date published: October 6, 2008

A guide to dining, shopping and having fun the Harvard Square way
by Josh B. Wardrop

No trip to the Boston area would be complete without a hop across the river to Cambridge to visit one of the area’s most popular attractions—the always busy, stimulating and exciting Harvard Square. You don’t have to be an Ivy Leaguer to realize that there’s big fun to be had in this neighborhood that stands in the shadow of America’s most prestigious university—one day spent perusing the plethora of great shops and boutiques, sampling the diverse and delicious cuisine and enjoying and appreciating the fine art and culture that abounds here will be enough to make you a Harvard man (or woman) in spirit, if not in education.

The New Faces of Harvard Square
One reason that Harvard Square maintains its popularity as a visitor destination is that it’s rarely the same place twice. Just as nearby Harvard University constantly renews itself with a fresh crop of incoming students, Harvard Square is always welcoming new retailers and restaurants into its midst, ensuring that the neighborhood always has something different to offer. The last several months have proven no exception to this rule.

Harvard Square has always been full of great shopping destinations, but the number of brand-new boutiques that have been popping up in recent days guarantees there’s no risk of shopaholics running low on new styles and fashions to coo over. Fashion plates can delight in visiting new hot spots like Passport (43 Brattle St., 617-576-0900), a shop specializing in luggage, travel accessories and travel-friendly fashions that defy the old axiom that “comfortable” and “stylish” are mutually exclusive; TisTik (54 Church St., 617-661-0900), a Mayan-influenced gift and accessories boutique featuring unique, hand-crafted goods created by artists from developing countries; Topaz (refer to jewelry listing) and Looks (11–13 Holyoke St., 617-491-4251), two longtime Cambridge favorites—the former specializing in artisan gold and semi-precious stones, the latter a favorite clothing shop for stylish women of all ages—that both decided to move to the Square this summer; Monella (29 Brattle St., 617-897-6100), a boutique devoted to bright and flirty women’s clothing, including lingerie; and LF Boutique (26 Church St., 617-492-7700), the local outpost of the chic and trendy contemporary fashion retailer popular with celebrities.

Of course, all that shopping can certainly make anyone work up an appetite—which makes it a lucky break that some new eating establishments have also taken up residence in Harvard Square. Lovers of crispy, thin-crust pizza covered in almost any delicious topping you can imagine will want to check out the Harvard Square location of popular local pie chain The Upper Crust (refer to restaurant listing), and those with a late night craving for deli sandwiches, fruit and salad—or just about any other munchie under the sun—will stand up and applaud the new 24-hour Market in the Square (60 Church St., 617-441-2000).

Row, Row, Row Your Boat...
...or, better yet, watch people who know what they’re doing row theirs at the 44th annual Head of the Charles Regatta, taking place October 18 & 19 along the banks of the Charles River. This fall tradition has excited sports lovers for more than four decades, serving as, essentially, the Super Bowl of the rowing world—but you don’t have to be a sculler (or even know what a sculler is) to appreciate the event.

Annually, the Head of the Charles draws more than 7,000 rowers to compete in 55 different race events, as well as close to 300,000 spectators who flock to the banks of the river to catch the action. And though the race takes place in the shadow of that quintessentially Yankee institution, Harvard University, the participants and spectators are from everywhere—journeying to Massachusetts from as far away as Ireland and New Zealand, representing 41 states and 14 countries.

The professional rowers may hog the spotlight, but the real excitement of the HOC tends to come from the collegiate races. College students and alumni show their school spirit by rallying around their university teams, and performing well at the Head of the Charles has become a celebrated source of bragging rights among Boston’s sizable college community. (Insiders’ note: a great vantage point for checking out the action is along the riverbank between the Weeks and Lars Anderson bridges.)

And if you’re not planning to get out on the water and row the mighty Charles yourself (we understand—your back has been acting up and all) there’s still plenty of ways to have fun at the HOC. Exercise fans and outdoorsy types wondering how well they would do with an oar in hand can head to the Rowing & Fitness Expo tent to try out a rowing machine or shop for new workout gear. Alumni of area schools can look into reconnecting with old friends by visiting the Reunion Village, which is full of booths set up by area schools. And if the sight of all that calorie-burning on the water is making you hungry, food vendors lining the river serve up delicious and inexpensive comfort fare like clam chowder, juicy burgers and apple cider. For more information, visit

—Brittaney Kiefer

Say Guten Tag to Good Times
Just as everyone seems to turn Irish on March 17, so it goes that come October there seems to be a lot more Germans around than usual. But it’s hard to blame people for getting a little excited about Oktoberfest, especially when it’s done the Harvard Square way. For the 29th straight year, Oktoberfest comes to Cambridge on October 12, presented by the Harvard Square Business Association. The annual event brings together thousands of revelers to celebrate the arrival of autumn with a day of live music, dance, parades, sidewalk sales, arts and crafts vendors, and food and drink from all over the world—including the thirst-quenching Samuel Adams/Grafton Street Beer Garden and, one would assume, a fair section of brats, wursts and brews from Germany. Wunderbar! Refer to special events listing.

Bookworms of the World, Unite!
During your travels through Harvard Square you might find yourself confused by the absence of a Barnes & Noble or Borders superstore. “Don’t these college kids read?” you might wonder. The answer is: sure, they do—it just so happens that Harvard Square is one of the last remaining places to find quality independent and used bookstores in the Boston area. Lovers of dusty and obscure old tomes can spend a day perusing the stacks at local gems like Schoenhof’s Foreign Books (76A Mt. Auburn St., 617-547-8855), Raven Used Books (52B JFK St., 617-441-6999) and the Harvard Book Store (1256 Massachusetts Ave., 617-661-1515). Of course, the biggest bookstore among Harvard students (and their families, and visitors in general) is the legendary Harvard Coop (refer to shop listing), a veritable one-stop shop for textbooks, new and old fiction and non- fiction and just about any kind of hat, shirt, jacket, hoodie or other piece of clothing you could ever want, emblazoned with that famous Harvard insignia.

Hahvahd Ahhts
Befitting a neighborhood boasting a world-class educational institution, Harvard Square is a great spot for indulging in the offerings of fine cultural institutions like museums and the theater. You could easily spend an afternoon strolling through the Sackler Museum (currently hosting Re-View, a condensed overview of Harvard’s extensive art holdings, refer to museum listing), checking out the natural wonders at the Harvard Museum of Natural History (refer to museum listing), or perusing the fine arts and jewelry on display at BAAK Gallery (35 Brattle St., 617-354-0407). In the evening, take in a classic film at either the Brattle Theatre or the Harvard Film Archive (refer to film listings) or enjoy top-notch theater at the acclaimed American Repertory Theatre, currently featuring Anna Deavere Smith in her one-woman show Let Me Down Easy (through October 11) and the wild, offbeat journey through Romanian history, The Communist Dracula Pageant (beginning October 18). Refer to theater listings.

A Good Square Meal
Harvard Square has long been one of the area’s most popular dining destinations for a few simple reasons: the quality, diversity and sheer quantity of its dining options. Whatever type of food you’re hungry for, the chances are excellent that Harvard Square boasts a spot (or two, or three) where your appetite can be successfully sated.

If you’re getting an early start to your day in Harvard Square, Zoe’s (refer to restaurant listing) features generous breakfast and lunch portions of fresh, delicious food ranging from traditional omelettes to Greek specialties to salads, sandwiches and sinfully delicious and singularly unique frappes (try the pumpkin or cheesecake). Another spot that opens early (yet stays open late) is Z Square (refer to restaurant listing), the popular café/restaurant/bar that dishes up everything from superb huevos rancheros and crepes for the early birds to beef and shiitake dumplings and grilled rainbow trout at dinnertime.

Burger lovers have flocked to Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage (1246 Massachusetts Ave., 617-354-6559) for almost 50 years, and even a recent fire at the eatery—which features gourmet burgers named for luminaries ranging from Bill Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger to John McCain—isn’t expected to slow this popular joint down.

An Unofficial Good Time
Obviously, not all of us could get into Harvard University, an honor reserved for those with just the right combination of stellar grades and overflowing family coffers. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn enough about the school to fake it convincingly—especially if you take one of the Unofficial Tours of Harvard University ( Departing from outside the Harvard Square T stop, these irreverent tours led by Harvard students (like Jesse and Caitria, pictured above) take visitors all around the Harvard campus, providing a slew of great insider stories about the school and its famous alumni, all while doing plenty to lighten up Harvard’s stuffy reputation. The uproarious anecdotes about Harvard’s ongoing battles with the City of Cambridge over the centuries are worth the price of admission—which is free!—alone.

You’ll feel like a college student again dining at cozy subterranean restaurant Grendel’s Den (89 Winthrop St., 617-491-1160)—a Harvard Square fixture since 1971—and you can eat as cheaply as one if you take advantage of its unbeatable half-price meal deals from 5–7:30 p.m.

Exceptional ethnic eateries abound in Harvard, ranging from the Indian delicacies at Tamarind Bay (75 Winthrop St., 617-491-4552), Tanjore (18 Eliot St., 617-868-1900) and Bombay Club (57 JFK St., 617-661-8100) to the sublime Asian-influenced dishes at OM (refer to restaurant listing) to the tasty Irish pub fare of Grafton Street (1230 Massachusetts Ave., 617-497-0400) and Tommy Doyle’s (96 Winthrop St., 617-864-0655), to the delicious Chinese cuisine and famously massive cocktails found at popular Harvard hangout the Hong Kong (refer to restaurant listing).

If it’s a romantic dinner you’re looking for, try a late night supper at Harvard Square’s hidden jewel for French cuisine, the venerable Sandrine’s Bistro (refer to restaurant listing); a one-of-a-kind culinary excursion into whimsy at the vibrant and beautiful UpStairs on the Square (refer to restaurant listing); or a fine meal and distinctive cocktail at the exotic Casablanca (40 Brattle St., 617-876-0999), a popular restaurant and watering hole that’s been satisfying Ivy Leaguers and others since 1955.

Finally, if your visit to Harvard Square lasts well into the wee hours, the late-night munchies can be deliciously addressed at Felipe’s Taqueria (83 Mt. Auburn St., 617-354-9944), which offers fresh, tasty and abundant portions of burritos, tacos and more until 2 a.m.

A Little Nightlife
Sometimes you just want nothing more from a night out than to sample a few delightful libations, and Harvard Square has some happening nightspots well-equipped to help you do just that while you get your groove on. Before the evenings get too chilly, you can start your night at Shay’s Pub and Wine Bar (58 JFK St., 617-864-9161), sipping your beverage of choice on their sunken patio, or check out the newly-opened beer garden at Charlie’s Kitchen (10 Eliot St., 617-492-9646). Just around the corner OM boasts unique aromatherapy cocktails in a sleek, modern space perfect for lounging, and over at the Charles Hotel, the classic cocktail lounge Noir (One Bennett St., 617-661-8010) serves up decadent libations inspired by classic films.

Those looking to check out some live entertainment can catch some of the area and the nation’s top folk artists at the venerable Club Passim (refer to music listing), listen to cool jazz at Regattabar (refer to music listing) or laugh until your sides hurt while checking out a stand-up show at The Comedy Studio (refer to comedy listing). Or, if you’re full enough of liquid courage to provide the entertainment yourself, Redline (59 JFK St., 617-498-9851), which boasts DJs Thursday–Saturday spinning everything from retro pop to groovy soul and funk to hip-hop, is a great place to get up and boogie.

back to homepage