Elevated view, Lowell House, Harvard Square, Harvard University and Charles River.

©John Coletti/Getty Images

Harvard University

Top choice in Cambridge

America's oldest college, Harvard University is one of the country's most prestigious universities. It was originally founded in Harvard Yard in 1636 by the General Court of Massachusetts with donations from Reverend John Harvard, and was intended to educate men for the ministry.

Harvard University's notable alumni

Alumni of the original Ivy League school include eight US presidents, and dozens of Nobel Laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners. Barack Obama graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991. Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, went to Harvard as did actress Natalie Portman and actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Tours of Harvard University campus

At the time of writing, only virtual tours are available. When visitors are once again welcome on campus, they should contact Smith Campus Center for information on historical tours. Self-guided tours are also available – start with the historic buildings clustered around Harvard Yard. 

Students and tourists rest in lawn chairs in Harvard Yard, the open old heart of Harvard University campus
Harvard Yard remains the center of university life © travelview / Getty Images

Harvard Yard

While the university now occupies vast areas in Cambridge, Allston and further afield, its geographic and historic heart remains at Harvard Yard. This is where red-brick buildings and leaf-covered lawns exude academia, where students congregate to study and socialize, and where graduates proudly receive their degrees. Flanked by its oldest buildings, the yard's main entrance at Johnston Gate opens up to wide lawns, gracious architecture and a buzzy academic atmosphere. 

A bronze sculpture on a plinth of a man sat on a chair with leafy trees in the background
The John Harvard Statue is also known as "the statue of three lies" © S. Greg Panosian / Getty Images

John Harvard Statue

The focal point of the yard is the John Harvard Statue, where every Harvard hopeful has a photo taken (and touches the statue’s shiny shoe for good luck). Daniel Chester French’s sculpture, inscribed "John Harvard, Founder of Harvard College, 1638", is known as the "statue of three lies": it does not actually depict Harvard (since no image of him exists), but a random student; John Harvard was not the founder of the college, but its first benefactor in 1638; and the college was actually founded two years earlier in 1636. The Harvard symbol hardly lives up to the university’s motto, Veritas, or "truth."

Massachusetts Hall and Harvard Hall

Flanking Johnston Gate are the two oldest buildings on campus. South of the gate, Massachusetts Hall (1720) houses the offices of the President of the University. It is the oldest building at Harvard and one of the oldest academic buildings in the country. North is Harvard Hall (1766), which originally housed the library.

A red-brick Gothic building with a tall central tower
Memorial Hall was built to honor Harvard's Civil War heroes © Tupungato / Getty Images

Memorial Hall

North of Harvard Yard, just outside Bradstreet Gates and across the Plaza, this massive Victorian Gothic building was built to honor Harvard's Civil War heroes. The impressive Memorial Transept is usually open for visitors to admire the stained-glass windows and stenciled walls. Most of the building's artistic treasures are contained in Annenburg Hall, which is not open to the public.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Cambridge attractions

1. John Harvard Statue

0.05 MILES

The centerpiece of Harvard Yard is this sculpture by Daniel Chester French, known as the `statue of three lies'. John Harvard was the university's first…

2. Harvard Yard

0.06 MILES

Harvard University was originally founded here in 1636, and Harvard Yard remains the historic and geographic heart of the university campus. Flanked by…

3. Harvard Hall


On the north side of Johnston Gate, Harvard Hall is one of the two oldest buildings on campus, dating to 1766. (The other is Massachusetts Hall, directly…

4. Massachusetts Hall


On the south side of Johnston Gate, Massachusetts Hall is the oldest building on the Harvard campus, dating from 1720. Originally it was a dormitory…

5. Harvard Art Museums

0.11 MILES

The 2014 renovation and expansion of Harvard's art museums allowed the university's massive 250,000-piece collection to come together under one very…

7. Smith Campus Center

0.18 MILES

After a massive overhaul, the Smith Campus Center has been transformed into a fabulous 'living room' for students and visitors to congregate, study,…

8. Harvard Museum of Natural History


This institution is famed for its botanical galleries, featuring some 3000 pieces of handblown, intricately crafted glass flowers and plants. There is a…