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Neighborhood guide: Harvard Square, Cambridge

Nov 09, 2016 by Jamie Burke

With so many amazing places on our ever-growing travel wish lists, it’s easy to overlook the adventures right outside the door. So, for our first neighborhood guide, we thought we’d stick a little closer to home—right here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Check out some of our favorite haunts in Harvard Square, a historical section of Cambridge you can visit.


What to see in Harvard Square

At the center of Harvard Square is, of course, the famous college that lends the area its name—Harvard University. You can stroll through Harvard Yard to soak in some of Cambridge’s academic prestige. Plenty of visitors stop at the John Harvard statue to rub his well-worn left shoe. But it’s not really a Harvard tradition (nor is the statue of John Harvard—no one is sure what he looked like!). Instead, pop over to the Widener Library, home to a “vast and cavernous” collection housed in the impressive, columned building at the east end of the yard. It was built in memory of Harry Elkins Widener, a Harvard alumnus and avid book collector who died on the Titanic.

Also on campus: The Harvard Museum of Natural History and Harvard Art Museums. The natural history museum’s unbelievable glass flower exhibit alone is worth the price of admission ($12), but there’s plenty more to explore in its three floors.

History buffs will want to venture a few blocks up Brattle Street to check out the Longfellow House. Once home to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the yellow Georgian mansion was also the headquarters of Washington’s army during the American Revolution.


Where to eat in Harvard Square

After a day of sightseeing, you’ll certainly work up an appetite. Lucky for you, Harvard Square is filled with restaurants for every craving (and budget). Some of the best for a quick meal? The historic Mr. Bartley’s Burger has been a local joint (and perennial favorite) since 1960. They’re famous for their creative toppings and topical burger names, including the “Beyonce” (with Hot Cajun sauce, bacon, and jalapeno) and the “iPhone” (boursin cheese, grilled mushrooms, and onions). There can be a wait, so if you’re in a hurry, pop over to Tasty Burger, a Boston-based chain with locations around the city. Thinking pizza instead? Try Otto, which offers takeaway slices topped with everything from pepperoni to butternut squash. Vegetarians will love Clover for its menu of seasonal fare and Mediterranean-inspired dishes (think: falafel, hummus, and pita).

If you’re looking for a less casual affair, make a reservation at one of these places: Alden & Harlow, run by Boston restaurateur Michael Scelfo, serves up shareable dishes with inventive ingredients. Their “underground” dining room—once home to Harvard landmark Casablanca—is undeniably atmospheric. Nearby, Beat Brasserie makes for a hip dinner spot, boasting an eclectic American-style menu and bohemian feel. Or, head across the square for a South American meal at Orinoco, where you can feast on Venezuelan favorites like arepas and churrasquito.

For dessert, get a scoop at the Boston-based J.P. Licks or stop by Mike’s Pastry, an outpost of the North End icon (with infinitely shorter lines). Or, if sweets aren’t your thing, pop in to Crema Cafe for an after-dinner coffee.


Where to shop in Harvard Square

Of course, you can’t leave without a souvenir. On the square, there’s the Harvard Coop, the ultimate source for Ivy League-related swag. Just next door, you’ll find Black Ink, and sky-high shelves filled with unique trinkets and treasures for all types. The Curious George Store is also worth a peek for both kids and kids-at-heart—the iconic corner building has been a well-loved toy shop for more than 20 years.

Head a little bit east on Massachusetts Avenue to escape the chain stores and enjoy a unique experience. In its original location since 1884, Leavitt & Peirce Inc is a quirky tobacconist with a turn-of-the-century vibe. For bookworms, there’s the Harvard Bookstore and Grolier Poetry Book Shop, the oldest continually operating poetry shop in the world. And, if culinary treats are what you seek, you can’t go wrong at Salt & Olive or Follow the Honey, two locally owned shops offering handcrafted olive oils, vinegar, and (you guessed it) honey.


Don’t miss

You’ll discover even more when you visit Harvard Square, but there are still a few institutions on our list that’d we’d be remiss not to mention. Out of Town News set up shop in a century-old subway kiosk in 1984, selling newspapers and magazines from around the globe, and its location has long been a Harvard Square landmark. The Brattle Theatre, which opened as a performing arts club in 1890, today is an arthouse movie theater that plays everything from the avant-garde to age-old classics—including an annual Valentine’s Day screening of Casablanca. Last but not least, there’s Club Passim. Once called “Club 47,” the historic venue has been host to legends like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, and its stage features artists of all stripes almost nightly—often for $20 or less.

Have a favorite spot in Harvard Square? Want to know more about any of the places we mentioned? Tell us on Facebook!

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About the author | Jamie Burke
Always on the lookout for the next best meal ever, Jamie loves exploring the world—and all the great food in it. When she's not working to inspire new travelers, you'll find her biking around Boston, eating at her favorite sushi place, or hanging out at home with her family (and cat).

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