CAMBRIDGE, Mass. —There are college towns. And then there is Cambridge.
Off Massachusetts Avenue, just a short walk from Boston's famed Newbury Street shopping district, sits the massive brain power of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Stroll down the road a bit through Central Square and you'll find a modest institution called Harvard, its brick-and-mortar design motif suggesting an academic kingdom.
Yes, some smart people set up shop around here, including lefty linguist Noam Chomsky and African-American studies pioneer Henry Louis Gates Jr., recently famous for his run-in with Cambridge police.
I had the pleasure of living in Cambridge for the last year, thanks to a fellowship from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. I spent my share of time burying my nose in books, but it didn't take long to realize there's a lot more to do in Cambridge than study.
Movies and theater, food and drink, historical sites and neighborhood walks: It's a big city nestled into a small town, the best of two very smart worlds. Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your visit, be it for a weekend or a bit longer.
Harvard has had about 375 years to build a sense of history. So it's no surprise that so many visitors want to take a walk through the Yard. This is the idyllic center of campus, distinguished by clean lines of crisscrossing walking paths and green grass. (Contrary to the heavily accented phrase, it's very difficult to actually "pahk the cah at Hahvahd Yahd.")
You can certainly soak up all of the red-brick architecture without assistance. But if you're a names-and-dates kind of person, you might consider an Unofficial Tour, in which impossibly chipper undergraduates project to the heavens and guide visitors through centuries of Harvard arcana.
Learn where Samuel Adams and Matt Damon lived. Find out why it's a bad idea to touch the toe of the John Harvard statue for good luck. (Seems mischievous students have been known to smear icky substances on it.) Discover that the John Harvard statue doesn't actually look like John Harvard. Some of the popular legends smell a little apocryphal, which doesn't make them less entertaining. And did we mention the tour guides are really chipper?
Of course, Harvard isn't the only college sightseeing game in town. Wanna see a really long hallway? Head up to the main entrance of MIT on Massachusetts Avenue and take a lengthy jaunt down the Infinite Corridor, all 825 feet of it. The pedestrian artery that connects the east and west sides of campus can give you vertigo if you stare down it long enough. And because it's at MIT, someone will probably be on hand to provide a scientific explanation of vertigo.
Between the four main squares — Harvard, Central, Inman and Porter (plus nearby Davis, which veers into the town of Somerville) —Cambridge boasts all the eateries and watering holes you can handle. Before we get into some favorites, here's a word to the wise: Last call in these parts is 1 a.m. There is one exception to this rule, which we'll get to in a moment.
The best grown-up bar near Harvard Square is Casablanca, attached to the restaurant of the same name. Here you'll find an attentive waitstaff, a quality cocktail list (try the basil gimlet), tasty if overpriced Mediterranean-inspired vittles and some nifty murals from the classic movie that gives the bar its name. What you won't find: hordes of college kids pounding down suds. (You can find that across the street at Charlie's Kitchen, which makes a delightfully simple double cheeseburger.)
As you may have heard, the Boston area is home to a dizzying number of Irish pubs. The one to hit in Cambridge is the Druid in Inman Square. The servers' brogues tell you this place is the real deal (as opposed to those bars an Irish friend refers to as "plastic paddy"). The drinks are fine, but the big draw here is the pub grub. The tender, generously portioned fish and chips, served in newspaper, are the best I've ever had, but they're no better than everything else on the menu. Other must-eats include the beef stew, the Irish seafood stew and the rib-eye, which comes drenched in thick Guinness sauce. (Burp.) It's also a great place to check out traditional Irish music. One advisory: The Druid isn't big, and it fills up in a hurry, especially on trivia nights.
And now, the exception to the 1 a.m. last call: Perched on the first floor of the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square, Noir has a grandfather clause that keeps it open until 2. Because it's the only game in town at that hour, late-night revelers flock to Noir like alcoholic moths to a boozy glimmer of light.
The noir motif is a little flimsy; cocktails have names including the Black Dahlia and White Heat, and the place has been known to run the same B-grade Edward G. Robinson movie ad infinitum. But Noir is the still the best place in Cambridge to see and be seen. Just beware the earsplitting electro-trash music blaring from the speakers.
Seekers of culture can go highbrow with Harvard's Sackler Museum, which houses works from the university's Fogg and Reisinger museums during their renovations. They can go pastoral with the majestic Mount Auburn Cemetery, a wonder to behold during the fall peak-foliage season.
Because I usually write film criticism, let me assure you that Harvard Square area offers two of the most bracing moviegoing experiences in the country.
First up is the Brattle Theatre conveniently located next door to the aforementioned Casablanca (best dinner-and-a-movie option in town). The Brattle is a throwback to the expertly programmed repertory houses of days past. Recent series have spotlighted the films of Errol Flynn, classic gangster movies and "American Independents," a look back at the American films of the late '60s and early '70s.
Speaking of expertly programmed, the Harvard Film Archive screenings combine the best elements of academia and popular appeal. Housed on the lower level of the Carpenter Center, a rare instance of modern architecture on the Harvard campus, the HFA's access to rare prints allows for such treats as a complete retrospective of Elia Kazan's work. Recent guests included William Friedkin, who spun story after story about his masterpiece, "The French Connection," and Lucrecia Martel, the Argentine director who brought her fine new film, "The Headless Woman."
You know. Smart stuff. For a smart town.
IF YOU GO:
All of the major airlines fly into Logan International Airport in Boston. To get to Cambridge from central Boston, take the Red Line subway toward Alewife and get off at Central Square or Harvard Square. Most things are within walking distance, though you might want to take a cab for longer distances. If you're going to MIT, take the Kendall Square/MIT stop on the Red Line.
WHERE TO STAY
The two most accessible hotels are in Harvard Square: The Harvard Square Hotel (617-864-5200; www.hotelsinharvard square .com) and the Inn at Harvard (617-491-2222; www.hotelsinharvard square.com).
If you want to go upscale and possibly run into some political muckety-mucks, try the Charles Hotel (617-864-1200; www.charleshotel.com).
Unofficial Tours start throughout the day at the Out of Town News kiosk in Harvard Square. Offered daily. Free (donations accepted). Contact: www.harv.unofficial tours.com.
The Infinite Corridor is located at Lobby 7 near the main entrance to MIT, 77 Massachusetts Ave.
Casablanca, 40 Brattle St.; 617-876-0999; www.cbrestaurant.com
The Druid, 1357 Cambridge St.; 617-497-0965; www.druidpub.com
Charlie's Kitchen, 10 Eliot St.; 617-492-9646; www.restaurant.com/charlieskitchen
Noir, 1 Bennett St.; 617-661-8010; www.noir-bar.com
Sackler Museum, 85 Broadway; 617-495-9400; www.harvardart museum.org
Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn St.; 617-547-7105; www.mountauburn.org
The Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St.; 617-876-6837; www.brattlefilm.org
Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St.; 617-495-4700; hcl.harvard.e