Cambridge, MA ~ A City Unto Itself

Knowledge is power ~ Francis Bacon, Philosopher, 1561-1626

A post in dedication to my little sister, Katya, who started university in Sydney, Australia this week.

Cambridge has been described as Boston’s Left Bank, and for good reason. Named in honour of the University of Cambridge in England, it is marked by the sprawling Harvard University as well as MIT’s grounds.

If these prestigious institutions represent the brain, then Harvard Square is the town’s beating heart. A gathering place for authors, poets, publishers, printers, teachers, and students for centuries, it is pretty much that way today, albeit against a different scape of storefronts.

A rich mix of bookstores, coffee-shops, ethnic restaurants, and bars – with Harvard University in the midst of it all – there’s a bohemian vibe to this part of the neighbourhood.

It’s not hard to find yourself reminiscing about the days of student-life in these surrounds. Ahh, the good old days, when labour intensive assignments, looming deadlines, exams, and anxiety over grade-averages seemed like the biggest concerns in the world.

Only to find out that real life happened after graduation day.

With MIT to the Square’s Northeast, and Harvard Business School to the South, there’s plenty of opportunity to act like the resident-student – so revel in this feeling. Something has got to be said for osmosis – being surrounded by so much knowledge, so much brainpower, you’ll even feel smarter.

Take a leisurely stroll through the lovely Cambridge, as well as a drive here and there, and prepare to be charmed.

A River Runs Through It

Home to Harvard and the masterminds of MIT, you half expect to be stopped at the bridge before crossing, to be quizzed about your level of education; or perhaps, to show some credentials. Put any such thoughts aside – just look the part of an intellectual. After winding down Storrow Drive, Cambridge is an easy-breezy drive over the Harvard Bridge. From it, you can enjoy some pretty spectacular panoramic views of Boston’s downtown.

Etch these views into memory as it’s not possible to stop until you get to the other side.

A Literary Lineage

Make your first stop Harvard Square, where history and the present exists side by side.

Fact: The first printing press was carried across the Atlantic with the first American printer, Stephen Daye, and found its way here. The Daye Press later became the University Press.

First published American poet, Anne Bradstreet, was a former Harvard Square resident, and American poetry greats of the 19th and 20th century – Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, T.S. Eliot and E. E. Cummings – were no strangers to the area either.

Once a mecca for booksellers, Harvard Book Store was established in 1932 and is one of the few independents left standing in the Square. Browse the well stocked shelves and rifle through its bargain table. You might even have the penchant to self-publish that novel you’ve kept filed away on your hard drive. A far cry from the old-fashioned press, and in a nod to the science and technology so engrained in the area, the store is equipped with a book-making robot nicknamed Paige M. Gutenborg. Simply state your print run and consider yourself published! You might even get your book shelved in the store, or featured on their website,

Definition: Gutenborg 3.0 is an end-to-end platform that optimizes your publishing process.

Around the corner, on Massachusetts Ave and Plympton Street, is the Grolier Poetry Book Shop. Next door to one another, these two form a formidable pair; like each other’s bookends, they live on to tell the stories of a near-extinct breed of booksellers.

Further along Massachusetts Avenue and across from Harvard Square Station, is the multilevel Harvard Co-op Book Building. Managed by Barnes and Noble, there are stacks of books, racks of magazines, and the token café in the midst of paraphernalia emblematic of Harvard. Established in 1882, the Co-op is still one of America’s largest bookstores (it even used to sell wood in the winter). Membership rates have avoided the effects of inflation; they’ve held steady at $1, though be sure to have your Harvard or MIT I.D. number handy if you’d like to join.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker…

Meandering through Harvard Square is fun; the streets and paved alleys are easy to navigate. Pass by the old-school stationer and the greeting-card-chain, Papyrus; pop into Planet Records on John F Kennedy Street as well as the next-door Raven Used Books, just under The Harvard Shop…

…. peer into the windows of restaurants and bars, still in a deep slumber; wander into the gourmet food shop, Cardullo’s, to find – much to your delight – that yes, they do stock Earl Grey Green Tea!

You’ll encounter all this before stumbling upon a coffee-shop for a much needed caffeine boost…

… only to find that all the students had the same idea as you, at the same time. Great minds think alike.

Standing room only in here, though it’s not yet 11am. Linger over a cup of java and marvel at its latte art.

Harvard Walk

The name Harvard comes from the college’s first benefactor, the young minister John Harvard of Charlestown. Upon his death in 1638, he left his library and half his estate to the institution… by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.*

Harvard Yard is the historic centre of Harvard University – established in 1636, it is the oldest institution of higher education in the States. Enter through its imposing gates and come face to face with about 25 acres of university sprawl (note that Harvard’s real estate holdings are total: 5,076 acres). In the centre is the grassy Tercentenary Theater; framed on each of its sides by The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Memorial Church, Emerson Hall for Philosophy, and the University’s longest-standing building – Massachusetts Hall, constructed in 1720.

Pathways, dormitories, more libraries (together, they house 17 million volumes!), and classrooms intersect the area within its expanse. The Faculties for Fine Art, Humanities, and Visual Studies line Harvard Yard to its east – despite being located just across the street – together with a number of the university’s museums.

If you’re in need of some luck, rubbing the left foot on the statue of John Harvard in the Yard’s grounds may help you out. Boy, is that boot polished! … Can’t say the same for the shoe on the other foot.

NB: The total 2011-2012 cost of attending Harvard College without financial aid is USD36,305 for tuition; it is USD52,652 for tuition, room, board and fees combined.*

Food for Thought

Definition: Sofra comes from an ancient Arabic word meaning dining table, picnic, or kilim; it is also a synonym for generosity and hospitality.**

Being surrounded by so much knowledge will inevitably exhaust the brain and stimulate the leptin “hunger” hormone. About a 10 minute car ride from Harvard Square is SOFRA, an Eastern Mediterranean bakery-cafe that produces savoury and sweet pastry goods – some, spiced with aleppo; others, sweetened with honey, or flavoured with rosewater.

Try the Spiced Lamb Pie for lunch; the Fig Almond Bisteeya, Baklava and Date Ma’amoul – for dessert. Grab a coffee-to-go if you can’t snag one of the tiny tables in this cosy spot.

Food for the Brain

The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century — whether the focus is cancer, energy, economics or literature.***

Heading back towards the Charles River and its bridges leading into Boston, make your last stop the MIT Museum – for a dash of genius. Immerse yourself in the creative energy borne by the masterminds who have attended this institution; there are a few up-and-coming Einsteins amongst them. The inventions of display are interactive, brilliant, and mind-boggling.

Untitled Fragile Motor, 1997 ~ steel, wire, motor

You’ll meet Kismet, one of the world’s first social robots; marvel at the kinetic sculptures, moving with quiet precision; become entangled in the wires of the most complex homemade modular electronic music synthesizer you’ve ever seen. Called the Paradiso Synthesizer, it was built by Joe Paradiso in the MIT Media Lab, mostly between 1975 and 1985.

Before you leave, buy a souvenir “Thinking Cap”, or the extended version of the Rubik’s Cube – it has extra rows of colour to unpuzzle!


For an authentic Cambridge experience, we stayed at the Irving House Inn. This is a lovely B&B, run by a friendly and helpful staff. It is located on a residential street and a short walk away from Harvard Yard, which is adjacent to Harvard University. Surrounded by Federal Revival homes and red-brick dorm buildings, it’s as if you’re staying on campus.

One of the advantages of staying in Cambridge means that you can leave your car in the lodging’s parking lot and discover the neigbourhood on foot. There’s no rush, unless you have a looming deadline to contend with…


** *** Note: MIT is Massachusetts Institute of Technology