Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Massachusetts
Harvard University in Cambridge, located just north of Boston, is synonymous with prestige and accomplishment. This Ivy League university accepts only the best and provides a curriculum to students that challenges and inspires them to succeed (faculty and alumni hold over 45 Nobel Prizes!). The country’s first institution of higher learning ever established, Harvard University is a historical school that is also constantly looking toward the future and creating new innovations in education, science, technology, the arts and beyond. Looking at a list of notable graduates of Harvard University -- some of which include Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, Rashida Jones, Norman Mailer, Helen Keller and John Quincy Adams -- it’s easy to see that the school has a rich and diverse heritage.
Luckily, you don’t need to be a straight A student to explore the campus, which is full of historic buildings, monuments, beautiful architecture and scenic green spaces.
The Charles River is a meandering waterway that runs through 80 miles of eastern Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge, before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. “The Charles”, as it’s often called, plays a role in the lives of many Bostonians. Walkers, joggers, cyclists, kayakers and anyone who loves to quietly relax by the water can be found along its banks every day. It is a picture-perfect snapshot of the pulse and pace of both cities.
The Esplanade, a green, three-mile path that meanders along the Boston side of the river, is the best option for visitors looking for a relaxing river stroll. Simply start near the Museum of Science and continue west to the Boston University Bridge. Along the way, you’ll pass plenty of joggers, wild geese, lemonade stands, and boat rental opportunities. Without question, the best time to visit is for the city’s annual Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular.
Boston’s oldest residential neighborhood, the North End has been inhabited since the 1630s. Here you’ll find a large variety of historical and culturally attractions. There’s the Paul Revere House, the oldest building in downtown Boston built around 1680 and the place from which he left for his famous “midnight ride” in 1775. Some other historic stops in the North End include Old North Church, Copp’s Hill Burial Ground, Union Wharf, Ozias Goodwin House and Mariner’s House, allowing you to explore the city’s rich heritage as well as old world architecture.
Walking around the area, you’ll notice the smell of fresh baked bread and biscotti permeates the air. Because it has a large community of Italian Americans, the North End is also known as Boston’s Little Italy. Visitors are transported to Italy as they walk the neighbourhood’s narrow streets, full of attached brick buildings housing small shops, delis, butchers, salumerias, bakers, and wine bars.
Founded in 1848, the Boston Public Library contains over 23 million items, making it the second largest public library in the U.S., after the Library of Congress. Of those millions, about 1.7 million are rare books and works, including medieval manuscripts and incunabula (a book or pamphlet printed prior to 1501 in Europe). Among the rare books are also the personal library of John Adams, early editions of works by William Shakespeare, drawings from Thomas Rowlandson and musical archives from the Handel and Haydn Society.
The McKim Building, with its vast research collection, and the Johnson Building, where you can find the circulating collection, are two of the most important parts of the library. The McKim Building is even a National Historic Landmark. And while the library system technically includes a whopping 24 branches, the original Copley Square location offers plenty to see, including Bates Hall, the Chavannes Gallery, the Abbey Room and the Sargent Gallery.
Few historical events are as synonymous with Boston as the Boston Tea Party. It was during this 1773 demonstration that revolutionaries threw entire cases of British tea into Boston harbor in protest of the Tea Act, quickly evolving into the American Revolution.
Today, this iconic act of defiance has come to symbolize not only the resolve and persistence of the American people as a whole, but of Boston in particular. Nowhere is it more celebrated or better explained than at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. This floating museum prides itself on stepping well beyond the typical, staid museum experience. Visitors are treated to a fully engaging display, complete with live actors, ship restoration displays and interactive exhibits.
Visitors can even join in a mock "tea dumping" protest if they like. The goal is to accurately transport visitors back in time to fully experience the Tea Party as it happened more than 230 years ago.
The starting point of the Freedom Trail, Boston Common is the oldest park in the country. At 50 acres/20 hectares, the Common is the anchor for the Emerald Necklace, a system of connected parks that winds through many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The Common has served many purposes over the years, including as a campground for British troops during the Revolutionary War. Today, though, the Common serves picnickers, sunbathers, and people watches. In winter, the Frog Pond attracts ice-skaters, while summer draws theater lovers for Shakespeare on the Common.
Spend a day wandering freely in the Common. Walking paths crisscross its green, which is dotted with such monuments and memorials as the Boston Massacre Monument, the Great Elm Site, and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. Nearby sites include the Central Burying Ground and the Boston Athenaeum.
Boston's John Hancock Tower soars nearly 800 feet above the city, and is not only Boston's tallest building but also the tallest building in all of New England. The 62-story John Hancock Tower was built in 1976 as the home of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, but in 2004 the company moved to a different Boston location. The building is now officially known as Hancock Place.
It's a glass-covered skyscraper in the shape of a parallelogram rather than a square or rectangle, and the blue-tinted glass panels beautifully reflect the city and scenery around the tower. There is an observatory deck at the top of the John Hancock tower, but it has been closed to the general public since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The observation deck is available for private events, however.
The heart and soul of downtown Boston, Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a bustling complex of restaurants, food stalls, shops, bars, and public spaces. Since it opened in 1976, this festive market and eating center draws both visitors and locals to its cobblestone plaza, teaming with shoppers, street performers, and people-watchers.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace itself if comprised of three historic 19th century buildings. Quincy Market, a three-level Greek revival-style building, sits in the center behind Faneuil Hall. Next to it is the North Market building and the South Market building.
More Things to Do in Massachusetts
Dating back to 1800, Charlestown Navy Yard was among the most prolific, historic, and vital navy yards in U.S. history. It served as the home of many of the nation's elite warships for the purposes of resupply, maintenance, retrofitting, and service.
The navy yard's most critical role was during America's two largest wars before it closed for good in 1974. From the beginning, Charlestown Navy Yard remained a pioneer of shipbuilding technology and served as a center for electronics and missile conversions. During its almost 175-year history, its staff constructed, christened, and launched over 200 ships and serviced thousands more. After its closing, thirty acres of the yard were earmarked as part of Boston National Historical Park. Today, the U.S. National Park Service oversees this most critical portion of the shipyard.
The main hub of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, bustling Quincy Market has attracted locals and visitors alike for nearly 200 years. This historic food hall, set inside a stately three-level Greek revival-style building, is packed with more than 50 shops, 14 restaurants, and 40 food court stops. There’s even a bar that’s an exact replica of the bar from the popular TV show Cheers.
Inside Quincy Market, the central corridor is lined with full-service restaurants, pushcarts, and New England souvenirs. Choose from chowder, bagels, Indian, Greek, baked good, and ice cream. Then, take a seat at one of the tables in the central rotunda. On warm evenings, tables spill outdoors from restaurants and bars fill up with people, creating a festive mood. The rest of the marketplace is made up of the North Market building, the South Market building, and Faneuil Hall. Along with restaurants, you’ll find an intoxicating mix of chain stores and unique shops.
Also known as the Charter Street Cemetery, the Old Burying Point of Salem is the second oldest burying ground in the United States. It is estimated to date back to 1637. Victims of the infamous Salem With Trials were convicted nearby to the site. Jonathan Corwin and Jonathan Hawthorne, who were both Salem witch trial judges, are also buried here. As Salem was once a major shipping port for “the New World,” this cemetery is particularly historic. A Mayflower pilgrim, one of the first to enter the United States, was claimed to be put to rest here. The grave of former governor Samuel Bradstreet can also be found. The old tombstones remain in tact and uniquely carved from the 1600s, presenting a bit of history that has been preserved since that time. A visit is an opportunity to learn about colonial era history, including burial practices and the lives of some of the important figures laid to rest here.
The Boston Public Garden is a 24 acre (10 hectare) botanical oasis of Victorian flowerbeds, verdant grass, and weeping willow trees shading a tranquil lagoon. At any time of the year, it is an island of loveliness, awash in seasonal blooms, gold-toned leaves, or untrammeled snow.
A statue of George Washington, looking stately atop his horse, greets visitors at the main entrance on Arlington Street. Other pieces of public art in the park, however, are more whimsical. The most endearing is Make Way for Ducklings, always a favorite with tiny tots who can climb and sit on the bronze ducks. But it’s the peaceful lagoon that draws visitors and locals a like to the Public Garden. For it is hear, you should take on the slow-going swan boats, a serene relic of bygone days.
When visiting Cambridge, Massachusetts, one not-to-miss attraction is the well-respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This private research university set on 168-acres (68 hectares), is home to five schools and 34 academic departments, research laboratories and innovative programs, and has a strong focus on technology, science and engineering. Although it’s an urban campus, you’ll see a mixture of interesting buildings and peaceful green spaces for an aesthetically-pleasing experience.
One reason many people enjoy touring the MIT campus is to take in the beautiful architecture. The Maclaurin Buildings refer to buildings 3, 4 and 10, which are typically shown in media and postcard shots, forming a U-shape around Killian Court. Building 10 is particularly interesting, with a colonnade facade and massive dome reminiscent of Rome’s Pantheon.
As the oldest still-standing building in Boston, the Old State House is arguably the most historically significant structure in the city today. Built more than three centuries ago, it stands as the crown jewel of the city's famous Freedom Trail, and many of the country's greatest political achievements and historical moments happened within its four walls. It is appropriately referred to as the "Heart of Revolutionary Boston," as a number of America's forefathers – including John Adams, James Otis, John Hancock and Samuel Adams–discussed the future of the colonies under British rule here. Steps from its entrance, five men died in the Boston Massacre, and the Declaration of Independence was even declared to the people of Boston from its balcony. In subsequent years, the building grew to become the first state house of the Commonwealth. Over the years that followed, it served many functions, including as city hall, post office, a mercantile exchange and even a shopping arcade.
The USS Constitution is a fascinating example of United States and military history. The 44-gun, Boston-built vessel hearkens back to 1797 when President George Washington ordered that six frigates be constructed at naval yards along the east coast.
“Old Ironsides," as it’s known today, is officially “America’s Ship of State” and one of the most popular and well respected military attractions in the country. Before entering, visit the onsite museum, which provides insight into US military history, including the War of 1812 and the general timeline of the USS Constitution. Once aboard the ship, free guided tours are offered year-round by knowledgeable navy personnel. Visitors are also invited to explore and photograph a large portion of the ship, including the main deck and the level below deck. Select summer visitors are invited to join in a special Constitution Experience.
Newcomers to the city of Boston often refer to it as “the city of history” because while walking along the Freedom Trail, you encounter so many important historical points—points that were instrumental in the founding of America. It makes for an incredible walk through time, and one of the highlights on this Freedom Trail is a visit to the Massachusetts State House.
Built in 1788, the “new” Massachusetts State House is built across from the Boston Common on the top of Beacon Hill. Known far and wide for its gilded gold dome (it’s actually made of wood and copper, but topped with 24-karat gold), the State House symbolizes what the founding fathers had envisioned upon landing at Plymouth Rock – to build a city upon a hill. Inside, the working State House houses working government officials, beautiful murals depicting colonial times of war, spacious marble-filled corridors, and other historical items that reflect the heritage of the Boston area.
Founded in 1660, the Granary Burial Ground is Boston’s third-oldest burial ground, and final resting site of some of the most famous Bostonians to ever walk the earth, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Paul Revere, and five victims of the Boston Massacre. With as many as 2,345 graves, few cemeteries anywhere else in the world hold such a high percentage of notable people in such a small space, and for this reason it is routinely featured as a highlight along Boston’s famous Freedom Trail.
Still, there is something timeless about visiting historic cemeteries, and perhaps this is why so many choose to stroll the green lawns of Granary Burial Grounds, thinking of the times before ours, and, perhaps, the time to come afterwards. Notable burials among the Granary Burial Ground include John Hancock (a statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence), Samuel Adams (also a statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence).
The Prudential Center Skywalk Observatory is located on the building's 50th floor. The tower is also known as "the Pru" to locals and is the second-tallest building in Boston behind John Hancock Tower. The Skywalk Observatory is the tallest open-to-the-public observation deck, as John Hancock Tower’s has been closed since Sept. 11, 2001.
Enjoy 360-degree views from the Skywalk Observatory, and if it’s your first time in Boston, be sure to grab the Acoustiguide audio tour headphones, as the guide details the city’s main points of interest. In addition to English, the audio tour is available in French Canadian and Japanese. The first floor houses the Shops at Prudential Center, where anchor stores include Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. There are over 75 specialty retailers and even a functioning Roman Catholic Church as well. St. Francis Chapel is staffed by the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and is located inside the shopping center.
Located in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, Copley Square is among the most beautiful public parks in the city. For more than 100 years, it has been a hub of downtown activity and historical significance for the sheer number of institutions built here since the 1800s. Many still stand today, including the stunning Boston Public Library, Trinity Church, Old South Church, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel and New England's tallest skyscraper, John Hancock Tower.
The square is best known as the site of the finish line for the annual Boston Marathon, and there is a 1996 memorial here celebrating the race's 100th anniversary. It is also well known as a downtown commercial hub with a variety of upscale restaurants and shopping options. The onsite Copley Place mall includes high-end stores such as Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Porsche Design and Tiffany & Co.
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