(The Boston area is a kind of theme park of higher education, with dozens of universities and colleges for the traveler to visit. Orange County Register intern Megan Turchi graduated from Wellesley and now attends Boston University. This is her highly personalized guide to what visitors can expect when visiting the area. Pay attention: School is in session.)
It’s America’s oldest and most famous university, the current president’s alma mater and a synonym for top-shelf education. Founded when Charles I was king of England (and 13 years before his head was chopped off), Harvard was already 139 years old when the “shot heard round the world” (in the words of Harvard alum Ralph Waldo Emerson) was fired at nearby Concord at the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775. Harvard is the elite of the elite, and the students know it. Walk around Cambridge, just over the Charles River from downtown Boston, and it will be 10 minutes at most before you will see a man in loafers, tan Dockers and a vibrantly colored shirt. Other schools are aware of Harvard’s superior status and constantly search for ways to show they are in its league, but they seem to come up short.
Students: Undergrad, 6,700. Graduate and professional, 14,500.
Ranking: U.S News and World Report (University), 1st; Forbes, 8th.
Attractions: The Peabody Museum contains artifacts from the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Brattle Theater is one of the dwindling art house movie theaters (and serves beer). The Coop is where to buy your Harvard gear, apparel and books.
A place to stay: The Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett St. A favorite with alumni and just steps from Harvard Square.
A place to eat: Pinocchio’s Pizza & Subs, 74 Winthrop St. Nicknamed “Noch’s,” this tiny pizza joint has served slices and subs to students for more than 30 years. It’s open until 2:30 a.m. on weekends for those cramming or recovering from a night on the town. pinocchiospizza.net
Tour information: One-hour free tours. Call (617) 495-1573.
More information: harvard.edu or (617) 495-1000. For tours, call (617) 495-1573.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Only Harvard could make MIT the “other” Cambridge university. If any college campus were going to have its own unit of measurement, it would be MIT. The “smoot” is 5 feet, 7 inches, which is also the length of Oliver Smoot, class of 1962, and was used to measure the length of a bridge on Massachusetts Avenue that connects the MIT campus with the fraternities on the Boston side. During the week, MIT is known for its nerdy students who create robots in their free time and fix computers. But on the weekends, MIT frats are the places many local students flock.
Students: Undergrad, 4,503. Graduate, 6,686.
Ranking: U.S News and World Report (University), 6th; Forbes, 10th.
A place to stay: Le Meridian Cambridge. New management has toned down the math-and-science theme of what was once the sleekly geeky hotel at MIT, but remnants of its robotics displays remain. 20 Sidney St.
A place to eat: Ana’s Taqueria (84 Massachusetts Ave.), annastaqueria.com. Coming from Southern California, I was worried about finding Mexican food when venturing east, but Anna’s is a small home away from home. If you want to stick to the MIT theme, head for the Miracle of Science Bar & Grill, 321 Massachusetts Ave., where the menu is displayed on a reproduction of the periodic table of elements.
Attractions: Infinite Corridor is where you will find study spaces, academic classrooms, music rooms and art. I double dare you not to get lost in the winding hallways with a lack of signs. Kresge Auditorium is the site of a cappella concerts, comedy events, theatrical performances and lectures.
More information: web.mit.edu or (617) 253-1000. Ninety-minute tours are conducted at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays, leaving from Building 7.
Harvard lays claim to being the best, but BU is the biggest. The BU Bridge is the only place in the U.S. where a plane can fly over a car driving over a train going over a boat. The stereotype is that BU students are obsessed with sports. Hockey is BU’s top moneymaker. The school had four players on the “Miracle on Ice” 1980 Olympic gold-medal team. It’s a short walk to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox since 1915. Each college within the university has a different “dress code.” At the College of Communication, the future TV anchors vie for best-dressed honors. But at the College of Engineering, it’s sweatpants and sweatshirts.
Students: Undergrad, 16,648. Graduate and professional, 14,175.
Ranking: U.S. News and World Report (University), 51st; Forbes, 85th.
A place to stay: Hilton Boston Back Bay (40 Dalton St.)
A place to eat: T. Anthony’s (1016 Commonwealth Ave. tanthonypizzeria.com). Large omelets for breakfast, Italian sandwiches for lunch, steak tips for dinner and pizza anytime. Its large servings make it a favorite with BU athletes.
Attractions: The city is the draw here, from Boston Common and Public Garden to Fenway Park.
More information: bu.edu or (617) 353-2000. Tours can be tailored to center on one of the nine undergraduate schools. Visitors can eat lunch with a student.
A Jesuit institution five miles outside of Boston in ritzy Chestnut Hill, BC has a calmer atmosphere than its urban counterparts. Except during football season. The autumn leaves are a backdrop for crowds of passionate fans cheering on the Eagles, especially if it’s the college’s turn to host the “Holy War” game against fellow Catholic powerhouse Notre Dame. Boston University is the rival in hockey, prompting Eagles fans to wear T-shirts that say, “It sucks to B.U.” Boston College tends to think of itself as better academically and athletically than Boston University, while BU thinks of BC as an oversize parochial school.
Students: Undergrad, 9,100. Graduate and professional, 4,900.
Ranking: U.S. News and World Report (University), 31st; Forbes, 35th.
A place to stay: Crowne Plaza Hotel Newton, 320 Washington St., Newton
A place to eat: Eagle’s Deli, 1918 Beacon St., eaglesdeli.com. Featured on the Travel Channel and “Rachael Ray,” it’s famous for its hamburger-eating challenges.
Attractions: Football in the fall. Beanpot is an annual hockey tournament where BC, BU, Northeastern and Harvard play at T.D. Garden. The nonsports fan can check out student productions at Robsham Theater or the BC-run McMullen Museum of Art, famous for its Flemish tapestries.
More information: bc.edu or (617) 552-8000. Register online for a 75-minute tour or a 60-minute session with students.
Tucked away in an upscale, leafy enclave outside of Boston, Wellesley is one of the “Seven Sisters,” a consortium of traditionally female-oriented colleges that once were a parallel pinnacle of education to the male-only colleges such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale. The typical student, known as a “Wendy Wellesley,” will play a sport, sing in an a capella group, be a leader on three clubs, have two campus jobs, volunteer on the weekends – and keep up good grades. Wellesley women are strong and independent (don’t you dare open doors for us) and a little crazy for self-segregating at an all-female institution.
Students: Undergrad only, 2,300.
Ranking: U.S News and World Report (Liberal Arts), 6th; Forbes, 23rd.
A place to stay: The Wellesley College Club (727 Washington St., Wellesley) is a quaint hotel on campus. The rooms tend to be small and pricey, but you are paying for convenience. If you have a rental car, I would recommend staying in the next town over, Natick. Hampton Inn Boston/Natick (319 Speen St.)
A place to eat: Lemon Thai, 555 B Washington St., lemonthaicuisine.com. A Wellesley College favorite where, though only a short walking distance from campus, most Wellesley women order the food by phone and the infamous “Lemon Thai man” delivers it straight to the dorms.
Attractions: Wellesley Books is an off-campus, independently run bookstore that’s fun to browse. Lake Waban is an on-campus lake, where the tradition stands that if you walk around the two-mile lake three times with your significant other, that’s the one you will marry. Davis Museum is a great on-campus museum containing a variety of global art and permanent collections.
More information: www.wellesley.edu or (781) 283-1000. Tours available through the admissions office and can include an overnight stay for prospective students.
Tufts University is a somewhat motley group of buildings in seemingly haphazard shapes and sizes spread around its suburban Medford/Somerville campus. Not a place for architectural neat freaks. It’s a top spot for aspiring diplomats, who flock to the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Tufts has a reputation with other schools as an outsider, artsy spot with dance groups and a famous a cappella group, the Beelzebubs, that appeared on the TV show “Glee.” Many colleges are known for their iffy eating options. Not Tufts. It has fabulous campus dining halls, specifically Dewick-MacPhie, which serves a renowned Sunday brunch.
Students: Undergrad, 5,255. Graduate and professional, 5,582.
Ranking: U.S News and World Report (University), 28th; Forbes, 25th.
A place to stay: Hyatt Place Boston / Medford (116 Riverside Ave., Medford)
A place to eat: Kelly’s Diner, 674 Broadway, Somerville, kellysdiner.net. Featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” it’s a 1953 two-piece dining car with a national following.
Attractions: Davis Square draws locals and students to its cafes, bars, eateries and a movie theater. Sacco’s Bowl-Haven is an old-school candlepin bowling alley with a flatbread restaurant inside. Somerville Theater has been open since 1914 and still shows new feature releases, along with hosting concerts and lectures.
Information: tufts.edu or (617) 628-5000. Tours offered daily.