Just across the Charles River from Boston, the city of Cambridge is home to Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and other schools of higher learning, giving it an academic personality. Harvard Square is a people-watching paradise of students, instructors, commuters, shoppers, and sightseers. To be clear, Harvard Square isn’t a square or even a plaza—it’s only the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street, and John F. Kennedy Street, with a subway stop and small concrete island at its center. No matter. Restaurants and stores are tightly packed together on the three streets that radiate from the center and the streets that intersect them. Harvard University’s undergraduate campus dominates “the Square” proper, with classrooms, dorms, and some of the oldest buildings in the country located just on the other side of a black wrought-iron fence. In the coldest winter months, the streets are busy, and once spring comes, they explode with activity—outdoor cafes, street musicians, and bug-eyed students who are grateful to take a break from staring at computer screens.
To get to Cambridge from Boston, take the Red Line T toward Alewife. Cambridge subway stops are at Kendall/MIT, Central, Harvard, and Porter. The no. 1 bus which runs along Mass Ave also travels from Boston to its end point at Harvard Square.
Traffic and parking in and around Harvard Square are almost as challenging as they are in downtown Boston. If you drive, you’ll probably want to park once and walk from there on.
The oldest college in the country, founded in 1636, Harvard welcomes visitors and offers free guided tours. Even without a guide, the stately main campus—two adjoining quads known as Harvard Yard—is interesting to walk through. The school’s new Smith Campus Center, 1350 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/495-1000), was set to open in fall 2018. The center houses a visitor center as well as a plaza with cafe seating along Mass Ave at Dunster Street.
From the Harvard T station at Mass Ave, face the black fence that surrounds the campus, and look to your left for an entrance. Once you pass through the gate, you’ll be in Harvard Yard, which houses dormitories, libraries, classroom buildings, and churches. The most popular stop is the John Harvard statue in front of University Hall. The quad they’re in is mostly undergraduate dorms, but stroll to the northwestern corner to see Holden Chapel, a tiny Georgian building (completed in 1744) which served temporarily as barracks for Revolutionary War troops serving under George Washington. Later it was an anatomy lab; today it’s a rehearsal space for undergraduate choral groups.
Walk around University Hall into the second quad and work your way clockwise. Memorial Church (tel. 617/495-5508), dedicated in 1932, holds nondenominational Protestant services including morning prayer (Mon–Sat at 8:45am during the academic year) and Sunday services at 11am. Sever Hall (rhymes with “fever”) was designed by H. H. Richardson, the mastermind of Boston’s Trinity Church. Architects rave about the brickwork, the chimneys, the roof, and even the window openings. If you stand next to one side of the front door and whisper into the archway, the person next to you won’t hear a thing but someone at the other end of the arch can hear you loud and clear. The majestic Widener Library, with its dramatic front stairway, is one of the world’s most comprehensive research collections in the humanities and social sciences, in more than 100 languages. It’s not open to the public.
There are a number of food options nearby, including Clover Food Lab, Grendel’s Den Restaurant & Bar, Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, and four or five food trucks that set up daily on the Harvard Plaza just north of Harvard Yard, near Oxford Street.
OTHER CAMBRIDGE ATTRACTIONS
One block from Harvard Yard, Brattle Street has been an exclusive address since Colonial times. Its first few blocks are a hodgepodge of interesting commerce, including restaurants, clothing stores, and a movie theater. Buildings then become primarily residential and University-affiliated. This section gained fame—and the nickname “Tory Row”—around the time of the Revolution because of its association with British sympathizers. The loyalists later evacuated, but some of their lovely homes survive.
Starting in the first block of Brattle Street closest to Harvard Square, the 1727 William Brattle House (no. 42) is the property of the nonprofit Cambridge Center for Adult Education. The 1969 Design Research Building (no. 48) is a splash of modern design, the work of Benjamin Thompson and Associates. The Cambridge Center for Adult Ed also owns the Hancock-Dexter-Pratt House (no. 54), constructed in 1811 and immortalized by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who saw the village blacksmith working here in the late 1830s, in his words, “under a spreading chestnut tree.” The 1847 Gothic Revival Burleigh House (no. 85), also known as the Norton-Johnson-Burleigh House, adds a note of Victorian spookiness. Stoughton House (no. 90), is the work of H. H. Richardson, architect of Boston’s Trinity Church, and was completed in 1883.
A few steps further is the star of the street: At No. 105 Brattle, the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has been turned into the dual Longfellow House–Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site (tel. 617/876-4491). Longfellow lived here from 1843 until his death in 1882. He was first here as a boarder in 1837, but after he married Fanny Appleton, her father made the house a wedding present. The home had an earlier claim to fame, though: Built in 1759, it was George Washington’s headquarters in 1775 and 1776, during the siege of Boston. The grounds and gardens are open year-round to visitors, and from May to October free 45-minute guided tours show off the interior (call ahead to confirm hours and tour times). Tours are $3 for adults, free for kids 15 and under.
About a half mile further on, the building at 159 Brattle is the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House. The original section of this building was built around 1685, making it the second-oldest house in Cambridge. It now contains the Cambridge Historical Society (tel. 617/547-4252).
If you continue on Brattle Street about a half mile further, you reach the Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mt. Auburn St. (tel. 617/547-7105), dedicated in 1831, a prime example of the “garden cemeteries” that gained popularity as urban centers became too congested for downtown burying grounds. It’s a particularly glorious combination of landscaping, statuary, sculpture, architecture, and history (it’s on the National Register of Historic Places and a designated National Historic Landmark). Notable people buried here include museum founder Isabella Stewart Gardner, Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, architect Charles Bulfinch, and abolitionist Charles Sumner. Stop by the visitors center in Story Chapel at the front gate, or check the online event calendar for walks, talks, and special events. It’s open daily, summer 8am to 8pm and winter 8am to 5pm. Admission & self-guided tours are free, although note that, because Mount Auburn is an active cemetery, pets and picnicking are not allowed. It’s a 30-minute walk from Harvard Square and on the 71 and 73 bus lines.
If you’ve come this far out of Harvard Square, consider going 1 block farther to the popular Sofra Bakery and Cafe, 1 Belmont St. (tel. 617/661-3161). As this compact eatery notes in an equally compact way on its website, “sweet and savory tastes of Turkey, Lebanon, and Greece are served here with a contemporary twist.” It’s the little sister to the esteemed restaurant Oleana, on the other side of Cambridge.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
The public is welcome at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, a mile or so from Harvard Square, across the Charles River from Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. Visit the Information Office, 77 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/253-4795), to take a free guided tour (weekdays at 11am and 3pm) or to pick up a copy of a self-guided walking tour. At the same address, the Hart Nautical Galleries (open Tues-Fri 10am-5pm) contain ship and engine models that illustrate the development of marine engineering.
MIT's campus is known for its art and architecture. The excellent outdoor sculpture collection includes works by Picasso and Alexander Calder, and notable modern buildings include designs by Frank Gehry, Eero Saarinen, and I. M. Pei. Gehry designed the Stata Center, a curvilinear landmark that opened on Vassar Street off Main Street in 2004. Fumihiko Maki, a Pritzker Prize winner, designed the Media Lab complex, 20 Ames St. (at Amherst St.).
To get to MIT, take the MBTA Red Line to Kendall/MIT. The scenic walk from the Back Bay takes you along Massachusetts Avenue over the river straight to the campus. By car from Boston, cross the river at the Museum of Science, Cambridge Street, or Massachusetts Avenue and follow signs to Memorial Drive, where you can usually find parking during the day.
Hey There, You with the Stars in Your Eyes -- Two local colleges have on-campus observatories that allow the public a look at the skies above Boston -- through a telescope. This is a good evening activity for high school students as well as adults. The Judson B. Coit Observatory at Boston University, 725 Commonwealth Ave. (tel. 617/353-2630; www.bu.edu/astronomy/events), throws open its doors on most Wednesdays, year-round. The Harvard College Observatory, 60 Garden St. (tel. 617/495-9059; http://cfa.harvard.edu/events), schedules a lecture and quality time with a telescope on the third Thursday of each month.
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