Boston, Massachusetts, is inundated with visitors every year and for good reason: It's partly a walkable historic park (especially the Freedom Trail) and partly a modern waterfront metropolis (the "Hub of New England") with no lack of things to do once darkness descends. Fenway Park—one of the nation's most hallowed baseball stadiums—is a destination in itself.
Although the city has never stopped reaching for the future and now welcomes leading-edge financial services and tech companies, it has lovingly preserved the treasures of its past. Boston cherishes its patriotic connections with the Boston Tea Party and Bunker Hill. It is a living symbol of the melting pot early residents fought to create, including lively ethnic neighborhoods, sophisticated centers of academia and sedate sanctuaries of old wealth. Each seems a world unto itself, yet each is an integral part of Boston's urban identity.
Even with so much to do and so many doing it, the city is a relatively easy place to visit. Boston's attractions and historical sites are laid out in simple-to-follow walking tours, and its subway system efficiently whisks passengers around the city. You won't need a car, which is good: Driving in Boston is hair-raising, even for locals. The most difficult part of your visit may be opening your credit-card bill after you get home: Boston can be expensive, but you'll find a lot to enjoy for each dollar spent.
Although its main attractions are in a relatively compact area compared to other large cities, Boston is made up of distinct districts. Knowing where the most popular ones lie will help you find your way.
The central city sits on a peninsula, surrounded by the Charles River, Boston Inner Harbor and Fort Point Channel. Downtown is roughly in the middle of the peninsula and encompasses many of the Freedom Trail's historic sites, as well as the Financial District and City Hall. Adjoining downtown to the west are Beacon Hill (also rich in history) and the green expanses of Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden. Farther west is Back Bay (a prime shopping, entertainment and dining district), and then the Fenway area.
Northeast of downtown—on the tip of the peninsula—is the North End, the atmospheric Italian neighborhood. South of downtown are Chinatown and the South End. Across the Charles River from downtown (directly north) is Charlestown, home to the Bunker Hill Monument and the USS Constitution.
Cambridge, across the river, is another popular area for visitors and home to Harvard and MIT. Boston and Cambridge may often be spoken of in one breath, but locals never fuse the two. If they were sisters, Boston would be the traditional, practical one and Cambridge the hip, liberal academic. But like any sisters, they have more in common than they will ever admit.
When getting an address for a Boston destination, be sure that you ask not only for the street address but also for the neighborhood, any nearby landmarks and the nearest T stop (subway station). For instance, a cabdriver may not recognize a Dalton Street address for your hotel, but if you mention "It's in Back Bay behind the Pru (the Prudential building)," he or she will find it.
The Boston area was inhabited by several Wampanoag tribes before the arrival of Europeans, who brought with them various diseases and an ambition for land that greatly reduced the Native Americans' numbers. The first permanent English colonists, led by separatist (from the Anglican church) John Winthrop, settled in 1630 and named their settlement after the city of Boston, England. Winthrop's ambition, as he said in his shipboard sermon "A Modell of Christian Charity" (1630), was to create a place of great virtue, "as a city upon a hill."
Boston prospered and soon became the capital of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By the mid-1700s, it had become an important seaport and trading center, second only to Philadelphia and perhaps New York City in terms of influence and power. As the colonists grew more successful—and self-reliant—England became more controlling. Increased taxes on sugar, stamps and, finally, tea helped push the wheels of the American Revolution into motion.
During the 19th century, waves of immigrants were drawn to Boston for the manufacturing jobs generated by another revolution—the Industrial Revolution. The Irish who settled on the fringes of the city eventually put as strong a stamp on Boston's character as the patrician residents of Beacon Hill, who bolstered the city's status as a center of learning and culture. Charlestown and South Boston, which is known locally as "Southie," remain Irish enclaves. A large influx of Italian immigrants settled the area known as the North End, African Americans settled in Roxbury and Chinese established themselves in Chinatown.
After World War II, Boston's importance as an industrial hub faded. However, it grew in prominence as a center for education and technology, largely because of the presence of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in nearby Cambridge, as well as Boston University, nearby Tufts and Brandeis universities, and Babson and Wellesley colleges. For its size, the metro Boston area has more colleges and universities than any other city in the Western Hemisphere.
The city's importance as a seaport has declined, but cruise-ship traffic has increased enormously, and Boston Harbor remains a defining presence.
The best way to see Boston is on foot. The city has preserved many important buildings and sites and has created walking tours that make it easy and enjoyable to visit places that bring U.S. history to life. The Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mi/4-km walking trail that runs from Boston Common through the North End to Charlestown, takes you to the city's most famous historical sites.
If the weather is bad (always a possibility in the unpredictable Northeast), you can access most sites along the Freedom Trail by subway (or T, as the locals say). Most lines have several stops downtown near Freedom Trail sites, such as State, Government Center and Park Street, and often the stops on different lines will be within easy walking distance of one another.
In addition to historic sites, Boston is blessed with magnificent world-class art museums, such as the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) and the eclectic Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Also notable are the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Harvard's Museum of Natural History and the MIT Museum.
Harvard's inner quadrangle is a place of grand halls and tree-shaded lawns. The annual influx of more than 250,000 college students goes a long way toward explaining the energy, vitality and innovative achievements of this supposedly staid city.
If you plan on doing extensive sightseeing, consider purchasing a Go Boston Card (US$63 adults), which includes admission to more than 70 attractions. Toll-free 866-628-9027. https://gocity.com/boston.
Another option is the Boston CityPASS, which allows visitors to see Boston's top attractions at a reduced rate. Admission includes the New England Aquarium, Museum of Science, Skywalk Observatory and a choice of either a Boston Harbor Cruise or admission to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. US$64 adults. Toll-free 888-330-5008. https://www.citypass.com/boston.
Whether it's because of the TV show Cheers
or the city's Irish heritage, most visitors expect to find a lot of taverns in Boston. A lot there are, but in the heavily touristed areas, you may have to do a little hunting to find a traditional neighborhood-style place: The pub that inspired the sitcom Cheers
no longer fits that category, having become a tourist attraction. Most in the popular Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market areas are theme pubs, although a few genuine Irish ones still hold their own.
Boston has spawned many successful musical artists, including Aerosmith, the J. Geils Band, the Cars, Boston, Tracy Chapman, the Pixies, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Staind and New Kids on the Block. The underground band you see in a dingy club just might make its own rise to fame—or not. The city also has a penchant for grooming stand-up comedians: It was a stomping ground for Jay Leno, Conan O'Brien, Steven Wright, Denis Leary, Janeane Garofalo and many others.
One convenient way to club-hop in Boston is to walk the length of Lansdowne Street, across from Fenway Park. The crowd tends to be pretty young and collegiate, even though most clubs admit only those age 21 and older (with exceptions on some nights). Many of these clubs have dress codes—not always rigorously enforced, however—that can vary depending on the night of the week, so be sure to call ahead if you feel like wearing your jeans. The nearest T stop for Landsdowne Street is Kenmore Square on the Green Line, but remember that the T shuts down before the clubs do, so save enough cash for cab fare.
Boston has a well-deserved reputation for shutting down early. Most bars in Boston close during the week at 1 am, although many extend their weekend hours until 2 am. Most dance clubs (including those on Landsdowne Street, which has several) are open until 2 am.
Seafood reigns supreme in Boston (you must
try New England clam chow-dah
). Generally, it's recommended you eat any seafood that's presented to you, but go out of your way to find fresh lobster or steamed clams.
But the impact of multiculturalism on local cuisine can't be overstated. Thai, Vietnamese, Middle Eastern, Indian, Ethiopian, Brazilian, Mexican, Caribbean and Cajun restaurants have established themselves in a town that used to have a reputation for provincialism. Current dining trends run to exquisitely prepared and presented contemporary French cuisine, Mediterranean-inspired bistros and Asian fusion restaurants.
This city has long had one of the largest and most enduring Italian American communities in the U.S., so you'll find a daunting array of great, atmospheric ristorantes from which to choose. For authentic Italian cuisine with Financial District skyscrapers as backdrop, head to the North End. Part of the fun of delving into this neighborhood is strolling up and down the streets comparing menus and prices. Leave room for espresso and sweets (cannoli is wonderful) at one of the neighborhood's pastry shops or cafes on Hanover Street, with more on parallel Salem Street.
Having such a wealth of choices does not come cheap, however; Boston can be a very expensive city in which to dine. For a less costly option, consider taking your main meal at lunch, especially at the Barking Crab or Mr. Barltey's Burger Cottage.
Dining times are generally 6-10 am for breakfast, 11 am-2 pm for lunch, 5-10 pm for dinner.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines for a single dinner without tax, tip or drinks: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$30; $$$ = US$31-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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