To the northwest of Boston, Somerville is a densely populated city that was once unflatteringly known as Slummerville.
A lot of things have happened since the 1980s to change that perception. One was the extension of the MBTA’s Red Line in the 1980s, spurring development around Davis Square and Porter Square in particular.
What you get now is a diverse community, and commercial areas home to inventive, stylish and ethical businesses that appeal to young people from neighboring universities.
In the absence of big-time landmarks, there are still a lot of fascinating spots in Somerville, like the place where the first United States flag was raised, and the oldest stone structure in Massachusetts.
1. Davis Square
If there’s a single place that epitomizes Somerville’s journey over the last three decades it’s Davis Square, which is hip, packed with restaurants, nightspots, independent shops and cultural venues.
One explanation for the inclusive spirit and young crowd here is the proximity of Harvard, Tufts University and Lesley University, all within a mile or so.
Among the spots for bubble tea, poke bowls and organic flatbread pizza, there are still a few businesses from before the Red Line arrived at this busy intersection.
One is the evocatively named Rosebud diner, which opened in 1941 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, while we’ll talk about the Somerville Theatre and the local candlepin bowling later in this list.
Mid-May to late November there’s also a farmers’ market in Davis Square, 12pm to 6pm.
2. Union Square
Somerville’s oldest and largest commercial area is the scene of a mustering site for the Union Army in the Civil War, which is where the name comes from.
This neighborhood is at a crossroads in Somerville, where the traditionally blue collar East Somerville and the more affluent western areas meet.
The upshot is a place with a unique and spirited character, underscored by the many benches painted with flair by local artists.
Come for quirky shops, bars and cafes, and dining from Peruvian to Nepalese. There’s a farmers’ market on Union Square Plaza, mid-May to the end of October, rain or shine.
A landmark in the neighborhood’s modern history came in 2022 with the opening of the MBTA Green Line station, as part of the line’s extension project.
3. Porter Square
Like Davis Square, this neighborhood is on the Red Line, which came through in 1984. Marking the completion of this project at Massachusetts Ave and Somerville Ave is Gift of the Wind, a 46-foot painted steel and aluminum kinetic sculpture by Susumu Shingu.
Today there’s a cluster of shopping centers at Porter Square, while Lesley University has offices here, as well as its College of Art and Design in the North Prospect Church (1845).
Befitting its young and international makeup, Porter Square area has a vibrant, multicultural food scene, with places for Cuban, French, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, and most of all, Japanese.
Lesley University also owns University Hall, which has long been a hub for the Japanese community, housing spots for sushi, udon, bento boxes, yushoku and more.
4. Somerville Theatre
This movie palace opened at Davis Square in 1914, and at that time was part of a large complex that also featured a dance hall, bowling alley, billiards hall and cafe.
These additional amenities were removed in the 1980s when the cinema became a multiplex. Although there are now six screens at the Somerville Theatre, the main auditorium is unaltered, and can still hold 900 people.
This hall has a long history of live performances going back to vaudeville, all revived in the early 1980s.
The stellar list of acts to play here includes U2, Joan Baez, Bruce Springsteen, Jonathan Richman and Norah Jones. When it comes to movies, the Somerville Theatre is a first-run and repertory cinema, with daily screenings of classic, cult and obscure movies.
5. Assembly Row
In the 20th century the eastern, riverfront neighborhood, Assembly Square was associated with heavy industry and then urban decline from the 1960s onwards.
But over the last 20 years there has been a lot of redevelopment, and the area has been reborn as a commercial destination.
Embodying this transformation is Assembly Row, a large-scale mixed-use development, with offices, residential space, shops, dining and a revitalized waterfront, all completed in 2014.
Along with international stores like Sephora, there’s also a slew of outlets for the likes of Nike, Converse, Saks Fifth Avenue, Columbia and Banana Republic, as well as upmarket restaurant chains (Ruth’s Chris, Shake Shack) and the AMC Assembly Row 12 if you want to make a day of it.
6. Mystic River State Reservation
The Mystic River is one of the Commonwealth’s best protected watercourses, and almost the entirety of the riverbank is open to the public.
In Somerville and neighboring communities like Medford and Arlington, the banks are part of the Mystic River State Reservation, dating back to 1893 and made up of almost 350 acres.
You can reach the waterfront at the Sylvester Baxter Riverfront Park on the north side of Assembly Row, where there’s a plaza-like space with trails and public art.
To the west is Blessing of the Bay Park, with a scenic strip of grass, and tree-shaded benches. This is one of the locations for Paddle Boston, which offers shuttle trips upriver to the Mystic Lakes, for a gentle four-mile paddle back to Somerville.
7. Brickbottom Artists Association (BAA)
In the mid-1980s a former bakery and cannery building for the A&P Grocery chain became one of the country’s first artist-developed live-work buildings.
Brickbottom remains one of the largest setups of its kind, renowned for its open studios event each year in November.
The association has scores of members, both resident and non-resident, and with specialties spanning everything from textiles to ceramics, performance art, print, documentary film, oil painting and drawings.
The gallery here is a non-profit exhibition space that was established in 1989, with exciting shows taking place throughout the year.
8. The Burren
Often named among the best Irish pubs in America, The Burren opened in Davis Square in 1996. As well as serving a wide choice of beers, cocktails and traditional pub food, The Burren has made a name for live music.
It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s a different act every night, in genres from Irish folk to rock, pop, indie, jazz, bluegrass and everything in between.
When it comes to food, a few essentials are the fish and chips, Irish stew and vegetarian shepherd’s pie, but there’s also a lineup of sandwiches, burgers, salads and appetizers like quesadillas, warmed spinach & hummus and Rhode Island calamari.
9. Powderhouse Park (Nathan Tufts Park)
The oldest stone structure in Massachusetts and the site of momentous history stands just next to the Tufts University campus in Somerville.
Originally a windmill, the Old Powder House was built in 1703 or 1704, and in 1747 was acquired by the colonial government of Massachusetts to be used for a gunpowder magazine.
When a force of British regulars seized the gunpowder on September 1, 1774 it led to the Powder Alarm, a large-scale popular reaction, which was a pivotal moment in the build up to the Revolutionary War.
There are numerous bronze monuments scattered around the park, explaining the history of this land and the events that took place here in the mid-1770s.
10. Aeronaut Brewing Co.
Now with three locations, this craft brewery brand was established in Somerville in 2014, becoming the first brewery in the city for more than a century.
In an old envelope factory, the taproom has something going on most nights of the week, whether it’s live music, open mics, community events or weekly trivia on Tuesdays.
A few picks on tap when we made this list were Summer in Cologne (Koslch), No Coast IPA, Robot Crush (Pilsner), Raspberry Lime Rickey Hard Seltzer and Kaleido Bot Yuzu Rice Lager.
The two founders, one educated at MIT and the other at Cornell, have called on their engineering backgrounds to create Aeronaut Labs, the brewery’s research and quality arm. This is a testing ground for new yeast strains and experimental recipes and fermentation methods.
11. Prospect Hill Monument
Close to Union Square, this castle-like monument is on another site of real significance in the history of the United States.
Prospect Hill, with a commanding view of Somerville, Boston and Cambridge is believed to be the place where, in 1776, George Washington hoisted the Grand Union Flag, first national flag of the United States of America.
The hill was strategically important, as one of the closest hilltops to Boston, and was part of a system of defenses erected after the Battle of Bunker Hill (June 17, 1775).
The tower standing here now, with three tiers of ornamental crenelated walls, was built in 1903 and occasionally opens for tours. Flying at the top is the Grand Union Flag, with a Union Jack in the corner, and thirteen alternating red and white stripes to signify the Thirteen Colonies.
12. Sacco’s Bowl Haven
Originally opened in 1939, this candlepin bowling alley was one in a chain of almost 20 owned by the Sacco family. For newcomers, candlepin bowling is a New England variation, with a ball about the size of a grapefruit used to knock down ten thin, candle-like pins.
In 2010 the Somerville branch was taken over by The Flatbread Company, which bakes organic flatbread pizzas, with toppings like Vermont homemade sausage, buffalo cauliflower, pepperoni & peppers and Maine potato & chive.
What you get now is a restaurant-bowling hybrid, with a full bar and restaurant tables, but also plenty of bowling lanes still functioning.
13. Somerville Community Path
There’s a 3.2-mile rail trail passing right through Somerville’s Davis Square neighborhood, part of a wider, ever growing network in Greater Boston.
Much of the Somerville Community Path is on the old Fitchburg Cutoff, built in 1870 and 1881 for the Boston and Maine Railroad. Passenger services stopped in 1927 and freight services ended in the early 1980s to make way for the Red Line.
The trail has grown in phases since the mid-1980s, and in 2022 a new eastern section extended the path as far as East Cambridge.
In the west, the Somerville Community Path merges with the Alewife Linear Park, in turn linking with the Alewife Greenway Bike Path, Alewife MBTA Station and the 10-mile Minuteman Bikeway, opening up big swaths of the suburbs to cyclists.
14. Taza Chocolate Factory
This ethical, direct trade chocolate brand was founded in 2005 when founder and CEO Alex Whitmore learned to grind cacao with hand-carved granite millstones.
The result is a minimally processed chocolate that loses none of the sophistication of its natural flavor.
If you’re interested in the process, Taza Chocolate Factory is open for tours, Tuesday to Sunday, including a brief talk and chocolate tasting.
You can also call in at the factory store, which stocks bars and discs with unique flavor combinations, as well as chocolate covered cashews, espresso beans, almonds, brazil nuts and more.
If ever there were an event to sum up Somerville’s engaged community and progressive spirit it’s HONK!, an annual gathering of activist street bands on Columbus Day weekend.
This event dates back to 2006, and has since inspired similar festivals around the United States.
HONK! Was launched to celebrate the new style of street band that has emerged at rallies and demonstrations, fusing a spectrum of genres including klezmer, afrobeat, hip hop, punk, funk, highlife, Balkan and Romani music, samba, as well as the New Orleans second line.
The festival is a platform for important causes, from world peace to the environment and ending racism, as well as a giant party with 25 bands taking over Davis Square on the Saturday.