As a recently (and happily) returned prodigal son of the “Hub of the Universe,” I love showing people around my hometown. After playing tour guide to several out-of-town friends over the past couple of years, here are my ten tips for tourists planning on visiting Boston:
Brace yourself for shockingly expensive hotel rooms downtown, but shop around for deals.
Despite a recent hotel building boom, hotel rooms in Boston remain among the most expensive in the U.S. Expect to pay a pretty penny for a perch near the financial district, historic Faneuil Hall marketplace, or in the tony Back Bay. Sure, bargains might appear to be had in outlying suburbs, (note to certain travel reservation websites, nearby cities like Medford, Waltham, or Woburn are not “Boston!”) but if you want to fully experience all that Boston has to offer in terms of its cultural offerings, history, great dining and nightlife options, you’re going to want to stay someplace downtown. Comparison shop to find good deals, and consider newly-emerging (and non-touristy) neighborhoods like the Seaport District that are slightly out of downtown.
Take the T from the airport.
Unless you’re traveling on someone else’s dime, are in an extra big hurry, or need assistance with lots of heavy luggage, avoid taking a taxi from Logan International Airport. Thanks to laws set up to finance our gleaming convention center, the Massachusetts Port Authority charges taxi passengers $9.75 just for the privilege of sitting down in a taxi at the airport ($5.25 for tolls, a $2.25 “airport fee,” and a $2.25 starting meter). A ride into downtown Boston is probably going to run you north of $25, including those fees and a tip for the driver – it’ll cost considerably more to get you out near Boston College or across the river to Cambridge. Oh, and if your luggage is really bulky, the driver might charge you an extra $5.
Take the free airport shuttle to the MBTA’s blue line subway station where you can catch the Blue Line subway into town for a mere $2. Or, take the new rapid bus “Silver Line” service (also $2) direct from your terminal to Boston’s South Station to connect with the Red Line subway, commuter rail, or Amtrak rail service. Save the twenty bucks and buy yourself a local brew or some fried clams (see No. 9 below).
Don’t rent a car.
Or, rather, don’t plan on renting a car for the entire duration of your stay in Boston. This city is notoriously bad for driving with its poor signage and congested and narrow roads. With daily parking rates pushing $40 in downtown garages and extremely limited on-street parking near most of the city’s major attractions, driving around Boston is only going to frustrate you and drain your wallet.
That said, if you’re going to be here for several days, do consider renting a car on a daily basis to take a day trip or two to nearby historical attractions like Lexington and Concord, or tour the lovely coastline north of Boston near Rockport and Gloucester. Bring your GPS unit, or consider renting one from the rental car company, because roads and traffic patterns here are confusing.
Take a trolley/”duck boat”/bus tour of the city.
Get yourself acquainted with the town, its geography and its history. Sure, it sounds cheezy, but getting chauffeured around town by a sometimes knowledgeable and often humorous tour guide is a great introduction to this place. Many tour operators (the “duck boats” notably excepted) have on-and-off boarding policies so that you can hop off the bus if there’s something you’d like to take a closer look at. For a somewhat geographically wider-ranging – and definitely unusual – tour of town, try the WWII-era “duck boats” that give you a fixed-loop tour of Boston’s neighborhoods and include an amphibious jaunt on the Charles River.
Bring your walking shoes.
Boston likes to pitch itself as “America’s Walking City,” and it’s true. It’s possible to see quite a bit of Boston’s major attractions on foot. For starters, there’s the celebrated “Freedom Trail,” a two and a half mile, red-brick road that will take you along Revolutionary War sites from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument. In addition, Boston’s waterfront (including attractions such as the New England Aquarium) and quaint North End are now easily accessible by foot from downtown following the removal of the ghastly “central artery” elevated highway as part of the city’s infamous “Big Dig” project. Often times, given downtown traffic, it’s faster to get places on foot than it is in a taxi!
When it comes to dining out, resist the urge to follow the herd.
There are loads of great restaurants in Boston, many of which aren’t listed in the tour books or advertised in the city guide brochures found in your hotel lobby. Check out online reviews written by locals, for locals on sites like yelp or citysearch. Also, get out into the city’s neighborhoods. The area around Faneuil Hall Marketplace/Quincy Market has loads of great dining options, but don’t stop there. Explore the dozens of small, hidden gems in Boston’s most celebrated restaurant district, the South End (not to be confused with South Boston!).
Follow the herd to the North End.
While it’s not a guarantee that you’ll find the city’s best Italian/Mediterranean food in Boston’s North End (the one time “little Italy” that has undergone considerable gentrification in the past decade), it is certainly worth a walk through the neighborhoods narrow, winding streets. You’ll find good, often great, meals there for relatively reasonable prices. Check the menus to find options you and your companions can agree on, and dive right in. Afterwards, stop into one of Hanover Street’s pastry shops for sweet cannoli, cookies, or gelato. There are precious few places in the U.S. that maintain a certain Old World charm like the North End.
Take a water taxi to Charlestown.
From near the Aquarium on Long Wharf, board the MBTA water taxi to Charlestown. For the price of the $1.70 fare, you get a ride on Boston Harbor, spectacular views of the downtown skyline, and a shortcut to the start of the Freedom Trail at Bunker Hill. While you’re in Charlestown, check out the historic Navy Yard and the U.S.S. Constitution, a.k.a. “Old Ironsides,” America’s oldest commissioned Navy ship.
Enjoy local flavors unique to Boston.
As good as it is, you can buy Sam Adams lager in a gas station in Nevada. While you’re here, try a taste of the Boston area’s (and New England’s) smaller and craft breweries. Small, local and regional breweries offer some amazing products. It’s worth trying the offerings from places you’ve probably never heard of like the Mercury Brewing Company (of Ipswich, Mass.), Geary’s Brewing (of Portland Maine), and the Kennebunkport Brewing Co. (Maine). Also look out for limited time, seasonal offerings from the somewhat larger-scale producers at Harpoon Brewing when you’re out and about – you may not be able to find these at your local market.
Not into beer? Then you’ve at least got to try Boston’s incredible seafood offerings. The most “local” item you probably can’t get anywhere else? Fried, whole belly clams. With the meaty clam belly still attached (and not removed to make clam sauce and chowder), these fried clams are much more than the fried clam strips you find elsewhere in the U.S. Also, Summertime in Boston is perfect for another regional delicacy – the lobster roll sandwich. There’s nothing quite like sweet lobster meat with just a touch of mayo and maybe some seasoning on a nice summer afternoon.
Stop by the Fenway Park Area.
Unless you bought them online in February when they first went on sale (and sold out in hours), or are willing to pay prices substantially beyond face value from a sketchy guy on the street (or one of their semi-legitimate cousins, a “ticket broker”), you’re probably not going to get to see Boston’s beloved Red Sox play while you’re here. Regardless, the atmosphere around Fenway Park on game day is something that should be experienced. Not only is “Red Sox Nation” out and about on full display, but the sight of the old park, the buzz of the fans and the smells of roasted peanuts and grilled sausages make the short walk from the Back Bay to Fenway Park a worthwhile part of your trip. For around $5, try one of the grilled sausage, peppers and onions sandwiches available from street vendors around the park. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in the big leagues.