Books tour

By JULIA RAPPAPORT  |  April 29, 2009

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

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 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.

Billed as a travel guide/documentary hybrid, the tour — which combines audio and still images — is not exactly thrilling. But it is a solid way to visit the Frank Gehry–designed building in just about an hour. The center, which will screw with your mind's eye and looks like a leaning tower of junk, is home to the school's computer-science and artificial-intelligence departments, among others.

Ultimately, the fact that the downloadable tour is less than visually stimulating is a plus. The center should be the prime focus here, from its tilting angles and swerving walls to its student walkway and ice-melting outside stairs. You get the sense that Gehry always wanted to design a building like this. Two MIT students serve as guides, and namesake donors Ray and Maria Stata (plus a slew of campus professors) provide input. Interactive quizzes and fun background music are added extras for your touring pleasure.

Go your own way
Sure, those are the area's only major official unofficial tours. But campus legends and landmarks abound, and if you query enough alums and campus historians, you can come up with your own self-guided Academic AlternaTour.

Remains of Jumbo the Elephant at Tufts
When a train crushed Jumbo to death in 1885, Barnum & Bailey legend and long-time Tufts donor P.T. Barnum gave his skeleton to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Cornell University bought the elephant's heart and scientists stuffed Jumbo's hide so Barnum could bring it on tour with the circus. Barnum later donated the giant stuffed animal to Tufts, where it was on display (a real alterna-tour sight) until 1975, when fire pretty much destroyed it.

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