Harvard Square: The Quirky Heart of Boston's Brain

A neighborhood guide to strange stores, unique bars and world-class restaurants

Of all Boston's neighborhoods, Harvard Square attracts the largest quota of cheesy tourist clichés. Not only are visitors supposed to learn the local accent by repeating—Eliza Doolittle style—"park the car in Harvard Yard" until it sounds all gruff and vowel-mashed, they're also meant to splash on the obligatory Harvard University sweatshirt for that signature accent of ironic faux-brainyness, and to zoom around aimlessly on a Hubway bike while pretending to be late for a lecture.

Go a little deeper into Harvard Square culture, however, and you're going to find a trove of wonderfully quirky bars, cutting-edge restaurants, mind-blowing cinemas and one-of-a-kind stores. Even without the ivory towers and the Boston phonetics, this famous locale has a strong and unique identity that beguiles locals and first-timers alike.

Les Sablons Crispy Potatoes

Where to Eat

We've previously sung the praises of neighborhood standouts Les Sablons ("a conceptual mash-up of metropolitan Boston, Paris and London, nestled into a gorgeous two-floor Cambridge space that has the width-to-length ratio of a submarine") and Pammy's ("It's simple, rustic, classical and decadent all at the same time").  We can also recommend Parsnip—check out the roasted halibut with wild huckleberries—along with jumpin' subterranean hangout/music venue Beat Brasserie (we love the Walk in the Woods pizza) and the ever-reliable Harvest.

Leavitt & Peirce

Where to Shop

All manner of goods are available at delightfully odd Leavitt & Peirce (est. 1883), from chess sets to antique toys and exotic shaving tonics. Relative newcomer Grolier Poetry Book Shop (est. 1927) also scores highly on the uniqueness scale, and a chance to browse there—in the footsteps of literary heavyweights including Seamus Heaney and Anais Nin—should not be passed up.

Grendel's Den

Where to Drink

If you like the sound of red Formica, fading news photos of JFK and the word "shishkebab" immortalized in pink neon, head straight for Charlie's Kitchen. The beer garden and sidewalk patio fill up quickly in the warmer months, and inside there's a ground floor diner as well as an upstairs lounge featuring "the best jukebox in Cambridge." Grendel's Den is arguably the coziest basement bar in the world: Danish mead is available, and the cocktail list includes a lime vodka concoction named "Kanye's Workout Plan." Spicy food lovers should try the Bombay curry with broiled salmon. Locals will tell you that Border Cafe has stellar margaritas—they are not wrong.

Cooper Gallery

The Best Things to Do

The magic of classic cinema lives on, against the inexorable tide of home streaming and mobile entertainment, at the Brattle Theatre which combines silver screen nostalgia with imaginative programming, special events and movie rarities. The Cooper Gallery specializes in African and African-American art and also hosts symposia and lectures at its central Harvard Square location: pop in free of charge and prepare to be amazed. At O2 Yoga, the class options are as flexible and athletic as the instructors and the venue includes an excellent vegan cafe. 

Mike Hodgkinson
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