Some cities run on money, while others run on politics, but Boston runs on learning. Ever since Harvard College was founded in 1636, a cool 140 years before the US became a nation, Boston’s higher education institutions have been the preeminent driving force in the city’s development. Nowadays, the Greater Boston area is home to dozens of colleges and universities, an ever-renewable source of creativity, energy and innovation, fuelling everything from arts and culture to science and technology to sports and recreation. Travellers can experience this dynamism first-hand by visiting university museums, exploring the campuses or attending performances or sporting events to get a glimpse of college life.
Nobody understands this more than Daniel Bodt, founder of the university tour company Trademark Tours. When Bodt was a student at Harvard, he volunteered as a campus guide. But as the tour was geared towards would-be students, he recognised there was no way for tourists to experience the university’s culture. “Harvard is a tourist attraction. It’s the number-three-visited place in Boston, after Fenway Park and Faneuil Hall,” Bodt said. So one summer, he decided to create a tour for non-student travellers, and the response was fantastic. This summer gig turned into a thriving company. Nowadays, Trademark offers student-guided tours of his alma mater as well as the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Here, Bodt suggests the six best ways to explore the colleges and universities in Boston.
Among other interesting facts, Harvard’s Widener Library has a secret connection to the Titanic (Credit: Kenneth Grant/Alamy)
1. Tour Harvard
As the oldest and arguably most prestigious university in the country, Harvard exudes an aura of academia and exclusivity. Travellers can feel the weight of its nearly 400-year history as soon as they step through the wrought-iron gates and enter historic Harvard Yard. It’s certainly possible to explore the campus independently, but Bodt recommends a student-led tour to get a true insider’s perspective.
Trademark’s 75-minute tour focuses on the historic spots of Harvard Yard, including 18th-Century buildings like Massachusetts Hall and Harvard Hall, and the famous John Harvard statue. Guests learn all about the most famous Harvardians as well as some student traditions and maybe even a few campus secrets. Bodt calls it a “theatrical presentation” and says the guides (all Harvard University students) sprinkle in their own anecdotes and personal experiences of life on campus.
One of the tour’s highlights is visiting Widener Library, “a phenomenal, imposing building that sits in the middle of the campus”, according to Bodt. It is certainly one of the most famous buildings on campus but most people don’t know its history. “There’s a whole host of… intrigue about how the money was raised for that library and certain stipulations that were put on that money and it all connects back to the sinking of the Titanic.” Want to know more? You’ll have to take the tour.
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The Harvard Art Museums are housed in a stunning building designed by Renzo Piano (Credit: ageofstock/Alamy)
2. Visit the Harvard University museums
Harvard is home to experts on every subject on the planet, so it’s not surprising the university’s museums boast incredible collections related to a variety of subjects – from Indigenous American cultures to historical scientific instruments to archaeological artefacts from the Middle East.
In particular, Bodt recommends the Harvard Art Museums, which are actually three in one. In 2008, the university merged its three celebrated art collections together into one facility, a stunning building designed by Italian architecht Renzo Piano. The diverse holdings span the globe, but some highlights include the early-Renaissance Italian paintings and the impressive collection of Austrian Secession and German Expressionist art.
Of Harvard’s 10 museums, the most famous may be the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which covers everything from evolution to climate change to earth sciences. According to Bodt, the premier exhibit is the Ware Collection of Glass Flowers. This unique and beautiful collection includes life-sized glass models of some 800 species of plants and flowers. In late-19th and early-20th Centuries, a “genius” father-son team of Czech glassmakers created the specimens as a tool for scientists and students of botany. The level of detail and accuracy is truly remarkable. “It’s unbelievable,” Bodt said. “The first reaction that most people have is ‘Where are the glass flowers?’ because they don’t realise that what they are looking at is not real.”
MIT’s Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center resembles a Dr Seuss illustration (Credit: Philip Scalia/Alamy)
3. Explore MIT
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is only two miles (and two T-stops) from Harvard, but its location in Kendall Square lends it a much more urban atmosphere. “Kendall Square has become a real centre for innovation in Cambridge,” Bodt said. “Google, Microsoft and Meta all have regional headquarters in this area” alongside the MIT offices, labs and classroom buildings.
Harvard and MIT often offer lectures that are free and open to the public. See community.harvard.edu/events or calendar.mit.edu.
MIT is renowned for its world-class science programmes, but Bodt points out that the art and architecture on campus is equally innovative. One example is the Frank Gehry-designed Stata Center (which is open to the public). “People say it looks like a building that you might see in a Dr Seuss illustration. All of the windows and walls come out at these funky angles,” said Bodt. He also recommends taking a peek into the MIT Chapel (open to the public from 10:00-1100 and 13:30-14:30, Monday through Friday), a cylindrical brick building with no windows by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen. Light enters the building through a single skylight over the altar, where a metallic mobile sculpture hangs and reflects the light. The effect, Bodt said, is “water falling in the middle of the building. It’s very beautiful.”
According to Bodt, the most iconic building on campus is the Great Dome, an MIT landmark that adorns letterheads and class rings. It’s worth a visit to snap a photo and to admire the elegant Barker Library reading room, which is in the rotunda beneath the dome.
MIT students are famous for their “hacks”, or pranks, Bodt said, which usually employ “some ingenious design based on physics and maths and science”. He recalled one of the most famous hacks, when the university awoke to find an MIT police car atop the iconic Great Dome. “Hacks are a way of life at MIT,” he explained. “There’s a whole exhibit in the Stata Center that memorialises some of the best hacks that have been done over the years.”
Marsh Plaza is the centrepiece of the BU campus (Credit: Wangkun Jia/Alamy)
4. See Boston University’s Marsh Plaza
Across the river from MIT, Boston University (BU) is very much intertwined with the city, located along the streets of the Fenway and Back Bay neighbourhoods. One of the best ways to get a feel for the school, Bodt says, is to stroll down Commonwealth Avenue and admire the brownstone buildings, which is the “classic Back Bay architecture”, where a lot of students live.
Walk far enough and you’ll come to Marsh Plaza, which is the centrepiece of BU. “It’s a big, open plaza where there’s always something going on – performances, student protests, farmers markets, etc,” Bodt said. A magnificent sculpture of 50 fluttering doves, entitled Free at Last, honours Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who was a graduate student here. The key university buildings are all in this area, including the George Sherman Union and Marsh Chapel (both open to the public), as well as the Mugar Memorial Library and gorgeous Tudor mansion known as The Castle (which aren’t open to the public, but offer stunning photo-ops).
Bodt also recommends venturing behind Marsh Plaza to see the activity on the Charles River Esplanade, the long park that runs along the river’s edge. “In nice weather, you’ll see students lying out in this narrow grassy area that overlooks the Charles River, where everybody is rowing their crew boats and runners are going along the Esplanade,” he said. The small park has been dubbed – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – “the BU Beach”. “It’s a total misnomer,” Bodt admitted, as there is no sand or swimming. “But we’ll take what we can get for a beach in Boston.”
Wally’s is one of the US’ oldest family-run jazz clubs (Credit: Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club)
5. Hear live music at Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club
Located on the corner of Mass Ave and Columbus St, Wally’s Cafe Jazz Club is one of Boston’s seminal jazz music institutions. It’s a tiny club, but has live music 365 days a year – and much of it is played by students from the nearby Berklee College of Music. “You wouldn’t know they are students,” Bodt insisted. “The students who play there are, like, the best of the best musicians from around the world. It’s phenomenal.” Each night of the week is dedicated to a different sub-genre, from blues to Latin jazz to jazz fusion.
Bodt explains that this particular intersection used to be a Boston music hub, with as many as five different clubs at the corner. Wally’s is the only one remaining, going strong since 1947. The club is now run by the founder’s grandsons, making it one of the country’s oldest family-owned jazz clubs. “There’s not too many places like that anymore. That’s why it’s so special,” Bodt said. “There’s no cover charge. They don’t serve any food. It’s just a little bar on one side and the stage on the other. But it’s some of the best music you’ll ever hear. It’s unbelievable what the students pump out.”
Watching a Boston College football game is one of the city’s quintessential university experiences (Credit: Sipa US/Alamy)
6. Cheer on the Boston College Eagles
Boston College (BC) is located on the edge of Boston, straddling the city’s border with the upscale suburb of Chestnut Hill. With Neo-Gothic buildings clustered around landscaped lawns, it is arguably one of the of city’s most attractive campuses. Bodt says that BC is different from the other Boston-area universities in one significant way: its sports culture. “Attending a high stakes sporting event [here] is a quintessential college experience that you can’t really get at any of the other colleges or universities in Boston.”
In part, this is because the Boston College Eagles compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), one of the country’s premier collegiate sports leagues. The Eagles are competitive in men’s football, basketball and ice hockey; and women’s ice hockey, basketball, field hockey and lacrosse – all of which are fun to watch. But to witness college sports (and sports fandom) at its best, Bodt recommends getting tickets to a Boston College American football game .
College football is not only about the sport. The games are a font of school spirit, starting well before kick-off, with tailgating in the car parks around Alumni Stadium. Throughout the game, cheerleaders perform stunts and cheers; the marching band (the Screaming Eagles) keeps the music going; and the beloved mascot, Baldwin the Eagle, performs his antics. It’s a well-choreographed show, with face-painted fans rallying and cheering the Eagles on to victory.
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