outlets. A lifelong Boston girl, Melissa currently lives just over the Cambridge line in Somerville with her husband & their (very spoiled) whippet.More by Melissa Massello