You’ll find plenty of things to do in Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA, including touring Harvard Yard, shopping on Brattle Street, exploring museums, and watching live shows.
A trip to Boston isn’t complete without time spent in Harvard Square.
And while Harvard Square’s not a part of the city, the iconic square, and Cambridge in general, feels a bit like an extension of Boston.
But don’t be mistaken – Harvard Square certainly has its own personality and vibe, mainly derived from adjacent Harvard University.
Beyond the academic undertone of the community, you’ll also find a lively arts scene, especially live music & theater, great shopping, an extensive array of culinary choices, and several worthwhile museums.
15 of the best things to do in Harvard Square
These are undoubtedly the best things to add to your itinerary while visiting Harvard Square.
Wander through the Square
One of the best things to do in Harvard Square is to wander its streets!
This neighborhood is unlike any other, and exploring the vast array of architecture, shops, and retail spaces is a treat.
Street performers are a regular site in Harvard Square, especially when the weather is warm. They add a lively vitality to the area and can mostly be found in the center of the square, near the former Out of Town News Kiosk, and the Harvard T stop.
One other not-to-be-missed site in the square is the Harvard Coop. Although the Harvard University bookstore used to be a lively literary destination, sadly, half of the space is now filled with merchandise instead of books. That said, it’s still worth a stop.
Go on a Harvard University Campus Tour
You can’t visit Harvard Square without stepping foot on its namesake – Harvard University.
Founded in 1636, Harvard is the oldest university in the United States. And as a member of the Ivy League, it’s also among the most revered.
Harvard Yard, the central and oldest part of the university campus, is steps away from Harvard Square. Most visitors enjoy simply wandering among the old architecture in this section of campus. A popular destination is the Widner Library, often considered one of the most beautiful buildings on Harvard’s campus and one of the largest academic libraries in the United States.
If you’re interested in learning more during your stroll, Harvard University has a self-guided tour app, Historical Tour of Harvard, that’s free to download.
Paid guided campus tours, including a Harvard University Student-Guided Tour, are also available. (As a GetYourGuide affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.)
Rub the John Harvard Statue
While strolling through Harvard Yard, be sure to stop at the famous John Harvard Statue!
This is a revered symbol and a famous landmark on the Harvard campus. Visitors and students often rub the statue’s left shoe for good luck, leading to a polished appearance on that part of the statue.
However, most visitors don’t realize that the John Harvard Statue is often called the “Statue of Three Lies”. This is due to three inaccuracies surrounding the legend of the statue:
- It’s not a statue of John Harvard: One commonly cited inaccuracy is the notion that the statue represents John Harvard. In reality, there are no known portraits of John Harvard. Sculptor Daniel Chester French designed the statue in 1884 and used Sherman Hoar as a model.
- John Harvard wasn’t the founder of the university: The inscription on the statue reads “John Harvard, Founder” However, this is not accurate. While John Harvard was a significant early benefactor of the university he wasn’t the founder.
- Harvard wasn’t founded in 1638: Besides claiming that John Harvard is the founder, the inscription also states that the college was founded in 1638. But Harvard, then called “New College”, was founded in 1636. It wasn’t until 1639 that it took on the name of its generous benefactor.
The John Harvard statue is situated in front of University Hall. On most days, tourists surround the statue, posing for photos and a chance to rub the shoe.
Explore the Harvard Museum of Natural History
A treasure of a museum on Harvard’s campus is The Harvard Museum of Natural History.
This museum showcases an enormous collection of items. There are thousands of rock and mineral specimens, including meteorites. And the mounted animal specimens from Asia and Africa are so well-preserved you may wonder if the panther will pounce or the lion attack.
And perhaps best of all is the museum’s unique glass flower display. This collection was made by a father and son team of Czech glass artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The glass models, representing 780 plant species, are so realistic it’s hard to believe they’re glass.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History is open daily from 9 AM to 5 PM. Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 3 – 13. Special pricing is available for seniors and Harvard students. Check the website to confirm prices and times. (26 Oxford Street)
Visit the Harvard Book Store
If you’re a bibliophile, a visit to the Harvard Book Store needs to be on your list of things to do in Harvard Square.
This beloved independent bookstore has been a fixture of the square for decades. Its quaint and charming cozy interior makes browsing books a pleasure.
You’ll find books here in just about any genre, with excellent staff recommendations to boot.
The Harvard Book Store also hosts multiple author book talks each week. Check the website for details. (1256 Massachusetts Avenue)
Eat a meal at a restaurant or cafe
One of the best things to do in Harvard Square is to explore its diverse culinary scene – among the best in the area, if not New England.
Whether you’re looking for a cozy café, international cuisine, or classic New England fare, there are numerous dining options to choose from.
A few popular casual restaurants, cafes, and bakeries in the square include:
- Mr. Bartley’s: a favorite since 1960. In addition to serving fabulous burgers, Bartley’s interior is a source of entertainment, as is its menu that highlights famous people with amusing commentary. (1246 Massachusetts Ave.)
- Flour: this beloved bakery and cafe can be found throughout Boston and Cambridge, and for good reason – its sandwiches and baked goods are simply the best. Grain bowls and salads are also available. (114 Mount Auburn Street)
- Tatte: this bakery & cafe, with multiple locations in the area, has some of the best baked goods around. Lunch dishes include sandwiches, grain bowls, shakshuka, and salads. (1288 Massachusetts Ave)
- Life Alive: a local vegan restaurant featuring delectable grain bowls, smoothies, and salads that are sure to satisfy all diets, including carnivores. (22 J.F.K. Street)
A few popular fine dining restaurants in the square:
- Alden & Harlow: modern American food served in a cozy subterranean setting. Unique flavor combinations are what make this place special. Brunch is also popular. (40 Brattle Street)
- The Hourly Oyster House: if you’re looking for a New England seafood restaurant, this is it! You’ll find an extensive variety of just about any seafood dish you can imagine, including…oysters. (15 Dunster Street)
- Harvard Faculty Club: a more traditional white tablecloth offering on Harvard University’s campus. You can expect standard American fine dining fare. Beware that events and members frequently fill up the space. (20 Quincy Street)
Catch a movie at the Brattle Theatre
For over 70 years, the Brattle Theatre (colloquially known as “The Brattle”) has been showing films to Cambridge residents and visitors.
The Brattle is known for everything from classic films, first runs, foreign flicks, cutting-edge, art-house films, and new releases. It’s also known for its repertory programming – showcasing films from a specific director or genre on a particular weekday over a month or throughout a given week.
The non-profit Brattle Film Foundation has run The Brattle since 2001. (40 Brattle Street)
Explore the Harvard Art Museums
One of the best free things to do in Harvard Square is to visit the Harvard Art Museums. Harvard University has three art museums, the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger, and Arthur M. Sacker Museum, all within one building.
The permanent collections include everything from East Asian art, Buddist sculpture, European art from the 12th century to the present, Ancient Egyptian art, and 20th – 21st-century art.
The museum building is small enough that you won’t feel overwhelmed but large enough to find plenty to explore.
And best of all…it’s free. Located across the street from Harvard Yard, you can easily stop in here for a few minutes to hours. (32 Quincy Street)
Listen to live music at Club Passim
A long-time live music venue in Harvard Square is Club Passim, a folk music club with a storied history.
Since 1958, the venue has hosted legendary artists and continues to showcase emerging talent. Among the artists who have performed there include Bob Dylan, Joni Michell, Susanne Vega, Jimmy Buffett, and John Mayer.
Shows are scheduled nearly every night except for one or two evenings a week. Food is served from Passim’s kitchen from the beginning of a show until halfway through. (47 Palmer Street)
Shop on Brattle Street
Brattle Street is one of the main thoroughfares in Harvard Square. Along this street, you’ll find various boutiques, including clothing stores, gift shops, specialty food stores, and unique specialty stores.
Here are some of the favorites:
- L.A. Burdick: this exceptional chocolatier is based in Walpole, NH, but has a retail presence in Harvard Square & Back Bay. Be sure to try the to-die-for drinking chocolate or iced hot chocolate on a hot day. (52 Brattle Street)
- Mint Julep: a women’s clothing boutique with unique finds you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. (43 Brattle Street)
- Topdrawer: this leather goods store has a wide range of unique and refined finds, from slippers to bags to pens and stationery. (5 Brattle Street)
- Cardullo’s Gourmet Shoppe: for over 70 years, this gourmet food, wine, and gift store has been a fixture in Harvard Square. A deli also offers a selection of delectable made-to-order sandwiches. (6 Brattle Street)
Visit the Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters
Among the best things to do in Havard Square for history buffs is to visit the Longfellow House.
This 260-year-old Georgian-style home holds two distinctions in United State’s history. It was George Washington’s first long-term headquarters during the American Revolution and was later the home of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
This National Historic Site is free and open Friday through Monday from 9:30 AM to 5 PM. Tours are available from the end of May to the end of October. (105 Brattle Street)
Catch a Show at The Sinclair
If you enjoy seeing live music, make sure The Sinclair is on your list of things to do in Harvard Square.
This venue features a variety of shows, often between two and four each week.
The Sinclair also has an American kitchen that it describes as having “gastropub influences”. It’s open daily from 5:00 PM until 1:00 AM on Sunday through Wednesday and until 2:00 AM on Thursday through Saturday, with brunch on the weekends starting at 11:00 AM. (52 Church Street)
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Wander through Mount Auburn Cemetery
It may seem a bit odd to include a cemetery on a list of things to do in Harvard Square. But Mount Auburn cemetery is not only beautiful, it also contains tombstones of several famous Americans, such as Winslow Homer and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (click here to see a complete list).
A seven-minute drive or thirty-minute walk will take you to Mount Auburn Cemetery. The landscaping and gardens of this slightly hilly cemetery are what make a stroll here so enjoyable. Be sure to climb to the top of Washington Tower for fantastic city views.
The cemetery is open daily from 8 AM to 5 PM. (580 Mount Auburn Street)
Attend the Head of the Charles Regatta
One of the best things to do in Harvard Square in October is to see the Head of the Charles Regatta.
Every year since 1965, crew teams and individuals from around the world have met for this two-day competition. Nearly 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands of spectators are in attendance.
Food vendors and other booths line the Charles River as crew teams pass. And spectators gather along bridges and river banks to see the action.
The regatta typically happens over a weekend in the middle of October. It’s best to walk to the venue if you can. Parking can be limited.
Attend a Performance at the American Repertory Theater
If you’re looking for some live theater while in Cambridge, check out Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.).
This performance venue showcases a diverse range of theatrical performances, from classic plays to innovative new works.
Productions occur for multiple weeks at a time. Check the website to view current shows and times. (64 Brattle Street)
(As a GetYourGuide affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases at no extra cost to you.)
About Kerry Flatley
Kerry Flatley has lived in New England for the past 26 years. She has roots in Maine & Massachusetts, family in New Hampshire, and grew up close to the Connecticut border. She loves all that this region has to offer – the ocean, mountains, islands, history, villages, and cities. When she’s not writing about New England, she’s relaxing at home in the Boston suburbs with her two teenage daughters and husband.