Around a century ago, a distilling tank full of molasses at the Purity Distilling Company exploded, and a wave of sugary liquid flooded the city, knocking over horses and getting in through the smallest nooks and crannies of houses. They say that the sweet, intoxicating smell lingered for some decades after.
You are in Boston, and this means in the place where American culture was born, the city of jazz and libraries with green lampshades, imbued with the old nobility of closed Ivy League universities. Plenty of New England, Harvard Regattas, reading rooms in cafes, shops bearing coats of arms, and nameplates bearing gold lettering over doorways.
This is an academic city, noble, peaceful, everything thought through. This is a city of lawyers and academics, of passionate conversations about the structure of an atom, a city which seems to be rather closed to outsiders.
Brains, tea, and jazz
Boston is the unofficial capital of New England, itself one of the first parts of the USA to be inhabited by Europeans. For many years, Boston grew as a port city until the cleric John Harvard bequeathed half his fortune and part of a library to the local college. His final legacy was that the same college took his name. The reading rooms at Harvard College attracted some of the country’s finest minds and slowly it became what it is today, one of the world’s finest seats of knowledge and enlightenment.
The city also quickly took on the status as the cradle of democracy, since it was here that one of the American Revolution’s key events took place – the Boston Tea Party. Hundreds of crates of tea from Britain were thrown into the water here in protest at Great Britain’s behavior towards its overseas territory. It was also the first place in the country to form a movement against slavery. Thus did Boston become the starting point for the history of American independence.
And all this to music and dancing. The first waltz in the western hemisphere was performed here – the Boston Waltz. Such well-known jazz musicians as Chick Corea – known as the Mozart of jazz – were born and learned their craft here. It is also where Berklee College of Music was founded, one of the first higher education institutions in the world where jazz can be studied.
For the love of books
Boston Public Library
Boston is the archetypal library city, with not just any library but a luxurious one resplendent in carved stone and decorated ceilings, marble pillars and sculpted lions ensuring peace and quiet for its readers.
Boston Public Library is worth a chance visit. You won’t just find some of the most valuable book collections anywhere, including manuscripts from the middle ages and early Shakespeare editions, but also wonderful interior décor. The bronze doors and enormous marble staircase lead through to a room where the walls are lit up in a heavenly glow.
Even someone who is not that interested in art cannot fail to be moved by the wonderful John Singer Sargent murals. This artist, who believed that work and prayer are one and the same, brought the library building to life with the enchanting mural The Triumph of Religion, which depicts Old and New Testament teachings brought together using techniques based on Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs and Byzantine mosaics.
If you haven’t been bowled over by now, go to the music room. This is a great place to catch your breath, but not for long as the wonders continue. Here you’ll find original manuscripts by great composers such as Mozart and Prokofiev, and you can listen to classical music performed by the greatest composers – the walls simply ooze music. Boston Public Library, 700 Boylston St, Boston.
As you continue your visits of these libraries doubling up as art galleries, you should make a point of dropping in at the Athenaeum at 10 ½ Beacon St. This is the oldest library in the country and has been open since 1807, and besides its books, it houses a huge art collection.
There are more than one hundred thousand exhibits here, including paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, decorative arts, and photographs. You can see all this free of charge if you walk through the art gallery on the ground floor. Cultural events are often held here, advertised on the library’s website.
We continue our book tour at 1256 Massachusetts Avenue, where we stand outside the window of the Harvard University Bookstore. This place deserves your visit more than others.
Anyone can go up to the first floor, take any book they please, grab a cup of coffee and perhaps a macaroon and sit there all day if they like, beneath the crimson flags bearing the Latin inscription “Veritas” (“Truth”), the motto of Harvard University. OK, there’s no vino to go with your Veritas, but you will drink it all in just by being there.
Not far away, at 6 Plympton Street, you’ll find The Grolier Poetry Book Shop. This is the oldest bookshop in the world to specialize in poetry and poetry criticism. Amongst some of the better-known “friends of the Grolier” have been T S Elliot, Marianne Moore, and Allen Ginsberg. The shop opened in 1927 and at first did not take payment for books, as it was supported by its owners. In the 1970s, the new owners started a drive to make poetry more popular and, little by little, this bookshop began to take off, and the business became self-sustaining. It is now the go-to place if you are looking for rare editions, to speak to specialists in their field or just to wear yourself out as you lose yourself in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or some other noble work.
Boston is a city of readers from tip to toe. Books are regarded as almost sacred objects here, and periodicals hold similar status. On Harvard Square, there is a kiosk selling any newspaper or magazine from any country – even the most recent editions.
If you find yourself in the eastern part of the city, be sure to look out for the 18th century writing above the Old North Church at 21 Unity Street, where you will find an old printing press, a living example of how this old part of town is related to this country’s history of print. You can even buy a copy of the Declaration of Independence created on this press right in front of your eyes and then head for the nearby confectioners. Where else will you find such delicious chocolate made to a colonial recipe?
“Shakespeare beer” and a theatrical oyster bar
Now we’ve had a good walk around the city, let’s really get down to enjoying the place – via our stomachs. The cultural capital of the USA doesn’t just offer an incredible range of high-quality seafood, but all this in a great atmosphere, too. Let’s start at the very peak of gastronomic offerings – literally – with a visit to the Top of the Hub on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Tower.
They have many items to choose from on the menu, and the dishes are beautifully presented. Onion soup and the seasonal salad with lobster deserve particular attention, as does the plate of local cheeses from Cape Cod in the southeastern part of the state.
Apart from its culinary qualities, it is worth noting the artistic features of this institution. In the evenings, there is live jazz worthy of the Great Gatsby himself, jazz which gets under your skin and pulls you away from the bar to dance hedonistically in front of the enormous panoramic windows with their view over America’s oldest city.
The view which greets you out of the window between dances is of the great expanse of the Charles River, which rises on Echo Lake (where people cry out to one another over the water) and which ends in Boston Harbor. The world’s largest two-day regatta takes place on this very river, with more than a thousand participating vessels, some of which are captained by future presidents and ministers!
From here, you can see how the river divides the city into two parts. On one side of the river is Boston itself, and on the other side is Cambridge, and together they are known as Greater Boston, one agglomeration but two different cities.
No visit to Boston would be complete without a visit to the Union Oyster House, which has been in operation since 1826. The Oyster Bar is the ideal place to enjoy an authentic local clam chowder – a Bostonian shellfish soup right out of the pages of Moby Dick.
Also worth a try are French oysters and cherrystone clams. If you are seated at the bar watch as the burly sailor types cleave open the shells, clean out any sand and then divide them up amongst the waiting plates – all before your very eyes, а hypnotizing spectacle.
Upon the next floor, you’ll find an amazing selection of all kinds of lobster. A good idea is to order the “Shore Dinner” seafood menu. This includes clam chowder, mussels, lobsters and Indian pudding made out of cornmeal. Take a stroll around the room itself, where scenes from everyday life from two hundred years ago are shown in glass. Another floor up is the oldest restaurant in the country, where you will find the table Kennedy used to sit at – imagine that!
If you prefer a gloomier, more down to earth venue with fewer tourists but lots of students and evening hustle and bustle, then make a note of John Harvard’s Brewery & Ale House, where they brew a powerful stout with espresso, strawberry and hazelnut beer, and even John Harvard pale ale, in honour of the man who gave his name to the university. The food is pretty typical of this type of venue – chicken wings, fried squid, and massive burgers. The house best seller is the Buffalo Mac and Cheese. Some of the items on the menu are wrapped in myths about how Shakespeare influenced the recipes. In short, he was a friend of the Harvard family and, legend has it, was a big influence on the parents of the future missionary and benefactor.
When it gets dark, pop into the prison bar. You’ll find it in the Liberty Hotel, itself in the building of a former prison. The bar menu is full of delicacies, and making a choice is tricky in case you order something you don’t like. If you really don’t want to leave it to chance, try the venison carpaccio and monkfish ossobuco.
Oh, they certainly know how to feed you well in this prison. The drinks menu offers mysterious cocktails such as the “liquid intellect” made with bitters, pears and agave syrup, the 1851 with bourbon, ice wine and ginger, and the “Last Cocktail” with rosemary syrup and Bombay Sapphire gin. The bar offers voluntary solitary confinement, and the hotel rooms themselves are also done out like prison cells. It’s really worth spending the night here. You will find yourself in the lap of luxury with a great view over the wonderful city of enlightenment that is Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ivory towers and crystal chandeliers
And so we have crossed the river over to the other side of the metropolis, following a more thematic than geographical route.
Cambridge, MA, is the brain of all America. For a start, it’s where Harvard University is located, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, alma mater of more than 250 Nobel prize winners.
Puritan colonists from England founded the first settlements in North America on the area covered by Boston and Cambridge. The area was first called Newtown when it was founded in 1630, and by 1636 the first college was already established, which went on to become one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
You should not pass up the opportunity to touch the university buildings with your own hands – or even lean on them with your own back. This university has such extraordinarily sturdy walls. There are a lot of buildings – you can lean against any of them.
To really feel as if you are part of things here, head for the square where you will find chairs set out for reading and snacking. Here you can enjoy delicious Mexican food from one of the student vans, read a classic or simply bask in the sunshine surrounded by the academic elite. You can also fawn over the local squirrels. There are so many of them that sometimes it feels as if they come from some kind of parallel universe.
Cambridge is simple and rich – rich in intellect and also in architectural delights. Memorial Hall, a luxuriant Victorian building with an auditorium for academic ceremonies, is especially worth a visit. This elevated atmosphere is even maintained at mealtimes – one of the least expected things about this place is the enormous refectory with crystal chandeliers and blue ceilings, just like at Hogwarts.
You will also come across 22 stained glass windows, elegant places for musical recitals, and a lovely place for drinking, the Queen’s Head pub, in which they are building a community of students and postgrads listening to jazz or playing at trivia.
If you head diagonally towards the river bank, you’ll come across quite a strange looking building which looks a bit like a crash helmet. You’re bound to hear laughter coming out of the windows here – it has been referred to as a “satirical castle”. In 1876, the Harvard Lampoon began life here, nowadays the oldest English language humorous magazine in uninterrupted publication.
The publication is made up of humorous skits based on the national press and publishes books known throughout the country. In 2012, for example, they published a parody of “The Hunger Games” called the “Hunger Pains”, which was so popular that it became a New York Times bestseller.
Cambridge is diverse – noble, academic, amusing, and religious. There are many churches which stand not just as a testament to an ancient metaphor but which still serve as places for weekly meetings and community interaction, both for individuals and in groups. If you want to know what I mean by this, go to the 11 am Sunday service at the Parish of Saint Paul. At this hour, the room will be filled with crystal clear voices, as it houses the only Catholic choir school in the USA.
You shouldn’t think that Boston is devoid of any culture – to find out more about the classical scene here visit the Boston Opera House.
For many years it served as a cinema, and then went bankrupt and returned as an impressive opera house. Every part of this building oozes artistic charm. It’s not cheap for all that, but the earlier you buy, the easier the prices are on the wallet.
Boston might not be Rome which bowls you over with its historic magnificence, and perhaps not New York, where everything is in your face. Boston has more going on under the surface, a modest place where you have to dig a bit deeper and take your time. This is a cultured place with good taste and harmony, which you cannot fail to experience. Boston isn’t just a leader in the world of science but also leads in the fine arts. You’ll need to charge your batteries before you come, as this is a city which does not sleep – and you’ll no doubt taste the molasses in the air.