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
Grolier Poetry Book Shop: A Ginsberg haunt Lining the route from Harvard to MIT are dozens of bookstores, including the unique 80-year-old Grolier Poetry Book Shop. A favourite of poet Robert Lowell and Beat icon Allen Ginsberg, and the oldest poetry-only bookshop in America, Grolier boasts more than 15,000 volumes. If you're lucky, you may drop in during a poetry reading. 6 Plympton St.; 617-547-4648; grolierpoetrybookshop.org
The Middlesex Lounge: Where geek meets chic Up Massachusetts Avenue toward MIT, the landscape gets a bit grittier, although once authentically scruffy areas are going upmarket. Mixed with the old blue-collar and hippie haunts are small upscale furniture stores and some industrial-looking buildings like the Middlesex Lounge, a SoHo-esque dance and Kobe burger place. Boxy and cool, Middlesex is strangely out of place in MIT territory. 315 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-868-6739; www.middlesexlounge.us
Miracle of Science Bar and Grill: I'll have an Hb, please For a great lunch in the "brainy is sexy" style, stop at Miracle of Science Bar and Grill. This bright, airy restaurant has a blackboard menu laid out like the periodic table ("Hb" is hamburger and "Cb" is cheeseburger). Customers drink from lab glass while perusing photos of Albert Einstein at a fire-slate bar lined with lab stools. "When we clear the tables," explains server Chris O'Keefe, "we find scraps of papers with formulae and numbers."
"I wrote my whole doctorate on this stool," one patron tells me, and later when I try to strike up a conversation with some young women at the next table chatting about something I think is jet propulsion, I am rebuffed. "I can't talk right now," one says. "I'm explaining something!" MIT prof Noam Chomsky and Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz are regulars, as is MIT rugby coach Steve Wilhelm, who shrugs and says, "I don't get it, but science for them is a kind of turn-on." 321 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-868-ATOM; www.miracleofscience.us
MIT Museum: Super geeky, super entertaining The real scientific turn-on and kid-friendly place is the under-publicized MIT Museum. Everything about the museum, from its boutique - featuring Polymer Property Observation Kits and double helix bracelets - to its artificial intelligence exhibit, is super geeky and entertaining. In the gallery dedicated to scholarship in artificial intelligence, we meet the robot Kismet, with its strangely precise humanoid facial expressions, and we see how the Black Falcon hand, a surgical robot, works. The largest collection of holographs in the world rounds out the visit. 265 Massachusetts Ave.; 617-253-5927; web.mit.edu/museum
Modern architecture: Renowned and reviled Also worth noting is the modern architecture at MIT, lauded and criticized in equal measure. The school has commissioned an assortment of significant and controversial buildings from Steven Holl, Frank Gehry, Fumihiko Maki and Kevin Roche, the last three of whom were winners of the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel of architecture. The oddly beautiful Stata Center, designed by Canadian-born Gehry, is all soaring glass, tilty towers, warehousey elements and glass-walled labs. Holl's dormitory, Simmons Hall, was not wildly welcomed. Yet with its anodized aluminum frame and 5,500 small windows that explode in colour when seen at just the right angle, it dazzles. According to Holl, it was inspired by a bath sponge. web.mit.edu/infocenter/stata.html
The Charles Hotel: sleek, Sophisticated and smart Though it's easy enough to stay in one of Boston's many hotels just over the river, staying at the Charles Hotel - next to Harvard's famed Kennedy School of Government and right on top of that marsh where the Puritans first set up shop - contributes to the overall Cambridge experience. The Charles reads sophisticated and smart. In a municipality where the social A-list is made up of Nobel laureates and where the lithium battery was invented, the top hotel boasts free charges for electric and hybrid cars and houses the sleek Rialto restaurant run by James Beard Award-winning chef Jody Adams. Elegant in an intellectual hub's sort of way, the hotel's lobby library is stocked with titles from its Pulitzer and academic guests. It's a favourite of "celebrities of the mind" such as former U.S. secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger and other world leaders, from the prime minister of India to the president of France. 1 Bennett St.; 800-882-1818; www.charleshotel.com. From $264.
Oh yeah, the nightlife, baby Nightlife in Cambridge can be charmingly geeky too. The Harvard Film Archive has showings almost every evening and the American Repertory Theater pushes the boundaries of modern drama. Finally, there are the endless under-the-radar cafés where PhD students and professors pontificate. Nowadays there are more laptops than tomes on the tables, but thank goodness still plenty of conversation about Nietzsche and string theory, strong coffee, and lots of sexy and brainy denizens. Welcome to Cambridge, 2009. Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St.; 617-495-4700; hcl.harvard.edu/hfa; American Repertory Theater, 64 Brattle St.; 617-547-8300; www.americanrepertorytheater.org
Special to The Globe and Mail