With its illustrious history, diverse neighborhoods and strong legacy of arts and culture, travel tips on Boston could fill an entire book (in fact, it has, many of them).
Here’s my a much shorter version of what’s best to see and do.
First and foremost, especially if it’s your first visit, seek out the best guide service and become familiar with the city’s nooks and crannies as soon as possible. It’ll save you a lot time and frustration. Fortunately, you have many choices, over both land and water. Here’s a few I enjoyed –
This colorful train departs from the Waterside district where settlers landed in the 17th century and where the British evacuated the United States. The tour includes Beacon Hill, Back Bay, the Theater District, and the Waterfront. If you don’t get off at any stops, the journey takes about two hours. Highlights for me were the North Boston Italian district; Bunker Hill site of the famous battle of independence; Cambridge, home of Harvard, the oldest university in the US established in the 1600s; the statue of writer, Edgar Alan Poe; bustling Boston Common; and Beacon Hill, erstwhile home to writers such as Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Known as the ‘Beantown to Screamtown,’ tour, it’s not as gory as you might think. In fact, it’s peppered with good humor (granted, some of it black), and a few surprises. Even the faint-hearted will enjoy it. You’ll learn about the strange paranormal activities at the Omni Parker House hotel, the inspiration for Stephen King’s short-story and a movie starring John-Cusack; the legend of the Boston Strangler, who murdered 13 women; and stories behind Boston Commons and the people hanged and buried there. You’ll also be ‘locked’ inside King’s Chapel cemetery where the bones of the dead served as currency for a man named Ephraim Littlefield; and you’ll be entranced by the morbid secret of the so-called ‘Boston Athenaeum Skin Book.’ You might even meet a gravedigger with a haunting tale or two to tell.
Fancy a tour by water with BBQ and beer to boot? Head for Long Wharf in the harbor area beside the New England Aquarium and take a leisurely 90-minute cruise across the bay with Classic Harbor Line, past canoeists, sailing boats and naval ships. The company offers the options of sailing on a schooner or cruising on a motor yacht. You can also privately charter either boat.
We went on the Adirondack III schooner and the highlights of our trip included views of Shutter Island that featured in the movie of the same name starring Leonardo de Caprio, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane; the Institute of Contemporary Art; Bunker Hill and 17th century Fort Independence.
There are many entertaining attractions in Boston, including the New England Aquarium and the Museum of Science, which also includes a planetarium, but one of the more innovative is aboard one of two ships, the Brig Beaver and the Eleanor. Focusing on the famous event that changed American history, the dumping of tea into Boston harbour, you can enjoy a multi-sensory experience that includes live actors, interactive exhibits, all on full-scale replica 18th-century sailing vessels. Stepping into what’s termed the ‘Meeting House,’ an actor impersonating revolutionary leader Samuel Adams greets you and grants you a new identity. You’re now someone who was involved in the Boston Tea Party. You can watch a film ‘Let It Begin Here’ about the dramatic events, including Paul Revere’s ‘Midnight Ride,’ see a re-enactment in 3D featuring a loyalist and a patriot and even have the chance to toss tea into the water.
Live concerts are bountiful in and around Boston and one venue well worth visiting is Passim in Harvard Square, Cambridge. Over the last 50 years it has built a strong reputation presenting new and established performers in genres ranging from folk and acoustic to jazz, and everything in between, with framed photos of past performers including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Joni Mitchell adorning the walls. This intimate historic venue, underground with bare brick walls, serves food and presents over 400 shows per year to an audience of over 30,000.
On a busy Saturday evening, atmosphere brimming with bonhomie, I enjoyed an excellent act by Zoe Lewis from Brighton, England, who now lives in Provincetown. A fine singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist – in looks, a cross between a young Donovan and Edith Piaf – Zoe had the audience roaring with laughter as she recited tales of her on-the-road experiences from Cape Cod to exotic parts of Mexico and Thailand. Such is Zoe’s versatility she played keyboard, harmonica, ukulele and the washboard during her set, and even juggled plates while singing ‘Welcome To The Circus.’ Her emotional range varied from the boisterous ‘Tequila’ to the poignant anti-war, ‘Paper Cranes’ and ‘Going Song’ to the funny and original ‘Snow White’ and ‘Bicycle.’
For a taste of downtown vintage theater buy a ticket for the Charles Playhouse, regarded as one of the pioneering regional venues in America. It has been hosting entertainment since the mid-1950s, once having been transformed into a speakeasy called The Lido Venice, then a ballroom featuring artists such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway during the Jazz Age. It has two stages, one of which hosts the Blue Man Group. For 40 years, the other stage hosted long-running comedy, ‘Shear Madness’ but that run has just ended.
Founded in 1980 on the campus of Harvard University, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) has produced ground-breaking work over the years for which it has received Tony Awards for plays and musicals, as well as a Pulitzer Prize. It hosts performances on two stages, the 550-seat Loeb Drama Center and the smaller OBERON, which regularly features local performers including aerialists, beat poets, food artists, tap dancers, gender-bending sketch troupes, comedians, and even hula-hooping burlesquers.
I was fortunate to see the premiere of ‘We Live in Cairo,’ a musical inspired by the young Egyptians who took to the streets in 2011 to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. The lively and dramatic story-line follows six revolutionary students armed with laptops and cameras, guitars and spray cans as they experience the jubilation of Tahrir Square and the tumultuous years that followed.
Located in the city’s South End neighbourhood, the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) houses several performance spaces, restaurants, a gallery, the headquarters of the Boston Ballet, the Community Music Center of Boston and several other arts organizations. Its main building, the Cyclorama, is on the National Register of Historic Places. My opportunity to visit coincided with a production of Federico García Lorca’s ‘Yerma,’ a young wife, who wants nothing more than to have a child and become a devoted mother, which playwright Melinda Lopez infused with flamenco-inspired music.