Travel is tough right now but for those who can’t make it to Boston, there are still some awesome ways to check out the sights of the city: virtual tours.
There’s something about seeing a hall filled with great works of art in person. But the depth of work put into these virtual tours gives more context to buildings and artwork than you might find were you walking down a street or strolling a gallery. Videos, historic photographs, background info, and more are in the virtual tours listed below.
The four sites included here aren’t an exhaustive list of virtual tours to take in Boston. Yet, as a fan of history and as a tour guide, I find them to be the best of the best. So, if you’re on a staycation but still want to see some great attractions in Boston, I recommend these.
The Museum of African-American History
This museum began in 1963. It covers life for African-Americans in Boston (and at a location on Nantucket, too) from colonial times through the 1800s.
When I moved to Boston in 2008, one of the first things I did was take a tour of Boston’s Black Heritage Trail (BHT). It’s a 1.6-mile route led by the National Park Service (NPS). The Trail takes the guest past houses of black citizens from centuries ago who were prominent in the city’s history. I was the only person on the tour and had an NPS ranger all to myself, so I had a great time. Although the NPS gives tours of the BHT, it’s actually overseen by the Museum of African-American History (MAAH).
An online tour of the BHT is available through the MAAH’s Google Arts & Culture site. Through a series of Google street view snapshots and historical photographs, the user follows the path of the Trail. They also receive a good amount of historical context about who the people were who comprised this community. Residences, schools, and a meeting house are all visited along the way.
Also, the MAAH has as part of its Google Arts & Culture site an exhibit called “Freedom Rising: Remembering the Abolition Movement and Campaign for Civil Rights in Boston, 1770s-1930s.” This exhibit contains great visuals including maps, newspaper articles, historic photographs, and flyers.
Before doing research into these virtual tours, I was unfamiliar with Google Arts & Culture, but it is very impressive. The user can zoom in on objects that comprise the exhibit and look at them on their own as part of a collection without needing to find them in the exhibit. The text is easy to read and the exhibits flow well. Using it is pretty straightforward with a clean, crisp design.
The exhibits on the MAAH Arts & Culture site aren’t a tour of the facility. But, they’re a great peek into the surrounding community of Beacon Hill (one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city). Too, the exhibits showcase a wide range of materials available in the MAAH’s collection.
Massachusetts State House
Located on Beacon Hill, a few blocks from the Museum of African-American History is the Massachusetts State House. In fact, the Black Heritage Trail begins right across the street from the State House. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that visiting this building was also one of the first things I did when I moved to Boston.
Completed in 1798 and designed by Charles Bulfinch, the Massachusetts State House is an impressive structure that overlooks Boston Common. (Bullfinch also designed the Maine State House, the addition to Faneuil Hall, and many other Boston buildings.) Since 1798 the State House received two additions due to more space needed.
The virtual tour takes the user through the second and third floors of the State House. It allows the user to not only see pictures of the internal layout of the public areas but also zoom in on some specific items. There are many sculptures and paintings of such individuals as Bullfinch, Charles Sumner, and John Hancock. (The State House is actually built upon land Hancock gave to Massachusetts.) Also, one can enter the Senate and House chambers. The latter also allows the visitor to see amongst our more celebrated items: the sacred cod.
There’s a lot of possibility for growth—for example, I’d love to see even more history of pieces in the collection. Yet the panoramic views of the Great Hall and legislative chambers and history of some state leaders make this a worthwhile tour.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
A wealthy socialite, Isabella Stewart Gardner founded her museum in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood in 1903. Over the decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she purchased art in Europe and brought it back to Boston. The collection is exhibited in her mansion.
The collection includes sculptures from Asia and Ancient Greece. Also, there are paintings from the Middle Ages up through the 19th century. There is ornate wooden furniture and tapestries from Europe. The museum has on display letters from famous individuals such as George Washington. Amongst the most stunning aspects of the museum is its courtyard that extends from the ground floor to the glass ceiling stories above. The flowers and plants rotate each season. (The Gardner has its own greenhouse which guests can visit.)
One of the primary reasons for the Gardner Museum's fame is that it was the site of the largest art heist in history. The 13 items taken from the museum in 1990 were worth $500 million. The pieces are still missing and the crime remains unsolved. Yet, the Gardner Museum's Google Arts & Culture site allows the visitor to explore this crime. There's also a closer look at one of those stolen pieces, Jan Vermeer’s painting, The Concert.
Guests can also explore a large part of the museum using Google street view. This allows the visitor to walk the rooms and zoom in on objects to get a better view. The Gardner Museum doesn’t have information about objects on the walls. (Gardner's will states that things stay as they were when she died in 1924.) Thus, some works are a focus on Google Arts & Culture. That said, what makes this museum unique is the large quantity and range of items.
Museum of Fine Arts
A few blocks from the Gardner Museum is the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), housing a collection that tops almost half a million pieces. It’s been around since 1870 and its current location in the Fenway opened in 1909. I know some may think I’m biased since I live in Boston, but it’s one of the best art museums I’ve been to in the United States. When people tell me they’re going to visit the MFA, I make it clear that if they’re serious about art and like to take their time, one day will not be enough. The MFA’s special exhibits are always top-notch, too. I’ve seen shows on everyone from Ansel Adams and Dale Chihuly to Frida Kahlo and Winnie the Pooh there.
When I went to the website, I figured the MFA would have something nice as it’s a big institution. Little did I realize I could explore almost the entire museum virtually. The MFA is another organization that has taken advantage of Google’s Arts & Culture platform. Using this I could walk the halls, zoom in on paintings, and check out their information signs. I try to go to the MFA once or twice a year and it’s been so long since I visited that I spent some time walking the halls because I miss the place!
Using Google it means that not only is the street view option possible to stroll the hallways of the MFA but there are also exhibits to view. There are 16 online exhibits; the primary areas of focus are fashion and conservation. Other exhibits explore specific pieces of art including one on art by African Americans in the MFA collection. It not only shows the art but also gives context and analysis by art experts that provide insight into the pieces. It’s like having a tour guide there with you!
On top of this, there is also the option to look at over 500 items in the collection. The organization of these items is by popularity, date of creation, and color. As is the case with visiting the MFA in person, I would encourage any fan of art who wants to check out the museum virtually to plan to spend some time digging in. I know I put in way more time than I thought I would.
Of course, the most important of all these tours is Historic Boston Crime Tours’ virtual tour. This is a live, online, 90-minute tour that takes you through the same stories as on the walking tour. Yet there's the added context of videos, historical photos, maps, and artwork. To read more about the tour, see this blog post. And to book, click “Book Now” at the bottom of the page.