There are American cities that are older than Boston; bigger than Boston; and possessed of more distinct attractions than Boston. But there is only one Boston. The notion of the American Revolution got its start in Boston, as did the concept of modern democracy.
Not too bad for a city that was called a “shining city on the hill” by Massachusetts’ first governor, John Winthrop; but which fell largely out of relevance as cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles rose; and which has only in the past few decades become once again become one of the nation’s most notable cities.
What today is known as Boston includes numerous historic sites, many of which are little known even to residents. Turn a different corner on your way to work in Boston and you are as likely to run into a historic site as you are a street vendor.
However, historic sites are not all concentrated in one area. In fact, the Boston of today is really the amalgamation of several villages and towns over the course of the city’s history. Given that we’re talking almost 400 years of history, Boston had had plenty of time to expand. But this history of incorporation also means that residents have strong – very strong – connections with their neighborhoods, and they are as likely to refer to themselves as being from “Southie” (South Boston) as they are to mention “Boston” itself.
Being more a combination of neighborhoods than a single city emerging from an urban core and radiating out to distant suburbs also means that attractions and sites – even more modern ones – are often separated by some distance. There are around 20 identifiable neighborhoods in Boston, in addition to a half dozen “districts.”
Even comprehensively exploring just one aspect of Boston – say culture – can easily occupy multiple visits to the city. For that reason, it is a wise idea to plan in advance for exactly how much you will be able to enjoy on your stay and what your own priorities are.
Still, there are a few sites and locations no one should miss to explore the true soul of this “shining city on the hill.”
The Essence of Boston
The Freedom Trail might be the single most significant activity for visitors to Boston interested in her historic sites. This 2.5 mi. walking tour of 16 historic sites that begins at Boston Common, goes through downtown Boston, the North End and Charlestown, ending at the USS Constitution. Sites include the old State House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s House, and the Old North Church. The Freedom Trail connects to the Boston Harbor Walk. The Freedom Trail is marked by a line of red paint or red brick in the sidewalk.
Boston Common is a must-see, the oldest public park in the US and the city’s “Central Park” in social terms. Ride the famous Swan Boats, walk across the world’s shortest suspension bridge and generally enjoy the park with its shady trees, fountains, statues, sidewalk vendors, and greenery.
Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, two of Boston’s oldest marketplaces, contain a great set of mainly tourist-oriented shops and eateries. Faneuil Hall Marketplace’s street performers must audition and thus are consistently entertaining. Faneuil Hall also has a historic meeting hall in its upper levels, and is just down the street from the Old State House. Quincy Market has a number of food stalls from local (delectable) providers.
Copley Square is another lovely area to explore, complete with beautiful Trinity Church, terrific local shopping and the Boston Public Library.
While there are numerous tour providers who can help you navigate the many cultural sites, Boston Duck Tours (www.bostonducktours.com) is another fun option. Guests climb aboard an authentic, renovated World War II amphibious landing vehicle, and take to the streets and to the Charles River, to experience history in a unique fashion and to see views of the city that can’t be encountered on any other type of tour.
As with Boston history, Boston culture can be an arduous exploration because of the pure volume of possibilities. Boston’s Theatre District, for example, could easily occupy an entire week’s visit to the city. Broadway might be the theater center of the world, but many productions actually preview.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops and the New England Conservatory are just the most easily recognized musical arts institutions and seeing performances from them can be a highlight of a visit.
A different type of cultural experience can be a tour of the Sam Adams Brewery, or a visit to Arnold Arboretum, the oldest public arboretum in North American and one of the world’s leading centers for the study of plants.
Museums also abound in Boston. Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is Boston’s largest and most comprehensive art museum, and also one of the pricier museums in the US. Its known for its impressive assortment of French Impressionist paintings, with the largest collection of Monet paintings outside of Paris; it also has extraordinary collections of Egyptian and Japanese art, one of the major American collections of art from ancient Greece and Rome, one of the most comprehensive collections of American art, and one of the largest and finest print collections in the United States.
Boston’s Museum of Science, Boston Children’s Museum, Institute of Contemporary Art and Harvard Art Museum are a few other of the most popular museums in the area. There are some unusual ones too, such as the MIT Museum, which is a place that explores invention, ideas, and innovation. Home to renowned collections in science and technology, holography, architecture and design, nautical engineering and history, the Museum features changing and ongoing exhibitions, unique hands-on activities, and engaging public programs. The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology is one of the oldest museums in the world devoted to anthropology and houses one of the most comprehensive records of human cultural history in the Western Hemisphere.
Of course, another whole side to Boston is education. The Greater Boston area has some 65 accredited institutions of higher learning, including many world-renowned colleges, universities, conservatories, and seminaries. The metro Boston area has something of around 250,000 students living in the area at any given time. Here one can visit Harvard and famed Harvard Yard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Berklee College of Music and Boston University to name but a few. In addition to providing Boston with an energetic, youthful vibe, many of these institutions also present cultural and educational programs.
Sports fans will want to see yet another side of Boston, starting with legendary Fenway Park with the looming Green Monster in the outfield. Harvard Stadium has been home field for the Harvard football team for over 100 years.
It’s easy to see why a visit to Boston can be a little overwhelming to some travelers. The pure expanse of things to do and see compares not inappropriately with New York and other larger cities. Once again, preparation and planning will be key to your visit to Boston.
Getting There and Getting Around
Boston is easily accessible via Boston Logan International Airport from anywhere in the United States.
While in Boston it is highly, highly recommended that you not drive. Boston drivers are some of the most aggressive in the country, traffic congestion is routine, parking options are poor and outrageously expensive, navigation is complex and city rules and signage aren’t easy to follow.
Fortunately, Boston is a great walking city and has good public transportation. Bike rental and tours are available and taxis are easy to find in busier parts of the city, but part of the Boston experience is public transportation. Key to Boston’s public transportation is the “T.” The T consists of several components: subway, bus, water shuttles, and commuter rail. The subway is composed of four color-coded rail lines, the Red Line, Orange Line, Green Line, and Blue Line. Short of particular non-touristy spots in the suburbs, the subway can get you anywhere.
Fortunately, a single public transit agency serves the Boston Metro area, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. For complete schedules, maps, and other information, see their official website at www.mbta.com.
Planning ahead for transportation needs is another essential component to the requisite itinerary-planning that a visit to Boston should entail.
Shopping in Boston and Cambridge is an event in itself, and there’s plenty to choose from: the upscale boutiques of Newbury Street, Copley Place, andThe Shops at Prudential Center in the Back Bay; the outdoor kiosks of Faneuil Hall Marketplace; and across the Charles River, there’s Harvard Square and CambridgeSide Galleria; farther out, the Kittery Outlets and Wrentham Village Premium Outlets, and the high-end shops of the Natick Collection.
From designer couture to everyday apparel, the latest in footwear and accessories, the shops in Boston are sure to carry full lines. Whether it’s a tiny new boutique or Barneys New York or Benetton, shopping options here are limited only by the imagination.
Boston is rich in quantity and diversity of accommodation types, ranging from hostels and shared spaces to world-class resort hotels. As in the case of other major cities with massive room availability, the key is for the individual traveler to decide first if accommodations are a singular draw or if they are simply a utilitarian component of his trip. If the latter is the case, then it’s good idea to make plans based on where you’re going to spend most of your Boston stay. In the case of the former, Boston’s many elegant hotels offer a cornucopia of choice. Following are a few diverse options to consider.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel Boston. Situated on Boylston Street, connected to the Prudential Center and close to many other important businesses, this classy hotel has a lot going for it, given the excellent reputation of Mandarin Oriental properties elsewhere. The hotel offers 136 rooms and 12 suites – some of the largest in the city; a five-star spa; outstanding service and proximity to numerous of Boston’s cultural and historic attractions. www.mandarinoriental.com/boston
Taj-Boston. Renowned for its classic style and award-winning service, this 1927 landmark hotel overlooks the picturesque Public Garden with swan boat rides and the Boston Common’s ice-skating at Frog Pond. A major restoration in 2002 has helped accentuate the hotel’s classic nature while sensitively updating it. Surrounded by art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, the hotel is ideally located near the Theatre District, historic sites, shopping at Copley Place and the Hynes Convention Center. www.tajhotels.com
InterContinental Boston. Located on Boston’s historic waterfront — surrounded by the Fort Point Channel and the new Rose Kennedy Greenway – InterContinental Boston is steps away from exciting Boston attractions, including Faneuil Hall/Quincy Market, Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, North End, Chinatown, Beacon Hill and a plethora of historical attractions such as the Boston Tea Party Museum and Freedom Trail. Within the elegant blue glass architecture and polished granite is a world of top-notch service and amenities. www.intercontinentalboston.com
Fairmont Copley. This luxurious hotel has been a symbol of Boston’s rich history and elegance since its gala opening in 1912. Each of the Boston luxury hotel’s 383 guestrooms and suites is well appointed with lavish décor and thoughtful amenities. A historic landmark in and of itself, the Fairmont Copley is located only a few blocks from the Hynes Convention Center, Copley Place Mall and the boutiques of Newbury Street. www.fairmont.com/copleyplaza
Copley Square. Set amid a vibrant urban environment, this small Boston boutique hotel has undergone a multimillion- dollar enhancement that has spotlighted its accentuation of the aesthetic as well as to environmentally sound practices. The key to the distinction of Copley Square’s customer service is personalization – from the time of your evening turndown to pillow preference. The hip nature of the hotel echoes in its eateries and clubs. www.copleysquarehotel.com
Dining and Nightlife
Dining in Boston is quintessential urban world class, complete with globally acclaimed restaurants, chefs and celebration of distinctive regional ingredients. From casual regional “fast food” like lobster rolls to historic gathering places and to white linen tablecloth fine dining, taking a bite out of Boston is as easy as deciding what tempts your taste buds.
Among today’s highly favored restaurants are La Campania, Lumiere and Hamersley’s Bistro, but one of the exciting things about dining in Boston is the fast pace of evolution.
Local Bostonians favor the Paramount (www.paramountboston.com) for breakfast as it’s been pleasing diners for generations with three bistro style meals served daily. A little later in the day for a spectacular brunch – or for that matter any meal at anytime – Mistral (http://mistralbistro.com/) offers a different take on bistro, with its emphasis on simple, fresh French cuisine served in a decidedly elegant environment.
Pops Restaurant (http://popsrestaurant.net/) gets high marks for being a peaceful oasis and for serving innovative takes on American fare traditional and New.
The Union Bar and Grille (www.unionrestaurant.com) has picked up an astounding litany of awards and accolades for its New American cuisine and its emphasis on excellent sourced products. It’s the unusual but welcome fine dining establishment that is also a gathering spot for the broader community. Aquitaine Boston (www.aquitaineboston.com) is another absolute local favorite and is highly evocative of neighborhood bistros in Paris. The fine food and its nicely democratic wine program have helped it carve out a niche as one of if not the best French bistro in the south end of the city.
Scampo at the Liberty Hotel (www.libertyhotel.com) enjoys the kitsch advantage of being located in a former prison but there’s more to it than that. Scampo is the definition of contemporary Italian food and design with an open kitchen preparing brick oven pizzas, a house-made mozzarella bar, a 38-seat private dining room and an outdoor patio.
Given the evolutionary and revolutionary nature of dining in Boston – truly one of America’s great food cities – it is a good idea to stay abreast of new developments in the local dining scene prior to a visit, to make sure your bite out of Boston is memorable.
Boston nightlife might not warrant the media saturation that defines the oft-ephemeral nightlife scene, but it is a busy and vibrant one with concentrations of clubs and bars in numerous neighborhoods.
Popular current venues include the mature, Euro-feel of Cuchi Cuchi and the historic Green Street. Classic beauty and modern ethic combine at the super-club Royale Boston.
Still, it is the small neighborhood bar that best defines nightlife in Boston away from the hallowed halls of high culture. These community institutions are also terrific places to learn more about the city from the people who live there – all while raising a pint.