A City Unto Itself ~ Cambridge, MA

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

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

Cambridge has been described as Boston’s Left Bank. Named after England’s University of Cambridge, the town is home to Harvard University and MIT.

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

The mix of bookstores, coffee-shops, ethnic restaurants, and bars evokes a bohemian vibe.

It’s not hard wishing yourself back to student life in these surroundings. Ahh, the good old days, when laborious assignments, looming deadlines, upcoming exams, and sleepless nights seemed like the biggest concerns in the world.

It’s only after graduating that you realise what real life is all about.

With MIT in the Northeast, and Harvard Business School to the South, revel in the student-filled atmosphere. Something has got to be said for osmosis – being surrounded by so much knowledge, so much brainpower, makes you feel smarter.

A River Runs Through It

After winding down Storrow Drive, drive over Harvard Bridge to Cambridge. From here, you can enjoy some spectacular scenes of Boston’s downtown.

A Literary Lineage

Visit Harvard Square, where history and the present merge.

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

the 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 friends of the area too.

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 be inclined to self-publish that novel you’ve kept filed away. 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, harvard.com

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. Located next door to one another, these two are a formidable pair. Standing like bookends, they live to tell the stories of a diminishing breed of booksellers.

Further along Massachusetts Avenue and across from Harvard Square Station stands the multilevel Harvard Co-op Book Building. Managed by Barnes and Noble, it is stacked with books and magazines, and has a token café wrapped in Harvard paraphernalia.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 held steady at $1, but you need a Harvard or MIT I.D. number if you’d like to join.

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker…

Meandering through Harvard Square is fun. The paved streets and alleyways are easy to navigate. You’ll pass by the old-school stationer and Planet Records on John F Kennedy Street, as well as the next-door Raven Used Books, just below The Harvard Shop…

If it’s early, peer into the windows of sleeping restaurants and bars before wandering into the gourmet food shop, Cardullo’s, to find that yes, they do stock Earl Grey Green Tea!

It’s standing room only here, and it’s not yet 11am.

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. You can enter  its imposing gates to access 25 acres of university sprawl (note that Harvard’s real estate holdings total 5,076 acres). The central Tercentenary Theater is surrounded by The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Memorial Church, Emerson Hall for Philosophy, and the University’s longest-standing building, Massachusetts Hall, which was constructed in 1720.

Pathways lead to dormitories, classrooms, and more libraries (together, they house 17 million volumes!). The Faculties for Fine Art, Humanities, and Visual Studies line Harvard Yard to its east, 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 might bring some luck. (And boy, is that boot polished! … I 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. Or, USD52,652 for tuition, room, board, and fees combined.*

Food for Thought


For a reprieve, drive 10 minutes from Harvard Square to SOFRA*, an Eastern Mediterranean bakery/cafe that produces savoury pastries spiced with aleppo, and sweet ones tinged with honey, or rosewater.

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

The Spiced Lamb Pie, Fig Almond Bisteeya, Baklava, and Date Ma’amoul are highly recommended. Grab a coffee to go if you can’t snag one of the tiny, cosy tables.

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.***

Aftercrossing the Charles River back into Boston, you should stop by the MIT Museum, borne by the masterminds who attended this institution. The interactive displays are mind-bogglingly brilliant.

Untitled Fragile Motor, 1997 ~ steel, wire, motor

You’ll meet Kismet, one of the world’s first social robots, see kinetic sculptures, and witness the most complex homemade modular electronic music synthesizer. 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 with extra rows 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, adjacent to Harvard University. Surrounded by Federal Revival homes and red-brick dorm buildings, it feels as if you’re 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…


**www.sofrabakery.com ***http://web.mit.edu/aboutmit/ Note: MIT is Massachusetts Institute of Technology

42 thoughts on “A City Unto Itself ~ Cambridge, MA

  1. I didn’t realize what a cute town Cambridge is. As well as the cudos of attending Harvard, it would be fun to be studying and living there. Great to see that ebooks have not diminished the number of book stores!! Thankyou for a great visit. If only I could pop into Sofra, all would be perfect!

    • Jenny – you would love SOFRA. Spices and everything nice! Cambridge is very English-inspired and it definitely had me thinking about becoming a student again… If only! Thanks 🙂

  2. Beautiful post and good luck to Katya! I am sure she will enjoy the student life despite all these concerns over grades, as you say 🙂 Ahhh I remember my days at uni back in Lithuania, it was the best year of my youth, I loved it! I met so many lovely people I am best friends until now, it was great 🙂 It’s funny to remember how important was to get a good grade, and I was a good student, studying overnight and partying hard 🙂 I even managed to get a honours diploma (red diploma we call it back home 😀 ) but it’s so true that the real life starts after the graduation, then you are on your own and have to make your own decisions 🙂

    Cambridge seems like a nice place 🙂 I haven’t been to Cambridge here in the UK (shame on me) even though Charlie is from Cambridgeshire and we go to visit his parents few times a year 🙂 They always take me to some interesting places so next time I should ask for a trip to Cambridge 😀

    • Thanks Kristina! I would love to see a post on Cambridge UK when you visit next time. That would be so interesting to see! We can exchange notes 🙂 University seems like so long ago, yet the memories are clear. Congrats on your honours and glad I could bring back some memories for you! I’ll pass on the luck to my lil sista – she seems to be doing well for her first week! Thank you again!

  3. I love historic university towns – something about all the great buildings, not the mention the book stores and coffee shops. My cousin studied at MIT so I spent a couple of days in Cambridge about 10 years ago – I remember going around some of their labs and looking at all the weird and wonderful inventions!

    • Hi Lucy! I love university towns too – I’ll never forget my trip to Oxford in UK. It was such a gorgeous area and the vibe is always so bohemian. Maybe I just want to be a student again. Glad you got to see MIT – the actual campus! That’s cool. Thanks!

  4. A superb post Marina! I absolutely love all the details that you research and share. Always engaging.
    A beautiful range of images too and I especially love that metal staircase image. It’s aglow.

  5. Real nice post, Marina. And wonderful as always having you as tour guide on these picturesque walks. Great stuff! Oh, and all the best to Katya, I can’t just imagine how excited all of you must be. What is she studying btw?

    P.S SOFRA looks and sounds divine! Yum indeed.

  6. Thank you for another great (and informative) adventure. I love that you include food in your adventures as well. When my family goes on road trips, they look for little quaint places to eat and discover too. It’s always one of our most memorable parts of the journey when we find a great stopping place!

    • Thank you! Food is an essential part of our trip – my husband works in the restaurant industry and seeks it out! An excuse for me to indulge 🙂 I agree – memories are heavily reliant on good food finds!

  7. I lived in Somerville for a year, right next to Cambridge, and my roommate and I spent a lot of time there. It really is adorable and there are so many hidden squares with cute coffee shops, music stores, and vintage boutiques. If it wasn’t in Boston (I’m a die-hard NYer) I’d settle there in a second!

    • I am envious of your time near Cambridge. It’s one of those nice dreams for me to have – being a student on a campus like that, near a city/town as cute as Cambridge! I hear you about NY – it is hard to give up 🙂

  8. Yes, it is wonderful to spend some time in this very special place… and I’m sorry to hear there’s been a decline in the book stores, though that was only to be expected. I really enjoyed myself there, years ago. You have revived some memories.

    • I am glad to have brought you back some memories – that’s a wonderful compliment as memories are everlasting! I am grateful that Harvard Book Store encourages book printing though, versus sending a ‘link’. Thank you Shimon!

  9. your photography is getting better and better, i see a real step change since i first started following your blog, your are capturing the spirit of the places you visit, making them real in a way guide books never will, keep it up! andy 🙂

    • Oh thank you! I appreciate it. I am humbled that you mention ‘spirit’ in the photos, as that is something I aspire to achieve. So thank you again. I really do appreciate that.

  10. THANK YOU, THANK YOU! Now, you make me add Boston to my must-visit-cities in the States 🙂
    I like it the most when you mentioned about the osmosis of smartness and youth when you were there. That’s really funny. And ABSOLUTELY TRUE! I felt the same way when I visited one of the most famous universities in my country.

    • Hi Rob! I am so glad you enjoyed the post. Absolutely, most definitely, you MUST visit Cambridge and Boston. From your blog and your posts, I know you will really enjoy it. It is true, isn’t it – being around so much brain power makes one feel brainier. I wish I could be a student again! Let me know when you make it to the US. Thanks!

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