Harvard University Walking Tour | Self Guided
This post covers how to tour Harvard University, including our pay-what-you-wish tour, a tour guided by students, as well as a self-guided option.
Harvard University is the oldest college in the United States (1636). Eight U.S. presidents attended Harvard University and the name is known worldwide.
WHERE IS HARVARD?
Harvard University is located in the City of Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston.
It’s located approximately 4 miles (6.5 km) away from the Boston Commons (or 15 min on the subway).
Regardless of how you decide to get here, we recommend using this Google Maps link for directions to Harvard Square.
Be sure to read our how-to guide on riding the Boston T (subway).
TIP: If you are considering purchasing a hop-on-hop-off trolley ticket, be aware that Old Town Trolley has a stop for Harvard University.
GUIDED HARVARD WALKING TOURS
To start with, our 2-hour, pay-what-you-like tour not only covers Harvard University but also the surrounding area of Cambridge.
Below us, you can read about a shorter tour led by current Harvard students.
FREE TOURS BY FOOT
Where: At the Cambridge Tourism Information Booth in Harvard Square (map).
Cost: This tour is free to take, and you get to decide what, if anything, the tour was worth when it’s done. A name-your-own-price tour is a tour for anyone’s budget.
Duration: Approximately 2 hours. Tour distance is approximately 1 mile (1.6K)
- Jan. to Feb.: No Tours
- March to April: Saturdays and Sundays 10 am
- May to June 20: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays 10 am
- June 20th to Labor Day: Everyday 10 am
- Sept. to Oct: Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays 10 am
- Nov. to Dec. Saturdays and Sundays 10 am
Hahvahad Tours (that’s phonetically spelled)
This company offers 70-min tours several times each day that are led by current Harvard students, enthusiastic ambassadors of the university.
Tours are inexpensive, light-hearted, but are limited to the university grounds, so you won’t see much of Cambridge.
Tours run daily at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, 12:30 pm, and 1 pm.
$12/adults | $8.50/students, seniors and children (Free with the Go Boston tourist discount card)
SELF-GUIDED TOUR OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY AND CAMBRIDGE
You can also take this tour as a self-guided GPS enabled Audio tour through our partnership with Atlantis Audio Tours.
How to Get to Harvard University
Reaching the start of this tour is easy. The best way to access the area is by mass transit. You can take the red line T to Harvard Square MBTA Station.
Use this Google map for directions to Harvard Square.
Out of Town Newsstand
Your tour starts outside the Harvard Sq. MBTA (subway) Station. Notice the Out of Town Newsstand which is a Cambridge landmark.
The newsstand since it opened in 1955, has been providing Harvard professors, students, and Cambridge Residence with newspapers and magazines from all over the world.
The building is a national historic landmark.
From Out of Town News walk up JFK Street (to your right if you are facing Out of Town News).
Follow JFK St. to Mt. Auburn St. and take a left down Mt. Auburn St. to the Harvard Lampoon Building at 44 Bow St.
The Lampoon Building is also known as the Lampoon Castle. The best place to view this building is by standing on the island where Bow St. and Mt. Auburn St. meet.
This building houses Harvard’s comedy magazine The Lampoon, where students like Cohan O’Brien and John Updike wrote while undergraduates at the university.
John Updike also served as president of The Lampoon at his time there.
This is one of the most unique buildings on Campus. Opened in 1909 the building is designed in the form of a human face wearing a Prussian helmet. The front door looks like a bow tie turned sideways.
Notice the Ibis on top. This is made of copper weighs about 70 pounds. The Ibis was stolen a few times by members of Harvard University’s newspaper The Crimson as a prank.
The bird is now said to now have an electrified wire attached to it to prevent future thefts.
Costing $40,000 to construct in 1909, at the time the building was the most expensive headquarters for a student publication in the nation.
Look to your right you will see Lowell House, the structure with the white bell tower.
This undergraduate dorm is where Matt Damon stayed while a student at the university.
Notice the bell tower of Lowell House. The tower houses 18 bells ranging is size of 22 pounds (the smallest bell) to 27,000 pounds (the mother earth bell).
After what is known as The Game, the annual Harvard vs. Yale football game, the Harvard team score is rung out on the Mother Earth Bell.
The Yale score is chimed on what is known as the bells of Pestilence, Famine, and Despair.
As you walk around the Lampoon Building you will notice two dates, 1909 and 1876. 1909 is when the building opened and 1876 is when the Harvard Lampoon Magazine was first published
Continue walking up Mt. Auburn St following the Lampoon Building and take a left onto Plympton St. At 26 Plympton St. you will see the undergraduate dorm of the Adams House.
Opened in 1900 the dorm is named in honor of the United State’s 2nd President John Adams and his son, The United States’ 6th President John Quincy Adams, who both graduated from the university.
There is a suite inside Adam’s House called the FDR suite where the United States’ 32nd president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) lived while a student at Harvard.
It is restored to the 1904 appearance to honor the president who stayed there as a student. The FDR Suite inside Adams House is the only memorial to FDR on campus.
Including FDR, John Adams, and John Quincy Adams, Harvard University has had 5 other US Presidents who attended: Barack Obama, George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, and Rutherford B. Hayes for a total of 8 U.S. Presidents who attended the university.
Continue up Plympton St. to 14 Plympton St. to the student newspaper The Harvard Crimson.
Founded in 1873 it was called The Magenta for its first two years, and in 1875 the paper changed its name to The Crimson when the University changed its color to crimson.
The Harvard Crimson is the only daily newspaper in the City of Cambridge and is run entirely by the university’s undergraduate students.
It is also the only college newspaper in the United States that has its own printing press.
Some of the famous folks who wrote for the Crimson include US Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt (who served as the newspaper president) and John F. Kennedy (a business editor).
Look up to the second-floor glass door and you may be able to see the big chair inside. This chair has small brass makers attached to the chair with the names of the former presidents of the newspaper.
Like the Ibis on top of the Lampoon Building, members of the Harvard Lampoon sometimes steal this chair as a prank and revenge for the Crimson’s members theft of their Ibis.
The chair is now chained to the floor to help thwart future thefts.
Continue up Plympton St. and cross Massachusetts Ave. and enter Old Harvard Yard through Dextor Gate.
Notice carved inscription above the entrance and the words “enter to grow in wisdom” and on the exit/inside of the gate the words “depart to serve better this country and thy kind.”
After you enter Harvard Yard, take a left and will see the dorm, Wigglesworth Hall.
All freshmen who enter Harvard are required to stay in the Halls of Old Harvard Yard. All the freshman dorms are called Halls and the upper-class dorms are called Houses.
Some of the famous students who lived inside Wigglesworth Hall include Leonard Bernstein, Senator Edward Kennedy, and Bill Gates.
Follow the path to the Henry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.
Henry Elkins Widener Memorial Library
This is the largest college library in the United States and is the nation’s 3rd largest library. The library has 57 miles (92 km) of shelves along five miles of aisles on ten floors.
Only the US Library of Congress and the New York Public Library hold more volumes of books.
The Library is six floors high and four floors below and was built in honor of 1907 Harvard graduate Henry Elkins Widener who was killed in April 1912 at the age of 27 during the sinking of the Titanic.
The library was built with funds donated by Widener’s mother Eleanor to honor her son’s memory.
Look directly across the Old Yard and you will see Memorial Church. This church was built in 1932.
Inside these walls engraved alongside a sculptor named “The Sacrifice” are 373 names of alumni who were killed during WWI.
Since then other memorials have been established inside the church for Harvard Students and Alumni who were killed in WWII, The Korean War, and Vietnam.
Walk around the Widener Library and follow the path to the Dragon Statue.
This statue was donated to the university in 1936 by Chinese Alumni in honor of the university’s 300 anniversary.
The statue is made of marble and weighs 27 tons. It was carved between 1796-1820 in Beijing and formally resided in the Winter Palace before being donated and ship to the university.
As you continue down the path look to your right and you will see Weld Hall where President John F. Kennedy lived during his freshman year at Harvard.
Follow the path around University Hall and you will see the most famous site on campus, the John Harvard Statue.
John Harvard Statue
This is also known as the statue of three lies.
The first one is on the statue’s base and states Harvard was formed in 1638. Wrong, as we know Harvard was formed in 1636.
It says that John Harvard was the founder of Harvard. Wrong, Harvard was founded in 1636 by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. John Harvard endowed Harvard with books and money in 1638.
And the third and probably the biggest lie on the statue is that the man in the chair; not John Harvard.
When the statue was designed in 1884 by Daniel Chester French there was not any likeness of John Harvard.
French used a Harvard Student by the name Sherman Hoar as the inspiration for John Harvard’s face. Sherman Hoar was a descendant of the brother of Harvard’s fourth president Leonard Hoar.
The statue is one of the most photographed statues in the United State, and you will notice the worn-out bronze of the statue’s left foot where millions of visitors have rubbed for good luck.
There is also the legend that if you rub/touch the foot of the statue you will acquire some of the knowledge of Harvard.
Take the path away from the John Harvard Statue and towards the street. On the left, you will see Massachusetts Hall.
Opened in 1720, Massachusetts Hall is the second oldest college dorm in the United States.
Some of their legendary student residents include John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and United States second president John Adams.
During the siege of Boston in 1775, 640 members of the Continental Army led by George Washington were housed there.
Currently, Massachusetts Hall houses the office of Harvard’s President, Treasurer, and Vice President, all of which have their offices on the first two floors and part of the third floor.
On the fourth floor are freshman dorms.
Exit the Old Yard through Johnston Gate.
Opened in 1890, Johnston Gate was the first gate constructed around Old Harvard Yard.
Johnston Gate cost $10,000 to construct in 1889-90 and was a gift to the university by 1855 Harvard Graduate Samuel Johnston.
For several hundred years, on Harvard’s commencement day, sheriffs from Middlesex and Suffolk Country have entered Harvard Yard on horseback before the Middlesex Sheriff’s call to order.
It has become a tradition that they enter through Johnston Gate.
Another tradition at Harvard regarding Johnston Gate is that after the commencement ceremony, graduates exit Harvard Yard using only Johnston Gate.
As you exit Harvard Yard through Johnston Gate you can now consider yourself an honorary graduate of Harvard University.
After exiting Johnston Gate, cross Massachusetts Ave. to the island in the middle and you will be at the sculpture of Charles Sumner (1811-1874).
Charles Sumner Statue
He was a lawyer, abolitionist, orator, and US Senator from Massachusetts.
One of the many things he is known for is while a US Senator he was an incident that took place on the Senate floor when he was arguing against the Kansas/Nebraska Act.
This was an 1854 legislative act that would allow the expansion of slavery in the new states of Kansas and Nebraska.
On May 20th, 1856, Sumner was auguring against the Act, and during his diatribe, Sumner called US Senator Andrew Butler from South Carolina a slave pimp and went on a tirade against the senator and his state of South Carolina.
During the tirade, he mocked Butler’s manner of speech and physical mannerism as Butler previously suffered a stroke which left him physically impaired.
Two days later, US Congressman Preston Brooks, the cousin of Senator Butler walk on the Senate floor and approached Sumner.
As Sumner rose to meet the Representative, Preston beat Sumner nearly to death with a cane until the cane finally broke.
The beating rendering Sumner unconscious on the Senate floor. It took almost two years before Senator Sumner recovered from the beating.
The event showed how divided the United States was at that time over the issue of slavery.
Continue across Massachusetts Ave. and take a right and follow Massachusetts Ave. and you will be outside the Cambridge Burial Ground (1635).
Cambridge Burial Ground
This burial ground was the only burial ground in Cambridge for nearly 200 years and includes a cross-section of Cambridge residents from paupers to Harvard presidents.
Like all the old burial grounds, there are many more bodies beneath than the 1218 headstones above, as many of the headstones did not survive the centuries and some of the earliest burials were unmarked.
The oldest headstone in the burial ground is that of Anne Eriton which dates to 1653.
The tomb of John Vassel is the most elaborate tomb in the burial ground and contains 25 caskets and including the body of Andrew Craigie who was the first Apothecary General of the Continental Army. He was also a former owner of the Longfellow House on Tory Row.
Craigie also developed much of what is known as East Cambridge and also organized the construction of the Canal Bridge which connected East Cambridge to Boston.
The bridge was later rebuilt as the Charles River Dam but is also know as Carigie’s Bridge.
The Cambridge Burial Ground also contains the remains of 8 Harvard presidents including Harvard’s first president Henry Dunster.
It’s also home to the remains of 19 Revolutionary War Soldiers including John Hicks, William Macy, and Moses Richardson who were buried there after the first Battles of the American Revolution on April 19th, 1775 in Lexington and Concord.
The burial ground also houses the tomb of the Dana Family. Richard Henry Dana, Jr. was an abolitionist who worked with Charles Sumner.
Continue up Massachusetts Ave. and once you cross Garden St. look down on the sidewalk and you will see a series of horseshoes embedded along the sidewalk of Massachusetts Ave.
These show the route that William Dawes, the second rider with Paul Revere on his midnight ride took on his way up to Lexington, MA on the night of April 18, 1775.
The ride to “Midnight Ride” by Paul Revere, William Dawes, and others which warned the towns along the way that the British Troops were on the move resulted in the start of the American Revolution in Lexington/Concord on the morning of April 19, 1775.
Cross at the crosswalk ahead and you are at the gates of Cambridge Common. Rather than walk through the gates, take the sidewalk to the left along Garden Street.
This 16-acre park was where George Washington and the Continental Army camped in 1775 while British Troops occupied Boston until March 1776.
The first site you will see when entering the Common is a memorial for the Irish Famine which was dedicated on July 23, 1997, by then Irish President Mary Robinson.
The sculpture was created by Maurice Harron a resident of Derry, Northern Ireland who has sculptures in Ireland, The UK, and The United States.
Continue walking through the Common keeping Garden Street on your left and you will come to a series of cannons.
These cannons were abandoned at Fort Independence (also known as Castle William) on March 17, 1776, when the British Troops evacuated from Boston.
There is also a plaque to Henry Knox, a Boston and bookseller before the American Revolution, he would become the first Secretary of War under President George Washington.
Henry Knox in January of 1776, dragged cannons from and other military supplies from the captured British Forts Ticonderoga and Crown Point in Upstate New York and led the mission to carry the 60 tons of cannons and other arms on ox-drawn sleds 300 miles across snowy and frozen ground to Boston.
What was expected to take two weeks, took six weeks as the caravan of men where faced storms and delays as the cannons broke through the ice and got stuck in the mud and snow, but in the end, they were able to deliver the munitions to Boston.
The cannons were placed on Dorchester Heights, (the hills surrounding Boston) on the night of March 16, 1776.
When the Occupying British Troops woke the next morning on March 17th, they realized they were surrounded by artillery and withdrew their ships to Halifax and retreated out of Boston.
The siege of Boston was ended as a result. March 17th is a holiday in Boston called Evacuation Day as a result of the efforts of Henry Knox and his men.
Henry Knox went on to be in charge of improving the defenses in Rhode Island and New York during the American Revolution where in New York he met Alexander Hamilton who was the commander of the local artillery.
They would remain close friends until Hamilton’s death in 1804.
Knox would later become the first Secretary of War under George Washington.
Henry Knox died in 1806 at the age of 56 after swallowing a chicken bone which caused an infection that killed him three days later on Oct. 25th.
Also located in the area of the cannons and marked with a plaque is the Washington Elm.
Legend has it (although is disputed) that under this tree on July 3, 1775, General George Washington took control of the Continental Army.
The army struck camp there and stayed until March 1776 when British Troops evacuated Boston.
The original tree lived about 210 years and finally fell in 1923. The tree was cut up into 100 pieces and sent to all the US States and their legislatures.
Other pieces were sent to fraternal organizations throughout the US and root shoots were sent also sent throughout the nation, and some still live today.
The cross-section of the tree was sent to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s plantation in the state of Virginia.
Turn around and head back down the sidewalk, you’ll see a white church to your right across the street.
This 1759 church was formed by the members of King’s Chapel in Boston who lived in Cambridge.
This church provided church of England Services to students attending Harvard and was designed by Peter Harrison who also was the architect of Boston’s King’s Chapel.
During the American Revolution, the church which sits across the street from the Cambridge Common where the Continental Army was camped out at the start of the war, soldiers camp there fired shots at the then Loyalist Church.
If you walk into the front doors of the church and look above the inside door frame a musket hole is visible from that time.
Later George and Martha Washington would attend a prayer service there and as the war wore on the church was closed and the organ of the church was melted down for bullets for the Continental Army.
In April 1967, the church hosted speeches from Dr. Benjamin Spock and Martin Luther King, Jr. who were denied access to a building on Harvard’s Campus.
They planned to hold a press conference against the Vietnam War. They were welcome by the Reverend Murray Kenney. Jesse Jackson also spoke at the church in 2004 celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Continue walking towards Massachusetts Ave. and back to the Cambridge Burial Ground. At the burial ground, take a right down Massachusetts Ave. and cross Church Street. Follow Massachusetts Ave. and you will come to the Harvard Coop.
The Harvard Coop
The Harvard Coop was opened in 1882 to supply books and school supplies for the students at Harvard.
In 1916 after MIT moved from Boston to Cambridge, MIT opened a branch of the Coop to serve its students and is still present on MIT’s campus today.
This Coop is one of the largest college bookstores in the United States. The store is run by Barnes and Noble today and the public is welcome to come in the shop and browse Harvard Swag and books.
However, membership to the Coop is limited only to students, faculty, alumni, and employees as well as personnel of hospitals affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
In 1882 membership cost $1.00 and that cost is the same today.
Cross Massachusetts Ave. to the Harvard MBTA Station and you will be where the tour started outside the Harvard Sq. MBTA Station and Out-of-Town Newsstand.
We hope you enjoyed your GPS Tour of Harvard.