Harvard University Walking Tour, Boston

Harvard University Walking Tour (Self Guided), Boston

The United States’ oldest institution of higher education (and, of course, among the most prestigious), Harvard was established in 1636. Reverend John Harvard, who bequeathed his entire library and half of his estate, is the University’s namesake. Presidents, billionaires and Rhodes Scholars are only some of the illustrious graduates; in fact, Harvard has more Nobel Prize-winning alumni, faculty, and researchers than any other university in the world. A true factory of knowledge!

The University’s main campus is centered on Harvard Yard in Cambridge, northwest of Downtown Boston. Its earliest surviving building, dating from 1720, is the Massachusetts Hall, where several founding fathers (John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, and James Otis) slept while attending classes. Outside of nearby University Hall, take note of the bronze seated statue of John Harvard, and rub his golden left foot for good luck.

Stroll past the 1916 Widener Library, the largest of Harvard’s dozens of libraries, and don’t miss the Memorial Church with its lovely light interior. Further along the way, the Gothic-Revival Memorial Hall/Lowell Complex was constructed in the 1870s to honor those men who served in the Civil War. Do enter the majestic building and view the colorful, stunning stained-glass windows, both by prominent artisans: Tiffany and La Farge.

With wonderful architecture and infrastructure focused on the production of knowledge, this place is a must visit! Take our self-guided walking tour to visit the historical places on the Harvard campus and get a glimpse into the student life in this world-famous university.
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Harvard University Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Harvard University Walking Tour
Guide Location: USA » Boston (See other walking tours in Boston)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 15
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.3 Km or 1.4 Miles
Author: anna
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Harvard Square
  • Harvard Hall
  • Massachusetts Hall
  • University Hall and Statue of John Harvard
  • Widener Library
  • Harvard Yard
  • Memorial Church of Harvard University
  • Sever Hall
  • Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums)
  • Memorial Hall / Sanders Theatre
  • Harvard Science Center
  • Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology
  • Harvard Museum of Natural History
  • Harvard Law School
  • Cambridge Common
Harvard Square

1) Harvard Square

Harvard Square sees over eight million visitors a year. It's not only a hotspot for university students taking a break from their studies, but it's also a cultural melting pot, offering visitors an appetizing taste of everything.

This eclectic place is a wonderful setting to grab a coffee, browse through a bookstore, or listen to folk music.

There are restaurants to suit any taste, with cuisines from around the world. You can find Japanese, American, Italian, Middle Eastern, and Korean foods here. In nice weather, sit outside in a beer garden or outside on the street. Daedelus features a rooftop bar that's heated in the winter so that you can enjoy it year-round. At Santouka Ramen, you can sit at a communal table and feast.

Arthouse theaters play independent movies and show first-rate plays. For those seeking a challenge, the outdoor chess sets are also popular.

Street performers are usually entertaining in the square. Kids might be trying their hand at chalk street art. If you find yourself here after dark, there's good nightlife, great bars, and constant live music.

Check your calendar; you might get lucky and be in Harvard Square for a festival event; Winter Carnival, Chinese New Year, Mayfair, and Sparklefest gatherings are memorable ways to celebrate the seasons.
Harvard Hall

2) Harvard Hall

The original Harvard Hall was built in 1672 but was demolished in 1680. The second Harvard Hall burned in 1764. The current Harvard Hall was built in brick, granite, and brownstone between 1764 and 1776. This High Georgian-style building is one of the oldest structures still standing at Harvard University.

Sir Francis Bernard, the colonial governor at the time, designed the building. Thomas Dawes, who also built Hollis Hall, was the master builder. John Hancock and Thomas Hollis donated to the reconstruction, allowing the university to build a more extensive library than before. Benjamin Franklin advised the university on replacement scientific instruments.

Harvard Hall was built to be a multi-purpose academic site, hosting a library, cafeteria, classrooms, and science labs. It was renovated in 1842, and a two-story porch was added. The building underwent another renovation in 1870.

More recently, another renovation began in 2019. The exterior was restored to its 1870 condition, with brick restoration and paint matching. The interior has been renovated to bring modern technology to the classrooms in this historic building.
Massachusetts Hall

3) Massachusetts Hall

Massachusetts Hall is the oldest surviving building at Harvard University. It was built between 1718 and 1720 as a dormitory when America was still a British colony. It's the second oldest academic building in the United States. Its design is Early Georgian, and its simple red brick walls with white accents exemplify the period.

This dormitory was designed to host 64 students in 32 chambers and 64 small studies. Over 640 American soldiers stayed in the hall during the Siege of Boston from 1775 to 1776.

This dormitory has sheltered many famous and influential Americans. Many founding fathers resided in Massachusetts Hall. John Adams, who would become the second President, resided on the third floor. Founding Fathers John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Elbridge Gerry, and James Otis all slept here while attending classes. These walls have been witness to conversations that planted the seeds of a new nation.

The building currently provides offices for the President, Vice President, Treasurer, and Provost on the first and second floors. The third floor is a freshman dormitory.
University Hall and Statue of John Harvard

4) University Hall and Statue of John Harvard

University Hall is a striking building. The neoclassical design is large, imposing, and symmetrical. It's built from white granite, a departure from the red brick designs used in Massachusetts Hall and Harvard Hall. The building has been designated a National Historical Landmark.

Architect Charles Bulfinch designed University Hall. It was built between 1813 and 1815.

The bronze statue of John Harvard, designed by Daniel Chester French, was moved to the western facade of University Hall in 1924.

In 1638, John Harvard, a clergyman, was on his deathbed. He made a bequest towards the school or college being proposed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The bequest consisted of 780 pounds sterling and a 400-volume library. The bequest was so inspirational that when the college was founded, it bore his name. No likeness of John Harvard exists, so when French designed the statue, he used descendants to recreate an assumed likeness. The statue was unveiled in 1884.

Tour guides sometimes tell tourists that it's good luck to rub the statue's toe; the toe is now gleaming. This is not actually a known tradition. However, it is traditional for graduating seniors to remove their caps as they pass the statue on the way to their commencement.
Widener Library

5) Widener Library

Widener Library has a fascinating and inspiring history. Harry Elkins Widener‍ was a 1907 graduate of Harvard College. He tragically died in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Despite being only 27 at the time of his death, Widener had been an avid book collector. He sought out first editions of authors he admired, like Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson. Widener's will instructed his mother to donate his extensive personal book collection to Harvard.

Instead of funding an addition to Harvard's Gore Hall library, Eleanor Widener funded an entirely new library, which was dedicated in 1915. This massive library encloses 320,000 square feet. The design could be described as Georgian, Beaux-Arts, Hellenistic, or Imperial. The entrance is dramatic, flanked by an impressive set of stairs and imposing columns.

The library houses over 50 miles of shelves and over three million titles. It also has several rare Gutenberg Bibles‍. It is the only academic library among the world's mega libraries. Students are free to roam the shelves. Classes often meet in the reading rooms.

Widener Library was built to be a living memorial to Harry Elkins Widener, and his love of learning, reading, and books lives on at this impressive library.
Harvard Yard

6) Harvard Yard

Harvard Yard is the historical center of the university. Originally a cow pasture, this is the oldest part of the campus. This 22-acre grassy area is fenced and has 27 access gates.

Harvard Yard's look has changed over the centuries as more buildings have been added. The first significant improvement occurred in 1813 when Charles Bulfinch placed University Hall on the yard's perimeter and created a coherent, inward-facing space. Between 1869 and 1909, another building boom happened, and the new buildings were all centered around the yard. The wrought-iron fence that encircles the yard was erected between 1890 and 1930.

Today, Harvard Yard is surrounded by essential university structures, such as Widener Library, Memorial Church, Sever Hall, University Hall, and Harvard Hall. The Yard itself was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1987.

Brightly colored chairs invite students to take a break and enjoy the outdoors in the yard. Harvard Yard is also a popular place for picnic blankets and long conversations after class.
Memorial Church of Harvard University

7) Memorial Church of Harvard University

Memorial Church was dedicated on Armistice Day 1932. It was a gift from Harvard alumni who wanted to honor those who died in World War 1. It also filled a vital need for students seeking an appropriate place to worship. Prior to Memorial Church, the university had a chapel that was too big for daily prayer and too small for Sunday services.

University architects Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott designed the church. It was built to complement the imposing Widener Library. As a memorial to alumni who died during World War I, 373 names are engraved next to the affecting sculpture named The Sacrifice. Since the building's dedication, other memorials have been added to memorialize alumni who lost their lives in later wars. There are memorials for World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

The church offers weekly choral music. Morning prayers are held Monday through Friday, and multi-denominational services are held every Sunday. Compline evening prayers are held the first Thursday of every month. The Harvard University choir sings at this traditional candlelit service.

All services are free and open to the public.
Sever Hall

8) Sever Hall

Sever Hall was completed in 1880. It was funded by a gift from Ann Sever to honor her late husband, James Warren Sever. This red brick building is a multi-purpose academic building and hosts classrooms and offices.

Harvard graduate and architect Henry Hobson Richardson designed the building. Over time, it has become recognized as his masterpiece and is listed as a National Historical Landmark.

Over 1.3 million red bricks were used in the construction. The cut, carved, and molded red brick style is now known as Richardson Romanesque. Architectural details include semi-turrets and a hipped roof. The building features ornate carvings.

The archway entrance produces an acoustical curiosity. A whisper directed at the bricks in the archway can be heard on the other side of the archway 12 feet away.

Robert Venturi, a famed architecture critic, has called it his favorite building in America.

It has undergone several renovations, most recently in 2005.
Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums)

9) Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums)

The Harvard Art Museum comprises three sub-museums; the oldest and best-loved being the Fogg which houses a rich display of paintings and sculptures that you really must see.

In this wonderful museum, you will find examples of 19th/20th-century Western decorative art, paintings, photos, prints and sculptures, as well as drawings dating back to the Middle Ages. You can admire drawings and paintings from the Italian Early Renaissance, British Pre-Raphaelite, and French and American art.

The Maurice Wertheim collection displays Impressionist and Post-impressionist works by Cézanne, Degas, Picasso, Manet, Van Gogh, and Matisse.

The Grenville L. Winthrop collection plays an important role in research and teaching programmes. This impressive collection includes drawings, paintings and sculptures by notable artists such as Blake, Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh, Sargent and Rodin among many others.

You will also see a lovely collection of silverware made of Neo-classical arts and crafts silver and antique furniture, including a 17th-century Essex County chair, an original Harvard school desk, and an 18th-century intricately carved writing desk.

Why You Should Visit:
Basically an art history textbook you can walk through because each room has an overview of the period and each work has a concise explanation of why it's relevant.
The works on display are incredibly well-lighted and the flow from one room to the next is effortless in a building anchored by an atrium that reaches to the sky.

Make sure to join to the guided tour which educates and illuminates the experience.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am-5pm
Memorial Hall / Sanders Theatre

10) Memorial Hall / Sanders Theatre

Completed in 1878, Memorial Hall is one of the older buildings on campus. Memorial Hall was funded by alumni who wanted a memorial on campus to honor Harvard men who fought and died for the Union during the Civil War. The building was designed by alumni William Robert Ware and Henry Van Brunt.

The building has a High Victorian Gothic design. The tower reaches 195 feet, making this an imposing and distinctive structure. The building has three portions: Annenberg Hall (originally known as Alumni Hall), Memorial Transept, and Sanders Theatre.

Annenberg Hall is a large open space that has mostly served as a dining hall. It is lined with pictures and sculptures of distinguished alumni and serves as a space of inspiration for students.

The Memorial Transept is the heart of the building. It has a marble floor and a towering 60-foot high gothic vault. It features black walnut paneling and stenciled walls, and large stained glass windows adorn the space above each exterior door. There are 28 white tablets engraved with the names of alumni who died fighting for the Union during the Civil War.

Sander's Theatre was modeled on Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre. This part of Memorial Hall was completed in 1875. It has a seating capacity of 1,000 people and has been praised for its acoustics. It hosts lectures, classes, concerts, and ceremonies. Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill, and Theodore Roosevelt have spoken in this theatre.
Harvard Science Center

11) Harvard Science Center

Harvard Science Center was made possible with funds donated by Edwin Land, inventor of the polaroid camera. In preparation for the new building, a portion of Cambridge Street was depressed into an underpass. This alteration allowed for easy access for pedestrians to walk from Harvard Yard to the new building.

Sert, Jackson, and Associates were the architects for the Science Center built in a modern steel, concrete, and glass style. The building was completed in 1972. A $22 million renovation was completed in 2004.

A room-sized 1944 electromechanical computer is on display in the main lobby. The Science Center is home to the Cabot Science Library, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and the Collection of Scientific Historical Instruments, with items dating back to the 1400s. You'll also find a rooftop astronomical observatory.

The plaza between Harvard Science Center and Harvard Yard is now used for various outdoor events. You might find food trucks, an ice skating rink, or a concert here.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology

12) Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology

The Peabody Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology opened its doors in Divinity Avenue on the Harvard Campus in 1866 and is the oldest museum of anthropology with the largest collection of North American archaeology and ethnology in the world.

In this museum, you will find North American artifacts, including the largest collection of objects from the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition. In the Central American exhibition, you will see the most comprehensive documentation and artifacts relating to the Maya, Mesoamerican and Aztec civilizations ever collected. The South American Collection includes over 5000 ancient Peruvian textiles. There is also a rare collection of objects from Hawaii, Fiji, and Tonga.

The Asian, African, Oceanic and European Collections contain ten photographic archives documenting the culture of the natives of these continents. There are temporary and permanent exhibitions of ritual instruments, textiles and icons relating to the gods worshipped by our ancestors.

This truly amazing museum houses 1.2 million artifacts, over 2000 maps, and more than 350.000 photos. If this isn’t enough to keep you happy, you can feast your eyes on a collection from over 80 countries of both human and primate remains and numerous fossils to be found in the Osteological Collection.

Why You Should Visit:
While not overly large, this museum has a number of pieces and displays that you probably won't really find anywhere else.
Curiosities from all over the world: shoes, head coverings, clothing, bowls, pottery, and other items from daily life are packed heavily into this space.
The signage is quite educational and easy to read. The lighting and cabinets are a bit dated but do not detract from the experience.

The admission ticket to Peabody covers both this museum and the adjacent Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Opening Hours: daily: 9am - 5pm
Harvard Museum of Natural History

13) Harvard Museum of Natural History

You will find the Harvard Museum of Natural History on the University Campus grounds and you really must visit this fine establishment which is divided into three distinct sections.

The first section is the Harvard University Herbaria, founded in 1842. It houses over five million specimens of botanical life-forms. If you’ve ever wondered what such-and-such plant is called, you can look it up in the International Plant Names Index, along with names of noted botanists, their publications and specimens. There is also a magnificent Ware Collection of glass models of plants – the glass flowers are particularly breath-taking.

In the second section you will find the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which is devoted to the evolution of animals and has a fossil collection of historical interest, including two pheasants owned by George Washington, a Mamo (a bird native to the Hawaiian Islands, now extinct) found by Captain Cook and a sand dollar (an extremely flat cousin of sea urchins) found by Charles Darwin.

The best part of the museum is the third section – the Mineralogical Museum, with its amazing collection of minerals, rocks, ores, gemstones and meteorites. The displays of amethyst clusters, moonstones, tiger’s eyes and aquamarines amongst other gemstones are staggering, as are the meteorite showcases with samples of the rarest objects from the universe you will ever see.

Why You Should Visit:
Old-school museum, well put together for its type. There's just WAY too much to be enjoyed, which is obviously a good problem to have.

Don't miss the glass flowers – indistinguishable from the real things. You must see them before you die!
Keep in mind that with the same admission, one can also visit the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Opening Hours: daily: 9am - 5pm
Harvard Law School

14) Harvard Law School

Harvard Law School was founded in 1817 and is the oldest continuously operating law school in the US. Harvard Law School is comprised of 19 buildings.

Austin Hall is Harvard Law School's oldest building, completed in 1883. It was designed by renowned architect Henry Richardson, who also designed Server Hall. It originally housed the entire law school. The Richardson Romanesque style features semi-turrets and intricate carvings. The stonework is laid out with light and red colors, creating a checkered effect. Ames Courtroom is located in Austin Hall; students argue moot cases here. The final case of each year is usually presided over by a Supreme Court Justice.

Langdell Hall is one of the most recognizable buildings. The southern wing was completed in 1907, and the northern and western wings were completed in 1929. Langdell Hall hosts the Harvard Law School library, the most significant academic law library in the world.

Gannet House was built in 1838. It houses the Harvard Law Review.

Newer buildings include Griswold Hall, built in 1967; Pound Hall, built in 1968; and Hauser Hall, built in 1995. The Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing complex opened in 2012.
Cambridge Common

15) Cambridge Common

Cambridge Common is a 16-acre park that borders Harvard University. Established in 1630, it was initially used as a grazing pasture. Later, it was used as a military training ground. Temporary barracks were constructed here during World War I. It is the site of many public gatherings. It's often used as a meeting site before marching to Boston Commons.

According to legend, George Washington stood under the Washington Elm in Cambridge Common when he assumed command of the Continental Army. A plaque commemorates the Washington Elm.

The Washington Gate was dedicated in 1906. This pink granite gate leads visitors to the Civil War Memorial. A statue of a soldier stands on top of the memorial; a statue of Abraham Lincoln stands at the memorial base.

In Cambridge Common, you'll find a trio of bronze canons. There are also memorial plaques for Henry Knox and Tadeusz Kościuszko. The John Bridge Monument stands in the northeast corner. Finally, there is a memorial to the Irish famine.

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