To all intents and purposes a suburb of Boston, on the north side of the Charles River, Cambridge is technically a city in its own right. A very proud one, too – with an academic heritage that no other city in the world comes close to competing with.
At the western end, there’s Harvard University, while the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has its campus in the east. Both are regulars in the top 10 rankings of world universities and both lend very different characters to their areas.
Harvard’s campus is mainly red-brick, historic and steeped in tradition. The restaurants and shops in the vicinity attempt to carve out their own slice of deep tradition, too – all seem to come with stories.
At the MIT end, however, there’s no desire to be old world. Restaurants play up the science behind the cooking, while industrial chic wins out over cosy.
But in the gaps between the rival visions, there are enough people around to allow independent Cambridge to thrive – and come up with plenty of good ideas on its own.
A comfortable bed
The Charles Hotel (www.charleshotel.com) near Harvard Square has a professorial authority, with gently satirical artwork on the walls, sturdy desks designed for serious work and plenty of endearing, eye-catching detail. The in-room clocks with exposed cogs are very cool, for instance. There's also a handy indoor pool. King rooms cost from US$457 (Dh1,679).
The Royal Sonesta (www.sonesta.com/boston) in East Cambridge has one of the biggest hotel pools in the city, strong riverside dining in the ArtBar, a genuinely impressive art collection and a prime position next to the Charles River. A recent renovation has given it a contemporary new look, too. Doubles cost from $216 (Dh793).
At the budget end, the Cambridge Bed and Muffin (www.bedandmuffin.com) veers into kitschy lace overload, but has rooms from $88 (Dh323).
Find your feet
Kicking off from Harvard Square, the Hahvahd Tour (a play on Bostonian pronunciation) from Trademark Tours (www.trademarktours.com) is a great introduction to the university, its campus and legends. It lasts about 70 minutes, costs $10 (Dh37) and features tales about why the famed John Harvard statue is based on three lies, and the lavish library donated by the mother of a Titanic victim – with some rather peculiar strings attached.
There are plenty of on-site museums. The Harvard Museum of Natural History (www.hmnh.harvard.edu) and Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology (www.peabody.harvard.edu) are physically connected. The latter has some really good exhibitions on Native Americans and how they reacted to European settlement.
After that, either walk down Massachusetts Avenue or hop two stops on the Red Line subway to the MIT campus, which is full of public art from big names such as Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. Pick up a free guide at the visitor centre and make sure to swing by Frank Gehry’s eye-poppingly all-over-the-place Stata Center.
Meet the locals
Mr Bartley's Gourmet Burgers (www.mrbartley.com) is one of those Harvard Square joints with its own mythos. Queues line up outside at lunchtime, labels by the seats indicate famous people who have sat there in the past (from Al Pacino to Robert Plant) and the burgers have satirical names such as "Taxachusetts" or "Most Broken Transit Authority".
Book a table
Just off Harvard Square, Alden & Harlow (www.aldenharlow.com) gets playful with regional ingredients, for dishes such as seared Vermont quail with black garlic, pickled spruce, puffed rice and black figs ($16 [Dh59]).
Cuchi Cuchi (www.cuchicuchi.cc), towards the MIT end, is wonderfully theatrical, playing up an almost burlesque vibe, with costumed waiting staff and OTT decoration. The menu comprises globe-hopping dishes that are slightly smaller than normal and designed to be shared, which can mean beef stroganoff, scallop ceviche and chicken tagine all thrown into the mix. Dishes cost about $15 (Dh55) each.
Unsurprisingly, Cambridge is a place where bookstores thrive. Of the many, the Harvard Book Store on Massachusetts Avenue is arguably the most atmospheric. Shelves clamber to the ceiling, with the emphasis firmly on non-fiction, and there are all manner of nooks and crannies to feel happily lost in.
On the other side of Harvard Square, the Cambridge Artists Cooperative on Church Street pulls together some gorgeous jewellery, ceramic coasters, colourful scarves, delightfully handsome wooden boxes and elegant glassware.
What to avoid
The end of May is graduation season, and all hotels are booked out by proud parents coming to watch the ceremonies. Finding somewhere to stay then can be an expensive business.
Harvard has more museums, but MIT has the most entertaining one. The MIT Museum (www.web.mit.edu/museum) goes heavy on the history of robotics and features several groundbreaking robots that span from a mock tuna learning how fish swim so fast to a robot that learns and apes human expressions. There are also very cool sections on kinetic sculpture, holograms and MIT scientists' inventions.
Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies direct from Dubai to Boston from Dh4,620 return. The flight time is 12 to 13 hours.