Boston calls itself “America's Walking City,” and with good reason: driving can be a challenge. What better excuse to park your car and explore on foot? There's history around every corner.
No trip to Boston would be complete without a walk along the Freedom Trail, a red, mostly bricked line winding through the Financial District, Beacon Hill and the North End, past more than a dozen famous landmarks—Faneuil Hall, the Old North Church, Paul Revere's house. Beyond these streets where patriots walked are scores of distinctive neighborhoods to explore: Cambridge, Back Bay, Charlestown, Brookline, Fenway and the South End. You'll rub elbows with Yankee pragmatists, Irish fatalists, Brahmin blue-bloods, die-hard Red Sox fans and sleep-deprived students of every stripe—Boston has one of the highest concentrations of colleges and universities in the world. If you can say, “Park the car at Harvard Yard,” without using an “r,” you'll fit right in.
Sumus primi, or “We are first,” is one proud, but well-suited, description of Greater Boston. The phrase—the motto of Boston Latin, the country’s oldest continuing public school—succinctly conveys 300-plus years of Boston-bred organizations, inventions and pioneering ideas. In a metropolis where firsts are commonplace, the expression fits like a well-insulated glove—the kind you’ll need when visiting New England during its frosty winter.
Even on chilly days, coffee-guzzling visitors roam the nation’s first public park, the Boston Common. Ice-skaters clad in scarves and knit caps welcome Jack Frost’s glacial touch, coasting across the frozen Frog Pond from November to mid-March. When sandal season arrives, picnickers recline beneath blue skies, their views of dawdling clouds interrupted occasionally by soaring Frisbees and colorful kites.
Perhaps the best (and most popular) way to get to know Boston is to traverse the Freedom Trail, a red line connecting 16 historic sites through downtown and the North End. Along the way, you can visit Charlestown Navy Yard, home to World War II-era destroyer the USS Cassin Young and the USS Constitution, a three-masted heavy frigate launched in 1797. Or, pay your respects at Faneuil Hall, where leaders like Samuel Adams and James Otis once garnered support for the American Revolution.
Many sightseers touring the Freedom Trail diverge at the Boston Common to find historic restaurants and other fun places to go. Beckoning visiting fashionistas are the upscale retailers of the Back Bay, also prized for its Victorian brownstones and cultural landmarks such as Trinity Church. Near Beacon and Park streets, those marveling at the Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze high relief honoring one of the Civil War's first African-American military units often cross over to the Black Heritage Trail, which meanders through adjacent Beacon Hill. In Boston's most prestigious neighborhood, gas lamps still light narrow passageways once traversed by Louisa May Alcott and Robert Frost.
Nature lovers continue along the Emerald Necklace—Boston's linear system of urban green space designed by Frederick Law Olmsted—to the majestic Public Garden. Near the Arlington Street entrance, artists with grass-stained jeans and furrowed brows busily sketch an equestrian statue of George Washington, one of the earliest depictions of the first president on horseback.
More green spaces were added upon the completion of the Big Dig engineering project. Filling the void left by the formerly above-ground Central Artery is the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway, a pedestrian-only ribbon of parks and gardens.
Although you really must investigate “America's Walking City” on foot to fully appreciate its nuances, another stress-free alternative to navigating Greater Boston's maze of narrow roads by car is the public transportation system, known locally as the “T.” The launching point for the nation's first subway line is near the gold-domed Massachusetts State House.
Ride the Green Line to the New England Conservatory of Music, the oldest independent school of music in the country. Or, if the crack of the bat is music to your ears, take the “T” to the oldest operating MLB stadium, Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. In 1903, the team then known as the Boston Americans defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates during game 8 of the first modern World Series.
Whether it's your first trip here or your fifth, when you experience Boston's hometown treasures, you'll leave with a better understanding of both this enduring city's vast heritage and the nation's.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed, “We say the cows laid out Boston. Well, there are worse surveyors.” Emerson, of course, never had to drive through the city. Downtown—occupying a peninsula surrounded by the Charles River, Boston Inner Harbor and Fort Point Channel—is a challenging place for residents, let alone visitors, to negotiate by vehicle. Furthermore, Boston drivers are legendary for their aggressiveness. Those who must drive in the central part of the city should bring along a navigator and/or a recently updated GPS unit. Fortunately, public transportation options are plentiful and the bewildering tangle of streets is easily traversed on foot.
Boston Common, bordered by Charles, Beacon, Park, Tremont and Boylston streets, is a handy orientation landmark. Beacon Street, the Common's northern border and the southern base of Beacon Hill, extends east into downtown and west through the Back Bay into Brookline. Commonwealth Avenue runs parallel to Beacon Street as the Back Bay's main thoroughfare. The Back Bay's streets, in fact, do form a logical grid pattern between east-west Boylston Street and limited-access Storrow Memorial Drive, and between north-south Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street.
Both Beacon and Commonwealth intersect Massachusetts Avenue, which crosses the Charles River via Harvard Bridge into Cambridge. Harvard Bridge becomes Massachusetts Avenue again on the Cambridge side, passing right through the middle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus on its way to Harvard and environs. Cambridge also can be reached from the West End via Cambridge Street, which becomes the Longfellow Bridge (SR 3) crossing the river. It changes to Main Street in Cambridge, running into Massachusetts Avenue several blocks northwest of MIT. The most direct way to get to Harvard from Boston is via the Anderson Memorial Bridge, which becomes John F. Kennedy Street on the Cambridge side.
Back in Boston, Tremont Street branches off Cambridge Street, skirts the southeast side of the Common and runs southwest toward the Roxbury neighborhood. Commercial Street serves as the perimeter of the North End waterfront, becoming Causeway Street on the West End side of the Central Artery and Atlantic Avenue as it turns south to pass the wharves along the waterfront. North Street takes eastbound commuters into the Callahan Tunnel, which crosses Boston Inner Harbor to the airport. Hanover and Salem streets are other major avenues bisecting the North End.
Congress Street is a major downtown and Financial District thoroughfare, crossing Fort Point Channel into South Boston. Washington Street runs north through Chinatown and downtown before it becomes the Charlestown Bridge crossing the river into Charlestown.
Visitors will save time and letters by adopting the local practice of dropping the ends of long street names. Massachusetts Avenue, for instance, is always “Mass Ave.” Likewise, Commonwealth Avenue and the Massachusetts Turnpike become “Comm Ave.” and “Mass Pike.” “JFK” is the appropriate shorthand for the city's several John F. Kennedy namesakes.
Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit on most streets is 30 mph. Right turns on red are permitted after a full stop, unless otherwise posted. Avoid rush-hour traffic—particularly in the tunnels and on the bridges—7-9 a.m. and 4-6:30 p.m. Be especially careful in outlying areas when crossing streetcar tracks.