Harvard's Widener Library, home to more than 6.5 million volumes. Picture: Gemma Nisbet

Here's a decision I never imagined I'd be in a position to make: Harvard or MIT?

The former, as you know, is one the world's most famous universities, the US' oldest institution of higher learning with a leafy, historic campus and an impressive list of alumni, including Barack Obama, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, T.S. Eliot and Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman.

The latter, properly known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is just down the road in the city of Cambridge and has a prestigious reputation for science, technology and engineering, counting 27 Nobel Laureates among its graduates.

Alas, I'm not some super-smart high-school student choosing where to study, but a visitor, trying to decide where to visit on this particular Friday morning.

And, though MIT is renowned for its adventurous architecture and extensive collection of public art, this time Harvard wins the day.

I'm staying in Boston, across the Charles River from Cambridge, and it's only a short ride on the subway near my hotel to Harvard Square.

You can join a guided tour of the campus - official ones and more light-hearted unofficial versions, both typically led by students - but I've come prepared, having downloaded a free audio tour from the university's website before my departure and loaded it on to my iPhone. So, arriving at Harvard Square, all I need to do is pop into the information centre near the station to buy a map, plug in my headphones, press play, and I'm away.

The tour focuses on the architecture and historical details in and around Harvard Yard, the centre of the university, and is narrated by Harvard undergraduates, the first of whom introduces herself in a perky tone as Samantha, a psychology student.

As Samantha tells me, Harvard was established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor, John Harvard, who left his library and half his estate to the new college. During its early years, Harvard offered a classical academic course based on the British model but consistent with the Puritan ideals of the early Massachusetts colonists. Since those days - the first class had nine students and a single master - the university has grown to comprise about 21,000 students and some 2400 faculty members, with more than 323,000 living alumni worldwide.

And, as I walk into the Old Yard, I'm beginning to wish I could count myself a member of this exclusive group. I can just imagine reclining on the lawn underneath one of trees studying a textbook or calling one of the handsome old dormitories around the yard my home. On the steps of one of them, a couple of students sit chatting in the late-spring sunshine. Classes have already finished for the academic year, so I'd like to think they're all discussing plans for their summer break. For some of them, of course, it's not the start of the holidays but of their adult working lives. As the congratulatory banners around the yard attest, yesterday was commencement - graduation day - for the class of 2014.

Further along the pathway, Samantha directs my attention towards Massachusetts Hall, the oldest-standing building on campus, and Harvard Hall, built to replace an earlier structure which burnt down. The fire also destroyed almost all of John Harvard's book collection and the single surviving volume - the cheerfully titled The Christian Warfare against the Devil World and Flesh - now resides in the university's Houghton Library.

Next to Harvard Hall are a couple more dormitories, including Hollis Hall, once home to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, architect Charles Bulfinch and, during the War of Independence, George Washington's troops. Samantha mentions the dents and pockmarks in the steps and bricks of the building - apparently in the days before central heating, students would use cannonballs heated in the fire to warm their rooms then discard them out the window when spring arrived.

Passing out of the yard through Holworthy Gate, I find myself in front of the 1970s Science Centre, where I am introduced to my next guide, a social studies student named John Paul. Almost immediately, I'm hypnotised by his extraordinarily resonant baritone. Some time later, when I finally snap out of my reverie, I find myself wandering through the Law School, quite off course.

Consulting my map, I regain the trail outside the cathedral-like Memorial Hall. Entering through a side door, I come to the transept, with stained-glass windows and plaques bearing the names of the Harvard men who died defending the Union in the Civil War (the hall was built in the 1870s in their honour). From behind a pair of wooden doors, I can hear a crowd and smell the alluring aroma of a hot breakfast. This must be the entrance to Annenberg Hall, the freshman dining hall which, photographs attest, resembles something out of Harry Potter. But an exploratory push on the door reveals it to be locked and, not for the first time today, I have the sense of being stuck on the outside of something wonderful.

From here I walk up Quincy Street, past the Georgian Revival-style Fogg Museum - currently undergoing a major renovation - to the Carpenter Centre for the Visual Arts. This, John Paul assures me, is "an architectural highlight of the tour" - a starkly modern design completed in the early 60s and the only Le Corbusier building in North America. Usually it's possible to go inside to see exhibitions and film screenings but today it's closed.

Back inside Harvard Yard, another student, the wholesome-sounding Alan, takes over the audio tour. He falls in my estimation by failing to point out an Alexander Calder sculpture, The Onion, outside the sunken Pusey Library but has plenty to say as I arrive at the impressive facade of the Widener Library. Built in 1914 to honour Harry Elkins Widener, a Harvard graduate and rare books collector who died aboard the Titanic, the library houses more than 6.5 million volumes in more than 50 miles (80km) of shelving, Alan says.

The grassed area in front of the library, the New Yard, is a sea of chairs left over from yesterday's commencement ceremonies. Only 24 hours ago, the class of 2014 were here for the ceremonial "Morning Exercises", during which their degrees are conferred. Later, they watched the commencement address delivered by the former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, who also received an honorary degree alongside Aretha Franklin, Chilean writer Isabel Allende and former US president George H.W. Bush. On the library steps, I watch as a student in a gown and mortarboard photographs her parents, who are grinning with pride and clad in Harvard jumpers.

Finishing my tour back in the Old Yard, now busy with tourists smiling for the camera alongside a statue of a seated John Harvard, I head across the campus to the university's Museum of Natural History.

Established in 1998, the museum has an impressive collection, including the historic Great Mammal Hall with its massive whale skeletons suspended from the ceiling, a highly regarded collection of rocks and minerals, and a super-high-tech Tree of Life table which enables visitors to explore the evolutionary connections between different species. Also on display are a dodo skeleton, the triceratops "type" specimen (that is, the first ever described) and, as I discover to my great alarm, a very-much-alive Chilean rose tarantula in a small enclosure in the arthropod room.

But what has really piqued my interest - and managed to distract me from my increasingly intense longing to somehow wangle my way into the ranks of the Harvard students I've spotted here today - is the museum's acclaimed Ware Collection of Glass Models of Plants, better known as the "glass flowers".

The collection of nearly 4400 exquisite glass models depicts more than 800 different plant species and was made over five decades from the 1880s by glass artisan Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolf. The models were commissioned by the founder of Harvard's Botanical Museum, who wanted lifelike representations of plants and flowers for teaching botany; previously only crude models made of papier-mache or wax were available.

The museum now has about 75 per cent of the collection on permanent display and they are extraordinary - so delicate it's hard to believe they're not freshly picked specimens. They're now complemented by a new permanent exhibition of glass invertebrates also made by the Blaschkas, everything from jellyfish and anemones to sea slugs and little octopuses, all rendered in similarly meticulous detail.

Later, I sit in the sunshine outside a cafe on Harvard Square, sipping iced coffee and listening to a pair of final-year students at the next table discuss their plans after graduation. One is going to Malawi to do charity work; the other doesn't seem sure - travel, a gap year, a job, something.

A difficult decision, but not a bad one to be in a position to make.

Gemma Nisbet visited Boston courtesy of Emirates airline and the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

FACT FILE

For information on visiting Harvard, go to harvard.edu/visitors. The Harvard Museum of Natural History is open from 9am-5pm, admission is $US12 ($13), with discounts for seniors, students and children. hmnh.harvard.edu.

Emirates launched its daily direct service to Boston from its Dubai hub in March and now flies to numerous destinations in North America, including Dallas, Washington, Houston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Toronto. Its services to Boston and New York are a particularly attractive option flying from Perth, enabling travellers to reach the east coast of the US with only one stop, and it will launch a direct Chicago service on August 5. Travel agents, emirates.com and 1300 303 777.

For more on visiting Boston, go to bostonusa.com.

The West Australian

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