The Boston-area club scene is multifaceted and constantly changing. As a rule, live music is more compelling than the dance-club scene by several orders of magnitude, but somewhere out there is a good time for anyone, regardless of age, musical taste, or budget. Check the sources listed in the introduction to this chapter for ideas; if you prefer to wait for inspiration to strike after you reach Boston, find ideas in the daily Globe, the Friday Herald, the Phoenix, Stuff@Night, or the Improper Bostonian. If you run across a venue that shares your taste, follow it on Twitter and friend it on Facebook, and you may get advance notice about special bookings and deals.
Clubs cluster in the Theater District and on nearby Boylston Place, off Boylston Street near Boston Common. The center of the local live-music universe is Central Square in Cambridge. Rowdy college bars and clubs abound near the intersection of Harvard and Brighton avenues in Allston (T: Green Line B to Harvard Ave.). That makes club-hopping easy, but it also means dealing with swarms of teenagers, students, and recent college grads. To steer clear, stick to slightly more upscale and less centrally located nightspots. If you do like teenagers (or you are one), seek out a place where admission is 18- or 19-plus. Policies change regularly, sometimes from night to night, so check ahead.
A night on the town in Boston and Cambridge is brief: Most bars close by 1am, clubs close at 2am, and the T shuts down between 12:30 and 1am. The drinking age is 21; a valid driver's license or passport is required as proof of age, and the law is strictly enforced, especially near college campuses.
Rock of Ages -- Bring your driver's license or passport when you go club-hopping, no matter how old you think you look -- you must be 21 to drink alcohol, and the law is strictly enforced. Most bouncers won't risk a fine or license suspension, especially at 18-plus shows.
The Wilbur Theatre books high-profile comics on national tours as well as music acts. The annual Boston International Comedy & Movie Festival (tel. 617/499-3380; www.bostoncomedyfestival.com) attracts big-name national performers, local up-and-comers, and films. The popular weeklong event takes place all over town in November; check ahead for schedules and venues.
Most clubs enforce a dress code that forbids athletic wear (including game jerseys), sneakers, jeans, Timberland boots, and ball caps -- or some combination thereof -- on everyone, as well as tank tops on men. Some places require that men wear a shirt with a collar, and a few require a jacket. Check ahead. The Improper Bostonian and the Phoenix club listings are good resources, but a savvy concierge is even better. Tip: While you're visiting websites, note that some clubs will let you put your name on the VIP list online. Can't hurt, might help.
Put Some Salsa on That -- The hip-shaking party that is Havana Club (tel. 617/312-5550; www.havanaclubsalsa.com) makes a great introduction to salsa dancing. Lessons -- beginners are welcome -- precede 3 hours of nonstop motion accompanied by a DJ or live band. The crowd consists mostly of dance fiends and curious novices of all ages and ethnicities. Havana Club takes place on Friday and Saturday from 10pm to 1am (lessons start at 9pm) at the Greek American Political Club, 288 Green St. (at River St., 1 block from Mass. Ave.), Central Sq., Cambridge. Both nights are 21-plus, admission is $12, and the bar is cash only.
Boston is one of the only cities where folk musicians consistently sell out large venues that usually book rock and pop performers. If an artist you want to see is touring, check ahead for Boston-area dates.
The music listings in Thursday's Globe include information about coffeehouses, the area's main outlets for folk. Probably the best known of these, the 4-decade-old Nameless Coffeehouse (tel. 617/864-1630; www.namelesscoffeehouse.org), puts on a show every month or so in the First Parish Church, 3 Church St., Harvard Sq., Cambridge. The streets around Harvard Square are another promising venue -- Tracy Chapman is just one famous graduate of the scene.
The Boston Folk Festival (tel. 617/287-6911; www.bostonfolkfestival.org) takes place at the UMass-Boston campus in Dorchester on a Sunday in early June; check ahead for the schedule and lineup. Also see the Lizard Lounge.
Jazz & Blues
Jazz Week (www.jazzboston.org) is a 10-day event in late April and early May at multiple venues. Surf around the website for an introduction to the local scene. The 10-day Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival (www.beantownjazzfestival.com), in late September, books top-notch artists into various professional venues around Boston and draws tens of thousands of aficionados to Columbus Avenue in the South End for a full weekend afternoon of free music. Check the website for details.
The theater at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center becomes the Jazz Club at the Multicultural Arts Center at least a couple of times a month, year-round.
On summer Thursdays at 6pm, the Boston Harbor Hotel (tel. 617/491-2100; www.bhh.com) sponsors free performances on the "Blues Barge," behind the hotel.
Theme a Little Theme -- The Hard Rock Cafe, 24 Clinton St. (at North St.; tel. 617/424-7625; www.hardrock.com), is a fun link in the fun chain -- just ask the other tourists all around you. The memorabilia that covers the walls of this cavernous space across the street from Faneuil Hall Marketplace celebrates rock musicians, and the kid-friendly menu features salads, burgers, sandwiches, and barbecue.
The Bar Scene
Bostonians had some quibbles with the TV show Cheers, but no one complained that the concept of a neighborhood bar where everybody knows your name was implausible. This tends to be a fairly insular scene -- as a stranger, don't assume that you'll get a warm welcome. This is one area where you can and probably should judge a book by its cover: If you peek in and see people who look like you and your friends, give it a whirl.
Cocktail Culture -- Like a lot of other trends, the cocktail craze arrived in Boston late and quickly took off. All over town, devoted bartenders and adventuresome drinkers unite to combat the cosmopolitanizing of the American libation. A nationally renowned example of the hard-core cocktail bar is Drink, 348 Congress St. (near A St.; tel. 617/695-1806; www.drinkfortpoint.com; T: Red Line to South Station). Don't take my word for it -- high-profile amateur mixologist Rachel Maddow of MSNBC says it's the best bar in Boston, if not the country. Drink has no menu, just bartenders who chat with you about what you're in the mood for and create something on the spot. Sounds crazy, works perfectly. It's pricey, but you're paying for an evening's entertainment and an enthusiastic guide. Open daily at 4pm. Other destinations where "genever," "elderflower," and "Sazerac" are more than just crossword puzzle answers include Eastern Standard; Hungry Mother; and Green Street, 280 Green St. (off Magazine St., 1 block from Mass. Ave.; tel. 617/876-1655; www.greenstreetgrill.com; T: Red Line to Central).
Hotel Bars & Lounges
Many popular nightspots are associated with hotels and restaurants; as a rule, these are the only watering holes in town where you don't have to shout to be heard. The following are particularly agreeable, albeit expensive, places to while away an hour or three.
Make Some Noise in a Museum -- The Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave. (tel. 617/267-9300; www.mfa.org), becomes a spirited nightlife destination at least once a month. It courts 20- and 30-somethings with live music, cocktails, food, and mingling; a visit is an equally good couple or group activity. MFA First Fridays take place on the first Friday of each month -- and every Friday in the summer -- from 5:30 to 9:30pm. General admission to the museum ($20) includes the evening event. A similar program, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's monthly "Gardner After Hours" series (shown here), is on hold while the museum undergoes expansion. It's expected to return in 2012.
Gay & Lesbian Bars & Clubs
In addition to the clubs listed, some mainstream venues schedule a weekly gay night. The particulars are current as of this writing, but always check ahead. Rumor, 100 Warrenton St. (tel. 617/422-0045; www.rumorboston.com), features Latin music and the occasional drag show on Wednesday; the Estate plays host to Glamlife (www.chrisharrispresents.com) on Thursday; and Saturday is gay night at the House of Blues.
On the first Friday of each month, the Boston chapter of Guerrilla Queer Bar (www.bostonguerrilla.com) stages a flash mob-style takeover of a straight bar just for the night. Visit the website to sign up for a notification e-mail. The first Sunday of the month means a men's dance party at ZuZu in Cambridge.
For up-to-date listings, check Bay Windows, the Improper Bostonian, and the Phoenix. Worthwhile websites include www.edgeboston.com, www.dykenight.com, and http://boston.lesbiannightlife.com.
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.