Published Date Written by Elizabeth Margolis-PineoCambridge sits across the Charles River from Boston like a naughty and fascinating older sibling. Home to two of the most famous institutions of higher learning, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 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 famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Its Portland connections are intriguing — and its proximity makes it irresistible.
The Cambridge Royal Sonesta sits on the bank of the Charles River with 180-degree views of the Boston skyline — particularly beautiful at night. Rooms are priced by views, which range from stellar to breathtaking. The contemporary art collection at the Sonesta is a major draw for me, with over 700 works mounted throughout the hotel. The concierge offers a map and guide to the collection, which you can cruise in about two hours. The astonishing display of Warhols, Stellas, Oldenburgs, and LeWitts will blow you away — and that's just a few of the all-stars. A nondescript hallway contains 30 designs by Buckminster Fuller, from the sublime to the ridiculous, with a Josef Albers over the copy machine. Yes, over the copy machine.
The hotel's aptly named ART Bar has outdoor seating on the riverbank, perfect on a balmy summer evening. Preppy gents on my left discuss their golf strategies, loudly, as boats pass and people wave. Boston's beautiful skyline shimmers across the Charles River. Not bad. The hotel's second bistro, Café Dante, has Italian-influenced tapas and a sturdy wine list. I enjoyed the rice balls, suppli. The cocktail crowd can be overwhelming at Danté so take your vitamins and do a few push-ups before making the scene.
The pool is spectacular, too, with walls that retract in summer so guests feel as if they're dogpaddling the Charles. The Museum of Science is around the corner, great for kids and families. Check out the IMAX theatre and ever-changing hands-on activities — the museum's lightning storm is dazzling. If you don't like crowds, be warned: this world-class science mecca is a very popular spot.
CambridgeSide Galleria 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 the graffiti under the B.U. Bridge and the crazy salad of local lore and historic gossip from the tour guide.
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, MIT has 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. I stopped into an environmental fair with hundreds of earnest, fresh faces discussing green roofs, recycling and rain gardens. The wild contours of the Stata Center by Frank Gehry set a freewheeling tone with shiny surfaces that appear to bend and twist 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: police car atop the MIT dome with uniformed policeman at the wheel. Particularly impressive: he 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 and world-class bookstores, eclectic boutiques, and tasty Indian, Thai, Mexican, Chinese, or New American fare. Grab a table at Portland's own "Otto" pizza for a slice of bacon, rosemary and potato, and do some serious people-watching. And no, Otto doesn't give discounts to Portlanders, I asked. But, hey — you don't have to be a Harvard grad to recognize that this is wicked good pizza.
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 Cold River 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 flowers, minutely detailed models created at the turn of the 19th century as teaching aids. The delicate and fastidious replicas are amazing.
If you have any museum enthusiasm left after the day I have described, keep going to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology. Okay, it's a little dark and a tad serious, but you'll love the Japanese kitchen and display of Native American "fashions" from long ago. In short: the Harvard museums are a gas.
We bid a fond au revoir to Cambridge with a trip to the East Coast Grill where we savor a bottomless brunch of fish tacos, homemade fennel sausage, and sweet cornmeal-crusted French toast, with a bowl of shrimp and grits for "dessert." Their make-your-own bloody Mary bar is second-to-none. I add horseradish, pickles and Old Bay — outstanding.
When I'm in the mood for an arty and enlightening getaway, Cambridge is often at the top if my list. If time and budget constraints dictate a day trip, that's okay, too. Leave the car at home; it's a short bus ride from Portland, plus a couple of stops via the T (red line) across the Charles to the intriguing parallel universe that is the Left Bank of Boston.
(Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo is a freelance writer and creator of http://EpicuriousTravelers.com.)