Boston, the capital of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, is an extraordinarily beautiful city. Often overlooked because of New York’s reputation as the centre of the modern world, Boston is a city of contradictions – its winding cobblestone streets and gas lit roads survive side by side with its upscale shopping areas and various parks.
Boston has a historical past, which closely mingles with the history of the United States. One of the oldest cities in the United States, it is here that the Puritans, fleeing religious persecution in England, first established their colony. It is here that they rebelled against the mother nation, and the Boston Tea Party has since become a part of the historical lore of America.
Places to Go and Things to Do
As a resident, albeit in Boston’s suburbs, I take much pride in the city’s claims to fame. Boston allows first-time visitors a chance to relive history, explore museums and shop for bargains at the same time. The Boston Common is the country’s oldest public park. Spread over fifty acres of greenery in the middle of the bustling city, the Common, once a common grazing ground and the site of public hangings, today plays host to open-air plays and concerts in summer. The wading pond near the Visitors Centre is a hot favourite with children.
Separated by a street, Boston’s Public Garden is also the nation’s oldest botanical garden. The famous Swan Boats still operate here each year from spring to fall. Children love to climb over Mrs Mallard and her numerous ducklings, statues made famous by Robert McCloskey’s bestselling book Make Way for the Ducklings. There is even an annual Duckling Day parade when children can dress up as their favourite character from the book.
The Freedom Trail takes you on a tour of 16 historic sites, which played their part in the American Revolution. When we first visited Boston, a friend and I decided to walk the two and a half mile trail that starts from the Boston Common. Followed by my son on his bicycle, we walked through the older part of Boston, stopping at museums, burying grounds, churches, the Bunker Hill Monument, even the site of the Boston Massacre. Remember to wear comfortable walking shoes, as you will need the better part of a day to do full justice to this trail. The Freedom Trail guidebooks give you more information on the sites you pass.
Two other trails, for those of you who are historically inclined are the Black Heritage Trail that explores the history of the African American community in Boston, and the Women’s Heritage Trail, which explores the lives and work of women artists, writers and activists. These also begin at the Boston Common.
Those who are not as athletically inclined, can take the various tours that are on offer. Most of them begin near South Station and allow you to get off at any site that interests you, and then get onto the next tour bus when you are finished. Hopping on and off buses saves you a lot of time and legwork. Duck tours are the most popular tours; the open-air amphibious vehicles drive you across the city and then into the Charles River for a cruise.
For culture enthusiasts, Boston has plenty to offer. A variety of museums cater to every taste and age group, The city’s museums range from the Boston Children’s Museum and the New England Aquarium to the Museum of Science and the Museum of Fine Arts, which has the single largest collection of Monet paintings outside his native France. Nautical enthusiasts can salivate over old Ironsides at the USS Constitution Museum. Guided tours on board old Ironsides are available every half an hour, but be prepared for security checks. The museum is owned and operated by the US Navy.
Across the river, in Cambridge, lies the Harvard Museum of Natural History, whose permanent exhibits include minerals and gems, mammals, palaeontology, Indo-Asian animals, birds and fishes. It is most famous for its glass flowers, though, more than three thousand of them, hand-blown by the father and son duo, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka.
Near the Children’s Museum is a ship where visitors can relive the calamitous event that led to the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Part Ship and Museum highlights the colonists’ revolt protesting “No Taxation without Representation”.
The theatre district in downtown Boston offers a variety of entertainment options ranging from plays and concerts. We have been lucky enough to catch an excellent Flamenco performance at the Cutler Majestic Theatre. There are plans afoot to revamp the tiny district to make it a major tourist attraction. A short walk from the theatre district brings you to Boston’s Chinatown, where Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants offer a relatively inexpensive meal. Friends of ours swear by the dim sum available here and often make the long thirty-mile drive to Chinatown on weekends.
Finally, it is never a trip, unless you can shop. For the shopaholic, Boston’s shops, ranging from high-end designer boutiques to the ubiquitous mall to the quirky neighbourhood stores, are a delight. While Newbury Street is the place to be if you are looking for high-end designer fashions, another Boston institution allowed you to shop for designer wear at rock bottom prices. The flagship store of Filene's Basement was a landmark in the old city, and thousands of locals and visitors visited in the hope of snagging a bargain. The store was forced to shut down following the sale of the building, but plans to reopen in 2009.
On a budget?
Like anywhere in the world, Boston does not lag behind in raiding your wallet. However, it is possible to enjoy the city without breaking the bank. Staying in Boston is expensive, and most hotels in the areas are booked well in advance. However, commuter rail connects Boston to many towns, and it is possible to find decent accommodation that is relatively cheap.
There are many places, which offer no-frills simple food to fill your stomach without emptying your wallet. The eateries in Faneuil Hall offer a smorgasbord of cuisines. Street performers are a fringe benefit here. North End offers great Italian cuisine for a reasonable price.
The cost of museum admissions can add up to a hefty sum. However, most museums offer combination passes, which cost about fifty percent less than combined admissions, and allow you to visit five or six museums in the city. Passes are available at local libraries for town residents. If you know someone who can book these passes for you, then admission is free. Harvard provides admission to all six of the University museums for the price of one ticket. Concerts on the common are normally free.
I would recommend walking as the best way to get the feel of the city, but if time is a constraint, then do use the trolley tours, or a mixture of both. Please do not drive into Boston. Everything you have heard about dangerous Boston drivers is true. Traffic congestion is a chronic problem, and first time visitors are often bewildered by the tangle of one-way streets and Boston’s rotaries. Parking spaces are at a premium and paid lots and garages are an expensive proposition. Boston is well served by its efficient public transport system and the MBTA offers a daily pass for $9 that allows you to use the sub-way, trains and some buses. They also have a weekly pass for $15 that is value for money.
Finally, a word about the weather. It is unpredictable, to say the least. While spring, summer and fall do bring extremely lovely weather in their train, you can also expect blustery cold winds in spring or blistering hot temperatures in summer. It can also rain at any given time in the year. In fact, a joke about New England weather goes thus: If you don’t like the weather, wait for five minutes.
© Anuradha Warrier
20 August 2008