Here’s the scene: I’m visiting my future husband’s family in Boston for the first time. His mother asks if I want a tonic. It seems like an odd offer, but it sounds refreshing so I accept. Then she brings me an orange soda. What?
You’ve probably guessed that tonic is the word for soda in Bostonese – just one of many quirky regionalisms that still permeate the local dialect. Now, after nearly 25 years of living here, I think I’ve finally got them down, and I’ve learned a few other things too.
From navigating the city streets to navigating the social dynamics, here are the top tips and tricks to know before you go to Boston.
1. From April to October, book ahead – for almost everything
If you’re traveling to Boston during the high season you will quickly discover you are not the only one. To find a decent selection of seats and prices for events, buy your tickets to the theater or the Red Sox (or any professional sporting event) at least a month in advance.
You’ll also do well to purchase advance tickets for the most popular museums, especially the New England Aquarium. Buying just a day or two ahead of time will guarantee your admission and save you the hassle of waiting in line upon arrival.
If you have your heart set on eating at a particular restaurant, try to reserve your table a week or two before, especially for a weekend night. Some of the hottest restaurants in Boston may require reservations several months in advance.
2. Don’t try to drive in Boston
One thing you don’t have to book in advance is your rental car – because you don’t need one! Driving and parking are a huge hassle in Boston, so you’re better off without a car. Be sure to pack comfortable walking shoes, as this compact city is best explored on your own two feet.
3. Pack for all weather
Boston weather has been fooling meteorologists for ages, and it can fool your weather app, too. Conditions fluctuate from day to day and even hour to hour. It never hurts to bring your umbrella and your sunglasses, as the weather may very likely change while you’re out.
Cool weather is always a possibility, even in summer, so bring a jacket for the evening – even if you’re hot during the day.
4. Bostonians are reserved
Bostonians do not normally greet strangers on the street or strike up conversations on the bus, so we probably won’t greet or converse with you either. Please don’t be offended by this customary reserve. That said, most Bostonians are more than happy to answer a question or give directions if you need help, so don’t be afraid to ask.
5. Brush up on the local terminology
Long-time Bostonians have a funny way of saying things, especially when it comes to food and drink. For example, we drink a ‘frappe’ instead of a milkshake, we eat ‘honey-dipped’ instead of glazed donuts, and we might order ‘jimmies’ on our ice cream instead of sprinkles. Sadly, many of these charming regionalisms are fading from use. That said, there is some essential local terminology you should know.
- Bostonians love their Dunkies – that’s our term of endearment for Dunkin’ (they dropped the ‘Donuts’ and embraced the mononym in 2018). Dunkin’ is everywhere in Massachusetts, with 85 outlets in Boston alone.
- The city’s central park is the Boston Common. It is the oldest public park in America and there is only one of them. Please do not refer to it as ‘the Commons’.
- When we’re not walking somewhere, Bostonians take the T. It is short for MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) and all the stations are marked with a big sign that says ‘T’. Not the subway, not the metro – the T.
6. Know your T etiquette
Speaking of riding the T, everyone does it. It’s a convenient and user-friendly way to get around the city. Needless to say, the trains do get crowded, especially during commuting hours, so it’s important to know the local customs and courtesies.
- On escalators, stand on the right, walk on the left.
- When the train arrives in the station, stand to the side and let passengers exit before entering.
- Offer your seat to children and the elderly, as well as pregnant women and disabled people.
- Talk amongst yourselves, but don’t feel the need to strike up a conversation with the stranger next to you.
7. Show some love to your servers
In the US it’s customary to tip restaurant servers and bartenders – not because we Americans are so generous, but because they depend on these tips for their livelihoods. In fact, servers and bartenders receive significantly reduced hourly wages on the assumption that most of their income comes from tips from customers. So in Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $15 per hour, but the ‘tipped’ minimum wage is way below that, at only $6.75 per hour.
Most restaurants do not include a service charge on the bill, except under special circumstances, like for large parties. So it’s up to you, dear customer, to tip generously – 15% minimum, 20% for good service, 25% for exceptional service.
8. The Boston accent is no laughing matter
If you’ve seen Good Will Hunting you know about the Boston accent. (And if you haven’t seen the movie, you should!) The accent is characterized by its dropped r’s after a vowel ('smaht kids go to Hahvahd') and the added r sound at the end of words that end in a vowel ('a slice of pizz-er').
The Boston accent is not as widespread as it used to be, but it’s still common, especially in working class communities. As with any accent, it’s not appropriate to mock or mimic. In fact, there’s really no need to comment at all.
And please don’t say, ‘Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd,’ especially since cars aren’t even allowed in there.
9. Tread lightly when talking politics and sports
If you manage to crack that Yankee reserve, you’ll discover a friendly, engaging population that is passionate about politics and sports. Bostonians are not shy about expressing opinions, which are mostly liberal when it comes to politics, and mostly loyal (to Boston teams) when it comes to sports. If you beg to differ, be aware that the conversation might get a little fiery.
And no, trash talking former New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is not recommended.
10. Be aware of Boston’s mixed record on race
Despite its leftist leanings Boston has, unfortunately, long had a reputation for being inhospitable and even hostile to people of color, especially Black folks. Harassment and racial slurs are more common than you would expect in a progressive city.
Boston is now a ‘majority minority’ city (where more than half of a population represent ethnic, social, or racial minorities). However the city and schools are still largely segregated (despite attempts to integrate schools in the 1970s). Moreover, power structures have been dominated by white men until very recently. It was only in 2021 that Michelle Wu became the first woman and first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston.
11. Don’t get roasted for getting toasted
It is legal for adults aged 21 and over to purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana (or up to 5 grams of marijuana concentrate). However, it’s illegal to use marijuana in any form in public places. Parks, beaches and sidewalks are all off-limits, and there are no social consumption sites such as cannabis cafes yet. As with alcohol, driving under the influence is against the law.
Cigarettes and tobacco products are also legal for adults aged 21 and over. However, they are prohibited in any workplace, which includes restaurants, bars and hotels, as well as public transportation and taxis. Smoking and vaping are also not allowed at any Boston parks or beaches. The only exception is designated smoking bars, which possess a special license.
12. Know where to call for help
Call 911 in case of an emergency. Call 311 for information about municipal services and facilities or to report a non-emergency problem in Boston.