Navigating Harvard, Ivy League Sweater Not Required

Cambridge, Massachusetts, is more than just the home of Harvard. Explore this hallowed Ivy without suffering any test anxiety.

With cobblestones made for walking and historic architecture made for gawking, Cambridge, Massachusetts, is picturesque no matter the time of year. Still, there’s something magical about those first few months in fall. There’s an infectious energy, the idea of a new academic year and a fresh start. The air is alert, focused, and caffeinated. Of course, as a visitor, you get to enjoy the perks vicariously, without any impending midterms or required reading.

The Charles River

Photograph by Dan Lewis/

Where to Stay
When the estate of President John F. Kennedy began searching for a site for his presidential library, an undeveloped lot on the corner of JFK Street and Memorial Drive seemed perfect. Overlooking the Charles River and located in Harvard Square (also known as the thinking capital of the world), the area is nothing short of presidential. Neighbors, however, worried that a presidential library might disturb the peace and tranquility that give Cambridge its unmistakable charm, and so a compromise was made. Developers passed on building the library, and today The Charles Hotel stands in its place, next door to Harvard’s new Kennedy School of Government. The upscale hotel has welcomed the likes of Barbra Streisand, former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton, Ben Affleck, and even the Dalai Lama. But don’t let the high-profile clientele mislead you. The Charles is a welcoming home away from home for everyone, and its rooms come complete with rustic Shaker-style furniture.

Photograph courtesy of Tatte Bakery & Café

Where to Eat
Start your day early to grab a seat at Tatte Bakery and Café—this place fills up fast. The Harvard Square location is just steps from Harvard Yard, which means you’ll likely be joined by a number of faculty and students nose-deep in thick books, tossing back double shots of espresso. Upon entering, you’re smacked in the face with the smell of pastries, fresh bread, and other baked goods beautifully displayed in glass cases. Servers and baristas wear T-shirts that say Ask Me About My Shakshuka, and you’ll be glad you did. Served in a skillet with extra toast for dipping, the traditional Middle Eastern savory dish is made with perfectly runny poached eggs and roasted vegetables.

Al fresco dining at Russel House Tavern

Photograph by Connie Miller

Once you’ve had your fill of coffee, sugary pastries, and eggs, it’s time to make room for seafood—we’re in New England, after all. Reserve a table at Russell House Tavern. Just around the corner from Tatte and a block from Winthrop Square, the contemporary tavern offers classic American fare with a twist and a premium raw bar. Try the lobster sliders served on buttery brioche buns—their take on the traditional lobster roll. Other menu standouts include the Cape Cod clam pizza topped with pancetta, fried black kale, lemon, and olive oil. Clams are baked into the crust for a subtle umami flavor.

Photograph by singh_lens /

What to Do
There are plenty of spots that will satisfy your inner bibliophile in Cambridge, but if you only have time for one, make it the Harvard Book Store. Not to be confused with The Coop, Harvard and MIT’s official bookstore, this independent bookstore isn’t technically affiliated with the university. However, it is a go-to for students and locals looking for hard-to-find limited-release books and unbeatable prices. Looking for a book on food photography to boost your Instagram game? It’s there. Perhaps you’re interested in a more academic title; Harvard Book Store offers one of the widest selections of books published by university presses in the country. Next, head around the corner and down Plympton Street to Grolier Poetry Book Shop, a small storefront with a prestigious and storied legacy. Founded in 1927—the oldest continuously run poetry shop in the country—the store has always supported the written word by carrying avant-garde, small-press books and hosting literary events and readings.

Side Trip: The Boston Cream Pie
Boston has had more than its fair share of triumphs since the Puritans colonized the area in 1630: the Boston Tea Party, American Revolution…we could go on. At the Omni Parker House rests another B-town origin story, the Boston cream pie. The chocolate icing, yellow cake, and custard-filled trifecta is credited to chef Augustine Francois Anezin, who headed the Parker House kitchen from 1865 to 1881. The “pie” can still be found on the menu to this day. Skip the crowd in the restaurant and order from Parker’s Bar, which stays open until midnight. Should your taste for pastries still be unquenched, visit Bova’s Bakery in Boston’s North End neighborhood. This small but mighty Italian bakery is where the locals go when the line for Mike’s Pastry—a nationally renowned but frankly underwhelming bakery down the street—circles the block.

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