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Why visit Cambridge when you’re spending time in Boston? Cambridge feels different — innovative, cultured, intellectually curious. It may be a separate city from Boston, but Cambridge is absolutely worth visiting in its own right.
Some of the best things to do in Cambridge are visiting Harvard and MIT, the two rock star universities — but for me, Cambridge is about simply hanging out, poking my head into interesting shops, sitting at the Harvard Book Store with a cup of coffee, and enjoying the day.
I grew up in the Boston area, spent several years living in Cambridge-adjacent Boston and Somerville, and I continue to visit Cambridge today. Strangely, as time has passed, Cambridge is a place that feels even more like home to me than Boston does.
I love Boston, but it can be brash, basic, and singularly sports-focused. One reason why I left was because I’m not much of a sports fan, and I hated how sports dominated every conversation at work, how you couldn’t talk to anyone in a bar until “the game” was over.
But you don’t get that in Cambridge. I feel like Cambridge is a place where you can be yourself more, let your intellectual flag fly (or freak flag fly!), and spend your time listening to interesting music and trying cool foods rather than just watching the millionth Red Sox game of the year.
I feel like most travel guides miss this. Cambridge isn’t just the city of Harvard and MIT. Cambridge is a vibe. A cozy vibe, with riverside views, brick buildings, and soul dance parties on the weekend. The People’s Republic of Cambridge.
So I’d like to introduce you to the Cambridge I know. Who knows — you might like Cambridge even more than Boston!
Just one thing. PLEASE don’t ask anyone if they park their car in Harvard Yard. It won’t go over well.
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Traveling to Cambridge, Massachusetts
Is Cambridge part of Boston? Technically, no. Cambridge is its own city, with its own government and school system and public services, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a Boston neighborhood.
A lot of people are surprised when they find out that Boston has a population of only 684,000. Surely this big city with lots of skyscrapers is bigger than that!
But unlike New York, or Houston, or Los Angeles, Boston isn’t a giant sprawling city. It’s one of many cities pushed together in a relatively small area. Cambridge is one of those cities, the largest of those cities, and it’s known as the “other” side of the Charles River.
Cambridge has a population of 118,000; Somerville has 81,000, Brookline has 59,000, Quincy has 94,000. And that doesn’t even include the many suburbs. Boston’s metro area has a population closer to five million.
Take a tour of Harvard University, enjoy the wonderful restaurants, and check out some live music.
Most people visit Cambridge for a day or a half day, but I recommend spending a few days.
Harvard Square is the best neighborhood to stay in Cambridge. See the best hotels here.
The absolute best thing to do in Cambridge with kids is go to the Museum of Science! They will LOVE IT.
Things to Do in Cambridge
For a lot of travelers, “Cambridge” is synonymous with “Harvard.” Many a Boston visitor comes to Cambridge for an afternoon, just long enough to wander Harvard Yard and buy a sweatshirt.
But Cambridge is so much more than that. More than anything, this is a city that lends itself to wandering.
Visit the different neighborhoods. Hop on the red line or 1 bus and jump from square to square, exploring the little shops and bars and restaurants. Catch some live music or wile away the day in the Harvard Bookstore.
Here are my top recommendations of things to do in Cambridge.
Hang out in Harvard Square
If there’s any iconic neighborhood of Cambridge, it’s Harvard Square. This neighborhood is full of historic buildings, coffee shops, restaurants, and fun boutiques, as well as theaters and performance spaces. All this and more brings millions of people to the square each year.
Harvard Square has gentrified over the years, and has a lot more chain establishments than it used to, but the square still has a bohemian feel. It’s a great place to enjoy buskers and street performers, or just grab a cup of coffee and people-watch.
Whether you use the square as a complement to your tour of Harvard or stay in a hotel here and use it as the base for your Cambridge trip (which I highly recommend!), spending time in Harvard Square should be a priority!
Visit Harvard University
Hmm, Harvard…are they any good? Yeah, they might be. America’s oldest university, established in 1636, and perhaps the most famous institution of higher education on the planet, Harvard is very much worth visiting.
Harvard’s campus is well-integrated throughout the city of Cambridge — so well, in fact, that you may step on campus without realizing it.
You can tour Harvard University on your own if you’d like, but I recommend taking a guided tour. These affordable tours are led by Harvard students, with a lot of humor and creativity, and you’ll learn a ton of history and get a glimpse of what life at Harvard is like today.
One big tip: do not rub the foot of the John Harvard statue. Some Harvard students like to pee on it as a prank, then tell tourists to rub it for good luck.
And don’t forget to check out Pooh’s House while at Harvard! It’s a tiny painted door at the stump of a tree outside of the Science Center. The door gets stolen on and off over the years, but it’s a cute little place on campus.
Museum of Science
Located on the Craigie Drawbridge between Cambridge and Boston, the Museum of Science is one of the city’s gems. Here you’ll find more than 700 interactive exhibits, live presentations, shows at the Omni IMAX theater, 4D films, and planetarium shows, all fun and science-y!
This is the best thing to do in Cambridge with kids — hands down. When I was a kid, I thought the Museum of Science was the coolest place I’d ever seen. It has fun stuff for kids of all ages. But adults, especially kids at heart, will have a ton of fun here, too!
The Museum of Science costs $29 for adults, $24 for children ages 3 to 11, and free for children under age 3. Tickets for the films and shows at the planetarium cost an additional $6. Be sure to allocate more time than you think you need, because this is one Cambridge attraction people enjoy much more than planned!
Mount Auburn Cemetery
If you’re lucky enough to visit Cambridge during fall foliage, you must visit Mount Auburn Cemetery! I think it’s one of the best fall foliage spots in the Boston area, filled with glorious reds, oranges and yellows among the peaceful gravestones. There are fabulous Boston skyline views, too.
Mount Auburn Cemetery was established in 1831, becoming the first garden cemetery in the United States. People buried here include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Isabella Stuart Gardner, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dorothea Dix, and quite a few more.
No matter what time of year it is, though, this is a nice place to visit to get some quiet time in the middle of the city. Keep in mind that this is a place for mourning, and be respectful of other visitors. It’s free to visit.
Head of the Charles Regatta
If there’s any one event that you should prioritize in Cambridge, it’s the Head of the Charles Regatta — the largest regatta in the world. Cambridge has lots of events throughout the year, but the Head of the Charles may be the most Cantabrigian celebration of all!
Taking place in late October, amid beautiful fall foliage, athletes from around the world compete in rowing. The route is upstream and has a lot of twists and turns, making it a dynamic and highly entertaining race to watch.
While the Charles River divides Boston and Cambridge, there are plenty of places to watch the rowers. Bridges are a great choice if you don’t mind standing, though you can pay for VIP areas. See the spectator’s guide here.
Central Square, Inman Square, Porter Square, and Kendall Square
Indeed, Cambridge is a city of squares — and while Harvard Square gets most of the attention, the other squares are worth your time as well.
Central Square is a great place to go out at night. There are tons of restaurants (including a huge variety of global cuisine), diverse nightlife, live music, even dance clubs.
Inman Square is where I’d live in Cambridge if I had a choice! It’s a bit of a walk from the red line, which keeps it feeling very local, and there are a ton of good restaurants and coffee shops.
Porter Square is one of the more sedate squares and feels more suburban, but there is an awesome Japanese mall with several cool shops and restaurants.
Kendall Square is home to MIT, tech companies, and startups. It’s a more business-y environment catering to workers, but they have a nice movie theater, The Garment District thrift store, and some nice restaurants.
Want to continue your square exploration? Head to Davis Square (my former neighborhood!) and Union Square in Somerville. Somerville is Cambridge’s sister city and they have a similar feel.
A National Historic Site in Cambridge, Longfellow House is named after its former inhabitant, 19th century poet Henry Longfellow. Previously, the house served as headquarters for General George Washington during the Siege of Boston from 1775 to 1776.
Today, the beautifully preserved house has 19th-century literature and arts on display. There are gardens to explore as well as artwork, furniture, and decorative objects to see throughout the house. Most noteworthy is a library with books in over 30 languages!
One nice surprise? Visiting the Longfellow House is free for all to visit! This also includes all tours and events. Guides are available to take you on both outdoor and indoor tours during your visit.
Toscanini’s Ice Cream
No trip to Cambridge is complete without a stop at Toscanini’s! This is one of the best ice cream shops in the Boston area, if not all of New England, and even received the “World’s Best Ice Cream” award by the New York Times.
Established in 1981, all of the ice cream is handmade in-store. You can also order coffee, tea, and various baked goods that come from other businesses in the area. The shop has had various homes in Cambridge and is now located in Kendall Square.
The ice cream flavors available change often so I feel like they will have changed by the time you read this! Keep an eye out for new unique flavors like Vienna Finger Cookie, Blueberry Fluff, Green Tea Cookies & Cream, and more. They have conventional flavors, too — Burnt Caramel is always popular.
The ice cream is a bit on the pricier end for Boston, but for good reason — it’s special.
Visit MIT and the MIT Museum
You’ve already seen Harvard — why not see MIT, too? Massachusetts Institute of Technology is one of the world’s most prestigious universities specializing in science and technology. Many of our most innovative creators spent time learning here.
MIT offers hourlong student-guided tours where you can learn about the university and the latest technology they’re working on. You can book a tour here. Alternatively, MIT has put together a map for visitors here.
MIT is known for their hacks, or pranks. One eternal prank you can see on the Harvard Bridge — in 1958 they measured the bridge in “Smoots,” or 5’7″ intervals, based on a student named Oliver Smoot! (Smoot is an MIT legend.)
The MIT Museum is closed until 2022 as it moves to a new Kendall Square location, but when it returns, you’ll get to enjoy scientific research and innovation through various galleries, exhibits, workshops, performances, conversations, and more. Admission is $10 for adults or $5 for children, students, and seniors.
Stroll Along Memorial Drive
Memorial Drive is a street running along the Charles River in Cambridge with outstanding views of the Boston skyline. On any Cambridge day with decent weather, you’ll see people walking, pushing strollers, running, riding bikes, skateboarding, you name it.
It’s a nice spot that gives you the true sense of the two cities and the differences between Cambridge and Boston. And if you’re visiting Cambridge on the Fourth of July, Memorial Drive is one of the best spots to watch the fireworks!
Enjoy Live Music
Cambridge is one of the best destinations for live music in the Boston area. While many music venues have faced hardship over the years, eventually closing, several of the best venues are still holding strong and featuring cutting-edge acts.
Club Passim in Harvard Square is a true Cambridge treasure. A folk music venue dating back to the 1950s, today it features all kinds of folk and folk-adjacent musical acts with food (most often vegetarian) served at communal tables, making it a great place to meet people while enjoying some culture.
The Middle East in Central Square is more than just a club — it’s a complex of venues and restaurants. The Middle East is one of the best places in Boston for indie and underground rock acts.
Lizard Lounge, just north of Harvard Square, features an insane variety of music genres seven nights a week. Not only that, they also do poetry slams on Sunday nights and open mics on Monday nights. While it’s closed at the moment for COVID reasons, we hope it returns soon.
Regattabar in the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square is Cambridge’s best venue for live jazz. While it’s closed at the moment for COVID reasons, we hope it returns soon.
And while it’s not live music, I must recommend Soulelujah, a Saturday night dance party at The Sinclair in Harvard Square. It’s funk, soul, R&B, all vinyl. Best dance music in the world. And there’s NOTHING like the crowd reaction when the first notes of “I Want You Back” ring out!
Explore Cambridge by Bike
Want to explore Cambridge on two wheels? Great choice. While Cambridge is definitely a city, it has a more suburban feel than downtown Boston, making it a beautiful place to ride. Plus, there’s nothing like enjoying the view as you pedal down Memorial Drive!
Taking a bike tour is a great way to explore Cambridge while not having to worry about where to go or how to get your equipment. This guided tour includes some of the city’s best areas, like the Charles River, Harvard Square, MIT, and more.
The bike tour lasts 2.5-3 hours and covers 11-13 miles. Bike and helmet are included. You can book the tour here.
Fresh Pond Reservation
If you want to get a bit more offbeat in the Cambridge area, I recommend heading to North Cambridge, which doesn’t see as many tourists. One nice place to visit in North Cambridge is Fresh Pond Reservation.
Fresh Pond Reservation is a park you can visit, but more importantly, the pond is the water supply for Cambridge. In the 1800s, when the pond froze in the winter, the ice was sold around the world by Boston’s “Ice King,” Frederic Tudor.
It’s a nice 2.25-mile walk around the pond — enough for a substantial bit of exercise. There are over 100 acres of land to explore and a nine-hole golf course.
Fresh Pond Reservation is free to visit. Parking is for Cambridge residents only; take the red line to Alewife or use street parking.
See a Play at the A.R.T.
The American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, also known as A.R.T., puts on a unique collection of performances. Their aim is to expand the boundaries of theater through research, development, and hard work. Many of the performances have received national recognition.
There are two venues that are part of A.R.T. and include the Loeb Drama Center and Oberon, both are in Cambridge. The Loeb Drama Center is the main box office for shows and the headquarters of A.R.T. Oberon is the A.R.T.’s second stage with theater and nightlife in Harvard Square.
Seeing a play at one of the A.R.T. venues is a great way to do something a bit out of the ordinary and experience a great show. Years ago I saw a modern interpretation of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the A.R.T. that blew my mind.
Visit Harvard’s Museums
Yes, on top of everything else, Harvard has museums! Very good ones, too.
The Fogg Museum is the oldest and largest art museum at Harvard University. It includes work from artists like Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh. You’ll also find a lot of Italian Renaissance art. Admission is $20 for adults and is free for all students with an ID, residents of Cambridge, youth under 18, and free for everyone on Sundays.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History includes three research museums at Harvard: the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical & Geological Museum. The museum aims to increase the appreciation and understanding of nature for the public. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for youth ages 3 to 18, and children under 3 are free.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Etymology is one of the oldest anthropology museums in the world. It’s still in the original 19th-century building it first occupied and aims to engage and promote the study and appreciation of ancient people from all over the world. Admission is $15 for adults, $10 for youth ages 3 to 18, and children under 3 are free.
Join a Dumpling-Making Party
If you enjoy doing out-of-the-ordinary activities, consider a cooking class on Airbnb experience where you can learn how to make Taiwanese cuisine. It’s time to make one of the happiest foods in the world — dumplings!
In the 2.5-hour long cooking class, Chef Patty will teach you how to make 5-6 shapes with three different stuffings and tell you stories about growing up in a Chinese and Taiwanese family. Once they’re done, you can also enjoy them and take any leftovers with you.
You can book the class here. And sometimes cooking classes are the greatest investment of all — because you can come home and show off your new skills for your loved ones.
Take a Chocolate Tour
Why take a university or biking tour when you could take a chocolate tour instead? I kid, I kid. Do both. For dessert lovers out there, consider this sweetly themed tour. You’ll go on a chocolate tour of Cambridge, eat sweets along the way, and learn about Harvard Square.
The tour is 1.5 hours and starts with a history of Harvard Square and Harvard University. Along the way, you’ll enjoy locally made ice cream, chocolate tea, and you’ll get to explore a traditional candy shop.
The tour includes a visit to a specialty chocolate shop, a local ice cream sample, chocolate tea, a visit to a candy shop, a chocolate baked good, and more. You’ll walk about 1 mile total with stops along the way. You can book the tour here.
Visit the Harvard Book Store
If you’re a bookstore fan in the least, you should visit the Harvard Book Store. This is one of my favorite independent bookstores on the planet! Yes, independent. It’s not actually part of the university, though they do sell a good amount of Harvard merchandise here.
It’s a very cozy place, with gentle lighting and hidden nooks. There’s a cafe on site. The nonfiction sections are more extensive than you might expect, and it’s easy to get lost in the stacks for hours. It’s also a nice spot to pick up gifts.
Settle into one of the comfy chairs. Or do what I did in 2001 and read Of Mice and Men in its entirety so you are one book closer to finishing your summer reading.
Best Cambridge Restaurants
Boston has an excellent dining scene — but the other side of the river has quite a bit to offer, too. Here are a few of my favorites:
Oleana features Eastern Mediterranean cuisine and is an especially good choice for vegetarians and vegans. Most of the dishes are served mezze-style, lots of small dishes making a meal, from hummus and kebobs to saganaki and bean plaka. The wonderful garden patio outside is an idyllic setting on a nice day!
Harvest is a legend: one of Cambridge’s best fine dining restaurants turning out consistently excellent food since 1975. The menu is seasonal and also changes for brunch, lunch, and dinner each day, but they always have nice selections at the raw bar and for the cheese course. If you’re looking to splurge, this is the place.
Orinoco is a Venezuelan restaurant where you can have a fun, delicious meal and get a lot for your money. It’s inspired by “taguaritas” — family-run eateries in Venezuela. Be sure to try the Venezuelan-style arepas (far superior to Colombian arepas, in my opinion); their empanadas and hearts of palm salads are also good.
Dali is technically in Somerville but it’s right on the Cambridge line, so I count it! The restaurant serves traditional Spanish tapas served in new and inventive ways, plus sangria and sherry. This lively restaurant feels celebratory and exciting, so it’s a nice place to dress up and have a special meal.
Pour one out for Cuchi Cuchi and the Border Cafe, two Cambridge legends that didn’t survive 2020. I miss you guys.
Where to Stay in Cambridge
Cambridge has so many neighborhoods — it can be a bit overwhelming! To make it easier, I’m concentrating on one neighborhood: Harvard Square. You might have noticed that quite a lot of this post is centered around Harvard Square.
Harvard Square is my favorite neighborhood for where to stay in Cambridge because it’s central, it’s fun, it’s got a lot of interesting stuff within walking distance, and it’s well-located for public transportation.
Even if Harvard itself isn’t one of your priorities, Harvard Square makes a great base for travelers in Cambridge.
Best luxury accommodation in Harvard Square: The Charles Hotel is where presidents and international leaders stay. This is the NICE place.
Best mid-range accommodation in Harvard Square: Hotel Veritas is central with extremely stylish rooms — the petite queens are cheaper but quite nice.
Best budget accommodation in Harvard Square: Porter Square Hotel is one red line stop away in Porter, but great value for money.
READ MORE: Where to Stay in Boston
How Much Time to Spend in Cambridge
While most travelers come to Cambridge for a day trip from Boston, or even a half day trip, I think Cambridge is much better served if you spend a few days here.
Three days gives you enough time to get the lay of the land, see the most popular sites and museums, and do a little venturing outside the city.
And if you want to spend your entire trip to Boston based in Cambridge, even if you’re going to be there a week or longer, that’s totally fine! Boston is a pretty compact city. You can get from end to end much easier than you think.
How to Get to Cambridge
It’s very easy getting around Cambridge. The MBTA, Boston’s transportation system (called the T for short), has plenty of subway and stops throughout Cambridge. The red line in particular runs clear down the center of Cambridge all the way to Boston. There are a few green line stops, too.
But don’t overlook the buses, too! The buses often take more logical routes, and they go where the T doesn’t go. I’m a fan of the 1 bus, which runs up Massachusetts Ave. and is the best way to get to Cambridge from Back Bay or the South End in Boston.
To get to Cambridge from Logan Airport in Boston, it should take you about 15-20 minutes in a taxi or Uber.
Keep in mind that getting from Logan Airport to Cambridge on the T can be a bit of a pain — the airport is on the blue line, much of Cambridge is on the red line, and the red and blue lines do not converge. You’d have to take an extra stop on the green or orange lines to get from the blue line to the red line.
Best Time to Visit Cambridge
The best time to visit Cambridge might as well be the best time to visit Boston! If you’re looking for beautiful scenery and comfortable temperatures, the fall months are the absolute best time to visit Cambridge. Peak color is around the first week of October, but you can enjoy fall foliage from late September through late October.
Summer is lovely but can get very hot. The Boston area has notoriously high humidity. Keep that in mind as you schedule your trip. As for winter, I don’t recommend traveling to Cambridge in the winter unless you’re used to severe winters. It can be a shock to the system for people from Florida and Texas!
Beyond that, if you’re looking for a genuine student-centric atmosphere, aim for between September and May. While plenty of students stay in Cambridge over the summer, it’s nowhere on the level of the school year.
There are some Cambridge-centric exceptions, though. If you’re planning a trip to Cambridge, you may want to avoid move-in weekend and graduation weekend for both Harvard and MIT. These are when accommodation will be at its most expensive, the best hotels will be booked solid, and you’ll struggle to get a dining reservation.
Read More: Best Time to Visit Boston
Travel Insurance for Cambridge
A lot of people think travel insurance is an unnecessary expense — I couldn’t disagree more. Travel insurance is vital. It’s saved me hundreds of dollars and for a few of my friends who seriously injured themselves abroad, they’ve saved hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This is especially important in the United States, where healthcare is expensive and even just going to an out-of-network hospital can cost you thousands of dollars. If you’re traveling from outside the US, don’t even think of showing up without travel insurance.
Travel insurance can also compensate you if you get robbed, if you get trapped due to weather (very common in Boston in the winter!), or if a family member dies and you need to get home immediately.
I use and recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance. Take a look at their policies before you buy to make sure they’re right for you.
Is Cambridge Worth It?
Of course Cambridge is worth it! I love this city! Cambridge shows you a very different side to Boston, a cultural and intellectual side, and I bet you will enjoy what you find here.
Go enjoy every minute of your trip to Cambridge. Then come back and tell me all about it!
More on Massachusetts:
See all Massachusetts posts here.
Have you been to Cambridge? What tips do you have? Share away!