Boston is a big city, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re walking around — and make no mistake, this is one of those cities perfect to explore on foot (if you’re not a walker, join a trolley or amphibious vehicle tour). In 20 minutes you can stroll from the Common (Boston’s Central Park) down to the waterfront, and pass major historical attractions, shops and food purveyors along the way.
Boston is perhaps America’s most glamorous historic city, dating back nearly 400 years. The city was founded in 1630 by colonists led by John Winthrop, with a name drawn from an English village. The events that led to the American Revolution started here, including the infamous arguments over the tax on tea that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773. During the protest, three British ships were raided by colonists dressed as Native Americans who dumped tea into the harbor. In 1775, Paul Revere helped spread the word that the British were on their way. The next day, the “shot heard round the world” was fired just a few miles west of Boston at the Old North Bridge, signaling the start of the American Revolution.
These days, Boston, also dubbed “Beantown” (the moniker is another colonial-era legacy, referring to a time when baked beans made with molasses were a Boston specialty), has a European feel, in part because of its many historic buildings and cozy ambience. But it is not an urban museum by any stretch. There’s a big student population here — thanks to the city’s many educational institutions like Harvard, M.I.T. and Boston College — that helps keep the city fresh and edgy.
The “locals” are part of Boston’s charm. Just keep in mind they tend to come in two categories: friendly and grouchy (there are even restaurants that specialize in surly waitresses).
This is a big sports town, and the Red Sox and the Patriots are king. A conversation on either will bring emotional discourse. Political issues are freely discussed too in the land of the Kennedys.
Sure, there’s plenty of American history, especially on the Freedom Trail (just follow the red lines down the sidewalk) — but if television history is more your style, visit the bar that was the model for “Cheers.” And as a visitor you shouldn’t overlook the city’s many museums. Boston has great shopping both for those who want to spend big bucks and for those looking for “bah-gains.” And we care much about eating here too — you can find everything from haute cuisine to Fenway Franks. If you order “chowda” it will be the creamy kind (don’t even ask for tomato-based).
For a taste of American history, walk the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile path linking 16 historic sites. Start at the visitor information center on Tremont Street, where you can get maps and information. Audio tours are available, as are guided walking tours. Several operators also offer trolley tours. You really have to be into history to do the whole thing (it takes a day, at least). But don’t miss a personal favorite, the gravesite of the woman believed by some to be Mother Goose. It’s at the Granary Burying Ground on Tremont Street. For personal guidance, consider a Freedom Trail tour from Viator.
The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the finest art museums in the country, noted especially for its Impressionist collection. Monet lovers will rejoice!
There’s a fine, quirky collection at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, located in the eclectic collector’s former home, a 19th-century building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace. The paintings, furniture, sculptures and other objets d’art are still displayed precisely as they were by Isabella herself.
The New England Aquarium has an excellent collection of sea critters, including African penguins, giant Pacific octopuses and Myrtle the green sea turtle (who is about 80 years old). The aquarium also offers excellent whale watching excursions.
Boston’s Chinatown has an impressive gate as well as a good array of Asian restaurants and inexpensive gift shops. For dim sum, check out Empire Garden, located in the unusual venue of a former theater (it’s at 690 Washington Street).
Tickets may be hard to come by these days, but a pilgrimage to Fenway Park to see the Red Sox play is a definite must.
Boston Common, this city’s version of New York’s Central Park, is absolutely lovely. It’s a must-do, especially on nice sunny days. Don’t miss the adjacent Public Garden, especially the lagoon where you’ll find the city’s famed Swan Boats. The ride takes about 15 minutes, but beware — on nice days lines can be long. If you’re a fan of the famous “Make Way for Ducklings” children’s book, check out the statues of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings.
If you’ve already explored Boston, head across the Charles River to Cambridge. Visit Harvard University, which in addition to hallowed halls has several excellent museums, and hang with the college kids in Harvard Square (home of the Coop, Harvard’s famous bookstore, and other shops including Urban Outfitters and the World’s Only Curious George Store).
The Charles River used to be a big city embarrassment, but now it’s clean enough to support living things and a great place to catch city views. Several companies run sightseeing cruises, including the Charles Riverboat Company and Boston Harbor Cruises. If you’re lucky you’ll pass by the Harvard and M.I.T. rowing teams out practicing.
Boston’s food scene goes beyond “chowda” and all things seafood (though if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll find plenty of delicious choices). The North End is home to some of the city’s best Italian restaurants (don’t miss the mouth-watering cannolis), while you’ll find other ethnic fare in neighborhoods around Boston. Save money by enjoying your big meal at lunch rather than dinner.
There are tons of food choices at Faneuil Hall. The food court offers a little bit of everything, including sushi, stuffed grape leaves and pizza. There’s not a lot of seating, though. For a sit-down meal, Durgin Park Restaurant and Oyster Bar has been a popular spot since 1827, and is noted for big portions and the aforementioned surly waitresses.
Just a block from Faneuil Hall is the historic Union Oyster House, where you can request to sit in the booth where JFK dined (good for bragging rights with the folks back home). It’s the oldest restaurant in Boston, dating back to 1826.
For the best (albeit pricey) sushi in town, head to Oishii, located in the South End. Come midday and order the lunch special to sample the goods without the sky-high price tag.
Join the Harvard gang for a burger and great onion rings at Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers in Cambridge. The cheeky menu includes such options as the Elizabeth Warren: “liberally anointed with Swiss cheese & grilled peppers with potato salad.” Health-conscious travelers can substitute a turkey or veggie burger for any of the beef burgers on the menu.
Legal Sea Foods serves the freshest seafood around, including lobsters, fresh fish and “chowda.” There are various locations around the city, including the Prudential Center and even Logan Airport (Terminals B and C).
Formerly known as the Bull and Finch Pub, Cheers Beacon Hill has embraced its identity as the inspiration for the TV show “Cheers.” In addition to offering plenty of kitschy souvenirs, the place serves a decent burger.
The North End is still an ethnic Italian neighborhood despite higher rents and an influx of yuppies. Grab a cannoli (the best in town) at Modern Pastry on Hanover Street.
For those seeking an indulgent French meal in a romantic setting, try Deuxave in the Back Bay neighborhood. Starters might include such options as “nine-hour French onion soup” and duck liver pate, followed by main dishes of pistachio-crusted lamb and spiced duck breast with lentils.
Shopping in Boston
Boston is a fabulous shopping spot, from the upscale boutiques of the Back Bay neighborhood to the bustling stalls and shops of Faneuil Hall Marketplace. To make things easier on your pocketbook, there’s no sales tax on food items or most clothing. Need souvenir ideas? Popular buys include Harvard and M.I.T. sweatshirts, Red Sox paraphernalia, “Cheers” mugs and anything with a lobster logo.
Near the Common are the expensive shops of Newbury Street, which is Boston shopping nirvana (more shops, including Neiman Marcus, can be found a few blocks away in the mall settings of Copley Place and the Prudential Center).
For distinctive, one-of-a-kind antiques and contemporary crafts, we love the Beacon Hill area’s boutiques.
The Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a lively historical spot with street performers, a huge food court, restaurants, bars and lots of shopping opportunities. This is a great place to pick up souvenirs for the folks at home.
In Cambridge, don’t miss Harvard Square. There are about a dozen bookstores and newsstands here (including the famous Harvard Coop), plus indie clothing stores and a variety of other boutiques.