10 Things to Do in Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Travel Guide

Located across the Charles River from its better known neighbor Boston, Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city of about 100,000 people, has been diligently carving out and maintaining its own identity for almost 400 years. Known as “America’s First College Town,” and home to both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge is truly a unique city with plenty of history, culture, refreshment and shopping for any traveler.

Harvard Square The heart of Cambridge is Harvard Square. Named for the famous university, Harvard Square is not a square in the traditional sense, but more of a social and commercial focal point where the major streets of Massachusetts Avenue, JFK Street, and Brattle Street meet and fan out. This is where you’ll find the best books shops in Cambridge, possibly in all of Massachusetts. There are plenty of restaurnats, bars, cafes, and shopping.

Harvard Yard Adjacent to Harvard Square is Harvard Yard, which is the historic campus of America’s oldest college, which was established here in Cambridge in 1636. The main entrance, what’s called the Johnston Gate, is on Massachusetts Avenue across from the First Parish Church of Cambridge. The two buildings at the gate are Massachusetts Hall on the right, which dates to 1720 and presently houses the offices of the President of the Harvard. On the left is Harvard Hall, which dates to 1754. This is the site of the very first building constructed on the campus. Directly in front of you, across the yard, is Massachusetts Hall, which dates to 1812. You’ll notice a statue. That’s the John Harvard statue. Notice that the statue’s left toe has turned gold over the years. That’s a result of people touching it. Getting a photograph taken with your hand on the toe of John Harvard is must. Some people think it is good luck.

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Fogg Art Museum Behind Harvard Yard is the Fogg Art Museum, which dates to 1895, and is considered the finest university art museum in the country. It contains what is perhaps the most expansive collection of the works John Singleton Copley, the most important artist in colonial Boston, as well as an impressive collection of the Federal era artist Stuart Gilbert. The Hudson River school is also well represented, and the late 19th century is well represented by works by John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Whistler. Admission is $9.

Christ Church The oldest church structure in Cambridge, Christ Church was designed by the leading colonial era architect in Massachusetts, Peter Harrison. Dating to 1760, the church is a very elegant Georgian style building that faces the Cambridge Common. During the American Revolution, this church came down on the side of the Loyalists, and as a result it was shuttered for nearly a decade. There is even a musket ball hole in the lobby. President Theodore Roosevelt once taught Sunday School here, while he was a student at nearby Harvard. Next door to the church is the oldest burying ground in Cambridge. Admission is free.

Longfellow House Built in 1754 and designed by Peter Harrison, this home was originally owned by a Loyalist named John Vassell. For a nine-month period during the American Revolutionary War, the house was the home and headquarters of General George Washington. The famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow first lived in the house as a border when he was teaching at Harvard. But, when in 1843, he married Frances Appleton, her father purchased the house for the couple, and they both lived here for the rest of their lives. The house is open to the public for tours; admission is $3.

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Mt Auburn Cemetery Considered to be America’s first “Garden Cemetery,” Mt Auburn Cemetery was established in 1831 and quickly became the place of choice for the elite of Boston and Cambridge to be interred. Combination burying ground, sculpture park, and botanical garden, Mt. Auburn is a beautiful place to walk, or believe it or not, go hiking. There is an old granite tower you can climb, from which you can see all the way to downtown Boston. Some of the famous names buried at Mt. Auburn include Longfellow, Henry Cabot Lodge, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Winslow Homer, and Isabella Stewart Gardner.

MIT Museum The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the “other” great university in Cambridge, and its MIT Museum was founded in1971. Only part of its mission is to document the history of science, engineering and technology at the university. Its primary purpose is to spark the scientific imagination. Two of the most popular exhibits are the Artificial Intelligence exhibit and the Emerging Technologies Gallery. Admission is $5.

MIT Chapel Designed by Eero Saarinen, the MIT Chapel is the official chapel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It dates to 1955 and is considered one of the finest pieces of mid-century ecclesiastical architecture in the country. Seemingly floating in a narrow moat, the cylinder shaped chapel has a windowless masonry exterior without even a door. There is a corridor, however, which extends into another building. You enter through doors located in the corridor. Inside, the chapel is lit by light from a skylight. The light reflects off a beautiful abstract bronze sculpture located behind a simple marble altar. The undulating brick walls create a wonderful sense of warmth and comfort. It is open to the public.

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Stata Center at MIT The newest thing to Cambridge and the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the grand Stata Center, which opened in 2004. Designed by Frank Gehry in the Gehryesque style that has made him famous, the Stata Center contains classrooms, laboratories, and faculty offices, including those of Noam Chomsky and Tim Berners-Lee. One of its towers is named for Bill Gates. There is a café that serves food in the building, and it is open to the public.

Kendall Band Near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there is a subway station called Kendall. On the platforms, there is a work of public art called the Kendall Band. It was executed by Paul Matisse (grandson of the famous Henri Matisse) and installed in 1987. In the middle of the station, between the rails, there are three metal kinetic forms, musical instruments if you will, that can be controlled by the public on the platforms. The handles can be hard to find if you’re new to the station, and they do take a bit of practice to master. It is recommended to go early, when the station is mostly empty and try your hand playing a little music. Admission is the cost of a fare token.