Established in 1630 on a hill-topped peninsula by English Puritan colonists, this capital city is a city of contrasts, of college kids and blue-blooded families, centuries-old buildings, slums undergoing gentrification. Determined to maintain its history yet willing to embrace change, this dynamic city is a must on your bucket list.
I grew up in Boston, spending my post-college years in the Back Bay, an area created in the 1800s when the city underwent a huge land-reclamation project that filled in the old Charles River Bay. Much of the dirt was literally scalped from the three hills of the original town, and a soaring eagle-topped monument by the State House marks the original height of the island.Athens of America
Massachusetts is known as the “Athens of America” because of how much it values education, and boasts more colleges and universities per square mile than any other state. Boston is very much a university city, playing host to such institutions as Harvard, MIT, and Boston University, among many others. Over a quarter million students live in Boston and neighboring Cambridge.
Unlike New York and other cities that underwent the “demolish-rebuild” phase during mid-last century, Boston’s old townhouses became a student ghetto, an accidental preservation of history. But when an expressway sliced through the city’s eastern side in the late 1950s, demolishing historic homes, enraged citizens became preservationists, and strict rules were put into place to protect historic buildings.The Freedom Trail and Beyond
It’s a mistake to rent a car if you are going to Boston. Unlike the grid-like layout that characterizes California cities, their roads were established for people, cows and carts. They curve around long-gone ponds and lakes, and for the uninitiated, seem to twist maddeningly to nowhere. The way to travel any distance is via the inexpensive MBTA, one of the nation’s best mass transit systems.
Boston is a walker’s paradise. To start, take a quick immersion on the Old Town Trolleys that depart from Back Bay’s Copley Plaza (trolleytours.com/boston). Riders can debark and re-board at numerous locations, making it an enjoyable way to explore and learn at the same time.
One of the most popular first-time visitors’ routes is The Freedom Trail (http://thefreedomtrail.org). This 2.5 red-brick historic walking trail wends throughout the city, by Arlington Public Gardens, past the gold-domed State House, to the North End, and Faneuil Hall (replete with boutique stores and trendy restaurants), onwards to the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill.Beacon Hill and Back Bay
If you want to savor older Boston, meander through Beacon Hill and Back Bay. Back Bay is awash in beautiful red brick buildings, ornate architectural details, and tiny gardens. My favorites are Marlborough Street and Commonwealth Avenue. Quiet Marlborough Street still has cobblestone sidewalks, and old gas lamps that burn night and day. Comm Ave, as it’s known by the locals, has a beautiful tree-lined center median, punctuated by statues, and provides a path to the Arlington Public Gardens arboretum, home of the famous Swan Boats.
Boston Common – so-called because they were where everyone could communally graze their animals – dates back to revolutionary times. It slopes up Beacon Hill and is anchored by the State House and the former Frog Pond, where accused witches were tossed in. If they drowned, they were considered innocent of witchcraft; if they floated, they were witches, and were executed. Today, the Frog Pond is a paved playground.
Beacon Hill is replete with old homes and Boston “blueblood” families. Some of the side alleys have the original rounded cobblestones, and are just “two horned-cows wide”, the width required when they were built over 200 years ago.East Coast Rodeo Drive
Amble back across Arlington Gardens to Newbury Street, the original East Coast Rodeo Drive. Both sides are replete with famous name boutiques, art galleries, and numerous ethnic restaurants to please every palate. If you’re still in a shopping mood, swing up Dartmouth Street to Copley Plaza and the nearby indoor mall. There you’ll discover Trinity Church, a lovely place to visit, and see the glass John Hancock building, which spent its initial years shedding windows onto passersby, due to failure to understand the wind dynamics of the area.
This may surprise you, but the ideal time to visit is summer, because college is out, and most students are gone. The city is quieter, and you’ll get the best taste of “real” Boston, a city that you can visit time and again, because there’s always more to discover, both new and old.