Harvard Square neighborhood guide

Discover the charms of Harvard Square with our comprehensive neighborhood guide
Harvard Square
Photograph: chensiyuan Harvard Square
By Eric Grossman and Time Out contributors |
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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-watchers 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 Bostonbest live music in Boston, and best museums in Boston, and you’ll spot several Harvard Square haunts. 

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston

Where to go in Harvard Square

1
Harvard Book Store
Photograph: Courtesy Harvard Book Store
Shopping, Bookstores

Harvard Book Store

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

2
Brattle Theatre, Movie theaters, Boston
Photograph: © Biruitorul
Movies

Brattle Theatre

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

Built in the 19th century, right in the middle of Harvard Square, the Brattle looks more like a barn than a movie theatre. 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, from Twin Peaks episodes to yearly Valentine’s Day screenings of Casablanca. 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.

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3
Shays Pub & Wine Bar
Photograph: Michael Young
Bars, Wine bars

Shays Pub & Wine Bar

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

4
Club Passim, Music and nightlife, Boston
Photograph: © bradalmanac
Music, Music venues

Club Passim

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

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5
Charlie's Kitchen, Bars, Restaurants, Boston
Photograph: Michael Young
Bars, Beer bars

Charlie’s Kitchen

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

6
The Curious George Store
Photograph: © Michael Ascanio Peguero
Shopping, Bookstores

The Curious George Store

This childrens bookshop (named after the fictional monkey whose creator, Margret Rey, used to frequent the old bookstore in this space) is a must-visit for out-of-town families. The jungle-themed upstairs room offers parenting and baby books, board books, picture books, early readers and non-fiction tomes; older readers will find chapter books, Tintin, Asterix and anime works downstairs. Your kids may not even notice the books among the profusion of toys, games and art supplies though.

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7
Harvard Film Archive, Cinemas, Movies, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy Harvard Film Archive
Movies

Harvard Film Archive

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

Home to the largest collection of 35mm films in New England, Harvards 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. 

8
Mr Bartley's Burger Cottage
Photograph: Michael Ascanio Peguero
Restaurants, Hamburgers

Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

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9
Clover Food Lab
Photograph: Ayr Muir
Restaurants, Vegetarian

Clover Food Lab Harvard Square

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

10
The Sinclair, Music and nightlife, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy The Sinclair
Music, Music venues

The Sinclair

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

Classier than Central Squares 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.

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11
Alden & Harlow, Restaurants, Bars, Boston
Photograph: Kristin Teig
Restaurants, Contemporary American

Alden & Harlow

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

12
Grolier Poetry Book Shop
Photograph: © Celia Muto
Shopping, Bookstores

Grolier Poetry Book Shop

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.

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13
Russell House Tavern
Photograph: Courtesy Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism
Restaurants, American creative

Russell House Tavern

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.  

14
Orinoco
Photograph: Courtesy Orinoco
Restaurants, Latin American

Orinoco: A Latin Kitchen

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

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15
Mint Julep
Photograph: © Michael Ascanio Peguero
Shopping, Fashion

Mint Julep

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

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.

16
Cambridge, 1
Photograph: © Michael Ascanio Peguero
Restaurants, Pizza

Cambridge, 1

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

This Harvard Square pizza spot is as austere as you might expect a former fire station overlooking a graveyard to be. But theres 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.

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17
Beat Hotel, Bars, Boston
Photograph: Courtesy Beat Brasserie
Bars, Beer bars

Beat Brasserie

icon-location-pin Harvard Sq

Whether or not you're drawn in by the ’60s bohemian theme, there’s plenty to like about the Beat Brasserie. Like its South End sister The Beehive, this retreat from the bustle of Brattle Street features thoughtful cocktails and daily live music in a cavernous room with plenty of space for all.

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