It may be cool, but Cambridge is all about squares. The best known of these, and certainly one of the most popular, is Harvard Square. It's a people-watcher's paradise, as the bustle of bookish Harvard students, mohawked punks, camera-toting tourists, homeless panhandlers, buskers and harried businesspeople creates a diverse and colorful street scene. It is of course intimately tied to the university of the same name, which boasts a panoply of sights, monuments and eye-popping architecture within its modestly sized campus.
Where to go in Harvard Square
North of the Charles River and in need of a paddling? Hubba Hubba has got the wrist action you're looking for. The shop is best known for its independently designed S&M gear and fetishwear (with more than a pinch of punk). Shop owner Suzan Phelps has been helping locals spice up their wardrobes for over 25 years.
This Harvard Square spot carries on the tradition of top-notch Boston Comedy in seedy Chinese restaurants. Perched atop the Hong Kong, the Studio features stand-up comedy Wednesday through Sunday (magicians take the stage on Tuesdays). The shows move quickly, with several comics doing short, punchy sets. Each weeknight features numerous gems, but on the weekends you get the highest caliber of talent. Club owner (and frequent host) Rick Jenkins showcases ten of the best local comics, and there's always the potential for a drop-in from national acts like Mike Birbiglia, Gary Gulman or Joe Wong.
Finally, the music hall that Harvard Square deserves. Classier than Central Square's beloved (but borderline dilapidated) Middle East complex, the newly minted Sinclair has been attracting indie darlings since its opening thanks to NYC powerhouse booking crew, the Bowery Presents. The total package, the venue even has its own restaurant front-of-house. Order the burger—the kitchen is helmed by Boston burger maestro, Michael Schlow.
Whether or not you're drawn in by the ’60s bohemian theme, there’s plenty to like about the Beat Hotel. Like its South End sister the Beehive, this retreat from the bustle of Brattle Street features thoughtful cocktails and daily live music in a cavernous room with plenty of space for all.
Duck into this subterranean hideaway—the former site of Harvard Square institution Casablanca—and discover a bustling multi-room dining and drinking destination that balances a rustic laid-back vibe with an industrial edge. The reclaimed wood and brick walls add warmth to the sprawling space, as do the honey-colored glass lanterns that hang over the bar. There’s a small atrium dining room; high-top tables in the bar area; and the main dining room, where guests can glimpse the open kitchen through metal shelving stacked with cookbooks. The American cuisine of chef-owner Michael Scelfo reflects a similar juxtaposition—chef-driven home-cooking with an edge, such as smoked lamb belly ribs with carrot and cashew tahini and sour orange glaze. Most main courses are under $20, unless you entertain the 16-ounce Creekstone Farms New York strip.
After acquiring a new owner and a revamped interior a few years back, Oona’s went on to regain its former place as one of the best vintage stores in Boston. The unfortunate (and inaccurate) label of a “costume shop” has hurt Oona’s in the past, but another visit will show former nonbelievers that this is no longer the case. The feel is more Victorian dressing room than Halloween party store. The update is most evident in the men’s section, which has traded in its printed cowboy hats and fake mustaches for vintage Western shirts and Levis 501s. As far as the women’s section goes, the clothes are both affordable (starting at $30 for dresses and $20 for blouses) and beautiful. Everything in the store is thoughtfully handpicked—so you won’t be wasting time rifling through extra-large polyester shift dresses and little league T-shirts.
Clover has quickly become something of an empire. Their food truck fleet has expanded handsomely, and you’ll find brick and mortar food labs in Burlington, Brookline and all over Cambridge. Healthful concoctions are Clover's calling card, and while waiting in line, you'll hear a lot of chatter about the chickpea fritter: golden-fried falafel, hummus, a drizzle of tahini and red pickled cabbage overflowing from a round, hearty bun. You can also score a soy BLT and barbecue Seitan. Alongside your feel-good selection, sip a brown-sugar lemonade or hibiscus iced tea.
Home to the largest collection of 35mm films in New England, Harvard's film temple and screening space provides access to a hard-to-find and diverse catalog of films. The selection in a given month might include anything from Hong Kong cinema to historically important Hollywood gems to pure experimental stuff. The HFA also hosts retrospectives, with filmmakers frequently brought in for Q&As. The poured cement exterior of the Carpenter Center might not be much to look at, but it’s the only Le Corbusier building in North America. Tickets are $9, or $12 for special events. Weekly screenings for Harvard students are free and open to the public, and the HFA’s monthly catalogue is a free film education in and of itself. Alas, there are no snacks allowed.
Its parent shop, WordsWorth, has closed, but the children's branch (named after the fictional monkey whose creator, Margret Rey, used to frequent the old bookstore) lives on. The jungle-themed upstairs room offers parenting and baby books, board books, picture books, early readers and non-fiction tomes; older readers will find chapter books, Tintin, Asterix and anime works downstairs. Your kids may not even notice the books among the profusion of toys, games and art supplies though.