Three seasons a year, tour boats navigate the harbor, giving passengers a novel perspective on some of Boston’s sights. Cruise around the Inner Harbor to see the steeple of the Old North Church, the barrels of the USS Constitution and the actual site of the Boston Tea Party. Longer cruises might head further out to the Harbor Islands, including a view of the historic Boston Light. Cruise by day for optimum ray-catching; set sail in the evening for a spectacular sunset; or take a night tour for cool cocktails and city lights.
Boston Harbor Cruises
Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC) offers a full roster of sightseeing tours on a double-decker passenger ferry. From April through November, the USS Constitution Cruise (adult/child $21/17) gives passengers the chance to get off the boat and explore the Charlestown Navy Yard. From May to early September, other options include longer sightseeing cruises, sunset cruises and brunch cruises.
The Codzilla is a turbo-charged, 2800-horsepower speed boat (also operated by BHC, adult/child $29/25). From early May to mid-October, this boat ride is less about the sights and more about the thrill of speeding across the open water, blasting rock music, and getting wet. And yes, you’re definitely getting wet.
Super Duck Tours
The 'ducks' of Super Duck Tours (bostonsupertours.com) are amphibious vehicles that take passengers around Boston over both land and water. This 90-minute tour is 'super' because it is the only duck tour to go in the Boston Harbor, offering views of the Charlestown Navy Yard, the North End and the waterfront. The ducks are heated inside, so tours run comfortably from March to December (adult/child $33/22).
Liberty Fleet sail boatsIf you prefer to travel under power of wind, book a tour on one of the majestic schooners operated by the Liberty Fleet. The 67ft Liberty Star sails from May through October, while the 125ft Liberty Clipper sails from June through September. Liberty Fleet hosts both day-time sails and sunset cruises (adult $30-35, child $19-24). The evening Rum & Revelry cruise features actors in period dress, serving up grog and other old-fashioned tipples (adults only, $35).
You might see some of the islands from a harbor cruise – and perhaps learn some of their history – but to really experience this unique urban natural resource, spend a day island-hopping. Some 34 islands comprise the Boston Harbor Islands National Park: only 10 of them are open for visitors; six are accessible by ferry from May to mid-October. The islands offer an enticing retreat from summer in the city, with opportunities for hiking, swimming, fishing, camping and – perhaps best of all – exploring an abandoned Civil War fort. Aside from this everyday fun, there are loads of special events, including sunset clambakes, jazz concerts and vintage baseball games.
Coming from Boston, your first destination is either Spectacle Island or Georges Island. Spectacle is home to a solar-powered visitors' center, a supervised swimming beach, a 5-mile walking trail and a magnificent lookout over the harbor. Georges is home to Fort Warren, an abandoned Civil War-era fort that’s ripe for exploration. You can easily spend an entire day at one of these hub islands – or not. Hop on another ferry to Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells, or Peddocks Island, for more hiking trails, camping facilities and unsupervised beaches. These smaller islands are truly off the tourist track, so you might just find your own private patch of paradise.
Getting to the islands
Boston Harbor Cruises runs the ferries from Long Wharf to Georges and Spectacle Islands (round-trip adult/child $17/10) from early May to Columbus Day (Oct 12). From late June to Labor Day (early Sep), the service extends to Lovells, Grape, Peddocks and Bumpkin.
Thompson Island (thompsonisland.org) is a private island only open to the public on Saturday and Sunday between Memorial Day (late May) and Labor Day. The dedicated ferry (round-trip adult/child $17/14) departs from EDIC Pier in South Boston.
Boston Light Tour (bostonharborislands.org) is the only option for visiting Little Brewster Island, America's oldest light station, dating to 1783. Adventurous travelers can climb the 76 steps to the top of Boston Light for a close-up view of the rotating light and a far-off view of the city skyline. Tours run from July 5 to October 4.
One of the most rewarding boat trips from Boston is a whale-watching tour: nothing matches the thrill of spotting a breaching humpback or watching a pod of dolphins play in the boat’s wake. The destination for whale-watching boats is Stellwagen Bank, a rich feeding ground for marine life that has been designated a National Marine Sanctuary. Eagle-eyed passengers usually see several species of whales, including humpback, fin and minke, as well as white-sided dolphins and many kinds of sea birds. On-board naturalists are available to answer questions and point out the marine life.
New England Aquarium Whale Watch (NEAQ) is the only whale-watching trip that departs from Boston proper and is operated by NEAQ in conjunction with Boston Harbor Cruises (adult/child $49/33). The Voyager III is a hi-speed catamaran with three viewing decks, which runs its 3-hour trips from April to October.