Published October 19, 2010
Boston is dripping in history, and it’s impossible to walk through downtown without passing, seeing, or literally stumbling over a piece of our collective American heritage. That said, as cold as it can get, the city isn’t frozen in time. You’ll hear a modern buzz while you’re listening for whispers from the past: skyscrapers flank cemeteries where Mayflower passengers rest, taxis zoom down cobblestone streets and cutting-edge bistros fill centuries-old homes. Bostonians embrace the old and the new, and the city manages to weave together all periods of our nation’s history harmoniously.
Boston is one of America’s most pleasant urban spaces. It’s small, so it’s easily walkable, and it also has an excellent transportation system (the famous “T,” short for Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority). It’s bursting with local culture, and you’ll find excellent dining, great shopping, a rabid sports scene, and an extremely diverse population of friendly, interesting, and, above all, welcoming people.
5…The Great Urban Outdoors
One of the most shocking things about Boston is how much natural beauty there is within the city itself. Lush green spaces like the Boston Public Garden, the famous Boston Common, and the beautiful parks that make up the city’s famed Emerald Necklace (www.emeraldnecklace.org) are near or within the downtown area.
If you haven’t visited for a while, one of the nicest spaces downtown is the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway (www.rosekennedygreenway.org), a new (and still growing) 15-acre, 1-mile long linear park that occupies the footprint of expressways that were buried during the infamous Big Dig. It’s filled with fountains, green lawns, carousels, museums, benches, and gardens, and it’s a perfect place for a picnic, a jog, or some fantastic people-watching.
Boston’s other natural treasure is its harbor, and the vast Massachusetts Bay just off the city’s shoreline. There are countless tour operators that will take you out on the water, where you can soak up the sun, spot a whale, or explore the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (www.nps.gov/boha/index.htm).
Boston is a city of die-hards, and the fervor and passion here rivals, and possibly surpasses, the dedication of sports fans in cities like New York and Chicago. In recent years Boston has become a bit of a title town, with Red Sox, Celtics, and Patriots grabbing championships in the past decade. Win or lose, though, fans here follow their teams with a fervor that has to be experienced to be believed.
The best way to do this is to go see a game. Your best bet is trying to get Red Sox tickets, though unless you plan pretty far in advance, tickets will most likely only be available on ticket resale Web sites. You’ll also pay a bit of a premium, because Fenway is a small park, and the Sox have a huge fan base, but it’s worth the extra bucks to see a game in the oldest park in the Majors.
Pats and Celts tickets are a little harder to come by. Again, you’ll probably need to use a ticket resale Web site, and will probably pay through the nose for most sports. The best bargain in town is probably the NHL’s Boston Bruins, who have been fielding young, competitive teams in recent years.
Of course, you could also experience the Boston sports scene for the price of a beer and a burger on game day. In a city full of great sports bars, two good choices are the Fours (www.thefours.com), voted the best sports bar in America by Sports Illustrated, and the Bleacher Bar (http://bleacherbarboston.com/flash/), which is located under Fenway’s center field bleachers and actually has a view into the park through the outfield wall.
3…Smaht. Wicked Smaht.
Boston is also America’s college town. The greater Boston area is home to more than 50 institutions of higher learning, and you’ll find more college students here than anywhere else in the country. The area is also home to some of the best schools in the country, institutions like Brandeis, Tufts, M.I.T, and, of course, Harvard.
If you’re here for a few days, plan on taking a side-trip to Cambridge and touring the country’s oldest college, but don’t take the official tour. Instead, when you exit at the Harvard T-stop, take the escalator up to street level and look for a sandwich board advertising Hahvahd Tours (www.harvardtour.com; check website for times). These irreverent, hilarious one-hour tours are led by actual Harvard students.
Looking for a unique Boston souvenir? How about a Harvard education? Everyone can take classes at the Harvard University Extension School (www.extension.harvard.edu), which offers classroom and online courses. Or check out the Harvard Student Agencies’ one-day bartending school (www.harvardstudentagencies.com/hbc/bartending/default.asp); few things are as impressive as an Ivy League-educated mixologist.
Hungry? Buckle up. Forget the baked beans, though (they’re usually gross, and pretty hard to find). Do, however, enjoy the excellent seafood you’ll find here, especially lobster and chowder, both of which live up to the hype. Order a lobster, and chances are it was crawling around somewhere off the coast of Maine a few days (or hours) ago. Clam chowder, possibly New England’s greatest culinary creation, is unique at every establishment. You can order it at every meal, and it will never taste the same.
Boston also has plenty of delicious ethnic eats. You’ll find Thai, French, Tapas, and great pan-Asian cuisine. One World Cuisine (www.oneworldcuisine.com) operates several swanky Indian and Indian-based fusion eateries in and around Boston, including Mantra and Kashmir. Most of their restaurants have fabulous, and affordable lunchtime buffets, a perfect alternative to boring fast food when you’re grabbing a quick bite while sightseeing.
One of the best dining experiences in Boston, though, is going for Italian in the North End. Head here in the evening, walk down Hanover Street, and just pick a place. You really can’t go wrong. When you’re done, be sure to try the best cannolis in the world at Mike’s Pastry (www.mikespastry.com), Boston’s answer to Café Du Monde in New Orleans.
1…History You Can See
Boston’s number one attraction is, of course, its historical sites. And even if you don’t have a fourth grader in tow, you should try to see some of them. It’s pretty hard not to be awestruck when you’re standing on the cobblestones where the Boston Massacre took place, standing on the deck of Old Ironsides, or gazing down a city street and seeing the “one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea” steeple of the Old North Church peaking up.
And yes, you should walk the Freedom Trail. But don’t take a guided tour unless that kind of thing floats your boat. For a much more intimate experience, pick up the excellent, free explanatory map at the National Park Service’s visitor center near the Old State House (15 State Street, www.nps.gov/bost/index.htm), and set out at your own pace.
Try to rent a car if you have a spare day and visit nearby Lexington and Concord, where the American Revolution began. There are probably more stirring experiences than spending an early morning walking the battlefields where a ragtag colonial militia stared down the best army in the world and held their ground, but not many.