SOMERVILLE — Move over, Cambridge. These days, anyone seeking a countercultural adventure comes to Somerville. Some say it started with the end of rent control in 1995, a move that pushed Cambridge’s students and creative class to seek lower rents. Others point to the innovation-friendly city policies promoted by Mayor Joseph Curtatone. Whatever. The 2010 Census found Somerville had the second-highest proportion of residents between the ages of 25 and 34 in the United States, behind Hoboken — but ahead of Cambridge. And while the city as a whole has been pushing the style envelope, Union Square is its hipster epicenter, with the kind of local focus and accessibility that make it an easy, and fun, day trip.
What gives a place that trendy edge? Well, artisanal foods are one hallmark of hipster havens. Therefore, it only makes sense to start the day at Union Square Donuts. These house-made pastries have been popping up at farmers’ markets and food fests across the city, but the mothership is right in Union Square — tucked into a tiny space inside the former Café Tango. Whether you opt for the maple bacon or salted bourbon caramel (or one of the other approximately 10 varieties offered daily), get there early. Although the doughnut makers are promising more daily flavors when they move from their current space two doors down next month, they’re not likely to change their early hours. And these pastries are made fresh each morning: When they run out, that’s it for the day.
Skinny jeans feeling a little tight after those doughnuts? While Union Square has its share of exercise outlets (like Be Yoga or CrossFit Somerville), why not try something a bit more new millennial? Rather than pushing your fixed-gear bike up each of Somerville’s seven hills, head to Brooklyn Boulders, where a variety of climbing walls let you scale the peaks in (safe) style. Beginners — and the skittish — can stick with top-roping, suspended from a harness, while a belayer — a cross between a spotter and a guide — takes up the slack from below. Graduate to lead climbing (Brooklyn Boulders offers certificate training), or stick with bouldering, which encourages you to clamber up either a 15- or a 22-foot cliff. Don’t worry, there’s 12 inches of padding on the floor below. (Oh, yeah, they have yoga and other fitness classes as well.)
Afraid of heights? How about acrobatics? Esh Circus Arts offers private and group instruction from real live circus professionals in everything from circus hooping to tightwire walking. When you’re ready to get off the ground, aerial fabric is one of the more popular classes, says co-owner Ellen Waylonis-May, incorporating aerial gymnastics and the kind of beautiful scarf-like silks that Cirque du Soleil made famous. Not so sure? The beginner classes are “true beginner,” promises Waylonis-May (who performs with Speakeasy Circus), starting on the ground and suited to any fitness level. Esh — the name is Hebrew for “fire,” from cofounder Rachel Stewart’s pyrotechnic specialty — also offers “taster” classes, which let you try before you commit. (And, yeah, aerial yoga and Cirque fit classes too.)
Maybe at this point you really just want more coffee — exquisitely roasted and ground varietal coffee, that is. Short of quitting your day job to apprentice as a barista, you can master the grind at Counter Culture Coffee. Going into its 19th year, the North Carolina-based purveyor opened its first New England coffee education center here a year and a half ago, with classes like the two-hour Brewing Basics and the full-day Beginner Espresso lab. Not up to a full course? Weekly coffee cuppings — or tastings — explore the beans of different regions or the brews of various preparations.
By now, you’ll have worked up an appetite again. But no matter what your dietary restriction, either the Sherman Cafe and Market or Bloc 11 will have something locally sourced — and tasty. Vegan and vegetarian options range from soups to salads, with sandwiches made daily on always interesting — and, yes, artisanal — breads. The Sherman Café has the plus of incorporating the old Sherman Market, for easy shopping of pastas, cheeses, and other edibles; often the farms or purveyors are cited. (The former Sherman Market space will soon reopen as Gracie’s, serving ice cream and other treats — made on the premises, naturally.) Bloc 11, on the other hand, boasts that city luxury: a shaded outdoor space. Both tend to get crowded, but if you put away your digital device, you can share a table and make a friend.
Shelving that iPad will also allow you to indulge in a bit of hipster retro. While the rest of the world may have given up on vinyl and paper, Union Square is holding the line. Records — the old-fashioned vinyl kind — rule the roost at Somerville Grooves. Browse used 45s and uncover the occasional live “fan club only” recording of your favorite punk band. While the stock in this hot pink shop leans heavily toward rock, international sounds, as well as jazz and classical, are represented.
For those who prefer “tree books” to e-books,Hub Comics offers a well-curated collection, with comics and hard-bound collections, all displayed on beautiful wooden bookshelves salvaged from the old Globe Bookstore. Those in the know will want the latest issue of Saga, the breakout indie adult SF-fantasy, or go a bit more mainstream, with Marvel’s bad-boy Hawkeye. Not so hip? Shelves dedicated to nostalgia feature everything from Mad magazine to Archie, while artists such as R. Crumb have their own section as well.
By now, you’ll be ready to kick back. For fans of cutting-edge cocktails, that means a trip to BackBar. This tiny, windowless spot — reservations suggested — plays up its speakeasy vibe, with hip retro flair. Drinks ride the current trend for house-made bitters, but other of-the-moment options — like a crystal clear milk punch of the day — are always on offer as well. Unsure what to order? Ask the bartenders; they’re pros.
If you can’t get in — or prefer a simpler quaff — check out the brand new Aeronaut Brewery. While the cavernous former industrial space, next door to Brooklyn Boulder, serves as Somerville’s first brew pub, its owners consider it more of an “immersive experience” for all things comestible, says Aeronaut president and cofounder Ben Holmes. Relax at one of the indoor picnic tables and watch brewers and others in action. While house-brewed quaffs will take center stage — look for the roasted butternut squash-infused Lager Feuer or the hoppy Armadillo — snacks are available from a variety of small vendors and pop-up kitchens, with plans for more to come.
Save room for dinner, though. Union Square has long boasted a wide variety of ethnic specialities, from Buk Kyung (Somerville’s first Korean restaurant, opened in 1998) to El Potro (with its live mariachi music on weekends). These days, those options have been upscaled to include Bronwyn, named one of the best new restaurants in the country by Esquire magazine. Enjoy the retro-German pleasure of a giant soft bretzel (pretzel) in the biergarten or share a plate of wurst in the cozy interior.
Can’t get a table? Head to A4 Pizza, where Area Four chefs Michael Leviton, Michael Krupp, and Jeff Pond hand stretch their tangy, tasty dough from a 12-year-old starter and top it with the likes of Wellfleet littlenecks and bacon or shitake mushroom and Balfoni eggs. (They offer a fine fennel sausage and more conventional toppings as well.) This tiny restaurant gets crowded — the custom-built fire-burning oven can only crank out so many pies — but the bartender is friendly. And the soundtrack, which often features classic ’90s hip-hop, just seals the deal. By now, you’re only a few blocks from Cambridge, roughly a 20-minute walk to the Porter Square T stop. But you’ve been to the cutting edge — to Union Square — and you’ll be back.