Food, Shopping, and Fun in Harvard Square
Harvard Square in Cambridge is one of Boston’s top tourist destination spots, home to Harvard University and dozens of shops, restaurants, attractions, and historical sights that keep its streets teeming with students, commuters, and tourists.
The streets of Harvard Square may look like they were drawn by someone wearing a blindfold, but when visiting it’s wise to keep your eyes open at all times – whether you’re searching for a rare, available (legal) parking spot or crossing the street. I mean it, pedestrians! I’ve almost been hit twice, and one of those threats was from one very determined cyclist.
Parking and crosswalks aside, Harvard Square was made for walking, and heading down a side street will often reward you with an architectural, shopping, or dining treat. On my last visit I wandered past the Harvard Community Garden on Holyoke Street, which broke ground in April 2010, and includes raised beds for growing food, perennial borders, sections for classes, and open green space.
I am looking forward to checking out the garden again in the full swing of summer.
The heart of Harvard Square is at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, Brattle Street, and John F. Kennedy Street. You’ll know it because it’s enormous, and it’s often the thing you see first when emerging from the T, unless you’ve taken an underground detour and come up at Church Street or further down Brattle Street instead.
While waiting to cross, fans of the pun-riddled, beloved NPR show “Car Talk” with brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi will appreciate looking up at the corner of JFK Street and Brattle Street to see a sign in the window for the offices of “Dewey, Cheetham & Howe” (say it out loud to get the joke), the imaginary law firm they reference on air, which has since become the actual name of the company they established to manage the “Car Talk” enterprise.
The campus of Harvard University, and its 25 acres of “Harvard Yard,” is just across the street from the square, but thanks to its high walls and wrought-iron gates, strolling Harvard Yard is a perfect way to leave the bustle behind. Walking paths criss-cross the grassy lawns like latticework, with mature trees and bold squirrels thrown in for good measure.
The paths connect seventeen freshman dorms, four libraries, five academic buildings, and two administrative buildings.
Many famous minds have passed through the gates of Harvard, but the true celebrity of Harvard Yard is the statue of the university’s first benefactor, John Harvard. From his seat in front of University Hall, Harvard’s statue is a magnet for tourists that wait their turn to reach up and rub his foot for good luck. As you can see, it’s dished out a lot of luck over the years.
The statue is frequently subjected to pranks by students, and its inscription of “John Harvard, Founder, 1638″ has earned it the nickname “statue of three lies.” In truth, John Harvard was not the model, he did not found the university, and the date is off by two years.
Harvard Square is full of places to shop, and the mix of chain and independent is a healthy one. Some of my favorite places to browse and buy are Cardullo’s (est. 1950) for gourmet foods and foreign-imported snacks candy (Hello Hobnobs!), and Black Ink for creative gifts and things I didn’t know I couldn’t live without (like a map of NPR stations across America).
I also love the Harvard Book Store (est. 1932), with its terrific Used Books Cellar.
Whether you’re looking for clothes, shoes, jewelry, books, gifts, stationary, luggage, souvenirs, beauty products, or music…Harvard Square’s got you covered. Even the more unusual things are at your disposal. Want your nose pierced? Head to Chameleon Tattoo and Body Piercing in the Garage shopping center. Dreaming of a set of dessert plates featuring colored cats? Urban Outfitters has that, or something like it.
I know one of those last two things firsthand from my younger days.
If you’re hungry (or thirsty) in Harvard Square, you won’t be for long. Established spots like Mr. Bartley’s Burgers (est. 1960) and Grendel’s Den (est. 1971) have been attracting loyal customers for years with their respective burgers and pub menu, while newer spots like Clover Food Lab (which uses local, seasonal ingredients to make delicious, ever-changing breakfast items, soups, sandwiches, and flavored lemonades) and Sweet Cupcakes (the name says it all) give you new and tasty reasons to keep coming back. Veggie Planet with its hotspot Club Passim (est. 1958) is another Harvard Square mainstay worth checking out for great food and live music. I hear their veggie burger is particularly noteworthy.
Yankee Story Alert from 2010! Club Passim: The heart of New England’s folk music continues to beat in a tiny Cambridge basement.
The sandwich you see in the upper left is the signature chickpea fritter sandwich from Clover Food Lab. It’s served in a whole wheat pita on a bed of hummus and topped with pickled vegetables and tahini sauce. I love it with a cool, refreshing basil-infused lemonade on the side.
Some of my other favorite places to grab a bite, drink, and cone are the flagship Border Café for its hot, salty corn chips and the Black Bean Tostada Grande Salad, Charlie’s Kitchen (est. 1951) for its summer outdoor beer garden, and Lizzy’s Ice Cream, with its trademark cow, for a scoop of homemade coffee ice cream with jimmies.
If the artists, musicians, and chess players in front of Au Bon Pain (not to mention people-watching) aren’t doing the trick, you can always take in a flick at either the Harvard Square Loew’s or art-house Brattle Theater, or a live performance at the American Repertory Theater. Also worth visiting is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which has plenty to fascinate fossil, animal, mineral, and plant lovers — including their famous collection of beautiful Glass Flowers, a 2007 Yankee Magazine pick for our “Local Treasure” column.
I could never list all of the things to do, see, eat, and buy in Harvard Square, but this is a start! I hope you’ll share your favorite Harvard Square recommendations in the comments section so we can keep the list going.
Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.