Breathe In The Snobbery, Or First Timer’s Guide To Visiting Harvard – Travel Notes

“How many Harvard students does it take to change a light bulb?
One. He just holds the bulb up to the socket, and the world revolves around him.”

Harvard campus is a place that’s a little scary for anyone with inadequacy issues. You will probably feel like you don’t belong. That’s normal, and to be expected.

You need thick skin and high self-esteem. For sure. THE school. The ultimate school. The school to brag about. $28k per semester. The school I never went to.

You see the typical student attire of t-shirts and jeans. However, there is also significantly more knit sweaters. Maroon, dark green, yellow. And brown leather shoes.

This is glorified Hogwarts with a really expensive price tag, and the largest Mac laptop per person ratio I have ever seen. And their own quidditch team.

Poster on campus.

Am I anxious? You bet your maroon sweater I’m anxious.
At least I have a Mac laptop.

Here are four things you should do, while visiting Harvard:

1. Book a tour

Go on a weekday. It will be a much better representation of a place, with classes running, and students bustling.

During the tour, I find myself the odd one out. A typical visitor is either over 40, or under 15 – hopeful parents, dragging their bored children around the court yards. There is an overachieving mom-to-be, who looks about 8 months pregnant.

Our guide is a smiley African-American student in Classical History. I ask him what he wants to be when he grows up. “Graduate school in Classical History to become a professor”, he says. Or law school.


2. Hang out

You can’t fully absorb the place by just taking a tour. Find a lounge, a student coffee shop. Find a study lounge, and read. Preferably something dense (so you look like you fit in. May I suggest Plato’s Republic?). Or better still, eavesdrop.

How very fitting.
A notebook left behind by a student. Epistemology. How very fitting.

A group of seven is discussing how to divvy up $12,000 in donations among various non-profits. Each group member takes copious notes on his/her Mac laptop. [This IS the biggest collection of Mac laptops that I have ever seen in one place].

Libraries – they won’t let you in (I tried). Unlike most academic libraries that I have been to, where people can come and go as they please, unless they want to take out materials, a typical library at Harvard is a fortress.


Getting in is not (that) difficult if you are willing to do a bit of legwork. Get a letter from your university’s library, stating that there are some materials in the Harvard Library that are not available in your library. This, of course, implies that you ARE associated with an academic library already, as a student or as a faculty member.

3. Walk around the Harvard Square

Check out the world’s only Curious George store, or Zinnia, a unique jewellery store, with some very unique locally designed pieces from wood, steel, and other materials.

Bookstores? God, yes.

There is the Co-Op. Prounounceed “coup”. Raven Used bookstore. Harvard bookstore (you can finally get that Harvard t-shirt). Poetry shop.

Food? Meh.
Nothing spectacular around, but if you feel like a burger, check out Bartley’s. It will be busy. Larger groups may have to wait to be seated, but couples and singletons will be in and out within 20 minutes. Bring cash.

IMG_0874 IMG_0873

For more vegetably minded, check out Clover. At $3, fries are cheap AND good. Always a great combo.

Coffee. Will do. Crema is supposed to be pretty good. Peet’s – stale pastries and nothing special. Get a cup of tea at Tealuxe instead – over 80 varieties of loose tea, with 8 different types of chai alone.

Beer? Absolutely. A number of student hangouts and slightly classier restaurant style bars. I was a big fan of John Harvard’s Brewery. The food is hearty and heavy. Go in the winter and get some clam chowder. And a beer, of course.

4. Sneak into a classroom

Ok, this last one is for the more determined ones. Like with most universities, the class schedule can be found online. I would suggest cross-referencing the potential course you are interested in with the classroom size – it will be easier to slip in and out unnoticed out of large lecture halls.

That way you also avoid disturbing a small graduate seminar class, discussing the finer points of literary criticism. Or something equally dense.

Happy Harvarding.

Liked this post? Check out the essay I wrote after the Boston bombings, and why I went to Boston a  year later.


posted: September 11, 2015