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Follow this 2.5-mile path for an amazing lesson on the birth of a nation. It runs from historic Boston Common, wending its way past 16 significant sites, including where the Boston Massacre started, Old North Church and Paul Revere’s House. The Trail can be joined anywhere along the way. And while it’s not difficult, if you stop to visit each attraction, you’ll be on your feet for hours.
Founded in 1870 and expanded several times since, the MFA possesses an exceptional collection of American Art with a special concentration of Boston’s own, including John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer and Fitz Henry Lane. The impressionists are well represented, as are collections of European decorative arts, dating from the 17th Century. Of particular note: the 42-foot-tall glass sculpture, Lime Green Icicle Tower, by critically acclaimed glass artist Dale Chihuly, mesmerizes in the courtyard.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail. The Common is America’s oldest public park, dating to the 1630s, and a pastoral retreat in the heart of downtown Boston. The nearly 50-acre green is punctuated with monuments and walkways and in the center, the famous Frog Pond. Changing with the seasons, Frog Pond is a spray pool with a kid-size carousel in summer, an ice-skating rink in winter, a reflecting pool in spring and fall—and always one of the coolest spots for enjoying a time out.
Dedicated to one of the most famous rebellions in American history, this floating museum is cleverly designed to engage a generation of 21st Century technology-obsessed kids (of all ages). Tons of interactive exhibits, dramatic reenactments and multimedia presentations allow visitors to “experience” all aspects of the events—including throwing bags of tea into the Channel from the deck of an authentic-looking replica of an 18th Century merchant ship.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail. It stands at the top of Beacon Hill, itself a kind of beacon with its gilded dome. Constructed in post-Revolution Boston as an upgrade over the Old State House, it was designed by native-Bostonian Charles Bulfinch, a highly regarded architect famous for his Federal style. The Mass. State House is now a museum, and there’s a worthwhile guided tour (free) that covers everything from its architecture and history to the “Sacred Cod” in the House chambers.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail. It’s the 190-foot-tall steeple that helped immortalize the Old North Church in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Boston’s oldest church (aka, Christ Church), this modest early-Georgian dating to 1723, is still in use today, and with no electricity appears remarkably similar to how it looked when Paul Revere sat here.
A popular public green in Boston’s Back Bay, and the finish line for the Boston Marathon, Copley Square offers enviable views of several of Boston’s most historically and architecturally significant buildings, including: Trinity Church, the old Boston Public Library, the new John Hancock Tower (tallest building in New England) and Old South Church. For some of Boston’s best people-watching, check out the Copley Square fountain area.
Even standing in the shadow of the new Hancock Tower doesn’t dwarf this architectural confection. Designed in the 1870s by Henry Hobson Richardson, then an emerging American architect, Trinity is the showpiece that established Richardson’s fame and architectural style, characterized by dramatic arches, turrets and a central tower. The interior features magnificent murals and enough brilliance for Trinity Church to be continually lauded as one the top ten buildings in America for over a century now.
When it opened in 1895, the old BPL (aka, the McKim Building) was called, “a palace for the people”—and it’s easy to see why. Designed by Charles Follen McKim, founding partner of America’s most prominent architectural firm at the time, it features influences from the most flourishing architectural styles, outside and in. If you have time, take the free, one-hour guided tour. If time-pressed, at least visit the Bates Hall Reading Room, up the magnificent marble staircase on the second floor. Looking every inch like an ancient Roman basilica, it’s a lovely reminder that education should be considered sacred.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail.Said to be the oldest house in Boston, the heroic silversmith did indeed live in this small, low-ceiling clapboard dwelling with several family members. Now a museum, the authentically restored house is a show-and-tell of the life and times of Paul Revere.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail. A walk through this timeworn cemetery, established in 1660, is like a Who’s Who of final resting places for Revolutionary heroes. Even more interesting than trying to locate all those illustrious graves, however, is studying the headstones, famous for their wonderfully wordy epitaphs and elaborate imagery (especially of the Grim Reaper).
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail. Built in 1713 to serve the young colony’s government, the stately Georgian-style building witnessed history in the making. It was the backdrop for the Boston Massacre in 1770 (a circle of cobblestones outfront marks the spot) and a short six years later, its balcony was where the Declaration of Independence was first read. Today, the landmark building is a museum dedicated to its historic role in the fight for America’s freedom.
Constructed in 1875, the Old South Church is an outstanding example of Venetian Gothic architecture. The interior is equally impressive with beautiful carved woodwork, ornately stenciled walls and stained glass. Considered unusually ornate for New England, its design is said to have reflected the country’s optimism following the Civil War. Still serving an active congregation, the church is open to the public and known for its organ recitals.
Located in a restored shipyard building within the Charlestown Navy Yard, just steps from where the Constitution is docked, the museum offers interactive exhibits on the history of the old warship, including a simulation of life at sea on the Constitution during the War of 1812. The museum is also a welcome consolation on days when the ship isn’t open for viewing.
As fascinating for its architecture as for its artwork, the ICA showcases art that pushes the envelope and is defined by many forms, including performance art, glass works and video. The new building, which opened in 2006, is credited with igniting the revitalization of the waterfront. As edgy as the museum’s mission, the predominantly glass structure provides outdoor and indoor exhibition space, both of which can be viewed through the expanse of glass walls.
The New England Aquarium, established in 1969, is famous for its Giant Ocean Tank, meant to simulate a Caribbean coral reef, holding some 2,000 fish, sharks, sea turtles, et. al. plus numerous coral replicas. The three-story aquarium also features a penguin area, fresh-water gallery and the exhilarating Whale Watch cruises, which operate from April to November.
A perennial award-winner, the Children’s Museum is known for its well-done interactive exhibitions as well as areas for energy-expending fun—from rock-climbing walls to a three-story climbing structure in the atrium. Geared primarily to ages 3 to 8, there’s a great PlaySpace for toddlers.
The New England Holocaust Memorial was created through the efforts of several thousand survivors who started new lives in and around Boston. Moving and inspiring, the concept piece is located in downtown Boston and consists of six internally-lit glass and granite towers, each 54-feet-tall—a memorial to darkness is built with light. The space includes much poignant symbolism, as well as many poignant facts. Etched in the glass of the towers are the names of the six million killed in the Nazi genocide.
Forget all the historic sights—for many locals, Fenway Park is the most hallowed landmark in town. One of the country’s oldest baseball parks, Fenway is home to the beloved Boston Red Sox, the towering left-field wall known as the Green Monster and tons of bleacher brawls when their arch-rival New York Yankees are up. Tickets to a game are scarce, but a behind-the-scenes tour gets you inside the ballpark without having to deal with rowdy crowds.
With its 34 islands, most of which are open to the public, Boston Harbor offers a summer’s worth of getaways—hiking, biking, swimming, fishing, even clambakes—without ever packing an overnight bag. Harbor Express Ferries connect to Georges and Spectacle islands, and from there, shuttle service is generally available. Ferry service runs from May through Columbus Day.
A whale watch is truly one of the most thrilling experiences, and the NE Aquarium, in partnership with Boston Harbor Cruises, offers front-row seats to sightings just a hop, skip from Boston. Offered April through October, the Aquarium tours are actually guaranteed (or your money back) for seeing whales—including humpbacks, finbacks and pilots—plus dolphins and other cool marine characters.
The Gardner Museum was established in 1903 by its heiress/philanthropist benefactor, and housed in a building designed to look like a Medieval Venetian palace—two details that make visiting far more intimate than the usual museum crawl. The collection is a thoughtfully displayed treasure trove—paintings, sculptures, tapestries, objets, manuscripts, and more, from pretty much every important century and continent. Per Gardner’s will, admission is free to everyone named Isabella and discounted to anyone wearing Red Sox gear.
This is an official site on the Freedom Trail.The 220-foot granite obelisk commemorates the bloody battle of June 17, 1775—considered the first major battle of the American Revolution—but Bunker Hill is also a high point, literally. Climbing the 294 steps to the monument’s perch can be punishing, but it’s well worth the cardio for the amazing vistas.
Located in a 10-acre park, the JFK Library is a towering structure of concrete and glass designed in the 1970s by I. M. Pei, then a relatively unknown architect. Inside, the museum is as moving as it is informational. There are seven permanent exhibits, including The Oval Office and First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, still one of the most popular, with special exhibits added periodically. For history buffs, the docent-led tours, free with admission, are highly recommended.
From the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower, this glass-enclosed skywalk shows off the best panoramic views of Boston—and beyond. It’s also a great way to appreciate the modern city together with its famous history.
Settled in the early 1600s, the North End is Boston’s oldest neighborhood. It was home to lots of action in the country’s revolutionary days, and then in the 1920s, Italian immigrants started moving in, giving the Old World enclave a different accent. Generations later, their descendants remain, making the North End Boston’s “Little Italy”—and home to the best cannolis, pastas and Italian festivals and feasts.
Just across the Charles River from Boston is the city of Cambridge, home to Harvard University, cutting-edge nightlife and enough bookstores per square foot to make publishing look like a booming business. The Square’s shops, galleries and restaurants are worth browsing. Then snag a seat at one of the sidewalk cafés—it’s famous for people-watching and round-the-clock chess games.
Featuring a sandy beach and swimming in a lagoon, Castle Island feels hours from the city, yet it’s connected to the mainland and easily accessible by Harborwalk. The island also houses historic Fort Independence, for which free guided tours are offered in the summer.
From the North End to Chinatown, this blooming, art-filled, urban park is accented with gardens and plazas and fountains and greens for a lovely 15 acres. Check out the Saturday artisan market or take a spin on the custom Carousel. Even in winter, the Greenway shines—with seasonal light displays and art installations.
Leave it to a university to design a fascinating natural history museum whose entirety can be viewed in the time span of a class lecture. For a small museum, it’s a big deal. Do not miss: Glass Flowers; Birds of the World; Africa, with mounted wildlife creatures of a century ago; and Mollusks, about the shelled species, but also just a gorgeous collection of pristine seashells.
Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science in 1879. The Library is a tribute to her life and features several exhibits: the multimedia glass sculpture and fountain in the Hall of Ideas is cool, the Quest Gallery is noteworthy and the Mapparium is extraordinary. This three-story, three-dimensional inverted globe, made from over 600 stained-glass panels, was created in 1935. Visitors actually walk through the globe, listening to a 21st Century multisensory narration on how ideas change the world.
What it is: 280 acres of naturalized and planted gardens, fields and woods, operated by Harvard for the study of plant life. What it feels like: one big, glorious public park for escaping the confines of city living. One of the most fragrant Boston traditions: Lilac Sunday, a festival in May, when the Arboretum’s more than 350 lilac plants start to bloom.
Take a guided tour of the locally born-and-bred brewery. Tours are one hour and include Harpoon’s history, a view of the brewing process—and a tastings of several freshly brewed Harpoon and UFO beers. Then hang out at the Beer Hall for a freshly brewed pint, paired with a house-made pretzel. Tickets for the Tours are only available the day of the tour and can only be purchased in person.
Home to the Boston Symphony and the Boston Pops, Symphony Hall is revered for its superior acoustics and grand design—with good reason. Debuting in 1900, it was conceived by McKim, Mead & White, noted for defining the style of America’s Gilded Age. The architects took full advantage of the academic community at their doorstep and hired a physics professor from Harvard to be their sound consultant. The concert hall also features an Aeolian Skinner organ, installed in 1949 and still considered one of the finest instruments on the planet. Highly recommended: a behind-the-scenes tour, offered during symphony season and providing an up-close look at the great stage plus stories of the venue’s impressive history.
One of the city’s longest-running and most important galleries, the intimate 2,000-square-foot space on Newbury Street is known for showcasing contemporary art in all media, including works by major luminaries as well as emerging local artists. Featuring the unique series of wall installations, “One Wall, One Work,” the gallery is also famous for its annual AIDS benefit exhibition, founded in 1993, in which extraordinary pieces are available for a small donation to a Boston-area AIDS-research foundation.
A showpiece of residential Federal-style architecture, the 1804 townhouse—designed by no less than Boston’s own Charles Bulfinch (Massachusetts State House, Faneuil Hall, U.S. Capitol)—provides a window onto the domestic life of upper-crust Bostonians at the turn of the 20th Century. Once belonging to the family of Rose Standish Nichols, the country’s first female landscape architect, who lived here between 1885 and 1960, the beautifully preserved Beacon Hill mansion is filled with furnishings, artwork (Flemish tapestries, Italian paintings) and decoration (French table settings, China Trade porcelains), all original to the Nichols family—and all displayed to make antiques and architecture junkies swoon.
This stately Georgian mansion, built in 1759, was home to one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, perhaps best known for the poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Longfellow lived here from 1843 until his death in 1882, and the home displays many of his family’s original furnishings plus a treasure trove of more than 10,000 books belonging to the poet himself. A century earlier, the home served as General George Washington’s headquarters during the early days of the American Revolution—and is a prime example of Boston’s rich and many-layered history.
In a city with no shortage of urban parks, Jamaica Pond is one of the loveliest and least tourist-laden of the lot. Named for its 68-acre freshwater pond, the park sits at the base of Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood about five miles south of Boston proper, and along with seasonal boat rentals, a 1.5-mile jogging (or strolling) path and ample benches from which to watch the world go by offers one of the best sunset sightings in town.
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