America’s most prestigious university – founded in 1636 and named for its earliest benefactor, John Harvard, in 1638 – has nurtured, tortured, and tickled some of the greatest minds of the past 380 years. It has hosted everything from global economic summits to psychedelic drug experiments, and educated future US presidents to talk-show hosts. Visitors craving contact with the Harvard mystique are in luck – much of the university is open to the public.
Harry Widener Memorial Library: Harvard Yard; 617 495 2413; book tour 2–3pm Fri; access only if accompanied by someone with valid Harvard ID
Semitic Museum: 6 Divinity Ave; 617 495 4631; open 11am–4pm Sun–Fri • Maps and campus tours available from Smith Campus Center: 1350 Massachusetts Ave; 617 495 1573
The university’s oldest building, constructed in 1720, was once a barrack for 640 revolutionary soldiers. The hall houses the office of the President of Harvard and is usually the centre of protests against university policies.
The inscription “John Harvard, Founder 1638” conceals three deceptions, hence its nickname “The Statue of Three Lies.” First, there is no known portrait of John Harvard, so the sculptor used a model; second, Harvard did not found the university – it was named after him; and last, it was founded in 1636, not 1638.
Built over 8 years, Harvard’s memorial to its fallen Union army alumni was officially opened in 1878. Conceived as a multipurpose building, it has hosted graduation exercises, theatrical performances, and assemblies of many other kinds.
The exhibits at this museum (see Harvard Art Museums) include George Washington’s taxidermied pheasants, the Brazilian amethyst geode, the mounted Kronosaurus skeleton, and glass flowers – 850 species of plants, painstakingly replicated in colorful glass.
Harvard’s mixed residential and academic yard became the standard by which most American institutions of higher learning modeled their campuses.
The Widener is the largest university library in the US. It houses an extremely impressive collection of rare books, including a Gutenberg Bible and early editions of Shakespeare’s collected works.
Founded in 1889, this museum houses more than 40,000 objects from excavations in Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and Tunisia.
One of the world’s most comprehensive records of human cultural history, the Peabody caters for the Indiana Jones in all of us. Highlights include Encounters with the Americas, a permanent Mesoamerica exhibit, and a gallery devoted to the development of the science of archaeology.
Harvard’s three art museums were brought under one roof in a Renzo Piano building in 2014. It displays works from Fogg Museum’s world-class collection of European and American art, Germanic art holdings of the Busch-Reisinger Museum, and Asian collections of the Sackler Museum.
This plaza in front of the Undergraduate Science Center is Harvard’s busiest social space, featuring the Tanner Fountain, benches, and food trucks.
Lampooners have made you laugh more than you might ever know. Aside from The Harvard Lampoon being the world’s oldest humor magazine, nearly every successful contemporary American comedy to reach a television or movie screen boasts an ex-Lampooner on its writing staff. Well-known ex-Lampooners include the popular late-night TV host Conan O’Brien.