The fall is the perfect time to visit Harvard University when the leaves are aglow with amber and ruby hues, and the quadrangles are buzzing with students. Most travelers immediately think of Harvard Yard, but many hidden gems are tucked all over the campus that visitors can access without a student ID. What’s more, despite its prim and proper reputation, there are some surprising twists in the University’s traditions that are worth learning about and experiencing when you visit this centuries-old campus. Here are nine uniquely Harvard experiences and one event travelers might want to avoid.
10 Harvard Yard In Autumn
The place to start any Harvard tour, the Yard (as students affectionately know it), is the beating heart of the university. Dormitories circle the yard, enclosed by a wrought iron gate. Some of Harvard’s 25 gates close in the evening, so travelers should enter and exit at The Class of 1875 Gate. Within the Yard are many historical buildings that are interesting in their own right. However, a trip to Harvard Yard should include time to meander the zigzagging paths and soak in the ambiance of youthful ambition and tradition. To identify the campus buildings, Harvard provides a free interactive map of the Campus.
9 A Titanic Connection
It is no secret that many buildings on Harvard’s campus are named for wealthy and influential people. The grand and sprawling Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is no different, but there is a tragic twist. Harry graduated from Harvard in 1907 and was an ardent book lover. The twenty-four-year-old was aboard the Titanic to sail to England to buy books for his large personal library at home. Coincidentally, the Widener family was hosting a lavish party for the ship’s captain on the night the Titanic sank. In memory of her son, Harry’s mother donated millions of dollars to Harvard to erect a massive library. After renovations and expansions over the years, Widener Library is a bibliophile paradise, with over 50 miles of bookshelves with a capacity of 3 million books.
8 Landmarks Of Modernist Architecture
Harvard’s name calls up images of stone buildings, old-world propriety, and a sturdy grounding in the past. However, the reality of Harvard’s campus is modern and state-of-the-art. Contemporary buildings dot the campus and boldly make known their modern sensibilities. The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts embodies a thoroughly modernist concept cast in concrete by iconic architect Le Corbusier. Harkness Commons was designed by Walter Gropius and serves as the graduate center. Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert designed multiple buildings for Harvard while serving as the Dean of the Graduate School of Design, including the Science Center and the Holyoke Center in Harvard Square.
7 The Former Radcliffe College
At its inception, Harvard was an all-male institution. When women were allowed to enroll, they were educated at Radcliffe College and did not enjoy equal access to Harvard College’s amenities and resources. When co-education finally became the norm at the Ivy League school, Radcliffe became an institute of the University, and women were integrated into Harvard University. The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study courtyard Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study has a much more human scale, without the massive buildings that tower over Harvard Yard. In the autumn, the trees in the Radcliffe courtyard are aglow against the lamp lights that still flicker on cool autumn nights. This hidden gem is one of the best places for an evening stroll in Harvard Square.
6 The First Stadium Built For College Football
Sports enthusiasts should head across the Charles River to Harvard Stadium. Built in 1903, the Greco-Roman-inspired athletic complex was the first stadium ever purpose-built for college football. It is also a National Historic Landmark. There are only four athletic stadiums with this designation, so visitors should take the opportunity to see Harvard Stadium while exploring the university. There’s more than football here, and outdoor athletics competitions from rugby to track and field are held here. The best time to visit the Stadium is during the long-held rival football match between Harvard and Yale, locally known as The Game. During this event, students and alumni hold tailgate parties outside the stadium and rally for their teams before filling the stands for a raucous match. Students of each school are known to play tricks and pull outrageous pranks on the opposing side before and during the game.
5 The Little Chapel That Wasn't
This charming, tiny Georgian building, tucked into a small corner quadrangle of the Yard, is often overlooked, but it holds some surprising history. The chapel has never actually functioned as such. Interrupted by the Revolutionary War, the building was used by revolutionary forces and even housed then-General George Washington’s troops for a time. After the war, it became a venue for medical lectures, and remains of human specimens were found under the building. The building is currently a convening space for performances, small lectures, and student events – a function it has performed consistently since 1880.
4 The River Houses
After completing freshman year in a Harvard Yard dormitory, most students go on to upper-class residential houses, which can be found all over Cambridge. These buildings range from traditional Georgian to modern. Visitors should enjoy an autumn stroll by the Charles River to visit a set of these residences affectionately known by students as The River Houses. The dormitories are tucked into bright, leafy scenery with the sparkling river as a backdrop. Interior access is limited to students for privacy and security reasons, but visitors can enjoy the architectural diversity and richness of the buildings’ exteriors and idyllic settings.
3 Primal Scream
This little-known Harvard tradition will surprise visitors. At midnight, on the night before final exams begin each term, Harvard students engage in a 70-year-old tradition that is more than a little unlikely. Students disrobe and run a lap around Harvard Yard while onlookers gather and the university band plays. This is Primal Scream. This tradition serves as a chance for students to let off steam after the long study days known as the reading period and before the start of finals. Initially, students only opened their windows and screamed for ten minutes, but at some point in the 1990s, the au naturale lap came into fashion.
2 The John Harvard Statue -- But Not Really
In the center of Harvard Yard stands a supposed statue of John Harvard, an early benefactor of the university. One of the most photographed statues in the US, visitors often rub their left foot for good luck. However, this regal statue is known within the Harvard community as the “statue of three lies,” and upon close inspection, it’s clear to see why. First, the pedestal mentions that John Harvard was the founder of the university when, in fact, he was a benefactor. Second, it claims the university was founded in 1638, although it was founded two years earlier. Finally, the face of the statue isn’t John Harvard at all. An unknown student was used as the model, and no one was sure of the student’s identity.
1 The Poet And The Food Fight
Visitors to Harvard Yard today will find a peaceful, grassy yard surrounded by brick and wrought iron gates. However, Harvard wasn’t always this peaceful. There is a long history of student rebellions and agitation. Between 1766 and 1834, seven riots demanded change for several grievances. The Rebellion of 1818 was sparked at University Hall, a gleaming white building in the heart of Harvard Yard, by a food fight between the freshman and sophomore classes. Students threw their meals at one another, and the sophomore instigator of the fight was expelled. His fellow students disagreed with the expulsion and demonstrated against the university administration. Eventually, the entire sophomore class was expelled. Some students were allowed to rejoin the university a short while later, including American author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Visitors can see University Hall today, although it no longer serves as a dining hall for students. And that’s probably for the best!