I’m asked by visitors to Boston what are the things they must do during their visit. These folks either want to know what makes Boston the city it is or want something they may miss without talking to a local. I can think of lots of suggestions, but I’ve boiled it down to five options for this post. It’s a mix of some typical tourist ideas and some of my favorite places to take people that aren’t often mentioned amongst the biggest attractions.
Boston is a city that loves its sports. Whether it’s the Patriots, Celtics, Bruins, or Red Sox, we’re a city of champions (after going way too long being in the basement). Sports have become a religion. The best way to put it is this: there may be earthshattering political news, but if a Boston team is in the playoffs, the game recap will vie for the top headline at the Boston Globe’s website the next day.
While some cities have a team or two that are popular and have some die-hard fans, in Boston, all the teams have die-hard fans. The interest in all them is intense. Going to a game will give you the flavor and understanding of what the spirit of this city is about.
That said, it’s worth checking out a sporting event while you’re in town. A Patriots game may be the hardest to catch since they’re located in Foxboro, about 30 miles outside Boston. But the Celtics and Bruins play downtown at TD Garden and the Sox have their games at Fenway Stadium, located on the Green Line of the subway. Both are easy to get to as long as you don’t drive.
Tickets can be pricey, but if you're even nominally interested in sports, find some cheap seats online and enjoy the experience!
If nothing else, do a tour of Fenway Park. There’s some great history there and the tour allows you to go behind the scenes. There’s also a museum at the end. Fun fact: Fenway has a garden on top of part of the stadium. The food grown there is for vendors and food banks.
The Freedom Trail
Boston is a city that has a rich history. And nothing allows you to see the core of that history that made it famous than walking the The Freedom Trail. It’s a two-and-a-half-mile walk that goes between Boston Common in downtown to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown. Along the way it goes by 16 different historical sites (churches, houses, monuments, cemeteries, meeting halls). When guests come to Boston and tell me they are only there for one or two days, I tell them to walk The Freedom Trail. It covers all the basics of Boston history and gives a good overview of the downtown area. While there are a few hills on the route, I’ve seen people of all levels of fitness walk it. You can spend an entire day if you choose to go into the locations and take a tour of each. Alternately, if you only want to walk the route and not stop anywhere, you can do it in as little as 90 minutes.
I recommend a few stops, though. The tour of the Massachusetts State House is pretty quick but very interesting. This is because of the building's architecture and indoor artwork. I love the inside of King’s Chapel and Old North Church. Both houses of worship offer tours of their crypts, too, which are worth a visit if you’re a taphophile like me. Speaking of graves, the three burying grounds (Granary, King’s Chapel, and Copp’s Hill) are all worth perusing. Especially for the grave art or famous individuals who find their final rest there. For some other recommendations of what to see on the Freedom Trail, check out these two posts about things along the Freedom Trail you may miss.
The Mapparium is always a difficult place to explain to guests. But it’s a 30-foot-tall stained-glass globe you can walk into. It depicts the world as it was in 1935, when the globe was completed. Being on the inside of this globe gives one the best depiction of the true size of the landmasses and countries that make up our planet. Everything is in perfect perspective.
The price is cheap (approximately $6 per person). Your ticket gets you entry to the Mapparium where you see a brief sound and light show. You’ll then have five minutes or so to take a look around and see how the world has changed since 1935.
The other interesting part of the Mapparium is the acoustics. If you stand in the middle you get perfect surround sound. And everyone’s voices are clear and loud as day. As I tell others, there are no secrets in the Mapparium. It’s a quick experience but worth it; truly one of a kind!
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. It 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. Certain rooms still house empty picture frames where the paintings once were.
Most people don’t think of coming to Boston and sailing out to a Civil War-era fort. Or visiting a World War II camp. Nor do they think about visiting an old Portuguese fishing village or climbing to the top of a lighthouse that’s over 300 years old. Yet all these things are available on Boston’s Harbor Islands.
Too, there are possibilities to take tours of some of these islands. One can also camp here—yurts are available to rent on Peddocks Island. There are many trails and the opportunity to see myriads of birds and even some deer.
If nothing else, the ride on the ferry to the islands is great and provides a wonderful view of the city. And on a hot, steamy, summer day, nothing beats packing a picnic lunch and escaping the heat by enjoying a cool breeze off the ocean on the Harbor Islands.