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Countless musicians, actors, and comedians went to college or got their start in the Boston area, and it's a great place to check out rising stars and promising unknowns. You might get an early look at the next Branford Marsalis, Matt Damon, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, or Yo-Yo Ma. And you can certainly enjoy the work of many established artists who perform at world-renowned Symphony Hall and countless lower-profile venues. Nearly every day of the year, no matter your budget, you'll find someone expressing him- or herself in public, and eager for an audience.

The Boston-area nightlife scene is, to put it mildly, somewhat dull. You can be home from a jampacked night on the town when your friends in New York are still drying their hair. (In fact, flying to New York after work and taking the first shuttle back the next morning isn't unheard of.) Clubs close at 2am, which means cramming a lot into 4 hours or less.

For up-to-date entertainment information online, start at http://events.frommers.com. The Boston Globe offers suggestions at www.boston.com/thingstodo/nightlife and on Twitter (@bostoncalendar), where you'll also find the Phoenix (@BostonPhoenix). The websites of the agencies listed under "Getting Tickets" list events by date and location (don't forget to check Cambridge as well as Boston). To do low-tech research, consult the daily Boston Globe, Friday's Boston Herald, and the Sunday arts sections of both papers. Four free publications, available at newspaper boxes around town, publish good nightlife listings: the weekly Boston Phoenix and Weekly Dig, and the biweekly Stuff@Night (a Phoenix offshoot) and Improper Bostonian. The Phoenix website (www.bostonphoenix.com) archives the paper's season-preview issues; especially before a summer or fall visit, it's a valuable planning tool.

No Smoking; No, Really -- Massachusetts state law forbids smoking in all workplaces, including bars, nightclubs, and restaurants.

Coffeehouses

As in most other American cities, you won't get far without seeing a Starbucks. I'll seldom say no to a frozen drink, but for coffee and hanging out, there are plenty of less generic options. Many I've listed are in the North End. At all of them, hours are long and loitering is encouraged -- these are good places to bring your laptop or journal.

Pool & Bowling

These establishments aren't the divey hangouts you remember from your misspent youth; they're upscale destinations with prices to match. For pool, expect to pay at least $12 an hour on weekend evenings, with weekday and daytime discounts. Bowlers can count on parting with at least $6 per person per game.

Films

Free Friday Flicks at the Hatch Shell (tel. 617/787-7200) are family-friendly movies that play on a large screen in the amphitheater on the Esplanade. On the lawn in front of the Hatch Shell, hundreds of people picnic until the sky grows dark and the credits roll. The films tend toward recent releases (no big thrill for anyone with a Netflix subscription), but the movie is only part of the experience. Tip: Bring sweaters in case the breeze off the river grows chilly.

Two superb local revival houses feature lectures and live performances in addition to foreign and classic films: the Brattle Theatre, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge (tel. 617/876-6837; www.brattlefilm.org; T: Red Line to Harvard), and the Coolidge Corner Movie Theater, 290 Harvard St., Brookline (tel. 617/734-2500; www.coolidge.org; T: Green Line C to Coolidge Corner). The Coolidge also schedules midnight shows. Classic and foreign films are the tip of the iceberg at the quirky Harvard Film Archive, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge (tel. 617/495-4700; http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa; T: Red Line to Harvard), which also shows student films.

For first-run independent and foreign films, head to the Kendall Square Cinema, 1 Kendall Sq., Cambridge (tel. 617/499-1996; www.landmarktheatres.com; T: Red Line to Kendall/MIT). The best movie theater in the immediate Boston area, it offers discounted parking in the adjoining garage. First- and second-run current releases at discount prices are the usual fare at the Somerville Theater, 55 Davis Sq. (tel. 617/625-5700; www.somervilletheatreonline.com; T: Red Line to Davis), which schedules occasional concerts, too. For mainstream releases, head to the 19-screen AMC Loews Boston Common, 175 Tremont St. (at Avery St.; tel. 888/262-4386 [show times] or 617/423-5801; www.amctheatres.com; T: Green Line to Boylston), which has stadium seating, digital sound, and 3D capability. As of this writing, the Stuart Street Playhouse, 200 Stuart St. (at Charles St. S.), in the Radisson Hotel Boston (tel. 617/426-4499; www.stuartstreetplayhouse.com), is showing recent art-house releases.

Lectures & Readings

The Thursday Globe and the Improper Bostonian are the best printed sources for listings of lectures, readings, and talks on a wide variety of subjects, often at colleges, libraries, and museums. Many are free or charge a small fee.

Late-Night Bites

To be frank, Boston's late-night scene needs to climb a couple of notches to reach pathetic, and Cambridge's wee-hour diversions are even skimpier. The only plus is that just about every working cabdriver knows how to reach the places that are still open. In the late evening, especially on weekends, you have it a bit easier: Hit a restaurant that keeps long hours. They include Brasserie Jo, Davio's, Jacob Wirth, Jasper White's Summer Shack, Pizzeria Regina, and the bar at Sel de la Terre. In the North End, Bricco, 241 Hanover St. (btw. Cross and Richmond sts.; tel. 617/248-6800; www.bricco.com), serves pizza at the bar until 2am Tuesday through Saturday.

A number of Chinatown restaurants don't close until 3 or 4am. Asking for "cold tea" might -- might -- get you a teapot full of beer. In the North End, Caffé Pompei, 280 Hanover St. (tel. 617/523-9438), draws club-hoppers and neighborhood shift workers until 3:30am. Or make like a college student and road-trip to the International House of Pancakes at 1850 Soldiers Field Rd. in Brighton (tel. 617/787-0533). It's open 24 hours daily.

Another classic late-night destination is on the edge of Chinatown, not far from South Station. The South Street Diner, 178 Kneeland St. (tel. 617/350-0028; www.southstreetdiner.com), is a '50s-style joint with a wine and beer license and a jukebox; it's open 24 hours and is a popular morning-after destination.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.