15 Top Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Boston and Cambridge
Perhaps no other city in America holds as much history of the colonial and Revolutionary War era as Boston. It's not surprising then that its main sites have become a pilgrimage trail for Americans and for others who hope to get a sense of that history. But more than that, the Freedom Trail is a good introduction to today's city, connecting or passing close to some of its best loved tourist attractions. Boston is easy to navigate on foot, as its major sights are relatively close, and America's first subway system, the T, connects its important neighborhoods.
Across the Charles River, a watery summer recreation area whose Boston shore is reserved as the Esplanade park, is Cambridge. Although a separate and independent city, for tourist purposes, Cambridge is part of Boston and connected by the same transit system. Here, you'll find two of America's most prestigious and important universities, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
See also: Where to Stay in Boston
1 Freedom Trail
The three-mile Freedom Trail leads you past - and into - 16 of the city's principal historic monuments and sites. It's easy to follow, by the line of red bricks in the sidewalk and by footprints at street crossings. Begin by picking up brochures on the attractions at the Visitor Center in the Boston Common before heading to the State House. The trail will take you to Old Granary Burying Ground (where Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and John Hancock are buried), King's Chapel Burying Ground (Boston's oldest cemetery with the graves of Governor John Winthrop and two Mayflower passengers), Old South Meeting House (where the ringing speeches of patriots spawned the Boston Tea Party), and the Old State House. This is Boston's oldest public building and the site of the Boston Massacre.
In the North End, Boston's lively Italian neighborhood, are the Paul Revere House and Old North Church, where lanterns were hung in April 1775 to alert Paul Revere that British troops were headed to Lexington to arrest the patriot leaders and confiscate the munitions supplies. The trail ends across the bridge in Charlestown with the 54-gun frigate USS Constitution -nicknamed "Old Ironsides" in the War of 1812 - and the 220-foot granite Bunker Hill Monument.
2 Faneuil Hall
Known as the "cradle of liberty," Faneuil Hall was built in 1740-42 by Huguenot merchant Peter Faneuil as a market hall and presented to the city on condition that it should always be open to the public. The ground floor is still occupied by market stalls; on the upper floor is a council chamber, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was the meeting place of revolutionaries and later, of abolitionists. On its fourth floor is the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Museum, with weaponry, uniforms, and paintings of significant battles.
The adjoining Faneuil Hall Marketplace includes three long halls (Quincy Market, North Market, and South Market), dating from the early 19th century, now occupied by a lively assortment of shops, restaurants, and exhibitions. In good weather, you'll find street performers and buskers putting on shows in the square around the market, and along with the numerous food stalls, there are also shops selling jewelry, clothing, gifts, and souvenirs.
Address: Faneuil Hall Square, Boston, MA
3 Boston Common and Public Garden Swan Boats
In the heart of the city is Boston Common, America's oldest park and the start of the Freedom Trail. In this large green space, which is much used by locals year-round, are various monuments and the Central Burying Ground of 1756. You can rent skates to use on the Frog Pond from November through mid-March, enjoy the spring blossoms and fall foliage colors reflecting in its surface, and in summer, watch youngsters splash about in the wading pool.
Adjoining it on the west side of Charles Street, is the 24-acre Public Garden, America's oldest botanical garden, as well as Victorian-style monuments and statues, including an equestrian statue of George Washington and popular modern bronzes of a family of ducks immortalized in Robert McCloskey's children's book Make Way for the Ducklings. One of Boston's most iconic experiences for all ages is riding around the lake in the garden's center on the famous Swan Boats, first launched in the 1870s.
Address: Public Garden, Boston, MA
4 Beacon Hill
One of Boston's most beautiful neighborhoods and right in the center of the city, the south side of Beacon Hill has traditionally been the home of Boston's "old money" families, known locally as "Brahmins." Well-kept brick homes in Federal and Greek Revival styles line its tree-shaded streets, and at its heart is Louisburg Square, where homes face onto a leafy private park. Author Louisa May Alcott lived here from 1880 to 1888. The Nichols House Museum, a Federal-style home by Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, shows how Beacon Hill's upper class residents lived and is filled with collections of 16th- to 19th-century furnishings and decorative arts. At the western foot of Beacon Hill, Charles Street is lined with boutiques and shops that have traditionally catered to the neighborhood and are popular with visitors as well. Beyond Charles Street, facing the Public Garden, The Bull and Finch, established in 1969, inspired the popular television program, Cheers.
The north side of Beacon Hill is far more modest, and has been home to immigrants, including a sizable African American community, since the early 19th century. National Park Service Rangers offer free guided tours of the Black Heritage Trail from April through November and you can follow the trail on a self-guided tour year round. The Boston African American National Historic Site includes 15 pre-Civil War homes, businesses, schools, and churches that give a picture of Boston's 19th-century African American community. The Museum of Afro-American History operates the African Meeting House, the country's oldest (1806) church built by and for Black Americans and now restored to its 1854 appearance. The 1834 Abiel Smith School was the first public grammar school for African American children. Displays at both include artifacts, films, art, and sculpture related to the black experience in Boston and New England.
5 Harvard Square and Harvard Art Museums
Harvard University, founded in 1636, is the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States and is widely considered one of the world's leading academic centers. Go to the Harvard Information Center to take a spirited and entertaining free walking tour of the campus guided by a student who will share history, Harvard lore, and personal perspective. Or you can download a tour from their website. Harvard Yard sits right in Harvard Square, a lively hub for students, "townies," and visitors, filled with shops, bookstores, and allegedly more places to buy ice cream than any other U.S. city.
Adjoining Harvard Yard is the Renzo Piano-designed home of the Harvard Art Museums, including three formerly separate collections, each of which ranked high as major U.S. art museums. Few universities have such enviable collections. Fogg Art Museum concentrates on Italian early-Renaissance art, the Busch-Reisinger on Expressionist art of central and northern Europe, with Bauhaus objects and paintings by Kandinsky and Klee. The Arthur M. Sackler Museum has one of the world's best collections of Chinese jade, as well as Chinese bronzes, Japanese prints, Indian art, and Greco-Roman antiquities, especially vases and sculptures.
Address: 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA
6 Harvard Museums and the Glass Flowers
Although the four museums that make up this complex contain treasures such as the artifacts brought back by Lewis and Clark, for most people, the highlight is the more than 3,000 models of 830 species of flowers and plants, some with insects, and all so realistic that you will have trouble believing they are made of glass. Created between 1887 and 1936 by artisans Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, the flowers are unique in the world, and their secret process has never been replicated. These are part of Harvard's massive research collections, shown under one roof in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, the Mineralogical Museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Botanical Museum.
Particularly strong in Native American exhibits, the Peabody shows artifacts and art interpreted as part of a living culture, even when that culture has vanished. You can admire some of the finest examples of Native American arts from many periods and tribes, and also see how these changed as Europeans provided a new market for their goods. Those who like the Victorian "Cabinet of Curiosities" feel of old traditional museums will love the Pacific Islands balcony - it's like stepping back a century. The Museum of Comparative Zoology, founded by Louis Agassiz in 1859, contains an extensive collection of fossils, including a 25,000-year-old mastodon. The mineralogy collections include a dazzling display of rough and cut gemstones, a world-renowned meteorite collection, rocks, ores, and minerals from around the world.
Address: 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA
7 Copley Square
The main square of the Back Bay area is surrounded by both old and ultra-modern buildings. Its architectural highlight is Trinity Church, a red sandstone building designed by architect Henry Hobson Richardson in his distinctive style, known as Richardson Romanesque. Trinity is widely considered to be his finest work. The murals, frescoes, and painted decorations inside are by John La Farge and much of the fine stained glass is by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Facing it, across a grassy lawn where you can enjoy a picnic lunch with neighborhood office workers, is the Boston Public Library founded in 1848 as the first publicly funded lending library in the country. Architect Charles Follen McKim designed the present building in 1895. Go inside to see the library's Renaissance Revival architecture and murals by John Singer Sargent and Edwin Abbey.
On a third side of the square is the venerable Boston institution, the Copley Plaza Hotel, now a Fairmont property; these three buildings, backed by the sheer glass wall of a skyscraper, create a stunning cityscape. A block down Boylston Street, look for the finish line of the Boston Marathon, run each April on Patriot's Day. Just beyond is the Prudential Center, a 32-acre complex of apartments, shops, restaurants, and a 52-story tower. On its 50th floor you can visit the Skywalk observation deck for 360-degree views of Boston and its surroundings.
8 Fenway Park
Known as "America's Most Beloved Ballpark", Fenway Park is one of the most fabled sports complexes in the country, and even if you're not a sports fan, a tour of it is both fun and interesting. The home of the Boston Red Sox looks much the same as it did when it opened on April 20, 1912. One of its most recognizable features is the Green Monster, the 37-foot green wall in left field, and the park still maintains some of the remnants of "old time" baseball such as the hand-operated scoreboard. It also has the lowest seating capacity in the Major Leagues holding only 33,871 spectators (a fact that makes tickets exceedingly scarce).
Address: 4 Yawkey Way, Boston, MA
9 Museum of Fine Arts Boston
One of the leading art museums in the country, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts excels in its collections of Impressionist paintings, ancient Egyptian treasures, Asian and Persian fine arts, and works from ancient Greece and the Middle East. But its newest and crowning achievement is the construction of an entire American Wing to house, integrated in chronological order, outstanding collections of American paintings, furniture, decorative arts, folk art, silver, glassware, and design dating from pre-Columbian arts to the Art Deco and Modernist eras. Highlights elsewhere include a 12th-century lacquered-wood sculpture of a Buddhist Bodhisattva and Korean painted screens, the ivory and gold statue of the Minoan Snake Goddess from 1500 BC, and a statue of the Egyptian pharaoh Mycerinus and his queen from 2548-2530 BC.
Address: 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA
10 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Set in a building its eccentric creator modeled after a 15th-century Venetian palace, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum displays its collections in rooms surrounding a four-story central courtyard filled with flowering plants and fountains. The priceless 2500-piece collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture, tapestries, decorative arts, books, and manuscripts reflect the personal tastes and considerable expertise of Mrs. Gardner herself, whose own flamboyance further adds to the charm of the museum.
Behind the palazzo, a 70,000-square-foot glass-clad building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano creates new viewpoints for the original palazzo and stunning spaces for music and visual arts, allowing the museum to showcase exceptional contemporary works and artists. Rather than clash or compete with the original building, Piano's wing simply provides a new glass through which to view Mrs. Gardner's palazzo. From almost anywhere in the new building are uninterrupted prospects of the palace and gardens through transparent walls. After you tour the museum, stroll through the Fens, a long green space where you'll find a beautiful rose garden in bloom from June through October.
Address: 280 The Fenway, Boston, MA
11 Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra
The Boston Symphony Orchestra gave its inaugural concert in 1881 at Symphony Hall, one of the world's most acoustically perfect concert halls, opened in 1900. Over more than a century of history, its conductors have included greats such as Pierre Monteux, Serge Koussevitzky, Charles Munch, Seiji Ozawa, and James Levine. In addition to its regular symphony season, the hall is home to the Boston Pops Orchestra, which sets an international standard for performances of lighter music. For many visitors, the highlight of a trip is a Pops concert, either in Symphony Hall or at the Hatch Memorial Shell, an Art Deco outdoor music shell on the riverside Esplanade that has become a Boston landmark. The shell hosts a regular program of concerts and other special events, and is especially famous for the Boston Pop's yearly performance of the 1812 Overture on July 4th. Audiences sit on the lawn in front of the shell with views of Cambridge, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill. You can go behind the scenes on a tour of Symphony Hall where you'll hear the history and traditions of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, its musicians and conductors.
Address: 301 Massachusetts Avenue, Boston, MA
12 Boston Harbor
The Boston waterfront has seen many changes since its early beginnings as a colonial shipping port. After a period of decline for much of the 20th century, new life was breathed into the area in the mid-1970s with an ambitious redevelopment plan. Today, this interesting mix of residential and commercial space is connected by HarborWalk, an attractive walkway along the waterfront, with parks, public art, benches, cafés, interpretive signs, and access to several means of exploring the harbor by cruise boat, ferry, or water taxi. A shuttle-boat also runs to the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Although it extends from Charlestown to South Boston - and will expand considerably farther - the part you won't want to miss goes from the North End through the wisteria-draped pergola of Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, past Commercial Wharf, India Wharf, and Long Wharf, and by Rowes Wharf before curving along the harbor into the vibrant Seaport District to the Institute of Contemporary Art, an art museum dramatically cantilevered above the water. The Boston Tea Party Ship, a replica of one of the original ships from which the Sons of Liberty dumped tea overboard the night of December 16, 1773, offers tours with a participatory reenactment of the event.
At Rowes Wharf, you can board an Odyssey cruise through Boston Harbor from Castle Island to George's Island, then east to the Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, and back north to Charlestown Naval Yard before returning to the wharf. You can enjoy lunch, dinner, or Sunday brunch as you savor the views of the Boston skyline from the water. The skyline is especially beautiful at night, when you can take a starlight or full moon cruise.
13 New England Aquarium
Overlooking the waterfront, the New England Aquarium features more than 20,000 fish and aquatic animals representing over 550 species. A man-made Caribbean coral reef houses a large variety of tropical fish and underwater life including sharks, turtles, and moray eels. The Edge of the Sea touch tank allows visitors to handle small invertebrates like crabs, starfish, and urchins. Outside the aquarium, visitors can watch harbor seals play, perform, and live in their enclosed habitat. The New England Aquarium also sponsors educational programs and whale-watching tours outside of Boston Harbor, and the adjacent IMAX Theater shows 40-minute films on nature subjects.
Address: Central Wharf, Boston, MA
14 Museum of Science
Exhibits in this extensive science museum encourage learning through hands-on exploration of science and technology, but the museum is not just for children. Physics, biology, chemistry, ecology, zoology, astronomy, computers, and more are explored in more than 700 permanent, hands-on exhibits that are enhanced by stage presentations and interpreters. Highlights are a 65-million-year-old fossil discovered in the Dakota Badlands, an electricity dome with continuing programs, the Butterfly Garden where you can walk among free-flying butterflies in a conservatory filled with exotic plants, a live animal center, a chance to join local meteorologists to learn weather forecasting, and ComputerPlace, where you can operate a robot and explore how your computer stores information. The planetarium presents daily laser and star shows, and the Mugar Omni Theater has a five-story domed screen.
Address: Science Park, Boston, MA
15 John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
Dedicated to the memory of the thirty-fifth U.S. President, the museum is the official national memorial to JFK, designed by noted architect I.M. Pei and opened in 1979. The museum, which stands on the shore south of the city, features three theaters, personal memorabilia, photographs, and historical exhibits that document the life of JFK and his presidency. Exhibits cover the presidential campaign trail, the Oval Office, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and the Kennedy family.
Address: Columbia Point, Boston
Where to Stay in Boston for Sightseeing
Most of Boston's major tourist attractions are relatively close to the downtown area and Boston Common, where the Freedom Trail begins. Beacon Hill, Copley Square, and the Waterfront/North End are all within easy reach of these highly-rated hotels in Boston.
- Luxury Hotels: These hotels are in Boston's most prestigious - and convenient - locations: Copley Square and Beacon Hill. Fairmont Copley Plaza is the Grand Dame of Boston hotels, an elegant and gracious landmark property overlooking Copley Square and minutes from the Public Garden's Swan Boats. The intimate Lenox Hotel is known for personal attention in the heart of Back Bay, adjacent to Prudential Center and Copley Square, close to museums and Newbury Street shopping. XV Beacon crowns historic and fashionable Beacon Hill, next to the State House and overlooking Boston Common.
- Mid-Range Hotels: Boston's waterfront extends from the North End Italian neighborhood to the newly blossoming Seaport area, handy to harbor cruises, seafood dining, museums, and historic sites. Boston Marriott Long Wharf overlooks Boston Harbor, close to the New England Aquarium and North End attractions. Seaport Boston Hotel guests enjoy sweeping views across Boston Harbor and the downtown skyline, excellent service, and a no-tipping policy in the hotel and its restaurants. In a skillfully repurposed brick factory building, Residence Inn Boston Downtown Seaport is steps from the Boston Children's Museum and downtown attractions.
- Budget Hotels: Even Boston's budget-friendly options are conveniently close to the center. Opposite the Prudential Center, The Midtown Hotel is near the art museums, Symphony Hall, and Copley Square. The small Chandler Inn is in the chic South End restaurant and arts neighborhood. Especially handy to sport and entertainment events at TD Garden, Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Boston Garden is near the North End and Quincy Market.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Boston
- Sightseeing: For first-time visitors to Boston, the best way to see the attractions and get acquainted with the city layout is to take a Hop-on Hop-off Trolley Tour. This tour stops at all the major tourist attractions and gives you the freedom to stop where you want and see the city at your own pace. However, if you are traveling with children between spring and fall, you might want to consider the Boston Duck Tour, in a revamped WWII amphibious vehicle that has both a land and water portion to the tour. This is a fun tour, popular with both adults and kids, but will be much more enjoyable for youngsters than a typical trolley tour.
- Boating and Whale Watching: Boston Whale Watching Cruises offer a chance to see humpback and fin whales, as well as dolphins and porpoises, in the wild. These three-hour, naturalist-led tours are very popular and claim to have whale sightings on every trip. If you are looking for more of an adventure ride than a sightseeing outing, try the Boston Codzilla: Thrill Boat Ride. This is a 40-minute wet and wild, high-speed ride appropriate for the whole family.
Other Points of Interest
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The 150-acre MIT campus is of special interest to fans of modern and postmodern architecture, a living museum of works by noted architects including Alvar Aalto, Eduardo Catalano, I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Eero Saarinen. In addition, the campus displays hundreds of sculptures and art installations that you can see with the help of a self-guided walking tour map, by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, Jacques Lipchitz, and Auguste Rodin. In the Hart Nautical Gallery are ship models, and the Compton Gallery shows contemporary art.
Address: 77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
The Boston Children's Museum contains exhibits and hands-on activities designed for children up to age 10. Its three floors offer something for every child, from aspiring artists and actors to budding engineers and scientists. Some of the museum's highlights include a complete Japanese house to explore, a room filled with ways to make bubbles, Arthur's World featuring characters from the popular children's book series, and Raceways, where children explore the laws of motion by rolling golf balls along different tracks.
Address: 308 Congress Street, Boston MA
Here is a chance to tour a Victorian row house built in 1859, when Boston's Back Bay was just starting out as the city's upscale residential neighborhood. The house is filled with original Gibson family period furnishings: black-walnut woodwork, imported carpets, and 18th-century decorative arts. The kitchen, scullery, and butler's pantry, as well as formal rooms and private family quarters provide a glimpse into the lives of a well-to-do Boston family.
Address: 137 Beacon Street, Boston, MA
Longfellow National Historic Site
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived in this 1759 Georgian-style house near Harvard Square from 1837 to 1882 and wrote several of his most famous poems here. Prior to this, the house was George Washington's headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776 when he was planning the siege of Boston. Inside, you can see a museum with 18th and 19th century painting and decorative arts; Longfellow's library; and letters from George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, and Abraham Lincoln.
Address: 105 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA
Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
Learn about the activities offered on these 30 islands at the Boston Harbor Islands information center on the Greenway, across from the New England Aquarium. Buy boat tickets here, and enjoy touring a Civil War-era fort, exploring tide pools, climbing to the top of the historic lighthouse, hiking the trails, camping, fishing, picnicking, and swimming at Spectacle Island. Park Service rangers give kayak lessons and walking tours of the island every day in summer.
Address: 408 Atlantic Avenue, Suite 228, Boston, MA