Two days in Boston - what should I do?
March 9, 2015 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I will be in Boston next Saturday and Sunday. I would like to eat delicious mid-priced food, visit bookstores and museums, see beautiful local features and possibly shop for accessories. I would also like to ride the T, because I love the T, at least when it's running. What do you recommend?

This is a trip that first was going to happen and then was suddenly not going to happen and now is going to happen again, bar disaster - so I have almost no plans made.

I will be staying relatively close to the Hynes Convention Center and what the map seems to suggest are fens located right in the middle of town. (This seems quite unconventional - Minneapolis has a bog, but not downtown.)

I want to go out to Cambridge and shop for books. But are there particularly good used bookstores that you would recommend? Or specialty bookstores geared to science fiction, radical issues or other stuff?

I can probably figure out the major museums on my own, but are there any particular gems (either in terms of collections or in terms of small museums) that you would recommend?

Where should I eat, given that I have only two days and thus limited time to spend on getting places?

I might like to shop for fancy men's accessories or shoes and am able to consider relatively expensive things. (Or really, would probably break out the credit card for one moderately expensive thing if it were perfect.) Do you have any recommendations?

Also, what is pretty? Can one walk by the Charles or is it all industrial? Are there particularly appealing areas in terms of architecture?

I am not especially interested in seeing Historic American Locations - I know, it's a character deficiency! I'd see them if I had a week! - but if you have a particularly persuasive case, that would be okay too.
posted by Frowner to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (27 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Bookstore: Brattle book shop, right by the Downtown Crossing stop on the red line. My favorite book store in the entire world - they have an outside shopping section of great discounted books.

Interesting view: I'm very partial to the ICA (institute of contemporary art) on the waterfront, also accessible on red line (south station + a short walk). Even if you don't go inside the museum, there is an interesting view of the harbour that is currently full of floating ice chunks.

Food: I'm not an expert on this, but Flour bakery has an outpost by the ICA and is fantastic.
posted by permiechickie at 8:07 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Booksmith in Brookline(take the green C to Coolidge Corner) and the Harvard Bookstore(NOT the COOP, which is run by Barnes &Noble ) in Harvard Square have both used and new sections.
posted by brujita at 8:12 AM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, you can walk on the Charles, there are bike paths on both the Boston and Cambridge sides. It's quite pretty.

Take the Red Line to Harvard Square. Eat at Fire & Ice on Church street, it's an all-you-can-eat-make-your-own stir fry. Then walk the few blocks down to the river. Then go another block to the Harvard Book Store, which isn't the greatest in the world but has a decent used book selection.
posted by Melismata at 8:14 AM on March 9, 2015

We went to Boston last year and LOVED the Shops at Porter Square - it's like a teeny little Asian food court, with a half-dozen AWESOME, authentic, delicious, affordable Asian restaurants in one little building.

We also enjoyed the Museum of Science - it is HUUUUGE and high-tech and made other science museums we'd visited look like rinky-dink B.S.
posted by julthumbscrew at 8:19 AM on March 9, 2015

The Fens are a public park designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. It is probably currently not passable due to all the snow, but I haven't been this winter.

For high end men's clothing, Louis Boston is still open (slated to close in July, so get there now!). Louis has a restaurant (never been, so can't recommend it), but in that area I would recommend Row 34 (seafood and beer), Drink (cocktails), and the Harpoon Brewery (beers and pretzels).

In Harvard Square, there's J Press and the Andover Shop. The Tannery has some Alden products, but only in limited standard width sizes (nothing under a men's 8) and I don't particularly care for the shop. For food in Harvard, I'd look at Russel House Tavern (cocktails and gastropub food, a little spendier), Cafe Algiers (Moroccan food - get the mint tea!), Alden and Harlow (spendy, small plates and cocktails), Bon Chon (Korean fried chicken), or Grendel's Den (sort of a basement drinking establishment with reasonably priced food). You could also try to settle the Shake Shack vs. Tasty Burger argument if you want to try those.

A little further in to Cambridge (Porter Square), Drinkwater's is a really great shop and the owner seems really helpful towards women looking for men's clothing. They carry Paraboot footwear if you're interested in that sort of thing. Food nearby - Elephant Walk (Cambodian/French), Yume Wo Katare (possibly the best ramen in the area, but you have to get there at least an hour before they open), Christopher's (decent gastropub), or Cambridge Common (great beer selection, tater tots, good burgers)

Pandemonium Books in Central is your SF/games/comics go-to. Central Square has Craigie on Main (amazing food but spendy), Toscanini's (be a local and eat ice cream in winter!), Brick and Mortar (cocktails), and Mary Chung (really good local Chinese food).

Newbury Street also has several high-end men's shops with more of a national presence (Brooks Brothers, Allen Edmonds, etc.). Can't particularly recommend any restaurants I would go out of my way for down there.

If you're looking for anything else in particular, drop me a line and I will try to be as helpful as I can!
posted by backseatpilot at 8:31 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Harvard Sq has a great poetry bookshop (Grolier) if that interests you. Rodney's in Central Sq is a decent used bookstore.

What sort of cuisines do you like? There are several good places in Davis, Central, Kendall, the South End, and Chinatown. Harvard and downtown are not that exciting for food, IMO.

Isabella Stewart Gardner is a wonderful must-see museum, relatively close to Hynes.

Architecturally, the historic areas around Faneuil Hall are nice, even if you're not interested in the history. Grab a snack at Quincy Market and explore the area. (Be warned it will be heavily touristed during the weekend, though.) The harbor and aquarium are a short walk away, and you can get some nice skyline views from there. In Cambridge, the Harvard Yard is a pleasant walk, and MIT has some interesting architecture.
posted by redlines at 8:34 AM on March 9, 2015

I'll second both of the bookstores mentioned by brujita, especially the Brookline Booksmith. If you do head into Brookline, I would recommend catching a movie at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (yeah, they spell it "re" because hey, it's New England). The Science Museum is pretty great, and I've also heard very positive things about the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum (on preview, I see redlines mentioned this), though I haven't been there myself.

If you go into Harvard Square, you might want to check out the recently re-opened Harvard Art Museums (the Fogg plus two others, which were originally separate but I think now they've been consolidated). While you're there, if you want cheap, greasy Mexican food, you could check out Felipe's in the Garage. For a bit nicer fare, there's also Cafe Algiers.

If the weather is nice, definitely go for a walk on the Charles. You can access it very easily from Harvard Square by just taking the Red line and walking down JFK street.

Again, if the weather is at all decent, Newbury Street is worth visiting especially for shopping purposes.

Actually, at the moment, it looks like we have rain and snow forecasted for this weekend, so you may want to focus on museums and restaurants.
posted by litera scripta manet at 8:39 AM on March 9, 2015

Be aware we are expecting another winter storm of some sort (maybe mix, maybe just rain, depending on temperature) for Saturday that might get in the way a little.

If you want to experience some of the few remaining bits of old Harvard Square, be sure to stop in Leavitt & Peirce, the tobacconist shop a few doors down from the Harvard Book Store, or maybe Mr. Bartley's Burger Barn, also right there. And Cardullo's gourmet shop right in the middle of the square.
posted by briank at 8:54 AM on March 9, 2015

If you're into pens or stationery and do find yourself near the Common or downtown crossing, the Bromfield Pen Shop is worth a stop if only for the selection of fountain pen inks! (Bromfield Street, off of Tremont across from the Granary Burying ground, where Benjamin Franklin's parents and others are buried)
posted by usonian at 9:02 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've never been to the Lucy Parsons Center, but when you asked about bookstores geared toward radical issues, I thought of it. (My friend used to volunteer there and called it an "anarchist bookstore.") Their site describes it this way: The Lucy Parsons Center has a well-stocked bookstore with new and used books and more than 200 magazines, newspapers, and journals, covering every wing of the progressive movement. We also carry posters, stickers, cards, and pins. There are low-priced used and bargain books in addition to new titles, Spanish-language books, and children's books.

In general, Jamaica Plain is a bit off the beaten track, but it's a really nice place to visit, with a cool independent vibe and a pretty pond. It's usually nice to walk around the pond, but it's possible that the paths are all snowed in right now -- I'm not sure.

If you'd rather do your shopping in Cambridge, there's also this bookstore, but again, I've never been.
posted by cider at 12:18 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just around the corner from Hynes MBTA station at 338 Newbury Street, Karma Yoga studio—recommend the 2 p.m. class with Jesse Winder, the owner. He's interesting, you'll get a whole new start on your day, and the space is a Boston museum of its very own. Used to be a livery stable.

Yes to Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum because everything is under heaps of dirty snow and the courtyard (indoor garden) isn't.

If you get to Toscanini's try the burnt caramel ice cream. Memorable.
posted by xaryts at 12:51 PM on March 9, 2015

Schoenhof's Foreign Books is in Harvard Square if that interests you. It's a very nice shop.
posted by Marit at 1:40 PM on March 9, 2015

On the subject of things to eat: There is some sort of ice cream rivalry where you may be asked to pick a side between JP Licks and Toscanini's, but the correct answer is FoMu (in Allston and JP) and anyone who thinks otherwise is woefully misinformed.
posted by dorque at 1:58 PM on March 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding Harvard Bookstore as well as Schoenhof's. There is also Raven, a very nice used bookstore on JFK Street. There's fancy men's shop on Mt Auburn St a little east of JFK but I forget the name of it. [This is all in Harvard Square]. You pretty much can't go wrong with eating in Harvard Square as long as you avoid the Chinese places.
posted by karbonokapi at 2:43 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

The quintessential Boston tourist experience is to walk the Freedom Trail.
posted by brujita at 3:38 PM on March 9, 2015

If you are staying near Hynes Convention Center, you're not far from Newbury Bookstore Cafe on Newbury Street. It has fewer books than it used to but it's a nice break from hotel breakfast.
posted by egret at 1:54 AM on March 10, 2015

Did you mean Trident?
posted by brujita at 5:52 AM on March 10, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks for the suggestions so far!

Several other questions:

1. Are there bagels in Boston? I mean good bagels? Here in Minneapolis we have one source of bagels that people from the East Coast allow as how they're acceptable if there's nothing else, but I would like someday to have an East Coast-approved bagel experience.

2. I notice that there is a part of Boston marked "Chinatown" on the map. Are there particular restaurants anyone recommends? Basically, I like all Chinese cuisines but am particularly partial to Shanghainese and Szechaun. (And Uighur but I think there's only like two Uighur restaurants in the US.)

3. If I were to go out to Jamaica Plain to the Lucy Parsons bookstore, is there anything else in Jamaica Plain that would repay a visit? I would be happy enough with a nice cafe or a cute little park or something - I'd really like to go out there but I know from past experience that on these short visits "go a long distance to go to one thing and then come right back" isn't the best strategy, as it's both tiring and time-consuming.

Now I am wishing that I had more than two days, but that's the way the cookie crumbles.
posted by Frowner at 9:15 AM on March 10, 2015

1. Are there bagels in Boston?

Bagelsaurus is the new hotness in Porter Square. Get there early, there will be a line. You could probably waste a whole day going there for breakfast, stopping by Drinkwater's and then the Porter Exchange for Japanese tschoshckes, and then waiting for Yume Wo Katare to open.

2. I notice that there is a part of Boston marked "Chinatown" on the map. Are there particular restaurants anyone recommends?

For dim sum, China Pearl is the go-to. Peach Farm is, hands-down, the only place you should go for dinner. Maxim Coffee House on the corner of Beach and Harrison has some really good, really huge, bau if you need a snack or a light lunch.

3. If I were to go out to Jamaica Plain to the Lucy Parsons bookstore, is there anything else in Jamaica Plain that would repay a visit?

JP's pretty residential, but does have the Arnold Arboretum and Franklin Park... both of which are probably not going to be too interesting while covered in feet of snow, but might be a nice walk regardless. I don't know too much else about the area.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:26 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So holy gee, I notice that the Booksmith place is open until 11pm on Saturday night. There used to be some late night used book stores here in MPLS, but not any more, and I'm not sure they were open past 10pm.

I think (if all goes as planned) I'm going to go to Harvard Square (and see the Harvard art museums and the glass flowers) and Porter Square on Saturday and then maybe Booksmith that evening. And then other museums and a visit to the Fens on Sunday (even if it's sleeting, people - you can't stop me, I'm from Minneapolis.) I have a feeling that I will need to be intensively coffee-fueled because this seems like non-stop-go if I'm going to really get everything in. But we can only try!
posted by Frowner at 9:36 AM on March 10, 2015

If you like Szechuan food, check out Sichuan Gourmet - there's a location in Brookline. its on the St Marys Street stop on the green C line , which is 3 or 4 stops away from the Coolidge Corner stop on the same line for Brookline Booksmith mentioned above.

Other great bookstores in town - Raven Bookstore - exclusively used books The Boston location is on Newbury St, close to the Hynes.
posted by darsh at 6:03 PM on March 10, 2015

Zaftig's in Brookline and S&S in Cambridge are good delis, but I would go for New England or ethnic food.
posted by brujita at 10:27 AM on March 11, 2015

Go to Bagelsaurus in Porter Square and get the pretzel bagel with honey-rosemary cream cheese. Breakfast of champions.

If you're going to Harvard Square, stop at L.A. Burdick's for the hot chocolate (best I've ever had) and a pastry, or possibly get your pastry at Crema. (They have a chocolate-passionfruit cupcake with passionfruit curd filling right now.) Lunch: The Taco Truck (actually a brick-and-mortar cafe though they also have a truck, yes this is confusing) has tacos with crispy-fried avocado slices, black beans and chipotle salsa. Crema's sandwiches are good too, as are the slices at Otto Pizza (locations at both Harvard and Brookline). If you want to go a little farther afield, a short bus ride from Harvard Square is Sofra, which has interesting nouveau-Turkish cafe food (including a seasonally rotating meze bar, 5 scoops for $10 if I recall correctly). The Harvard Bookstore and Raven are wonderful for browsing but, just so you know, the prices will not be as low as you might be expecting coming from the non-East-Coast.

The Gardner Museum is UNMISSABLE. Best part, in this weather: the lush, mossy, ferny courtyard in the middle.

JP is a nice hippyish-going-gentrified sort of place -- you might want to hit When Pigs Fly, a bread-only bakery with more different kinds of bread than you've ever seen before. They are generous with the samples. There's also one near the Brookline Booksmith. I like Grass Fed for burgers and boozy milkshakes. Also, Boomerangs, the large AIDS-benefit thrift store down there, has a surprisingly-decently-stocked (esp. fiction) used book section that actually is cheap.

In your travels you're also going to be passing by two of Boston's best independent movie theaters: the Brattle (in Harvard Square) and the Coolidge (in Brookline -- right across from the Booksmith, you can't miss it.) They both do interesting repertory stuff, not just new indie releases. See if they have anything you like!

Good luck! Let us know what you did/bought/ate.
posted by ostro at 11:13 AM on March 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, now I have changed my plans. Saturday is still going to be Harvard Square, etc. But on Sunday I think I'm going to hit the MFA and the Isabella Gardner museum, then take the T to Jamaica Plain and go thrift shopping and to the Lucy Parsons Center. I think I can fit all this in if I get to the MFA when the doors open and get en route to Jamaica Plain by 3pm. That allows two hours per museum and one hour of spare time/food/walking. I know it's sort of scanting the museums but on the other hand I'm also trying to fit in the Harvard art and natural history museums plus maybe the Peabody on Saturday, so I feel that I will have done my duty as a museum-goer. And all the thrift stores in near-MPLS are so picked over that I don't even go any more, so any kind of decent thrift store will itself be a bit of vacation.

Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone! (However, I must warn you that while I had a great time in Seattle a couple of years ago after asking for metafilter suggestions, I basically only ate Field Roast sandwiches from a fancy deli near the hotel. Seriously, I had like four of them in 1.25 days, partly because I didn't feel like getting fancy meals by myself.)
posted by Frowner at 1:10 PM on March 11, 2015

Response by poster: I mean, they were great sandwiches - I don't regret them at all.
posted by Frowner at 1:31 PM on March 11, 2015

In Jamaica Plain, if you're looking for a quick & tasty bite to eat, check out the City Feed on Centre Street -- yummy sandwiches. If you're looking for something more substantial, the Centre Street Cafe is very good (or at least it used to be -- I see that their website says something about the "new" Centre Street Cafe).

Have fun!
posted by cider at 3:39 PM on March 11, 2015

Response by poster: Reporting back some time later:

I did not get as much done as I wanted, which I suppose was predictable.

1. Harvard Art Museums were the highlight of the trip (except for the T, I love the T - I'm sorry, Bostonians, it may have sucked mightily during the winter but it's still a miracle of speed and reach). Main floor is a little weird; stairs are weirdly narrow even for skinny urbanites; quiche in the museum cafe was top of the notch; baggage check lockers were brilliantly designed....and the art! Seriously, pound for pound the best museum I've ever been to. Lots of important-but-less-famous stuff...The Whistlers! The Sargent cartoons for the friezes! The George Grosz "Painter of the Hole" which I am going to steal when I turn to art crime! The lion-headed deities enthroned which I am also going to steal! The lushly overblown and kinda trashy pre-Raphaelites! Seriously, I thought about just going back and seeing everything again on my second day.

2. Did not do much book shopping, partly because I'd written down mediocre directions for several of the places I wanted to go. Went to Booksmith...which was very curated but didn't seem to have a very broad range.

3. Bought some very nice glasses frames at some place in Harvard Square from a guy with a real serious Boston accent.

4. Went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum and had not one but two encounters with kind of homophobic staff who were weird about my gender presentation. The museum itself was....weird and claustrophobic, but well worth seeing. Certainly gave me new insight into Henry James and Edith Wharton. My plan is to steal the lace collection, the tapestry with the boy climbing a tree while rabbits have sex nearby and All The Holbeins.

5. Went to that fancy deli in Harvard Square and had a really, really excellent sandwich.

6. Went to the MFA but was really beat since it was my last stop - regretted not having more time to spend there. Also got lured in to the Roman sculpture part and was exhausted at the end so only did too quick a walk-through of the excellent American collection. Plan to steal the Belle Epoque vases with dinosaurs on them.

7. Had ice cream at JP Licks because I was right there and it was sleeting like a son of a was all right. Maybe I picked the wrong flavors or was too cold and tired. I mean, I'd certainly stop in again if I were around there and in the mood for ice cream, but I was not as dazzled as I had hoped.

I had a bunch of sandwiches kind of at random for the remainder of my meals, all of which were really good. I also had some brussels sprouts sauteed with bacon (not vegan!!! very shame!!! but I desperately wanted a vegetable) and they were absolutely incredible.

General impressions:
1. Crowded!!!! It made me realize how even here in Minneapolis I have a lot of space and a lot of quiet. If I moved to Boston it would be a big adjustment.
2. Much more intellectual. At both the MFA and the Harvard art museums, people were actually talking about the art, and not just "oh, lookee, a mermaid painting". Around here and at the Chicago Art Institute (where I practically grew up - my great aunt the professional artist was a member and lived about 3/4 of a mile away, so I spent a lot of time there with her) people are much, much quieter.
3. Great wealth and power. I felt hick and provincial and poor the whole time, which was not the case when visiting, for example, Seattle. Both the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums were full of your basic global elite types. It made me realize that I am old and poor and working class, and no amount of smarts will ever change that.
4. Few visibly queer people; lots of gender conformity. I imagine that if I were in places other than Porter Square, Harvard Square and the Back Bay this would be different - but it did make me realize (and I confirmed this with a friend who grew up out east; I don't think it was just my perception) how normal it is, comparatively speaking, to be visibly queer or gender-nonconforming here versus elsewhere. I saw almost no middle aged or younger women with short hair, for example, never mind queer short hair. Even the very butch bartender at the event I was organizing for work had long hair.
5. Things alternated between people being pretty brusque and super friendly - I had some random conversations on the T, for instance. I felt like the more working class someone was the likelier they were to be friendly.
6. Everything very subfusc. I wore my favorite deep blue oversized shirt and black leggings to travel in and I felt downright gaudy while going out to get some dinner.

Basically it was pretty cool. I kind of wish I'd gone to school out east, as I had ample opportunity to do, because it's obvious that Minneapolis is no great intellectual center.

I'm thinking I'll see if I can go back some time in the next year or so, stay in a hostel and see All The Museums. I'll pack only black and grey, though.
posted by Frowner at 1:39 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

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