It may be cool, but Cambridge is all about squares. The best known of these, and certainly one of the most popular, is Harvard Square. It’s a people-watcher’s paradise, as the bustle of bookish Harvard students, mohawked punks, camera-toting tourists, buskers, and harried businesspeople creates a diverse and colorful street scene. It is of course intimately tied to the university of the same name, which boasts a panoply of sights, monuments and eye-popping architecture within its modestly sized campus. Check out our guides to the best restaurants in Boston, best live music in Boston, and best museums in Boston, and you’ll spot several Harvard Square haunts.
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Where to go in Harvard Square
This independent bookseller works hard to rival the larger chain stores with its varied selection of general-interest books and helpful staff, always ready to recommend a title or two. Students from the namesake university across the street crowd the substantial philosophy and cultural theory sections. Meanwhile, local bibliophiles make a beeline for the basement, where the used and remainder book shelves are packed with everything from dog-eared cookbooks to gorgeous art books, all at a hefty discount.
Built in the 19th century, right in the middle of Harvard Square, the Brattle looks more like a barn than a movie house. A non-profit that’s dangled close to the edge of bankruptcy several times, the historic single-screen carries on, marching to the beat of its own eclectic programming. The decor isn’t fancy, but the schedule generally has something worth seeing; with classic films, cartoon marathons, new documentaries, rare Japanese horror, best-of-the-year recaps and staff picks all on the roster, it’s good for open minds and omnivorous tastes.
Duck into this subterranean hideaway—the former site of Harvard Square institution Casablanca—and discover a bustling multi-room dining and drinking destination that balances a rustic laid-back vibe with an industrial edge. Chef-owner Michael Scelfo’s eclectic menu is one of the neighborhood’s culinary highlights.
Owned and operated by English expats, Shay's is one of the nicer bars in the area. Sunk a few feet below the sidewalk and sporting a handy outdoor patio, the bar attracts a lively mix of local academics, artists and die-hard regulars. Though many quaff from the bar's extensive beer menu, this is primarily a wine bar—and there are no spirits.
This small, non-profit venue was once at the vanguard of the 1960s folk scene, and regularly welcomed the likes of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. The club retains its relaxed, community-minded vibe, with plenty of singer-songwriters on the bill.
Despite the rampant fancification of everything within a five-mile radius of Harvard, the stalwart Charlie’s Kitchen has hardly changed a bit. This place may be known as the double cheeseburger king, but the loud, ready-to-drink crowd of punks, students, professors and local rock luminaries pile into the upstairs bar for beer, cheap eats, snippy waitresses and the best damn jukebox in Cambridge. Bonus points go to the seasonal outdoor beer garden.
Home to the largest collection of 35mm films in New England, Harvard’s film temple and screening space provides access to a hard-to-find and diverse catalog of films. The selection in a given month might include anything from Hong Kong cinema to historically important Hollywood gems to pure experimental stuff. The HFA also hosts retrospectives, with filmmakers frequently brought in for Q&As.
There’s barely room to move amid the memorabilia that clutters this Harvard Square institution (est. 1960), never mind the crush of diners scoffing thick, juicy burgers and even thicker frappes (New England–speak for milkshakes). But don’t let that stop you; the tight squeeze is all part of the fun at a joint that features more than 20 burgers named after local and national pols and celebs (Melania Trump, Kim Jong-un), all accompanied by kitschy comments.
Classier than Central Square’s beloved Middle East complex, The Sinclair attracts big-name touring acts, indie darlings, and special, one-off performances. The venue even has its own restaurant at the front-of-house, letting music fans and couples on their date night do the dinner-and-a-show thing in style.
Clover has quickly become something of an vegetarian empire. Typical of the healthful concoctions on offer is the chickpea fritter: golden-fried falafel, hummus, a drizzle of tahini and red pickled cabbage overflowing from a round, hearty bun. You can also score a soy BLT and barbecue Seitan. Alongside your feel-good selection, sip a brown-sugar lemonade or hibiscus iced tea.
Down a side street from the Harvard Book Store, the tiny Grolier has been catering to the voracious appetites of Cambridge's poetry lovers for more than 80 years. Every available surface is piled with new books of verse, ranging from anthologies for casual readers to collections by obscure poets in translation. The Grolier further encourages the appreciation of poetry through its annual prizes and well-attended readings.
With patio seating, a stylish tavern upstairs and a cozy subterranean dining space below, Russell House has a place for everyone. In summer months, sip a cocktail from their list of classics and enjoy the prime people-watching location of the patio and the breezy open windows of the upper level. In chillier months, slip downstairs for slow-cooked chicken or a grass-fed burger.
This cute, colorful Harvard Square haven isn’t fancy, but the setting—in a 19th-century bow-front building—is charming and the varied Venezuelan menu exudes authenticity and passion. Tuck into savory empanadas and arepas at wooden tables in the low-lit dining room, which retains its original tin walls, or settle into a summer evening on the secluded back patio.
The first branch of this women's boutique was launched by two Harvard graduates in Brookline, then followed by a larger Harvard Square shop. Mint Julep offers an appealing melange of labels (both European and American), styles, prints and prices—the only unifying factor is an underlying postmodern country-club aura. You'll find lots of retro-influenced dresses, cool T-shirts and colorful accessories.
This Harvard Square pizza spot is as austere as you might expect a former fire station overlooking a graveyard to be. But there’s plenty to like about its no-nonsense attitude, reflected in a streamlined menu of elegantly simple salads and thin-crust pizzas. The latter are charcoal-grilled and topped with the likes of lobster or chicken sausage, with flavoursome fresh herbs and infused oils.
Like its South End sister the Beehive, this retreat from the bustle of Brattle Street features a laid-back vibe in a cavernous room with plenty of space for all. More than two dozen beers—including numerous local craft options—are on tap, and unique cocktails are made with house-made syrups and shrubs. Modern, upscale twists on classic beer hall fare—with plenty of vegetarian options for the Cambridge crowds—keeps the party going.