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Visiting Harvard Square: 5 Places You Can't Miss
Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA, is a beloved tourist destination. On summer days, tourists from all over the country and across the world can be seen navigating their way through the square, taking tours of the Harvard campus, and searching for a great place to eat, get a drink, or rest their feet. But how do visitors decide from among so many options where they should go? Having lived near Harvard Square for five years, I can offer an insider's view on some of the best places to eat, drink, and shop. Here are five of my favorites, that no visitor to Harvard Square should miss!
First Stop: Coffee and Breakfast
27 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA
Open Weekdays from 7:00am - 9:00 pm and Weekends from 8:00am - 9:00pm
Start your visit to Harvard Square with some coffee and breakfast pastries at Crema Cafe. Crema opened in 2009, making it a relative newcomer to the Harvard Square scene, but it's a favorite because it's the only locally-owned small business coffee shop right in the heart of the square. It's got a great atmosphere, with brick walls, wood accents, and a fantastic loft seating area that makes it possible for more people to fit inside than in your average Harvard Square establishment.
They've got regular drip coffee and a wide range of espresso drinks (I recommend the Crema latte, with honey and cinnamon) and a great selection of teas, juices, and other non-coffee beverages (I also highly recommend their chai latte, hot or iced). I've never met a pastry here I didn't like, but my favorite is the maple pecan scone - the consistency is everything a scone should be. If you don't make it in time for breakfast, they have a great selection of sandwiches, too!
Second Stop: Books
Harvard Book Store
1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA 02138
Open Monday-Saturday from 9:00am - 11:00pm and Sunday from 10:00am - 10:00pm
Cambridge is a college town, so there are plenty of places in town to buy books. But while you're in Harvard Square, skip the famous Harvard Coop (it's a cool space, but it's owned by Barnes & Noble) and head straight to the locally owned and operated (since 1932!) Harvard Book Store.
There are so many things to love about the Harvard Book Store. When you first arrive, head straight to the shelf featuring the Select Seventy - seventy top picks that are all 20% off. Everything in the store is well organized and well marked, so it's easy to find the section you're looking for - make sure you designate plenty of time for browsing. They have an incredible selection of remainders and used books (make sure you head downstairs for the full impact!), so it's nearly impossible for book lovers and bargain lovers alike to leave empty handed.
But by far the coolest thing about Harvard Book Store is Paige M. Gutenborg, the bookstore's very own in-store book printing machine that can print a book for you in just a few minutes, from a list of millions of books. The books are the same quality book you'd get at a bookstore or a library. Wouldn't that be the ultimate souvenir of your visit to Harvard Square to get a book that you get to pick out and watch it be printed?
Third Stop: Lunch
32 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Open Monday - Thursday from 11:00am - 1:00am, Friday - Saturday from 11:00am - 2:00am, and Sunday from 12:00pm - 12:00am
I know you may be thinking - TexMex in Massachusetts? That can't be good. But Border Cafe is a Harvard Square establishment, and a favorite of locals and visitors alike. It's not traditional TexMex, but rather a unique TexMex/Cajun blend. And while Border Cafe has branched out and opened several more locations over the past few years, the Harvard Square location is the original and, in my opinion, the best.
The atmosphere at Border Cafe is the best - sturdy wooden tables, Texas-inspired wall paintings, Christmas lights along the bar and ceiling, and country music piped through the speakers all day long. While it has lots of seating both upstairs and down (as well as outside during warmer months), it gets really full at nights, and especially on the weekend, there can be a long wait for dinner, so I recommend going at lunch where there won't be much of a wait, if any.
You'll start with chips and salsa, and if you're a fan of queso, I definitely recommend ordering some, as Border Cafe has by far the best queso north of, well, the south. Their waters and sodas are enormous. If you're in the mood for an adult beverage, try any one of their delicious margaritas - I recommend the Tradicional on the rocks - or my absolute favorite, their Sangria (on the rocks or frozen, both are amazing). There's a huge list of TexMex and Cajun entrees to choose from, and I've never tried anything there that I didn't like. My personal favorites are the Corn and Black Bean Empanadas (see the vegetarian section on the back of the menu), the Beef Burro, and the Chicken Fajita Salad.
A little known secret about Border Cafe is that they have some of the best french fries in the state - super thin cut, lightly seasoned, and perfectly cooked every time. If you ask nicely, they'll let you sub in fries for the beans and rice or jambalaya that comes with every entrée, or you can add a heaping side order for only $1.50. I highly recommend that you try dipping the fries in the queso. It might change your life.
As an added bonus, much of Border Cafe's menu is gluten free, so if you need a gluten free meal, ask your server for suggestions - they are happy to accommodate!
Fourth Stop: Shopping
5 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Open Monday - Saturday from 10:00am - 8:00pm and Sunday from 11:00am - 7:00pm
There are tons of great shops in Harvard Square, so since you'll leave Border Cafe feeling stuffed to the gills, I recommend taking some time to meander and explore the shops while you digest. One shop not to miss is Black Ink - a store that sells what they call "Unexpected Necessities." It really is a fun shop - filled with all sorts of fun toys, kitchen things, greeting cards, office supplies, knick-knacks, and gifts you never knew you needed. One of the things I love about Black Ink is how the store is organized - with everything on tall thin shelves, it feels almost like a library, but with fun and useful products instead of books. If you need a unique, fun, or slightly quirky gift for someone, this is definitely the place to go!
In case you hadn't caught on to the theme here yet, Black Ink is also great because it's a locally-owned small business. Harvard Square has recently lost a few of its most beloved locally-owned gems, making it more important than ever to support the remaining local businesses!
Fifth Stop: Ice Cream
Lizzy's Ice Cream
29 Church Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Open April - October from 12:00pm - 11:00pm and November - March from 12:00pm - 10:30pm
It wouldn't be a true New England visit without some great homemade ice cream, so once you're finally ready to eat again, head over to Lizzy's for a delicious treat! Lizzy's Harvard Square location is one of three in the Boston area, making it yet another fantastic locally-owned small business. And their ice cream and frozen yogurt are great! If you're having a hard time deciding on a flavor, the staff's favorites are all posted on the wall next to the register, or you can go with one of my favorites - for frozen yogurt, I go with raspberry chocolate chip, and for ice cream, chocolate orgy. If you're up for a hearty sized helping, I recommend getting a double scoop, but if you're still stuffed from lunch, a single scoop here is bigger than most places so it will definitely suffice! There isn't seating inside, so grab some napkins, take your cones, and keep strolling the beautiful brick sidewalks of Harvard Square. I hope you enjoy your visit!