ENTHUSIASTIC Guide Eduard Bogel psychs up his tourists for an unconventional stroll through the Yard.
When it comes to being a college hot spot, Boston is the cream of the crop. A 2007 study from the Wellesley-based Collegia Inc. lists the Hub as the top college destination city in the country, beating out all other major US metro areas, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, DC. Collegia reports that for every thousand Boston residents, there are 77.5 students here (yeah, we're still checking into whether that half rounds up if you do the math). Considering that 2007 US Census estimates ranked Boston (at roughly 608,000-plus souls) 21st in size among its urban peers, that's a lot of students.
Come spring, most of these students flee, to be replaced by a comparatively minor population of summer scholars and flocks of high-school seniors scoping out colleges. But for the college-bound who drop by just to tour our schools, it can be hard to envision the true charm of campus life without masses of students lounging on quads, trudging to classes, barfing on the Green Line, etc.
So while most area colleges continue to offer predictably boring campus tours that amount to wandering through academic ghost towns imagining departed crowds, there are also some alternatives to the standard walk-and-talk routine — opportunities to tour the underbelly of Boston academia and learn things that never show up in the admissions catalogues.
The Unofficial Hahvahd Tour
Back in 2006, two entrepreneurial Harvard undergrads decided to give offbeat and snarky tours of that most hallowed of American educational institutions. These unauthorized forays into the local Ivy proved popular with everyone — local papers, tourists, prospective students — except Harvard.
"Harvard has its own office catering to visitors," says Unofficial Tours co-founder Daniel Andrew. "It's a trademark program." The school tried to put the kibosh on the DIY operation, at one point even issuing a cease-and-desist order, but Andrew simply changed the name to the Unofficial Hahvahd Tour and kept on going.
After graduating in 2007, Andrew transformed this quirky extra-curricular venture into a full-blown business and a full-time job. He employs 40 undergrads, who go through 60 days of training, and last year alone, 40,000 people took the tour.
So on one recent morning, this reporter got her lazy ass out of bed before noon to tag along. At just shy of 11 am, an overeager undergrad standing in Harvard Square yelled out, "Who's ready to see Hahhhvahhd?" His crimson "Hahvahd" T-shirt was the only thing that reminded me I was in fact on a college tour, and not in the audience at Oprah.
Our guide led about 25 of us out of the noisy square and through the campus gates. Inside, it was another world — quiet, proper, serene.
First stop, Massachusetts Hall, the building where George Washington camped out with his troops during the Revolutionary War (other notables who've shacked up here include John Hancock and Sam Adams).
"We're walking backwards, talking forwards," our guide said. Next highlight: some dents in the quad paths I would have missed entirely. Thanks to my guide, I now know that before modern heating, university students used cannon balls warmed in their fireplaces as radiators. They tossed the balls out their dorm room windows when done. As if on cue, a student opened her window as we walked past and yelled, "bombs away!" Nice touch.
Suffice to say the crowds were pleased. "We've gone to UVA, Georgetown, and William and Mary," said Karyn Paul, in town for the weekend with her husband and two teens. The family has a tradition of touring college campuses when visiting to other cities. Paul and the rest of the family agreed that the Hahvahd tour was the best yet. "It was just more entertaining than anything we've seen," she said.
"I'm in town for the weekend and the weather was nice," said John Daveney, visiting from London. "I dig the humor."
The Unofficial Hahvahd Tour runs April through October. Tours last 80 minutes and are free, but tips are very much expected and appreciated. In addition to the tours, the group operates a souvenir store below Tommy Doyle's, on Winthrop Street. For more information, visit harv.unofficialtours.com.
Untravel Media's MIT Stata Center Tour
The unofficial — and cheap — way to see part of the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus is so easy you don't even have to leave your couch. (At least, not at first.) Boston's Untravel Media Inc., founded in 2006 by a former MIT grad student, offers a variety of guides to city landmarks, including the New England Aquarium, the West End, and the MIT Stata Center — all for download to your iPod or PDA.
Step one: visit untravelmedia.com and download the 45-minute tour to the portable technological device of your choice ($5.99). Step two: take the Red Line to Kendall and find the strangest building in the neighborhood (32 Vassar Street). Step three: press play.