Compact and easy to navigate with good public transport, Boston is a rewarding city to explore by foot.
The sun of one of the last days of spring is warm on my back as I walk through Boston Common. I arrived approximately 36 hours earlier to drizzle and temperatures that a local newspaper deemed "unseasonably cold", so it's a relief to see clear, blue skies overhead.
Arriving at the Common's famous Frog Pond — no longer home to its namesake amphibians, sadly — I stop to watch a group of pensioners doing tai chi, moving slowly to the sound of the music. Squirrels and little birds dart about the grass. Across the park, the bells of the historic Park Street Church chime nine o'clock.
Boston is known as America's Walking City and while it's not perhaps as dynamic a nickname as Las Vegas' Sin City or New Orleans' Big Easy, it bodes well for visitors. Compact and easy to navigate with good public transport, this promises to be a rewarding place to explore by foot. And this morning I plan to make a start.
I'm beginning in the Common, the oldest public park in the US, at the start of one of Boston's best-known walking routes, the Freedom Trail. This city was the birthplace of the American Revolution and the Freedom Trail provides an easy way to get an overview of this aspect of its history.
It's possible to take a guided tour of the trail — with costumed guides, no less — but I've opted to buy a map for a couple of dollars from the visitors' centre and wander at my own pace. The idea is to view the historical sites as revolutionary figures such as Samuel Adams or Paul Revere might have seen them in colonial-era Boston.
From the Common, I cross the road to admire the gleaming gold dome of the Massachusetts State House and then down the hill to Park Street Church and along to Granary Burying Ground. One of three burial grounds on the Freedom Trail, it's an atmospheric place filled with crooked rows of gravestones interspersed by bigger monuments, such as those commemorating founding father John Hancock and the parents of Benjamin Franklin. As many as 6000 people are thought to be buried here.
Curiously, most of the headstones are marked with a winged skull which I later learn is known as the "death's head". A symbol of mortality used since medieval times, its presence here is suggestive of the early date of the graveyard — it was established in 1660 — and its Puritan influence.
I head towards the downtown area, stopping off at King's Chapel and Burying Ground, the site of the original Boston Latin school (the United States' oldest public school and still in operation elsewhere) and the Old South Meeting House, where I pop inside to see the rather sparse interior in which the Boston Tea Party was planned.
In the midst of downtown, dwarfed by skyscrapers, there's Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read to the people of Boston in July 1776, along with Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, two historic buildings now housing popular places to eat and shops where you can browse crab-themed souvenirs to your heart's content.
I've been walking for some time now and by the time I reach Paul Revere House, once home to the man famous for his midnight ride to warn patriots of the approaching British forces on the eve of the War of Independence, my feet are weary. I'd planned to take a look inside but I'm put off by the line snaking out the front door.
By now I'm in the North End, a neighbourhood strongly associated with Italian immigrants. The buildings are smaller and closer together, with cobblestones on some streets. Every second storefront seems to be an Italian restaurant and I savour the smells as I walk: something delicious cooking for lunch wafting from one doorway, the sweet scent of pastries from another.
It's nice just to wander, to get a glimpse of everyday life. A couple packing a moving van, having an argument. A man up a ladder, complaining to an unseen friend about the task at hand. I pass by Paul Revere Mall, where schoolchildren flock around an equestrian statue of the great man himself while a busker performs a nasal version of Wonderwall. I should turn down here to visit Old North Church, the next site on the Freedom Trail, but I'm too tempted by the possibility of exploring the neighbourhood.
I wander by an old-fashioned grocer, and a shop with boxes of panettone in the window. Two men sitting on a bench converse in Italian. Through a window, someone is whistling along to the radio. In Charter Street Park, a beautiful cobblestoned garden set behind a square of houses, I hear more rapid-fire Italian issuing from one of the homes, perhaps from a TV. Birds are twittering, sirens and traffic noise in the distance. I'm not sorry to have gone off-piste.
Around the corner, on Battery Street, I'm drawn towards a scrap of colour wedged between two red-brick buildings. Closer inspection reveals a densely packed display of religious iconography. Statues of saints and the Madonna and Child are clustered above a gate, images of saints on the walls of the alleyway beyond, the whole thing festooned with coloured lights and pots of pink and red flowers. A sign reads: All Saints Way. I later learn this unusual Catholic shrine is the work of local Peter Baldassari and is visited by locals and visitors alike, many of whom bring images to donate to the collection.
A little later, I rejoin the Freedom Trail quite by accident, ending up at Copp's Hill Burying Ground, high on a hill overlooking the spot where the Charles River meets Boston Harbour. I make my way down to the waterfront, where the last two stops on the Freedom Trail are visible. Moored on the far bank, there's USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat, better known as Old Ironsides. And behind, the austere form of the Bunker Hill Monument, commemorating the first major battle of the War of Independence which took place just across the water in Charlestown.
After lunch, having seen so much of old Boston in the morning, I resolve to seek out something of the city's newer side. A short taxi ride from the North End takes me to the Institute of Contemporary Art, on the waterfront in the Seaport District. Boston traditionally has a strong association with the established arts world — its comprehensive Museum of Fine Art is well worth a look — but strong steps have been taken in recent times to develop the now-flourishing contemporary art scene. The ICA, formerly housed in a more modest former police station, moved into this magnificent building in 2006.
It seems to hover over the waterfront as I approach, a cantilevered cube of glass and metal garlanded by a ribbon of timber decking. The gallery is in install mode today, readying for new exhibitions, but I take a leisurely look around a display of cutting-edge paintings and pause in the Poss Family Mediatheque, a stepped space suspended from the underside of the cantilever, equipped with computers for accessing information about the exhibitions and a big window framing the harbour view.
It's a short walk to Fort Point Channel, past the crowds of schoolchildren congregated outside the Boston Children's Museum, housed in a former wool warehouse. These old docks are also home to the pioneering Fort Point Arts Community, which hosts regular open-studio events, alongside one the city's quirkier landmarks, the Hood Milk Bottle. An ice-cream stand and snack bar in the shape of an oversized milk bottle, it was originally built elsewhere in the 1930s and moved here nearly 40 years ago. More significantly, it was on this stretch of water, in 1773, that the Boston Tea Party took place, setting off a chain of events which led to the American Revolution. It's commemorated with a museum incorporating two restored tall timber ships.
Crossing a bridge, I walk through Back Bay, an area noted for its streets of Victorian brownstones and shopping along Newbury Street. Here I pass through Copley Square, where the gleaming panels of the modernist John Hancock Tower reflect the surrounding older buildings, including the 1733 Trinity Church and the 1895 Public Library. Then it's back through the Common and neighbouring Boston Public Garden to my hotel. En route, I watch a man distributing breadcrumbs to the birds and whole walnuts to the squirrels, the latter in a frenzy of burying nuts in the dirt and hiding them in the trees.
The following afternoon, on my way back to town after a morning visiting Harvard University in neighbouring Cambridge, I hop off the train a little early to look around Beacon Hill. Home to Boston's first European settler, William Blaxton, who built a home on its southern slope in 1625, Beacon Hill is today one of the city's most desirable neighbourhoods, offering the quintessential Boston of postcard pictures: sloping streets of grand old townhouses overhung with trees, brick pavements, streetlights resembling old-fashioned gas lamps.
After a brief stop in a cafe on Charles Street, the main thoroughfare crowded with antique shops, I plunge into the grid of residential streets. Up the hill is Louisburg Square, where stately brick townhouses face on to a beautiful iron-fenced park. It's a gorgeous spot in the sunshine: immaculate homes, wooden shutters, neatly tended floral window boxes. Large, expensive- looking cars are littered about, suggestive of this square's status as Boston's most prestigious address. Little Women author Louisa May Alcott lived at number 10 after she gained literary success, and US Secretary of State John Kerry is said to be a resident.
As I walk, I play a game which I'm sure is not unique to me, surreptitiously peeking through windows and trying to decide which of these lovely old homes I'd claim for myself, given the choice. I find a number of strong contenders on Acorn Street, a cobblestoned way barely wide enough to accommodate the postal truck trundling along its length. Boston's narrowest street, this was once home to tradesmen and servants who worked in the mansions nearby. I'm sure one of them would do me very nicely.
Charming though these streets are, I'm interested to see a part of the city that's a little more up-and-coming, a bit less finely polished. So crossing the Common, I head past the neon signs of the Theatre District and through Chinatown towards the South End.
Previously one of Boston's more deprived areas with many tenement buildings, the South End is now the centre of Boston's artistic community, known for its galleries and restaurants. And as I cross a railway bridge and enter the neighbourhood, it feels miles away from leafy Beacon Hill. There's a fair sprinkling of loan shops and housing projects alongside a humble men's hairdresser called the Celebrity Barber Shop which, I suspect, is yet to be graced by a Hollywood star.
I pass a park with a baseball diamond — seemingly ubiquitous in this part of the world — but the local kids seem more interested in the basketball court, with its colourful mural combining an image of Nelson Mandela, a US flag, a Hokusai-style wave and the words "Soul Revival".
Deeper into the neighbourhood, signs of gentrification begin to accumulate: fancy wine shops, up-market hairdressers and an abundance of shops selling sleek, expensive furniture. By the time I reach Union Park, a skinny green space surrounded by townhouses, it's clear I'm in a comfortable part of town. Rows of Victorian brownstones stretch in every direction, the streetscape sprinkled liberally with greenery, cute cafes and bakeries on almost every corner.
That evening — my last in Boston — I get another view of the South End from the 50th floor of the towering Prudential Centre, in neighbouring Back Bay. I'm at the Skywalk Observatory, and can see not just the roofs and treetops of the South End but a 360-degree view over the entire city — everywhere I've walked over the past few days and plenty of other places besides.
It's a misty evening but I stand transfixed at the huge windows, slowly circling around to take it all in. There are the planes coming in to land at Logan Airport, the white box of the ICA by the water. The forest of skyscrapers downtown, the green expanse of the Commons and the gold dome of the State House just behind. Rows of townhouses in Beacon Hill and Back Bay, the silvery ribbon of the Charles River, Cambridge on the far bank, the suburbs tapering to low hills beyond.
Honing my attention in, I can pick out the details in the urban fabric laid out before me — tiny people hurrying home from work, cars with headlights flashing on as twilight descends. And zooming back out, there are all of the places I'm yet to visit: the iconic Citgo sign by the river, the lights at the famous Fenway Park baseball stadium, all the suburbs and neighbourhoods, the streets and pavements and paths I've not yet walked.
As I lean on the ledge, taking the weight off my tired feet, I see a patchwork of possibilities, stretching out to the horizon.
Gemma Nisbet visited Boston as a guest of Emirates airline and the Boston Convention and Tourist Bureau.
You may also like
Podcast: Talking Travel 2020: what's coming up
In their first Talking Travel podcast for 2020, Travel Editor Stephen Scourfield and his team look ahead to a New Year packed with stories, tours, events, workshops and more
Podcast: The Pod Well Travelled Episode 1: Stephen Scourfield & 2019 in review
STEPHEN SCOURFIELD says travelling in 2019 was more fun than he could possibly have imagined
TRAVEL GUIDE: Travel 2020
STEPHEN SCOURFIELD casts a wide net as he previews the next decade's top trends and experiences