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Planning a trip to Boston? The big city is a legend in itself for its history and culture. But, keeping a day or two aside for a trip to the neighboring town of Cambridge, Massachusetts is an excellent addition.
Well known as the place to see world-renowned institutions of learning, such as Harvard University, there are many other things to do in Cambridge, MA. The city also has a formidable history of its own, as I discovered during a summer trip.
Getting To Cambridge, Massachusetts
I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts by Amtrak train from New York City and then took a taxi into Cambridge. It’s a drive of only about 40 minutes, but you can also use the efficient public transportation system.
The Red Line of Boston’s subway, the MBTA, or “the T” as it’s called by Bostonians, will take you all the way to Harvard Square station. There are also regular buses from Boston to Cambridge.
My taxi crossed one of the scenic bridges straddling Charles River to take us into Cambridge town. Soon I was in my hotel, ready to begin sightseeing.
Things To Do in Cambridge, MA
Cambridge, situated on the north shore of Charles River, was settled in 1630 by English Puritans. Ever since its inception the city has enjoyed an intellectual and cultural personality, similar to its namesake across the Atlantic.
Originally called Newtowne, it was the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It began as an agricultural town (Harvard Yard was a cow pasture), and Harvard, the nation’s oldest university, was founded here in 1636.
Today, tourists visit Cambridge not only to see its iconic learning institutions but also to enjoy its many restaurants, stores, neighborhoods and historical attractions.
Visit the Revolutionary War Era Monuments and Sites
On July 2, 1775, General George Washington arrived in Cambridge to take command of the Continental Army. No one knew that soon this and other developments would lead to the American Revolution.
The city served as Washington’s headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776 during the Revolutionary War.
I began my exploration of the Revolutionary War sites at Cambridge Common, a National Historic Landmark. Now a verdant public park surrounded by Harvard buildings, historic churches and houses, the site was once the gathering place of Union soldiers during the war.
The myth goes that they gathered under an elm tree here. Though there is no tree now, spend a few minutes to read the plaques on war history including the story of the elm tree. Click a picture at the Civil War memorial dedicated in 1870 and take a look at the three British cannons seized by the Continental Army.
The First Church in Cambridge, a stone’s throw distance from Cambridge Common, was established in 1636. The current stone edifice in the Gothic Revival style dates back to 1871. The interior is impressive with its gilded dome, stained glass windows and a stunning vaulted ceiling.
Next to Harvard Square is the First Parish Church of Cambridge. Although the building housing the current church was built in 1833, the parish and its congregation has existed in the vicinity of Harvard since 1632. Between this church and the busy Massachusetts Avenue lies a cemetery, established in 1636.
The Old Burying Ground, is the final resting place of many early Harvard presidents, wealthy aristocrats, Revolutionary War soldiers and a few African American slaves.
Christ Church, built in 1760-61, bookends the other corner of Old Burying Ground. The church was designed by Peter Harrison, the first trained American architect who brought in the Palladian style to America.
For this reason, Christ Church is a U.S. National Historic Landmark and is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
A Tour of Harvard University
Harvard University is assuredly the prime attraction of Cambridge. The university’s main campus and its heart Harvard Yard, are the oldest parts of the university.
I decided to go on a walk through the Yard, entering through the Johnston Gate. Erected in 1889 this is the primary and oldest of the 25 gates that collectively guard the Yard.
During my quick stroll, I saw the charming 17th-century Georgian style red brick buildings, interspersed by diagonal pathways shaded by a leafy canopy of trees.
Be sure to catch a glimpse of these must-see spots of the campus:
Head over to the bronze statue of John Harvard, who donated his library collection of 328 titles and half of his estate to the university in 1638. The statue was sculpted by Daniel Chester French―famous for the Lincoln Memorial―and is the third most photographed statue in the U.S.
It’s a prime spot to snap a photo, so be prepared to wait your turn as it can be inundated by tourists in the summer months.
Widener Library, with its sweeping flight of stairs and Corinthian colonnade front is another beauty. You are not allowed to enter the library, but you can certainly climb up the stairs to get a scenic view across the Yard.
Don’t miss the Memorial Church with its elegant spire, dedicated on Armistice Day, 1932, in memory of those who perished in WWI.
Look out onto Tercentenary Theatre, the expansive central lawn and the location of the commencement ceremony in May. It is flanked by the Memorial Church and the Widener Library.
Outside the campus gates is another building worth a stop. The Memorial Hall, a National Historic Landmark, is built in High Victorian Gothic architectural style.
The entry vestibule or Memorial Transept is stunning with its high vaulted ceilings and magnificent stained glass windows. Historically, the building honors the sacrifices made during the Civil War by Harvard men of the Union army.
Inside the Incredible World of Harvard Museums
Harvard University has museums that can compete with many world-class collections making a museum visit one of the top things to do in Cambridge, MA. I started my museum hopping with a visit to the Harvard Art Museums.
Comprising the triad of Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler museums, the Harvard Art Museums display a stellar collection of art, sculptures and artifacts from the ancient civilizations to the modern times. Plus, there are constantly changing exhibitions.
When you enter the art museums, stop to admire the modernist grand lobby and courtyard with its capacious glass roof. This architectural masterpiece is by Renzo Piano who renovated the 19th-century building to bring it up to par with modern times.
The Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge
The Harvard Museum of Natural History will mesmerize you with its extraordinary collections from the natural world. The two-story Great Mammal Hall, the Birds of the World exhibit, the display of butterflies and fossilized mammals, the exhibits of exotic and familiar animals from Asia and Africa and more are a sight to behold.
The Earth Sciences Gallery is jaw-dropping with its rows of sparkling gems, minerals, ores and meteorites. I enjoyed seeing and touching the massive glistening amethysts on display.
Absolutely, set time aside to see the exhibit, Glass Flowers. An incomparable collection of handmade models of flowers and plants. This exhibition will well and truly stop you in your tracks.
“The Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants,” better known as the “Glass Flowers,” were created by the father and son glass artist team, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. They started the project in 1886 and continued making these models for around fifty years.
There there’s the 4,300 glass models representing 780 plant species. The exhibition is overwhelming when you enter. I was dazzled by the intricate features achieved in each flower, plant and seed, every piece a perfection of scientific botanical detailing.
Cambridge’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology took me into the captivating world of Native American totems, Aztec figurines, Mexican masks and more.
Also established in the 19th century, the Peabody museum, while holding objects from around the world, puts the focus on artifacts from the Americas. It also examines the social and tragic effects of interactions between European and indigenous cultures.
“Encounters with the Americas” explores the native Latin American cultures before and after the iconic year 1492. This is done through breathtaking displays of gigantic Mayan and Aztec figurines and smaller ephemera.
“Change and Continuity” presents historic and contemporary objects from indigenous North American cultures exemplified by gorgeously carved totem poles. The Natural History Museum and the Peabody Museum are adjacent to each other, and both are included in one admission price.
Learning about the Historic Houses in Cambridge
I recommend starting at Brattle Street as this neighborhood has been a fashionable address since the colonial era.
Brattle Street is primarily a residential zone with a lot of university owned buildings. You will find that many of the mansions are landmark buildings with plaques outside telling you its story.
An example of this is a blue plaque I read which proclaimed, “Wealthy families loyal to the crown” lived here before the American Revolution. The street was then known as “Tory Row.”
Begin with a tour of the star of the street: the history layered Longfellow House. It’s located at 105 Brattle St and was home to celebrated poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), who received it as a wedding gift.
Prior to that, from July 1775 to April 1776, the house served as the headquarters for George Washington. This was during the Revolutionary War when he arrived in Cambridge to take charge of the Continental Army.
Walk to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education, located in two historic homes: 42 and 54 Brattle St. I found out Number 54, the Dexter Pratt House, built in 1808, was the home of blacksmith Dexter Pratt, who was the inspiration for Longfellow’s poem, “The Village Blacksmith.” 42 Brattle St, built in 1727, was the abode of William Brattle Jr., a Loyalist and the wealthiest man in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
I then walked past a light pink color clap-board mansion with five splendid bay windows fronting the street. This was 94 Brattle St. and a blue plaque identified it as the Henry Vassall House. Vassall too was a Loyalist.
At 159 Brattle St. is the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House, built in 1685 and converted into a Georgian-style mansion in 1730. It has been the home of the Cambridge Historical Society since 1957.
I discovered that 168 Brattle St., now a private residence, was once the home of Sara Chapman Bull. She befriended and became an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda. Swami Vivekananda was the Indian philosopher and founder of the Vedanta movement during his visit to Chicago in 1893 to attend the first World’s Parliament of Religions.
There are many more historic houses in this neighborhood and since I was strapped for time, I had to be satisfied with seeing only a few of them.
Viewing the Charles River in Cambridge
If you are in Cambridge, you cannot miss the meandering grace of Charles River. Long before the English King named the river after himself it was called Quinobequin, meaning “meandering”, by the Native Americans of Massachusetts.
Take a walk along the river to admire its beauty. Anderson Bridge is the easiest to get to from Harvard Square. Catch glimpses of the Harvard rowing teams practicing their craft or book yourself a river tour.
Strolling in Harvard Square
Amble back to Harvard Square, the center of many activities, visiting the numerous eclectic stores and feeding your hungry stomachs.
Check out Harvard Book Store, an independent bookshop with a marvelous collection of reading materials at the Square since 1932. Or, visit the University store, The Coop, to buy a special memento to remember your visit.
There are plenty of specialty stores and whimsical boutiques and jewelry stores that will easily whet your shopping appetite. The area is also packed with sidewalk cafes, coffee shops and restaurants to suit various eating styles and budgets. Sitting in the square people-watching over a coffee is one of the favorite things to do in Cambridge, MA.
Russell House Tavern (14 JFK St.), is a fine place to go to for classic American dishes and other artisanal fares. I enjoyed my delicious ramen soup lunch at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka (1 Bow St.), a Japanese chain where you can decide on the ramen size you want.
Saloniki offers tasty Greek food at reasonable prices. You can enter through Dunster Street or through the swanky Smith Campus Center (the first two floors are open to the general public). Here you will also find other wholesome, gourmet eating choices.
Maharaja (57 JFK St.) offers delectable Indian food at affordable prices and the choices are many. Undoubtedly, Cambridge, with its sumptuous offerings of art, history, culture and cuisine can provide a rich travel experience to all.
Book This Trip
Interested in exploring the inspiring city of Cambridge, Massachusettes? Start preparing for your trip by finding favorite local shops, hotel and VRBO options, restaurant reviews and more on Travelocity and TripAdvisor. When you’re ready to book, use Kiwi to find the best airline deals, travel hacks and ground transportation in any area.
Make the most of your adventure and plan some Cambridge tours with GetYourGuide. Whether you want to go on a Guided Bike Tour of Cambridge or unwind on a Boston Sunset Cruise there are a variety of activities to choose from. Book your tours here and cancel anytime up to 24-hours before for a full refund, so you can plan stress-free.
More Helpful Links
- Explore information on tours and on visiting Harvard University here.
- Learn more about Cambridge Common here.
- Find a list of all the Brattle Street houses here.
- Harvard Art Museums
- Harvard Museum of Natural History
- Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology
- Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters
Author Bio: Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background from New York City, loves to travel with her family. Her articles are published in many online travel magazines.