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Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Harvard Square

Everyone’s heard about it, few really know it

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According to historian Charles Sullivan, an area that includes the present-day Harvard Square was founded in 1630 as the Puritan village of Newtowne, which would become Cambridge in 1638. Many of the original streets still exist, including parts of Church, Story, Eliot, Arrow, and Mount Auburn Streets. And a few early 18th-century wood-frame houses on Winthrop, Dunster, and South Streets remain as well.

The name Harvard Square did not become popular until the middle of the 19th century. Today the Square (the area around the convergence of Massachusetts Avenue and Brattle, Mount Auburn, and John F. Kennedy Streets) is a commercial center for Harvard students, Cambridge residents, and tourists. It’s no surprise, given the disposable income passing through, that regional and national chains have moved in, yet the Square retains many long-standing locally owned and operated businesses.

No amount of economic evolution can remove the area’s fascinating blend of characters. A sunken region next to the MBTA subway entrance (“the pit”) is a prime venue for political activists, panhandlers, skateboarders, and street performers, who also provide a festive atmosphere one block away, on Brattle Street. (Tracy Chapman and Martin Sexton both performed as Harvard Square buskers.) Nearby, on Mass. Ave., chess aficionados challenge one and all for kicks and cash. The Square also attracts many of the city’s homeless people.

Below are some jumping-off points from which to explore the Square, destinations that lead to other destinations.

Games People Play

Games People Play, 110 Massachusetts Ave.

The Games People Play
1100 Massachusetts Ave.

The name says it all. Since 1974, the store has offered a wide array of study-time distractions, including board games, mechanical puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, and mind-benders. Check out the specialty chess sets—and chess computers, chess clocks, and chess books. Die-hard strategists won’t be disappointed: foreign board games take up an entire wall, the Chinese board game Go an entire bookshelf.

Zoe’s
1105 Massachusetts Ave.

There’s nothing better than a leisurely Sunday brunch at a local diner, and that’s just what you’ll find at Zoe’s, where the plates are piled high with golden pancakes, eggs, and bacon; the coffee is strong; and the jukebox is active. In true diner fashion, Zoe’s serves breakfast all day. After all, it’s the most important meal of the day.

Hong Kong
1238 Massachusetts Ave.

Since its modest beginnings in 1954, the Hong Kong—a Chinese restaurant that has become a fixture in Harvard Square—has expanded to a three-floor enterprise that includes a restaurant, a lounge, and the largest dance floor in the Square. The menu is nothing remarkable, but the Hong Kong boasts the biggest scorpion bowl in town, made from nine alcohols (mostly rums) and pineapple and orange juices. With that, trivia nights, and some stand-up (the third floor plays host six nights a week to the Comedy Studio), who needs food?

Bartley's

Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, 1246 Massachusetts Ave.

Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage
1246 Massachusetts Ave.

Americans love two things: burgers and political snark. At Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, a Harvard Square institution since 1960, diners can order both: every seven-ounce burger is served with a free side of sarcasm. Burgers are named for Massachusetts political luminaries, such as gubernatorial candidates. The Charlie Baker (second time’s the charm), comes with bacon, American cheese, grilled onions, jalapenos and fries. The Martha Coakley (runs more than a marathoner), named for his Democratic challenger, is served with jack cheese, chili, salsa, and sour cream with fries. Some burgers are named for national figures: the Barack Obama (“keeps droning on”) is a burger with feta cheese, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and French fries; the Joe Biden (“LONG LIVE OBAMA!”) comes with bacon, American cheese, BBQ sauce, and a side of fries. You get the idea. For a truly authentic Bartley’s experience, add an extra-thick frappe or malt—but only if you wear your stretch pants.

Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave.

In 1932, Mark S. Kramer borrowed $300 from his parents to open a small store for used and remainder books. Today, the Harvard Book Store is still independent (Frank Kramer, Mark’s son, sold it in 2008 to longtime customers Jeff Mayersohn and Linda Seasmonson) and has expanded to 100,000 new and used titles. The store’s award-winning Author Event Series presents readings, signings, and lectures by established and emerging fiction and nonfiction authors.

Harvard Coop
1400 Massachusetts Ave.

Founded in 1882 by a group of Harvard students, the Harvard COOP (pronounced like coupe, not co-op) is one of the country’s largest bookstores. Now run in partnership with Barnes & Noble College, the multilevel, multi-building retailer sells textbooks, school supplies, and dorm necessities, as well as Harvard merchandise. Membership fees are only $1, just as they were back in 1882, but membership is selective: only students, faculty, alumni, and employees of Harvard and MIT can join. Members receive an instant 10 percent discount on all purchases.

Grolier Poetry Bookshop, 6 Plympton St.

Grolier Poetry Bookshop, 6 Plympton St.

Grolier Poetry Bookshop
6 Plympton St.

Tucked into a sliver of Plympton Street and resembling a small hallway closet is Grolier, the oldest continuously operated poetry bookshop in America. Established in 1927, this nook of a bookstore now stocks over 15,000 volumes of trade, small press, and university publications devoted to poetry, prosody, and poetry markets as well as spoken word CDs. It also offers regular author readings and book signings. T. S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, and E. E. Cummings are among the many legendary writers who have paid a visit to Grolier, and their black and white portraits gaze down from above the shop’s many shelves.

Club Passim
47 Palmer St.

Before she became a poster child for the antiwar movement in the 1960s, Joan Baez gave her first concert at a small Cambridge music venue called Club 47. Half a century later, Club 47—now called Club Passim—remains a cornerstone of local and legendary folk music. Noted performers, among them Bob Dylan, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Shawn Colvin, and Joni Mitchell, made some of their first public appearances here. Recent performers have included Dan Bern, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys, Cheryl Wheeler, and Tim Easton. The club’s intimate setting (102 seats) invites audience and artist interaction.

The Sinclair
52 Church St.

This live music venue/restaurant, which opened in 2012, has helped to revive Harvard Square’s nightlife scene. Such bands as Mission of Burma, Man Overboard, and Jeff the Brotherhood have appeared here. The capacious space can hold 500, but it has the feel of an intimate performance space. Best of all, there isn’t a bad view of the stage anywhere in the house. (The balconies afford the best vantage point.) The second floor features a stylish dining area and open kitchen offering gastropub fare such as roasted pork ribs and tempura corn fritters. The popular brunch menu includes such hard-to-resist delicacies as spicy eggs Benedict (served with tasso ham, tomatoes, collard greens, and herbed hollandaise sauce on an English muffin) and a waffle burger (grass-fed beef served on a buttermilk waffle bun, with shallot jam, smoked bacon, a fried egg, and maple syrup). Yum!

Club Passim,

Club Passim, 47 Palmer St.

Cambridge Artists Cooperative
59A Church St.

Established in 1988, the Cambridge Artists Cooperative is the area’s only year-round artist-owned and artist-managed crafts cooperative. Featuring the work of more than 200 artists, this 2,000-square-foot gallery offers contemporary crafts, paintings, pottery, photography, jewelry, clothing, and sculptures. New work is displayed every month.

Sweet
Zero Brattle St.

Sweet’s cupcakes are made with a heavy helping of TLC. Freshly baked each morning, all of the frostings, fillings, and batters are made from scratch. The whimsical flavors change with the seasons—pink lemonade and piña colada in the summer; caramel apple and pumpkin pie in the fall; hot cocoa and snickerdoodle in the winter; and lemon raspberry and chocolate coconut in the spring. These are just some of the flavors that make Sweet worth visiting again, and again, and again…

Black Ink
5 Brattle St.

Black Ink describes itself as a “one-stop design shop,” and the description definitely fits. The store specializes in stationery, cards, wrapping paper, and playful home décor. Floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with knickknacks you never knew you needed, like cactus-shaped tea candles, hand-knit stuffed animals, crocheted doughnut change purses, and rooster-shaped teapots. The store also features a wide array of The Adventures of Tintin memorabilia, including books, posters, toys, and mugs. Be sure to check out their original store on Beacon Hill, too.

Crema Café
27 Brattle St.

Enter Crema Café and be engulfed in a welcoming environment highlighted by a smiling staff,  communal tables, and the scent of freshly baked pastries. Made from scratch daily, Crema’s sweet treats tempt customers as they wait in line to place their orders. Who could resist a delectable French macaron (flavors change daily) or a chocolate walnut mudslide cookie? The café’s savory options are just as tantalizing. Be sure to try the spinach artichoke grilled chicken sandwich, prepared with a creamy artichoke spread and wilted spinach, and pressed on homemade focaccia; or the southwest salad, a corn and black bean salad on a bed of red cabbage and mixed greens with tomatoes, queso fresco, fried tortilla strips, and a chipotle-buttermilk dressing. Featuring gleaming hardwood floors, an exposed brick wall, and local artwork, Crema Café is a stunning neighborhood spot.

Burdick's

Burdick’s, 52D Brattle St.

Brattle Theatre
40 Brattle St.

Fans of the silver screen have been catching flicks at the Brattle since 1953, when Brent Haliday and Cyrus Harvey Jr. premiered with the German film Der Hauptmann von Köpenick. Showing classic, independent, foreign, and art-house films, this not-for-profit theater—one of a vanishing breed—is best known for its eclectic and repertory format. Housed in a barnlike meeting hall, this is one of the few remaining movie theaters to use rear projection, with the projector located behind the screen rather than behind the audience.

Burdick’s
52D Brattle St.

When the Aztecs drank chocolate thousands of years ago, this “drink of the gods” was so rare and sacred that only the richest could afford it. At Burdick’s chocolate shop and café, “richest” is a culinary reference: a mug of hot chocolate here beats that watery instant stuff any day. The secret? It’s made from chocolate and chocolate alone, hand shaved and warmed in milk. If that’s not rich enough for you, try the Harvard Square, a dense chocolate and walnut cake topped with velvety ganache. Burdick’s also sells a wide selection of chocolate confectionaries. Of special note are its whimsical chocolate mice, beloved by Burdick’s patrons for more than 25 years.

The World’s Only Curious George Store, 1 John F. Kennedy St.

The World’s Only Curious George Store, 1 John F. Kennedy St.

American Repertory Theater
64 Brattle St.

Founded in 1980, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has garnered many of the nation’s most distinguished awards, including a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award for best regional theater, a Jujamcyn Theaters Award, and the National Theatre Conference’s Outstanding Achievement Award. Housed in the Loeb Drama Center, the A.R.T. has seen a number of its recent productions—including All the Way, The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Pippin, and The Glass Menagerie move on to Broadway. Its theatrical club space OBERON, called a “second stage for the 21st century,” is an incubator for local artists. The company has staged dozens of American and world premieres.

Longfellow House—Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site
105 Brattle St.

Rich in history, this landmark building was the home of one of America’s most renowned 19th-century poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Prior to that, the house served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Siege of Boston (July 1775 – April 1776) during the Revolutionary War. Today, the museum is administered by the National Park Service and houses a collection of 19th-century documentary material as well as clothing, fine arts, tools, and toys, in addition to papers belonging to the Longfellow family. The house, which sits on just under two acres, features a carriage barn and pergola and is surrounded by lush lawns and formal gardens. Join the likes of Charles Dickens and Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the house’s many visitors.

The World’s Only Curious George Store
1 John F. Kennedy St.

Everyone’s favorite inquisitive monkey has taken up residence in the heart of Harvard Square. Dubbing itself the “world’s only Curious George store,” this shop is truly one of a kind, featuring books, toys, puzzles, and apparel—all dedicated to the beloved monkey. Located at the bustling corner of JFK and Brattle Streets, the shop also features other children’s classics, including Charlotte’s Web and Corduroy, and a small selection of other toys.

The Garage

The Garage, 36 John F. Kennedy St.

The Garage
36 John F. Kennedy St.

Follow the smell of pizza, incense, and Vietnamese food, and you’ll end up at the Garage, definitely one of Harvard Square’s oddities. This multistory mini shopping mall is in fact a converted parking garage; even the original car ramp has been preserved. The Garage houses an eclectic variety of eateries and shops, most notably Newbury Comics, which features one of the region’s largest collections of new-wave and alternative music. There’s a tattoo parlor for ink enthusiasts, a hemp store for hippies, a Starbucks for yuppies, and more.

Berk’s Shoes
50 John F. Kennedy St.

This trendy footwear boutique has dozens of brands and styles guaranteed to set the hearts of shoe lovers aflutter. Berk’s shoe inventory ranges from classic to cutting-edge to whimsical, including patent-leather clogs, metallic Birkenstocks, and polka-dot rain boots.

Grendel’s Den
89 Winthrop St.

The sign outside this enduring dyed-in-the-wool Harvard Square watering hole announces that it was established in 1271. It’s a typo that should have read 1971. But. the owners kept the sign because Grendel’s Den is named after the antagonist from Beowulf, and the medieval date evokes the epic poem’s period. The bar circumvents the state’s no-happy-hour mandate by offering half-price food nightly between 5 and 7:30 p.m. and between 9 and 11:30 p.m., Sunday through Thursday. The justice system OK’d such defiance: Grendel’s famously fought a legal battle over its liquor license all the way to the US Supreme Court and won—separation of church and state was at the heart of it, believe it or not. That’s worth celebrating with a sandwich and microbrew—or two.

Shake Shack
92 Winthrop St.

Known for their burgers, dogs, and frozen custard confections, this popular chain opened a Harvard Square location in early 2014. Founded by renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer in New York City in 2004, Shake Shack has attracted a wide following. The Harvard Square location has seating for over 100 and offers a small wine and beer selection, but it’s the hand-cut fries and the concretes (dense frozen custard blended at high-speed with various mix-ins) that will have you coming back.

Out of Town News
Zero Harvard Square

Anyone looking for news from far and near will find it at Out of Town News, the iconic newsstand in the heart of Harvard Square. It was here that Julia Child searched for obscure Italian and German cooking magazines, and rumor has it that Robert Frost (Hon.’61) stopped by for directions to a reading on a snowy winter’s eve. The newsstand nearly folded in 2008 (why fly in yesterday’s Le Monde when it can be read online?), but was saved by Mike Patel, who in 2009 signed a five-year lease with the City of Cambridge. So don’t stop the presses yet, and don’t give up browsing in person.

Out of Town News

Out of Town News, Zero Harvard Square

Charlie’s Kitchen
10 Eliot St.

Charlie’s Kitchen has been a mainstay of Harvard Square for more than four decades. This family-friendly, multilevel bar/restaurant is a popular draw for college students because it stays open until 1 a.m. Sundays through Wednesdays and until 2 a.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. The wide-ranging menu includes fried chicken, salmon and lobster burgers, crab cake sandwiches, and veggie items like the homemade black bean and veggie cheeseburger, served with salsa, guacamole, and chips. The ground floor is reminiscent of a 1950s-style diner, with several HD TVs turned to local news and sports channels. There’s also a sidewalk patio, an upstairs lounge boasting “the best jukebox in Cambridge,” and a year-round (weather permitting) beer garden offering 18 draught beers. Charlie’s hosts trivia quizzes on Sunday and Wednesday nights, live music on Mondays, and karaoke each Tuesday.

Harvard Yard

The “Yahd” defines one side of the Square. Lined by Harvard’s freshman dorms, it’s the epitome of a New England college campus—red brick buildings under a canopy of hardwood trees that come ablaze each fall. Presiding over the Yard is a statue of 17th-century English clergyman John Harvard, the college’s first benefactor. The sculpture is often called the “statue of three lies”: the inscription reads “John Harvard, Founder, 1638,” but in fact, Harvard was founded in 1636; Harvard was not the university’s founder (although his library and fortune helped to sustain the school through its early years); and no one knows what the actual John Harvard looked like. Sculptor Daniel Chester French had a student model for the statue in 1884. When you view the statue, note how bright one shoe is. Tour guides say that it’s good luck to rub Harvard’s left foot. Nearby is the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard’s main library, with its 57 miles of bookshelves and more than three million volumes, including one of the world’s few existing copies of the Gutenberg Bible.

Harvard Museum of Natural History
26 Oxford St.

A trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History is an evolutionary experience. Visit prehistoric creatures such as fossil invertebrates, reptiles, and the world’s only mounted Kronosaurus. Wander through a garden of more than 3,000 handcrafted glass flowers or admire a 1,600-pound amethyst geode.

Harvard Museum of Natural History,

Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St.

Harvard Art Museums
32 Quincy St.

Harvard University is renowned for its three art museums—the Fogg (dedicated to Western art from the Middle Ages to the present), the Busch-Reisinger (devoted to works from northern and central Europe, with an emphasis on art from German-speaking countries), and the Sackler (focusing on Asian, ancient Mediterranean and Byzantine, Islamic, and Indian art). With the opening of the new Harvard Art Museums, all three will be united under one roof for the first time. The project took six years to complete, at a reported cost of $250 million. Housed in a building designed by noted architect Renzo Piano, the new facility is an expansion of the original 1927 Fogg Museum building. The combined museums will feature more than 250,000 works of art and serve as home to four separate research centers. In addition to showcasing the three museums’ permanent collections, the new facility will also house galleries featuring special exhibitions. The Harvard Art Museums will open to the public on November 16. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and admission rates are $15 for adults; $13 for seniors; $10 for non-Harvard college students; and free for youth under 18 and Harvard faculty, staff, and students. Massachusetts residents receive free admissions on Saturdays, from 10 a.m. to noon.

Getting there: By subway: take the Green Line inbound to Park Street, then the Red Line outbound toward Alewife, and get off at the Harvard Square station. By foot: walk across the BU Bridge into Cambridge. Take a left, using the pedestrian walkways along Memorial Drive that skirt the Charles River, until you pass some Harvard buildings and  reach John F. Kennedy Street. Take a right, and you’ll tumble into the Square. It’s a two-mile trip, one-way, and an easy bike ride.


Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to the Harvard Square area.

Explore other neighborhoods around Boston here. Check out our Harvard Square list on Foursquare for more neighborhood tips.

This story originally ran September 11, 2009; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.

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