With all its musty traditions, dozens of bookstores, hordes of university students, and streets crowded with hippies, the homeless and Nobel honchos, Cambridge, Mass., is never boring. September, though, is a singular time of year: The start of the new term brings flocks of freshmen who infuse even the most jaded traveller with that raffish feeling of youth. These days - because of the ascendance of the Obama crowd, many of whom were seconded from MIT and Harvard - intelligence is fashionable at all ages. Here, in what may be the smartest city in the U.S., geek has always been chic.
Harvard Yard: Celeb dorms and a celebrity foot You could spend months exploring the two famous universities, but if you have just a couple of days, start with a stroll through Harvard Yard (or "Hahvahd Yahd" as we Boston folks say), the grassy enclosure surrounded by 18th-century red-brick buildings. Take a free tour, and a fresh-faced scholar will point out dorms that once housed heavyweight politicians Al Gore and JFK or celebs Natalie Portman and Matt Damon. In the Yard you'll see Memorial Hall with its panoply of 19th-century stained glass. You'll learn that nearby Widener Library, with its impressive staircase and chunky pillars, boasts 80 kilometres of bookshelves and the title "world's largest academic library." De rigueur is a stop at the statue of Harvard's founder, John Harvard, to touch his brass toe for good luck. This summer, Etienne Durand, a 15-year-old Montrealer who dreams of becoming a surgeon, didn't just touch the fabled foot, he massaged it. "If this is the best place, then this is where I want to study medicine," he said happily, clearly oblivious to the $74,000 it costs just for the first year at Harvard Medical. 617-495-1573; www.news.harvard.edu/guide/to_do/index.html
Harvard Museum of Natural History: From a sea monster to delicate glass flowers Harvard is rich in museums, with stellar collections in everything from Asian art to archeology. Most are free or inexpensive, but the museums are so dense it's best to focus on one or two. A favourite is the Harvard Museum of Natural History with its giant gemstones and a stunning 42-foot- long, 135-million-year-old Kronosaurus (i.e.: sea monster). If you're looking for something more delicate, check out the glass flowers. The 3,000 botanically correct models, hand-blown by Bohemian glass workers, were used for study in the 19th and early 20th century. Delicate and complex, these fragile statuettes look like extravagant gems sprinkled with precious metals. 617-495-3045; www.hmnh.harvard.edu
Harvard Square: Where presidents have a pint Harvard Square, the bustling neighbourhood around the university, has long been known for its quirky people, shops and restaurants. Walking tours let you time travel. On the animated Lively Lore tour, actor Tim Sawyer leapfrogs through the centuries with anecdotes, history and poetry. "This was all marsh," he says of a vibrant corner of the Square, including the famous greasy spoon Charlie's Kitchen where, according to Sawyer, all U.S. presidents who attended Harvard went for a beer "Obama?" I ask. "Probably. The streets that make up Harvard Square are as tangled today as they were when the Puritans laid them out in 1630. Where a café stands, there was a jail yard for witches. Nearby were the stocks for adulterers. Sawyer knows about all those 17th-century misadventures and shares racy gossip of bonnets and buckled boots cast aside in the heat of Puritan passion. He also tells how Cambridge gained its liberal reputation as we pass the statue of Charles Sumner, who gave passionate anti-slavery speeches in Congress and was beaten by slaveholding southern senators. We tour the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow house. "Longfellow," Sawyer says, "was a rock star of the abolitionist movement." Lively Lore Tours, www.livelylore.com ; Charlie's Kitchen, 10 Eliot St., 617-492-9646, click on restaurants at www.harvardsquare.com; Longfellow House, 105 Brattle St., 617-876-4491, www.longfellowfriends.org
Cambridge shops: From pipes to paper With some history and cultural context under our belts from Harvard Square, we hit the Cambridge shops. Though gentrification has made inroads and some of the boho ambience has been lost, there are still one-of-a-kind enterprises with old-fashioned service. For example, 118-year-old Leavitt and Peirce, once a gentlemen's club, is now a must for Harvard students seeking a fine cigar, exotic cigarette or unusual pipe. Of course, long gone are the days when, as saleswoman Julia Matorin says, "tobacco was a scholarly pastime," but the store's popularity hasn't dwindled. Today, shoppers can come in just for a game of chess in its rustic balcony-level "chess parlour." Nearby, Bob Slate Stationers is ground zero for scholars needing school supplies. There are notebooks from Spain, France and Italy, racks of coloured pencils, carpenter pencils, bins, boxes and clips. And, says store clerk Stacey Klinger, "The people who work here just love paper. We even love just touching it." Leavitt and Peirce, 1316 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-547-0576; Bob Slate, 1288 Massachusetts Ave., 617-547-1230