An insider’s guide to Boston’s top 16 attractions
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I grew up in Boston, and have visited just about every touristy and not-so-touristy site the historic city has to offer. From field trips to the Children’s Museum to treks along the Freedom Trail with my parents to working a part-time job at the Mugar Omni Theater at the Museum of Science, I’ve seen and done it all.
Despite its size, there’s so much to do in this small, walkable city that figuring out a sightseeing plan can overwhelm first-time visitors. So, rather than trying to do it all, start with these top attractions instead. Some illustrate the important role Boston played in our country’s development, while others are meant to stretch your brain or help you discover the city’s great green spaces.
No matter where your interests lie, you will find plenty to keep you busy in Boston. Here’s where to start.
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Many of Boston’s most beloved attractions shine a light on the city’s storied past. The Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum (306 Congress Street) focuses on the time when residents sought change and kicked off the movement that would lead to the Revolutionary War and, ultimately, the founding of the United States of America. A trip to this museum is especially fun for kids since costumed actors reenact the Boston Tea Party of 1773 aboard replica 18th-century ships with great zeal. Tickets are about $28 for adults and $21 for kids ages 5 to12 when purchased online. The Boston Children’s Museum is just a 2-minute walk away.
If you’re traveling as a family, it’s almost a requirement that you check out the Boston Children’s Museum. Founded in 1913 by the Science Teachers’ Bureau, the museum has provided engaging and educational experiences to children for more than 100 years. It is the second-oldest children’s museum in the world and is recognized for pioneering the first hands-on museum exhibit and more. Current exhibits include Art Lab, Construction Zone, Explore-a-Saurus, Our Green Trail, The Japanese House and many more. Admission is $18 for adults and children up to 15 years old, and is free for children under 12 months. During COVID, capacity is limited and visitors must reserve a timed entry slot.
Sitting across the Charlestown Navy Yard, where the ship is docked, the USS Constitution Museum houses almost 2,000 artifacts and more than 10,000 archival records, including various collections, research and online activities, which tell the story of the USS Constitution.
Never defeated in battle, the ship was built in 1794 as one of the first half-dozen warships of the newly formed nation. In its lifetime, it engaged with the French, Barbary pirates and the British. Its nickname, Old Ironsides, comes from the fact that her oak hull remained intact despite the cannon fire that enemy ships aimed at her. After more than two centuries, the USS Constitution remains one of the oldest commissioned ships in the United States Navy, with a dedicated Navy detachment tasked to maintain, repair and restore this piece of U.S. history.
Reserve and purchase your tickets for the USS Constitution Museum online ($10 for adults; $5 for children), and make sure to arrive within the 30 minute-period indicated on your ticket. A museum ticket doesn’t include entry to the ship, but as the USS Constitution is part of the Boston National Historical Park, entry is free.
Boston is the seat of American history, and even if you don’t know all the details of how this country was founded, you should check out the Freedom Trail. Traversing Downtown Boston, starting at Boston Common and ending at Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, the 2.5-mile trail connects 16 important historic sites. Along the way, you’ll explore churches, burial grounds, meeting houses, museums, parks and more. Some of the highlights include the Paul Revere House, Old State House, Old South Meeting House, Faneuil Hall, Old North Church and the USS Constitution.
You can walk the trail on your own or book one of several guided tours ($14 for adults; $12 for seniors and students; $8 for kids ages 6 to 12 and free for children younger than 6).
Related: Planning a family trip to Boston
Visitors of Faneuil Hall come for its history and also for the dining, shopping and entertainment. Originally built as a market, Faneuil Hall quickly became a meeting place where Bostonians would discuss key issues of the day. Many well-respected figures, including Samuel Adams and George Washington, made speeches here. Today, it’s a historic but urban marketplace filled with shops, restaurants, pubs and pushcarts. Live performers and buskers, who have been entertaining people in the open-air square since the early 1970s, provide free outdoor entertainment for the whole family.
Faneuil Hall is easy to find: just follow the paved Freedom Trail path through the historic neighborhoods of Boston. It’s also walking distance from the waterfront and accessible by multiple “T” (subway) stops nearby. If you’re interested in learning more about its history, join a free tour. If you’re here to dine, you’ll have plenty of options, from New England classics to international fare. If you’d prefer to shop, you’ll find artisans hawking handmade wares, brand name stores and local boutiques. Just remember that Faneuil Hall receives millions of visitors annually, so it can get crowded.
Part of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which includes Faneuil Hall, North Market and South Market, Quincy Market is a popular spot for both locals and tourists, thanks to its festival-like ambiance (think: pushcarts along buildings selling various wares and lively street performers). Quincy Market, along with the North and South markets, was built to handle the overflow of merchants and shoppers crowding Faneuil Hall since the 1820s. Today, Quincy Market is famous for its Greek Revival architecture and houses numerous specialty shops and restaurants. It’s also listed in the National Register of Historic Places and a National Historic landmark.
For more than 350 years, Boston Common has served not only as a place of relaxation and recreation but also as a place for free speech and public assembly. Founded in 1634, it’s considered America’s oldest park. It’s also been used as community pastureland, a punishment site for Puritans and a site of public discourse and oration. Martin Luther King, Jr. held a civil rights rally here, and Pope John Paul II even celebrated Mass on its grounds in 1979. Today, the park has ball fields, playgrounds, an underground parking garage, tennis courts and the Frog Pond. There are also free yoga classes in the summer, and the Frog Pond transforms into a skating rink in the winter (for a fee). The Boston Common is free to visit, but you’ll need to pay for carousel rides.
Public Garden and the Swan Boats
The second public park in Boston was established 200 years after the first one (Boston Common), but it would become the first public botanical garden in the U.S. Its creation was intended as a response to New York’s Central Park, and today the 24-acre green space lies at the northern end of the city’s Emerald Necklace park system. The park’s design came from George Meacham and features Victorian cast-iron fencing, curved paths, fountains, statues and formal flowerbeds. There’s also a 6-acre pond, where the famous Swan Boats can be found.
The Swan Boat ride runs from spring to summer and lasts around 12 to 15 minutes. The fleet of 13-foot-long pontoons carries about 25 passengers each. Currently run by the fourth generation of the Paget family, the Swan Boat was designated a Boston landmark in 2011. You can buy tickets at the dock ($4 for adults; $2.50 for children 2 to 15 years; $3.50 for seniors and free for children under 2) but may have to wait 5 to 10 minutes to ride.
Just minutes away from Downtown Boston is a group of islands that offer relaxation and outdoor fun for everyone. The Boston Harbor Islands National Park covers more than 50 square miles and features a Civil War-era fort and historic lighthouses as well as tide pools and lush trails. It’s the largest recreational space in Eastern Massachusetts and is a hot spot for local wildlife.
Georges and Spectacle islands offer hiking trails, picnic grounds, interpretative walks and other recreational programs. Bumpkin, Grape, Lovells and Peddocks are more suited for camping, while Thomson Island is only open during weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day. To visit the islands, take the ferry from Long Wharf North in Boston or at Hingham Shipyard. Round-trip tickets cost $24.95 for adults, $17.95 for children (3 to 11 years old), $22.95 for seniors and are free for kids under 3. Tickets include access to visitor amenities and self-guided activities.
If you’re a baseball fan, Fenway Park near Kenmore Square is a can’t-miss attraction. The Boston Red Sox have called the field home since it opened in 1912, and the park has a seating capacity of about 37,000. If you’re planning to visit, it might be useful to download the MLB Ballpark app, which features digital ticketing, mobile check in, exclusive content, rewards and special offers. Or, you could take one of the many tours the ballpark offers year-round. The 1-hour walking tour visits Pesky’s Pole, the Green Monster and more. Tickets are available online or on a limited first come, first served basis at Gate D. Tickets start at $15.
With 1.3 million visitors a year, this complex on Central Wharf in Downtown Boston is one of the most popular attractions in Boston, especially for families. It comprises an aquarium, Simons IMAX Theatre and New England Aquarium Whale Watch cruises (a seasonal attraction that’s open between April and November).
With thousands of animals on display, the New England Aquarium is a fun and educational place to spend a day. Don’t miss meeting Myrtle, the 550-pound green sea turtle who has been a resident at the aquarium for more than 40 years. She lives in the four-story Giant Ocean Tank exhibit where other Caribbean aquatic animals make their home. There are also harbor seals, sharks, African penguins and other creatures you can meet through various exhibits. Admission is $32 for adults, $30 for seniors, $23 for kids and free for children under 3.
If you’re pressed for time, a ride on the Old Town Trolley can help you quickly see the city highlights. Operating for more than 36 years in Boston, the Old Town Trolley is an unlimited hop-on, hop-off tour, with real-time (not prerecorded) narration. The trolley has 18 stops, including popular tourist attractions such as Faneuil Hall, the USS Constitution and Museum, the Historic District, Cheers Bar, Boston Common, Copley Place Mall, the Theatre District and the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum.
Buy your ticket online to save 10%. This means a Silver Pass will cost you $43 and $23.75 for children 4 to 12 years old — the trolley is free for kids under 4 years of age. Your Silver Pass will allow you unlimited reboarding, discounts and attraction tickets that don’t have to be used on the same day.
Art aficionados will be inspired by the works at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) which has a collection of almost 500,000 pieces covering a wide range of periods, places, techniques and media. It’s one of the most comprehensive art museums in the world. Here, you’ll find paintings by famous artists such as van Gogh, Rembrandt, Gauguin and Monet, along with items from the prehistoric and ancient times. It also has a huge collection of Asian art, featuring ceramics, prints and metalwork as well as Egyptian antiquities.
To make the most of your visit, join a free guided tour, listen to speakers or create your own masterpiece. Admission costs $25 for adults, $23 for seniors (ages 65 and over) and students (18 and older). Children ages 7 to 17 get free entry weekdays after 3 p.m., weekends and during Boston public school holidays — otherwise, admission costs $10. Entry is free for children 6 and under.
A visit to the Museum of Science, on the Charles River Basin, might require at least half a day. It’s one of the biggest science museums in the world, with all floors dedicated to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), hands-on activities, more than 500 interactive exhibits, a planetarium, an IMAX theater, live presentations (“Lightning!” is a popular one) and more.
Amazing views of the river and the Boston skyline are a bonus, and sipping coffee while taking in the spectacular scenery can be a good way to end your visit. Admission is $29 for adults (12 and older), $24 for children 3 to 11 years old and $25 for seniors (60 and over).
The North End, considered Boston’s Little Italy, is the oldest part of the city, founded in 1646. It lays claim to a significant amount of Revolutionary War-era history, and is also where Italians settled after emigrating to this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Charles River is the northeast boundary and Route 93 bounds the southern part of this oval-shaped enclave that’s a warren of narrow cobblestone streets lined with shops and bakeries that have been there for decades. Some of Boston’s most important historical sites are part of the North End. If you walk the Freedom Trail, you’ll see the Old North Church and the Paul Revere House.
A mandatory part of exploring the North End is sampling its many bakeries, including Bova’s Bakery (134 Salem Street), Parziale’s (80 Prince Street), Bricco Panetteria (11 Board Alley) and ordering cannoli at both Modern Pastry Shop (257 Hanover Street) and Mike’s Pastry (300 Hanover Street). Be sure to order other classic Italian sweets such as sfogliatelle (layers of pastry filled with cream), tiramisu, anise pizzelles (flat waffle-like cookies), ricotta pies, biscotti and macaroons. Many North End bakeries also sell savory dishes such as Sicilian-style pizza, eggplant Parmesan subs and calzones, and arancini (rice balls).
Even people with just a passing interest in shopping enjoy a stroll along Newbury Street in Boston’s Back Bay. The street spans about a mile, starting at Arlington and Newbury streets at the Public Garden and ending at Charlesgate East. Along the way, you’ll discover a panoply of boutiques and stores selling luxury merchandise, salons and spas, art galleries, second-hand stores and restaurants.
If you shop at Tiffany, Ralph Lauren, Rimowa or Chanel, you’ll find outposts here. If you’re looking for bargains, check out Nordstrom Rack or TJ Maxx. If you want to visit a Boston institution, head to Newbury Comics, which has been in business since 1978. The store sells comic books and graphic novels, vinyl records and CDs, and pop culture paraphernalia, such as KPop bobbleheads and “Star Wars” Mandalorian figurines. The original store is at 348 Newbury Street and a second shop is at Faneuil Hall (1 North Market Building).
Featured photo by @kensusi/Twenty20.
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