Read an Excerpt
Frommer's Irreverent Guide to Boston
By Marie Morris
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7370-5
Chapter OneDIVERSIONS 3
Got your walking shoes, subway tokens, cab fare? Good, because it's next to impossible to take your car sightseeing in Boston. You're bound to get lost, and when you finally get where you're going, you won't be able to park. In a city of neighborhoods built long before the automobile, Bostonians usually walk, take the T or bus, or spring for cabs. (And behind the wheel, they tend to turn into demolition-derby drivers. Fair warning.)
Boston's a small city of about 43 square miles-and that figure represents a lot of annexed "streetcar suburbs," where tourists rarely venture. Landfill has augmented the tiny original Shawmut Peninsula, which John Winthrop and his fellow settlers colonized in 1630, but the whole deal still takes up very little space. Beacon Hill, the Back Bay, downtown (including the Theater District and Chinatown), the North End, and the Fenway hold most of the city's attractions. Restaurants and cafes may lure you to the South End. Cambridge is a separate city, as old as Boston and with its own lefty multicultural gestalt, but geographically it's a quick hop on the T across the Charles River-and it's a vital part of the Boston experience.
These days, the "Cheers" bar and the Hard Rock Cafe have more drawing power than the American Revolution, but you really shouldn't visit Boston without walking at least part of theFreedom Trail, the nifty historical route marked by a red (paint or brick) line on the sidewalk. The 2.5-mile trail-at some points not so clearly marked-officially includes 16 sites significant in early American history, from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument and USS Constitution in Charlestown. Pick up a map at the Boston Common Visitor Information Center on the Tremont Street side of Boston Common, where the trail begins. (You can also grab flyers here for nearly every other tourist destination in the area.) A lot of people cop out where the trail leaves the North End and crosses the Charlestown Bridge. Alternatives to the walk include the water shuttle from Long Wharf to the Charlestown Navy Yard, and the bus from Haymarket to Charlestown's City Square. Some skip the Charlestown side altogether, which is worth considering unless you're a fan of naval or military history, or one of those obsessive types who has to finish everything they start.
Getting Your Bearings
In Boston's earliest years, almost everyone lived in the North End. (On busy modern weekends, you might think that's still true.) With the Big Dig winding down, the neighborhood feels renewed-the elevated expressway that cut it off from downtown is gone, and Boston's connection to the water is more apparent than it's been in two generations. After Beacon Hill siphoned off the North End's wealthy white population and its free black working-class residents in the early 1800s, the North End became an immigrants' welcome center, first for Irish and Eastern European Jews, and later for Italians. It retains a strong Italian-American influence. Across the remains of the Big Dig sprawls bland, modern Government Center, which segues into the Financial District, where high-rises tower over 17th- and 18th-century streets with noteworthy Colonial-era sites hidden like Easter eggs among them. In downtown's farther reaches, the Theater District surrounds the intersection of Tremont and Stuart streets and Chinatown snuggles beside the Mass. Pike, joining the Theater District at a tiny but seedy area known as the Combat Zone. Its adult-entertainment businesses are disappearing, but the atmosphere on Washington Street and around the Tufts-New England Medical Center at night is still far from welcoming.
Boston Common separates downtown from Beacon Hill. "The Hill," with its cozy streets and grand but not gaudy homes, has the redbrick-and-cobblestone look closely associated with Boston. Charles Street is its picture-postcard main drag. Cambridge Street, at the foot of Beacon Hill's "north slope," is undergoing a face-lift to change it from grim to glam. Across Charles Street from the Common is the Public Garden, where the Back Bay begins. Many Brahmins left their charming but cramped Beacon Hill quarters in the late 19th century for larger homes in the Back Bay, built on landfill with large, straight streets running west from the Public Garden and parallel to the Charles. Today, most of the elegant Back Bay row houses have been subdivided into apartments (many of them stuffed with students) and condos. Newbury Street is a magnet for shoppers, and a great street scene, especially in the relatively lower-rent area near Massachusetts Avenue (aka Mass. Ave.). Copley Square, bookended by the magnificent architecture of Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, is the jewel of the Back Bay. Not far away, the Southwest Corridor divides the Back Bay from the South End, a Victorian megalopolis with brownstone-lined streets. The gay community played a big role in gentrifying the South End; pockets are still in serious disrepair, but many parts are as manicured and charming as the best of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay.
Cultural diversions abound in the Fenway, which has Frederick Law Olmsted, co-designer of New York's Central Park, to thank for its green space. Here you'll find Symphony Hall, the New England Conservatory of Music, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; for fans of pop culture, baseball's Fenway Park adjoins nightclub-laden Lansdowne Street. The flashing Citgo sign above Kenmore Square signals that you're moving into Boston University territory. The Green Line trolley passes through here en route to Brookline, the first of the streetcar suburbs. If you're feeling adventurous, take bus 39 (from Copley Sq.) or the Orange Line to Jamaica Plain. Better known as "J.P.," this is a well-integrated, mixed-income community with funky restaurants and cozy pubs on and around Centre Street, plus an urban oasis, Jamaica Pond. This might be where the Boston catchphrase "You can't get there from here" originated; nonresidents (even other Bostonians) have trouble giving and following directions in J.P.
Charlestown lies across the Inner Harbor from the North End; Cambridge stretches along the north bank of the Charles River, connected to Boston by a number of bridges. The Harvard Bridge, which carries Mass. Ave. across the river, leads not to Harvard but to MIT-to get to Harvard you take the Anderson Bridge, which empties onto John F. Kennedy Street.
The best way to get around is by subway, the famous Boston "T." The T has four lines, distinguished by color (see the You Probably Didn't Know chapter) and runs from 5:30am or so (6am weekends) to 12:45am. Buses are convenient for a few far-flung sights, but the routes are not as easy to figure out. For most visitors, buses are not a required mode of transportation.
The best overview tour is an 80-minute excursion with Boston Duck Tours. The reconditioned World War II amphibious vehicles cover all the high points on a jaunt through the city, then plunge into the Charles River. The guides ("con-ducktors") are very well qualified-they must have licenses to drive on land and pilot on water. This is touristy enough; for the ubertourist experience, sling a camera around your neck and hop onto one of the ubiquitous narrated "trolley" tours that trundle around the city. If you're on a tight schedule or have mobility issues, it's hard to knock the convenience and the all-day ticket (you can reboard as often as you like), and riding around is tempting when the weather is hot, wet, or cold. But part of the magic of Boston is seeing it at eye level and at your own pace, not roaring by in a bus tricked out with a trolley chassis. Having said that, we'll look the other way if you just don't feel like hoofing it. Ask a lot of questions before buying tickets (available on board and at busy tourist spots, including Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Aquarium, and the Common); the companies adjust their offerings according to demand, and if you have an itinerary in mind, you can probably find a suitable route. The major companies are Boston Trolley Tours (Tel 617/867-5539; historictours.com); Freedom Trail Trolleys (Tel 800/343-1328; bostontrolley.com); and Old Town Trolleys (Tel 617/269-7150; trolleytours.com). Old Town also runs a separate Cambridge tour from April through October. For a more specialized look at Boston, take an architectural or historical walking tour with the top-notch walking-tour company Boston By Foot (Tel 617/367-3766 for recorded information, or 617/367-2345; bostonbyfoot.com). Another excellent option is the Boston History Collaborative (Tel 617/350-0358; bostonhistorycollaborative.org), which creates guided and self-guided tours that focus on maritime history, literary history, immigration, and innovation.
The fast-track Freedom Trail ... Rangers from the National Park Service visitor center at 15 State St. (Tel 617/242-5642; nps.gov/bost; mid-April-Nov) lead informative 90-minute tours that cover the stops from the Old South Meeting House to the Old North Church. At busy times, you might feel a bit like a sheep, but a well-informed one. If even that's too long, take an hour and pick a couple of places that interest you most-or that are closest when inspiration strikes. Starting at Copp's Hill Burying Ground, you can enjoy the view of the Charlestown sites, visit the Old North Church, pop into the Paul Revere House, and still have time left for a cappuccino on Hanover Street. From the Park Street T entrance, you can see the gold-domed Massachusetts State House and read the Boston Common tablet. Crossing the street takes you to Park Street Church and the Old Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of patriots Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. Follow the trail past sites 5 through 11 (see sidebar, above), snapping away with your camera. You'll end up at Faneuil Hall Marketplace, where you can buy postcards of whatever you missed.
Don't believe the brochures ... Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a much-copied re-creation of a Colonial-era market (including the parallel Quincy Market, North Market, and South Market buildings), revived the economically sagging Boston waterfront when it opened in 1976. The original buildings have great historic weight: Patriots such as Samuel Adams fanned the fires of liberty here, as abolitionists like Charles Sumner did later. Faneuil Hall itself-a gift to the people of Boston in 1742 and a tongue twister for tourists ever since (try "Daniel" with a "f")-was remodeled and enlarged in 1805 by Charles Bulfinch, the Boston architect you can't avoid; you can visit the handsome second-floor assembly room, where the tradition of patriotic oratory and civic functions continues. The statue of Samuel Adams on cobblestones outside, facing City Hall, makes a good meeting point, and you can check out the golden grasshopper weather vane, recalling the one atop the Royal Exchange in London. But very few come today for the history. They come for the shopping. You'll see a lot of stuff that looks familiar-because it's available at your local mall. Looking for real Boston memorabilia? Sure, you'll find that here, too, but usually at a get-rich-off-the-tourists price. The food counters in Quincy Market proper offer some of the best noshing around, from gelati and cookies to baked beans and lobster rolls; if you buy something in the claustrophobic food court, take it outside near the Bostix kiosk, where steps lead up to an out-of-the-way plaza for picnicking. Better yet, cross Atlantic Avenue and enjoy your meal or snack with a harbor view. Or head to one of the nearby historic full-service restaurants, Durgin-Park or Ye Olde Union Oyster House (see the Dining chapter).
Where to feel like a student ... Harvard Yard's the obvious place to pretend you're a student at Harvard University, an institution so overbearingly excellent that Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam impishly refers to it as "WGU," for "world's greatest university." The college's oldest buildings cluster behind redbrick walls in the Yard, which adjoins manic Harvard Square; in the quiet of the Yard, look for Bulfinch's Stoughton and University Halls, as well as the 1742 Holden Chapel and its Georgian Revival counterpart, the 1931 Memorial Church. Sever Hall and Widener Library are impressively massive. Don't miss the whimsical Harvard Lampoon Castle (at Mount Auburn and Plympton sts.), with its facelike front and ibis weather vane. Plenty of students-Harvard or not-seem to be taking Outdoor Terrace 101 at the Au Bon Pain cafe on Mass. Ave. in the heart of Harvard Square-playing chess, suffering existential crises, and sipping endless cups of coffee. It's conveniently near the Harvard University Information Office in Holyoke Center, which can hook you up with a free tour of the campus. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) students scarf down Chinese food at Mary Chung's restaurant in Central Square (Tel 617/864-1991, 464 Mass. Ave.) or drink microbrews at the Cambridge Brewing Company (Tel 617/494-1994, 1 Kendall Sq.); otherwise, they're usually squirreled away studying on the decidedly modern campus between the Longfellow and Boston University bridges. Take a tour starting at the MIT Information Center in the Rogers Building. Boston University students patronize restaurants and fast-food places in Kenmore Square and on Commonwealth Avenue and the pubs and clubs on Brighton Avenue in Brighton. They interact with the Berklee College of Music's guitar players and jazz singers in Kenmore Square, where they mill around the mammoth six-story BU Bookstore (660 Beacon St.) or scout for used CDs in nearby stores. The artsy Emerson College crowd is spreading in and around the Theater District along the edge of Boston Common, an area that can stand some rejuvenation. Tufts University students gravitate to hip Davis Square, on the Red Line in Somerville, where they can hang at the Someday Cafe (Tel 617/623-3323, 51 Davis Sq.) or chow down at the Rosebud Diner (Tel 617/666- 6015, 381 Summer St.).
Where to act like a Brahmin ... Many of Boston's inbred high-society dynasties have sold their Beacon Hill homes to nouveau riche interlopers and decamped for horsey estates on the North Shore, leaving behind their ancestral institutions. The Boston Athenaeum, near the peak of the Hill, is a private library, but several floors of its building and eclectic art gallery are open to visitors (for free!), while guided tours reveal even more of the inner (and upper) sanctum. Balconies where gentlemen (and gentlewomen) scholars bury their heads in a wide variety of tomes look down on the Old Granary Burying Ground. When the thinkers get peckish, they can walk across the Common to Locke-Ober, a handsome, dark-paneled restaurant that didn't admit women until the 1970s.
The Brahmins who still live on Beacon Hill are most likely on Chestnut and Mount Vernon streets, and on the "flat of the hill" between Charles Street and the river; in the Back Bay, they're likely to be on relatively quiet Marlborough Street. The only way to see their houses is to take a tour of an unoccupied one. The Gibson House Museum in the Back Bay captures upper-middle-class Victorian clutter-photos, curios, plush furniture and carpets, and gloomily tasteful woodwork. On Beacon Hill, the Nichols House Museum, an 1804 Bulfinch town house, is a cozy showcase for art and antiques, including pieces by 19th-century sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens. The residence became a museum when landscape architect and suffragist Rose Standish Nichols died in 1961; if the museum director leads your tour, you're in for a gossipy treat. The Harrison Gray Otis House is another Bulfinch town house, this one on the "wrong" side of Cambridge Street, but not to worry-Otis, a Boston mayor and congressman, later moved to another Bulfinch house on the Hill proper (85 Mount Vernon St.), and then another (45 Beacon St.). The footloose Otises didn't leave much of the original furniture and decor, but content yourself with admiring the bright Federalist colors and noble proportions, and possibly hooking into a 2-hour neighborhood walking tour on summer Saturdays. Both of these Beacon Hill houses are administered by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which could also be the nickname of the stereotypical Brahmin closet. The Brooks Brothers store at the corner of Newbury and Berkeley streets is where they shop-but only when their clothes have completely worn out.
Excerpted from Frommer's Irreverent Guide to Boston by Marie Morris Excerpted by permission.
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