Planning a trip to Massachusetts? Well, you’re in for a treat – whether it’s endless outdoor adventures, dynamic cities, or delectable dining.
For the most part, traveling in Massachusetts is an easy endeavor, but it helps to know the local quirks and conventions. From navigating the local streets to understanding the local lingo, here are 13 things you need to know before you go.
Planning your trip to Massachusetts
Book in advance to watch baseball or ballet
Whether you’re a culture vulture or a sports fan, you’ll need to plan in advance to get tickets to the big show/game. This goes for Tanglewood and other summer festivals in the Berkshires, Boston performing arts, and most professional sporting events (and especially games at Fenway Park). For the best seats and the best prices, buy your tickets at least a month in advance.
Make reservations for dinner (and maybe lunch)
Dining out in Massachusetts is sure to be a highlight of your trip, especially if you like seafood. Bear in mind: if you have your heart set on eating somewhere in particular, other people do too, so reserve in advance for midrange and upscale restaurants.
Try to book a week or two ahead of time for a weekend dinner at most places, while the hottest restaurants in Boston may require a reservation several months in advance.
Pack your rain hat…and your sunglasses
Weather in Massachusetts is notoriously variable. It fluctuates from day to day, and even hour to hour. So, no matter what your weather app says, you’ll be grateful for that umbrella you throw into your backpack just in case.
Cool weather is always a possibility – even in summer and especially on the coast. Don’t be surprised to see snowflakes anytime between April and October.
The best time to visit Massachusetts
Health and safety in Massachusetts
Know your numbers
Dial 911 in case of any emergency. In many cities in Massachusetts (including Boston), dial 311 to get information about municipal programs or facilities – or to report a non-emergency problem.
Be aware of the checkered record on race
The Commonwealth’s legacy of race relations is marred by contradiction: for example, Massachusetts was the first state to recognize slavery as a legal institution in 1641, and the first to abolish slavery in 1783.
Boston, in particular, is a complicated case. Despite its leftist leanings, Boston has earned a reputation for being inhospitable – and even hostile – to people of color, especially Black people.
Harassment and racial slurs are more common than you would expect, here in America’s bastion of liberalism. It is now a “majority minority” city, but 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. Deval Patrick was the first and only Black governor of Massachusetts (2007-2015); it was only in 2021 that Michelle Wu became the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston.
Top free things to do in Massachusetts
Mind your smoking and toking
In Massachusetts, the legal age for cigarettes and other tobacco products is 21. However, all tobacco products are prohibited in any “workplace”, which includes bars, restaurants, hotels, and public transport (including taxis).
The only exception is designated smoking bars, which obtain a special license. Smoking is not allowed at most public parks or beaches, although that may vary by town.
It’s also legal (again, for adults age 21 and older) to purchase and possess up to one ounce of marijuana. But it’s against the law to use marijuana in public places in any form (smoking, vaping, edibles, etc).
That means parks, beaches, sidewalks, and streets are all off-limits for cannabis use. As with alcohol, driving under the influence of marijuana is prohibited; if you have marijuana in your car, it must be in a closed container. So far, Massachusetts does not have social consumption sites like cannabis cafes.
Note: smoking marijuana is prohibited anywhere that smoking tobacco is prohibited – that includes your hotel room. So, even though marijuana is legal in Massachusetts, it may be difficult for visitors to legally partake. If you’re hoping to get high, it’s time to make some local friends and get yourself an invitation to a private home.
Etiquette in Massachusetts
Respect the New England reserve
It’s not customary for Bay Staters to greet strangers on the street, nor to strike up a conversation with a random person in the supermarket line. Don’t be offended. Folks are perfectly pleasant – just without the pleasantries.
Of course, most locals will be happy to answer questions or give directions or help in any way they can, so don’t be afraid to ask. But they might not care to hear about your grandchildren.
Don’t mock the accent
They call it a Boston accent, but you’ll hear it throughout eastern and central Massachusetts. The most notable features of the local accent are the dropped r in the middle or at the end of words (eg, pahk the cah), and the added ‘r’ sound at the end of words that end in a vowel (eg, a good ide-er).
This accent is not as ubiquitous as it used to be, but it is still widespread, especially among working-class Irish-American populations. You may think the Boston accent sounds strange, but it’s not strange in Massachusetts. So avoid mocking, imitating, or even commenting when you hear it.
By the way, you probably should learn to pronounce Gloucester (glau-ster) and Worcester (wuh-ster), to avoid getting laughed out of the state.
Best lighthouses in Massachusetts
Learn the local lingo
Massachusetts clings to a few charming regionalisms, which might confuse or amuse you during your time here. Many of these terms revolve around food and drink. For example, Bay Staters drink water from a bubbler, not a drinking fountain.
On a hot day, they might drink a tonic (soda) or a frappe (milkshake). Beer comes from a package store, better known as a packie. A submarine sandwich is a grinder.
Most importantly, the words wicked and pisser both mean – wait for it – super cool. Wicked can also be a modifier, meaning extremely, so the ultimate compliment is to say something is wicked pisser (usually pronounced wicked pissah).
Top tip: leave a tip
Did you know that in the US, servers, and bartenders receive significantly reduced hourly wages on the assumption that they will be supplemented by tips from their customers? So in Massachusetts, the minimum wage is $14.25 per hour, but the “tipped” minimum wage is only $6.15 per hour.
That’s why you should always tip your servers and bartenders – 20% for good service, and 25% for an excellent experience. It’s their livelihood.
Incidentally, this is not the case with baristas or cashiers that might leave a tip jar on their counter (although they’re not getting rich at their jobs, and they probably deserve a tip as well).
Don’t drive like my brother; don’t drive like my brother
Such was the sign-off of Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers at the end of their Cambridge-based radio talk show, Car Talk. Bay Staters have a reputation for bad driving: running red lights, hooking U-turns, and pulling the “Boston left” (when the lead car at a traffic light turns left in front of oncoming traffic). An aggressive driver who exhibits this behavior might be derided as a “Masshole.”
If you’re behind the wheel in Massachusetts, drive defensively and be aware of local roadster quirks (see above). If possible, avoid driving in Boston, where heavy traffic and nonsensical street layouts can cause problems.
Be courteous on the T
If you’re not driving in Boston, you’re probably going to ride the subway, better known as the T. The subway does get crowded, especially during commuting hours, so it’s important to know the local etiquette:
- On the escalators, stand on the right and walk on the left.
- When the car doors open, wait on the platform and allow passengers to exit before you enter.
- Once on board, move away from the door toward the center of the train car.
- Offer your seat to children or the elderly, as well as pregnant women and disabled people.
Don’t trash talk the Red Sox
Boston Red Sox fans endured an 85-year World Series drought, but since 2004 have won four times. They’ve earned the right to gloat. You don’t have to like them, but if you’re in Massachusetts, you’re in Red Sox Nation – It’s wise to show respect.