CHARLES RIVER BIKE RIDE: FULL
CITY TOUR, 15 MILES TIME: 2HRS (no stops) / 8 HRS (all stops)
The Charles River forms a grand avenue through Boston and Cambridge, separating the two cities by as much as a half mile at its widest point. And through a series of prudent decisions (and some luck), Boston has managed to build and preserve a beautiful, vibrant pathway system along both sides of the Charles. Here, you can walk, bike, or rollerblade alongside the river without worrying about cars. It remains the easiest way to go between Watertown and Allston in the west to Kendall Square and downtown Boston in the east. Along the way, you have first class views of the river as it changes from west to east: ducks and turtles by Allston, rowing crew boats from Harvard through Boston University and MIT, lagoons and sky scrapers by Back Bay and Kendall Square, and finally the Charles River Dam at the entrance to the Boston Inner Harbor.
The only thing the Charles River paths are missing is well-integrated commerce. They are peaceful and social, but they are isolated from the mainland by Storrow Drive on the Boston side and Memorial Drive on the Cambridge side. Thus, if you get hungry or thirsty, you will need to venture inland. Fortunately, we have identified plenty of solid options within easy reach.
FULL GUIDE & MAPS (pdf)
SHORT CUT ROUTES:
- A Historic Boat & Contemporary Bridge, 2 miles GOOGLE, PDF, JPEG
- Peddling & Paddling the Charles River, 6 miles GOOGLE, PDF, JPEG
- Historic Cemetery & Harvard Square, 5 miles GOOGLE
- Picnics Galore & MIT Architecture, 5 miles GOOGLE
- Other options - along the Charles, there are 6 accessible bridges (from West to East: Larz Anderson, Western, River, Mass Ave, Longfellow and Craigie) so this ride can be divided up into various segments, if desired
- Hubway (Map) - there are 3 bike share stations at Harvard MBTA Station and numerous along the route.
- Bike Rental - Cambridge Bicycle, (617) 876-6555, 255 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge
Harvard is the closest MBTA station to the beginning of this route. Other stations along the route include Charles MGH, Science Park, Kendall Square and Central Square.
WHAT TO BRING?
Swim suit, Towel, Bike Bag, Backpack, Water Bottle
A. SOFRA BAKERY 1 Belmont Street, Cambridge | (617) 661-3161 | sofrabakery.com
Sofra is a middle eastern bakery with excellent coffee, delightful and unusual pastries, rare spices, sweets, and other goodies. There’s often a line in the morning, but it is well worth the short wait. The coffee is fantastic, and the baked goods are refreshingly different. This is a great place to pick up a small treat to bring back home, like some of their fabulous smoked paprika or delicious portable desserts. If you are a traffic-averse bike rider, then take the sidewalks along Mt Auburn Street to get here – just remember that you are a guest on the sidewalks, and be very respectful when passing people on foot. Highlight: Scoring one of their outdoor tables on a sunny morning.
B. HARVARD STADIUM 65 N Harvard St, Allston | (617) 495-3454 | recreation.gocrimson.com
When Harvard Stadium was built, the Ottoman Empire still had 19 more years left in the tank. And much like Europe, Allston in 1904 looked very, very different from today. There were rows of crops being grown right across the street from the stadium. The intersection of Storrow Drive and North Harvard Street didn’t bother with stop signs. In the 1915 aerial photo of the stadium on Wikipedia, farm animals outnumber cars on North Harvard Street. All these many years later, Harvard Stadium itself remains unchanged in many ways. It only got lights in 2006. And while it now sits in the midst of a massive complex of Harvard athletic facilities situated directly across the street from Harvard Business School, there is no mistaking its age when you view it up close. In an era where the Atlanta Braves will have built 3 “cutting edge” stadiums in 50 years, it is refreshing to lay your hands on concrete that was poured 110 years ago, and to realize it is still being used for its original purpose today. It is open to the public, and wandering among its many Romanesque arches remains a humble pleasure accessible to anyone. Highlight: Standing inside the structure, looking at the light playing off the long rows of repeated arches.
C. ESPLANADE (617) 626-1250 | esplanadeassociation.org
The Charles River Esplanade is a park running along most of the Boston side of the Charles. It encompasses the Community Boating house, several top-shelf playgrounds, countless serene park benches, and an endless string of great views. Because it is incredibly popular, and because it isn’t exclusively a bike path, you will need to exercise caution when passing the occasional clumps of slower moving foot traffic. It looks like a long stretch on the map, but in practice the smooth surfaces, the long straight lines with no stops, and the pretty view will cause it to go by quickly. Highlight: No cars for miles and miles.
D. USS CONSTITUTION 5 Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown | (617) 799-8198 | ussconstitutionmuseum.org
It is easy (and almost forgivable) these days to gloss over cultural icons like the USS Constitution. In New England, we are surrounded by remnants from the 1700’s in many forms; Barns, historic homes, trails, battle fields, graveyards, and churches to name a few. There are so many important historic sites here that they compete in a crowded field for our surprisingly limited attention. We are often aware of the name of these relics, and some of us even have some passing sense of their significance, but few of us have any genuine sense of what these relics have seen. The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the entire world. This boat, which you can go put your hands on, was named by George Washington. When she was built, wooden boats had an expected useful life of 10 to 15 years, and yet 220 years later we are still able to stand on the deck of a floating, more-or-less seaworthy Constitution. She has seen repairs, replacements, retrofits, and has even had an incredibly unpopular masthead modeled after then-president Andrew Jackson sawed off of her one night under the cover of a storm. This boat fought Barbary pirates off the northern coast of Africa. This boat defeated five British warships in the War of 1812. At one point, this boat was relegated to being floating barracks for new recruits. The mere (untrue, as it happens) rumor in 1830 of her eminent demise caused a young Oliver Wendell Holmes to pen a poem in 1 day that became one of his best known. None of the other 5 ships who were built as part of the Naval Act of 1794 has survived, though all of them saw similarly colorful action. We have one of them left, somehow, and she is called the USS Constitution. Highlight: The fact that she somehow still exists, and is displayed in broad daylight for your viewing pleasure.
E. NORTH BANK BRIDGE 6 Museum Way, Cambridge | bsces.org
North Point Park is a delightful waterfront park near the mouth of the Charles River that is bordered on one side by a dedicated bike path extending from the North Bank Bridge, which is car-free. The park features grassy lawns, an expansive playground, and an integrated set of 2 canals with foot bridges. The park bends around a 90 degree corner, which means it offers a good variety of views from all edges. The river isn’t too wide at this point, so this is a great place to sit by the water and enjoy views of downtown Boston. Highlight: The quiet.
F. MEADHALL 4 Cambridge Center, Cambridge | (617) 714-4372 | themeadhall.com
Meadhall probably the best beer selection in all of Cambridge. Some places have fewer taps but slightly better curation, several have better food, some have blaring rock music to scare off the suits, and some have authentic “dank”, but none that I know of have the sheer brute force of the tap line at Meadhall. The tap handles on their double-sided bar island look like a beautiful, brass forest. They have good connections with Belgian and local brewers, as evidenced by the signatures adorning the wall as you go upstairs. It’s a nice, big place, it’s pretty well run, and it has huge windows. But the story here is the tap selection… the massive, crushing, beautiful, “what the hell do I try next” tap selection. Come in and get lost. Pro Tip: You can’t go wrong with Pretty Things, Night Shift, or Mystic. All three are excellent local choices with limited distribution, and you can usually find several of them on tap here. Highlight: The fact that for each and every beer on tap, they have a matching, labeled glass. That’s dedication.
G. MAGAZINE BEACH 719 Memorial Dr, Cambridge | (617) 727-4708 | mass.gov
A beautiful but well-worn relic of the mid 1900’s, Veteran’s Memorial (commonly known as Magazine Beach) is a free public pool situated right on the Charles River. One day soon the shower / locker building will probably be deemed structurally unsound, and when it is, one can only hope that funds will be found to rebuild the facility where it stands. In the meantime, Magazine Beach offers free swimming with amazing views, and even has bike racks right out front. Highlight: The bored teenage life guards.
H. SHAYS PUB & WINE BAR 58 Jfk St, Cambridge | (617) 864-9161 | shayspubandwinebar.com
There are a lot of places to get a drink in Harvard Square. Most of them are reaching for something… some wish they were “hip Brooklyn upscale,” some want to be undergrad dive bars, some want to make sure they don’t offend your grandparents when they come into town to see you graduate. And hey, grandparents spend a lot, so I don’t fault them for that. Shay’s, however, isn’t reaching for anything. Shay’s doesn’t want to be anything but a pub with sidewalk tables. Shay’s isn’t going to put much more than the minimum effort into cleaning its bathrooms. There will be no bamboo. There will be no artisanal pickle plate. There WILL be some people yelling about the Red Sox inside at the bar, season willing. And quite frankly, there’s something very refreshing about a bar in this day and age that knows exactly what it is. Shay’s is a fan-damned-tastic place to get a cold pint of Sam Adams and a heaping plate of (fantastic, as it turns out) nachos. Highlight: Dodging a bit of good old fashioned second-hand smoke on the below-grade sidewalk tables while you meet some locals.
I. JP LICKS 1312 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge | (617) 492-1001 | jplicks.com
They began a few miles south down in Jamaica Plain, and Harvard Square is fortunate to have a location right on the main drag across from the main gates of the university. If it’s after breakfast and it’s warm out, there might well be a line. Don’t be discouraged. They have a good hustle in there - the line moves quickly, and by god that coconut almond chip ice cream would be worth three times the wait. Highlight: Watching the busloads of tourists offload across the street, unfurl their massive cameras, and snap shots of Harvard’s gates at 13 frames per second.
J. LONGFELLOW HOUSE 105 Brattle St, Cambridge | (617) 876-4491 | nps.gov
The Longfellow House is but one of many amazing historical mansions lining Brattle Street as it leaves Harvard Square heading west. It was originally built in 1759 by John Vassall, who was loyal to the British. When he vacated it on the eve of the American Revolution, it eventually became occupied by none other than General George Washington. It was from this home that Washington followed the suggestion of a young army officer named Henry Knox and orchestrated the transfer of 59 cannons and mortars from recently recaptured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York to the hills of Dorchester. It must have been hell getting those pieces all the way here during winter using ice sleds and oxen, but once the guns were in place up on Dorchester Heights and raining down shells on the British in Boston, the British had nothing that could reach them… they retreated to Halifax, Nova Scotia. This same house was later the boarding home of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose father in law purchased it (along with the land across the street, forever ensuring its uninterrupted view of the Charles River) and gave it to Henry as a wedding present. He lived happily in it for almost fifty years, and it is now in the care of the National Park Service. Highlight: The beautifully restored garden behind the house.