Forged in a crucible of reform and revolution, Boston is handsome, historic and highly cultured–the perfect gateway to New England and the East Coast. Since the first pilgrims set up shop, the capital of Massachusetts has evolved into a vibrant hub for learning and literature, for music and the arts, for fantastic food, and for sports, with some of the country's top teams and most committed home fans.
Though overtaken economically and politically by New York and Philadelphia, Boston remains one of the country’s most forward-thinking and barrier-breaking cities. Atmospheric in winter, energetic in summer, and painted in fireglow colors by changing leaves in fall, this is many travelers' favorite US hub.
From museums and historic architecture to foodie nights out and Red Sox games, you'll never run short of things to do and see–here is our pick of the best things to do in Boston.
1. Walk the Freedom Trail
For a sampler of Boston’s revolutionary sights, follow the red-brick road. The Freedom Trail winds for 2.5 miles through the center of Boston, from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument, linking the real-life locations for key events leading up to and following the War for Independence. The route is well marked and easy to follow on your own–an ideal strategy if you want to linger in some of the historic buildings and museums. Otherwise, there are plenty of tours that follow this trail, including free trips run by the National Park Service (NPS).
2. Experience Boston Common
America's oldest public park, Boston Common has a long and storied history, serving as everything from a campground for British troops during the Revolutionary War to a cattle grazing meadow for free Bostonians until the 1830s. Nowadays, the Common is a place for picnicking and people-watching. In winter, the Frog Pond attracts ice-skaters, while summer draws theater lovers for Shakespeare on the Common. Appropriately, this is also the starting point for the Freedom Trail.
The on-site visitor kiosk is a great source of information, maps and tour guides. Otherwise, you can wander at will through this 50-acre green, crisscrossed with walking paths and dotted with monuments (including a landmark statue of George Washington). Seek out a bench and watch Bostonians hustle to and from the nearby T (subway) stations, or join in any number of activities, from playground shenanigans to free concerts and seasonal festivities.
3. Catch a game at Fenway Park
There might as well be signs on I-90 reading 'Now entering Red Sox Nation'. The intensity of baseball fandom has only grown since the Boston Red Sox broke their agonizing 86-year losing streak and won the 2004 World Series. The home team has since repeated this feat three times, and tickets continue to sell out for every game. Catch play at Fenway Park, the iconic old-style ballpark that has hosted the Sox for more than a century, accessible on tours as well as for home games.
4. Admire the architecture at Copley Square
Boston's most exquisite architecture is clustered around this stately Back Bay plaza. The square's centerpiece is Henry Hobson Richardson's celebrated Romanesque masterpiece, Trinity Church. See it twice, once in the flesh and once reflected in the mirrored facade of the modern John Hancock Tower. Across the square is the elegant neo-Renaissance facade of the Boston Public Library. The plaza is peppered with whimsical and serious monuments commemorating the city's biggest sporting event, the Boston Marathon, for which Copley Square is the finish line.
5. Hang out at Harvard Square
Famous Harvard Square is overflowing with bookstores and boutiques, coffee shops and record shops, street performers and street dwellers. Although many Cantabridgians (residents of Cambridge, MA) complain that the square has lost its edge, with shops that were once independently owned being gobbled up by national chains, Harvard Square is still an iconic place to hang out. Boston's most famous university abuts the square, with ivy-covered architecture and some excellent university museums. Harvard Square is also a hotbed of colonial and revolutionary history; swing by Cambridge Common and Mt Auburn Cemetery to find out more.
6. Have outdoor fun at Charles River Esplanade
When people talk about the 'waterfront', they usually mean Boston Harbor, but there's a second, equally appealing waterfront along Charles River. The Charles River Esplanade is a long and narrow riverside park that offers endless opportunities for outdoor recreation, from playgrounds and picnic areas to bike trails and ballparks. There's no swimming in the river, but there is sunbathing, sailing, kayaking and canoeing. The Hatch Memorial Shell is a venue hosting free outdoor entertainment, including the annual July 4 concert by the Boston Pops orchestra.
7. Visit the Museum of Fine Arts
The collection at the Museum of Fine Arts spans the centuries and the globe, but it's the art of the Americas that makes this museum shine. And that's the Americas, plural, so you might see Maya artifacts and Peruvian textiles alongside the world's largest collection of American Colonial art. It's a niche the MFA fills it in a way that few other museums can. Highlights include countless paintings by John Singleton Copley and John Singer Sargent, as well as Paul Revere's famed 'Sons of Liberty Bowl'.
8. Eat in the North End
What's so special about eating in the North End? For starters, it feels like you've been magically transported to Italy. This is one of Boston's oldest neighborhoods, and the narrow streets still exude a powerful Old World ambience thanks to the area's long-established Italian-American population. North End sounds like Italy, too, with local residents carrying on lively conversations in the mother tongue. Most importantly, it tastes like Italy: the streets are packed with romantic restaurants, cozy cafes and aromatic bakeries, a feast for the senses and the stomach.
9. Hop around the Boston Harbor Islands
If you're dreaming of an island vacation, you've come to the right place. The Boston Harbor Islands consist of 34 small islands, many of which are open for trail-walking, bird-watching, camping, kayaking and swimming. Explore a 19th-century fort at Georges Island, walk the trails and lounge on the beach at Spectacle Island, or climb to the top of Boston's iconic oldest lighthouse at Little Brewster. Mostly operated by the NPS, the Harbor Islands are lovely spaces for outdoor adventures–and they're a quick boat ride from downtown Boston.
10. Step back in time at Beacon Hill
With an intriguing history, distinctive architecture and unparalleled neighborhood charm, Beacon Hill is Boston's most prestigious address. It's hard to describe the utter loveliness of the place. Narrow cobblestone streets are lit by gas lanterns, distinguished brick townhouses are decked with purple window panes and blooming flower boxes and streets such as stately Louisburg Square swim with nostalgic grandeur. The commercial street that traverses the flat of the hill–Charles Street–is a great spot for browsing boutiques and haggling over antiques.
11. Meander through the Rose Kennedy Greenway
This glorious green ribbon winds through Boston's Downtown area, filling the city with blooming flowers, flowing fountains, art markets, beer gardens, food trucks, whimsical sculpture and one fabulous merry-go-round. It's a green gateway to the big blue expanse of the Boston Harbor and waterfront–the fact that the Greenway used to be the site of a hulking overhead highway makes it all the more appealing. Seasonal public art exhibits always offer something surprising to discover.
12. Visit the Bunker Hill Monument
This 220ft granite obelisk commemorates the turning-point battle that was fought on the surrounding hillside on June 17, 1775 during the Siege of Boston. Ultimately, the Redcoats prevailed, but the victory was bittersweet, as they lost more than one-third of their deployed forces, while the colonists suffered relatively few casualties.
Climb the 294 steps to the top of the monument to enjoy a stunning panorama of the city, harbor and North Shore. From April to June–due to the seasonal influx of school groups–you'll need a climbing pass, which is available at the Bunker Hill Museum across the street. By the way, the name of the Battle of Bunker Hill is misleading, as most of the fighting took place on Breed’s Hill, where the monument stands today.
13. Climb aboard the USS Constitution
'Her sides are made of iron!' cried a crewman upon seeing a shot bounce off the thick oak hull of the USS Constitution during skirmishes with the British during the War of 1812. This bit of irony earned the legendary ship its nickname, 'Old Ironsides'. Indeed, the Constitution survived every engagement and it's now the oldest ship still afloat anywhere in the world. Dating from 1797, the ship is normally taken out onto Boston Harbor every July 4 in order to maintain its commissioned status. Bring a photo ID to go aboard; you'll learn lots, such as how the captain’s son died on the ship's maiden voyage (an inauspicious start).
14. Scan the waves for whales
Part of a project pioneered by the New England Aquarium, passenger boats set off daily from Long Wharf during the April to October whale-watching season, bound for Stellwagen Bank, a rich feeding ground for humpback, minke and finback whales, also frequented by dolphins and marine birds. Keen-eyed boat captains and onboard naturalists can answer all your questions and have been trained by the aquarium to ensure that the tours do not interfere with the animals' natural behaviour. Whale sightings are guaranteed, otherwise you'll receive a coupon for a free trip at a later date.
15. Check out the Institute of Contemporary Art
Boston has become a vital hub for contemporary art in the 21st century, with the Institute of Contemporary Art leading the way. The building is a work of art all by itself: a glass and timber prism cantilevered over a waterside plaza. The vast light-filled interior is the setting for multimedia presentations, educational programs and studios as well as the gallery's permanent collection. In the Founders Gallery, which spans the entire width of the building, a glass wall virtually eliminates any barrier between the viewer and the seascape.
The ICA collection showcases both national and international artists, including the likes of graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, video artist Christian Jankowski, photographer Boris Mikhailov, Boston-born artist/sculptor Josiah McElheny, sculptor Sarah Sze and hybrid artist Wangechi Mutu. You'll see everything from oil paintings to multidimensional mixed-media mash-ups.
16. See street art at Underground at Ink Block
What used to be an abandoned parking lot beneath the interstate has found a new life as an 8-acre playground and art space. The main draw is the fantastic mural project, which turned 150,000 sq ft of concrete wall space into a fabulous outdoor gallery for street art, with bold colorful pieces by a dozen local and national artists. There's also a dog park, walking paths and fitness classes to get you moving in this striking urban space.
17. Explore the Museum of Science
This educational playground has more than 600 interactive exhibits guaranteed to get young minds sparking. Favorites include the world’s largest lightning-bolt generator, a full-scale space capsule, a world population meter and an impressive hall of dinosaurs. Kids can go wild exploring computers and technology, maps and models, birds and bees, and human evolution. Don't miss the Hall of Human Life, where visitors can witness the hatching of baby chicks, and the Discovery Center, a hands-on play area for kids under the age of eight.
The Charles Hayden Planetarium features a state-of-the-art projection system that casts a heavenly star show onto the ceiling, as well as programs about black holes and other astronomical mysteries. For total IMAX immersion, check out the space-themed and natural-science-oriented flicks at the Mugar Omni Theater. A sweet sound system will have you believing you’re actually roving around Mars or being attacked by sharks.
18. See the ducks at the Public Garden
Adjoining Boston Common, the Public Garden is a 24-acre botanical oasis of Victorian flower beds, green lawns and weeping willow trees shading a tranquil lagoon, sitting on land that was reclaimed from tidal salt marshes in the 19th century. The old-fashioned pedal-powered Swan Boats have been delighting children for generations, and families love to swing by the Make Way for Ducklings Statue, depicting the characters from the beloved kids' book by Robert McCloskey.
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Originally published in May 2021, updated in September 2021.