14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Massachusetts
Art, music, colonial history, patriotic landmarks, shopping, idyllic beaches, laid-back islands, succulent seafood - Massachusetts has something for everyone. Take your pick from tourist attractions that range from classical music concerts by a world-class symphony orchestra to perfecting your tan on a pristine beach. As one of the original 13 colonies, Massachusetts has preserved more than its share of historic landmarks from as far back as pilgrim days. But it's not all history - in Boston's vibrant Faneuil Hall Marketplace, you'll find fashions as new as tomorrow. Landscapes are just as varied, and as you explore these must-see sights, you'll find rolling mountains, waves crashing on rocky shores, green pastures and farmlands, deep forests, and beautiful little postcard-perfect villages that Norman Rockwell immortalized in his paintings.
1 Freedom Trail
Some of Colonial America's most iconic landmarks mark Boston's three-mile Freedom Trail as it winds through the old city's narrow streets to connect 16 historic monuments and attractions. Follow the red brick line and brass medallions in the pavement, from the Visitor Center in the Boston Common all the way to the 54-gun frigate USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Along the way, wander through two old burying grounds to find the graves of Paul Revere, John Hancock, and the first female to step off the Mayflower. The Old State House, Boston's oldest public building, was the scene of the infamous Boston Massacre, when five colonists were killed by British soldiers. A few steps off the Freedom Trail, at 1 Milk Street, is the birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, a site marked by a bust of the patriot, who was born here in 1706.
The trail's best known attraction is Faneuil Hall, called the "cradle of liberty" for its role as the meeting-place of revolutionaries and later, of abolitionists. Along with a museum, it houses the stalls of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which also includes three more long halls filled by pushcarts, food stalls, and shops. Two more iconic sites are in the lively Italian neighborhood, the North End: the 17th-century Paul Revere House and Old North Church, Boston's oldest and the one from whose steeple two lanterns were hung to signal the start of Paul Revere's famous ride.
2 Cape Cod Beaches
Cape Cod is a long, curving peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic, protecting Cape Cod Bay with its northward curve. Most of its 560 miles of shoreline is long white-sand beaches, often backed by dunes of waving sea grass. Many of them are crowded in mid-summer, but there is enough sand for everyone (although not always enough parking for their cars). Look for the more uncrowded beaches on the quieter north shore, along Route 6-A, near Sandwich or Brewster. Chatham and Orleans both have especially scenic white beaches on the Atlantic-facing shore. Cape Cod's beaches are among the most beautiful places in Massachusetts.
Cape Cod National Seashore protects nearly the whole eastern coast of the Cape, keeping a 40-mile stretch of sand and dunes almost unchanged since the 1800s. Walk its white sands, spot nesting shorebirds, and follow the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp Trail through its beautiful cedar woodlands. Stop at the Salt Pond or Provincetown Visitor Centers for maps, information, and passes. Lifeguards are on duty at beaches near parking areas from late June through August.
Address: 99 Marconi Station Site Road, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cape Cod
3 Minute Man National Historical Park and Lexington Green
You can follow the route taken by the British regulars as they marched from Boston in a move that would begin the American Revolution. Battle Road is now part of Minute Man National Historical Park, which also includes North Bridge in Concord, where the Colonials engaged the British in battle. North Bridge Visitor Center shows artifacts, uniforms, and a historical film, and at the end of the bridge is Daniel Chester French's famous Minuteman statue.
At Battle Green in Lexington, where the very first shots were fired on April 19, 1775, stands another statue commemorating a Minuteman (they were called Minutemen because they were ready for battle at a minute's notice). On a boulder are inscribed Captain Parker's words to his men: "Stand your ground. Don't fire unless fired upon but if they mean to have a war let it begin here." Reenactments of the battles here and at North Bridge in Concord are held each year on the anniversary. Begin at Minute Man Visitor Center to learn about the battles and Paul Revere's Ride to warn the colonists of the British advance.
Address: 174 Liberty Street, Concord, Massachusetts
Accommodation: Where to Stay near Minute Man National Historical Park
4 Faneuil Hall
Built in 1740-42, Faneuil Hall was given to the city as a market hall by merchant Peter Faneuil. Along with a market, it was a place for public meetings well-used by colonists protesting British taxes and other grievances. In the mid-19th century it was the scene of anti-slavery meetings, rallies, and speeches. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Museum on its top floor preserves paintings of battles, along with arms and uniforms.
True to its origins, the ground floor is filled with market stalls, which flow out into the three nearby market halls -- Quincy Market, North Market, and South Market - to make up Faneuil Hall Marketplace. This entire area is almost always lively, filled with shoppers, buskers, tourists, and workers from nearby offices enjoying their lunches on the benches that line the wide promenades between the market halls. The halls themselves are filled with food stalls, pushcarts, shops, restaurants, and cafés.
5 Mayflower II and Plimoth Plantation
In December 1620, separatists from the Church of England, called Pilgrims, landed at Plymouth after failing to reach their original destination in Virginia, making Plymouth the first permanent European settlement in New England. You can step back into their world at the living history museum, Plimoth Plantation, where costumed interpreters (who never leave their 17th-century persona) re-create the experience of living in early colonial America as they go about daily tasks of gardening, building, cooking, and military training. Craftsmen use authentic tools to make objects common in the 17th century. Plimoth Plantation also explores the lives and culture of Native Americans at its Hobbamock's Homesite, a re-creation of a Wampanoag village, where you'll see dwellings, gardens, and artifacts. Here, descendants of the area's first inhabitants demonstrate how their ancestors lived before and after the colonists' arrival. Be sure to visit the full-scale reproduction of the Mayflower, Mayflower II, birthed at Plymouth Pier, to learn about the historic voyage from costumed guides representing the passengers and crew. You can visit Plimoth Plantation on a day trip from Boston.
Address: 137 Warren Avenue, Plymouth, Massachusetts
6 Salem's Historic Houses
While early homes full of period furnishings are thick on New England soil, few places can offer the number, quality, and variety of those you can tour in the former China Trade port of Salem. What's more, they represent a wide range of Salem's history and culture, beginning with the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and including the House of Seven Gables, immortalized in the book by Nathaniel Hawthorne whose 1804 birthplace is also open. The 1642 Witch House was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, who presided at the witchcraft trials, and it's the only remaining building that's directly connected with the trials.
As the hub of the China Trade, it's not surprising that Salem streets are lined with homes built by men who grew rich in that era as captains or merchants. Two homes, the Hawkes and Derby houses, are part of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Several others are part of the exceptional Peabody Essex Museum complex: the 1727 Crowninshield-Bentley House, the 1684 John Ward House, and the 1804 brick Gardner-Pingree House, whose interior preserves work by master builder Samuel McIntire. The Peabody Essex Museum explores the China Trade, its participants, and their homes in its extensive collections, which include an entire original 18th-century home from China's Huizhou region, reassembled here and open to visitors.
Address: 161 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Salem
7 Whale Watch at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Among the top ten whale-watching sites in the world, the Stellwagen Bank has one of the world's most biologically productive ocean environments. At this underwater plateau in the Atlantic, at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, you may spot several different species of whale, along with Atlantic white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoise, seals, and other marine life. More than 50 individual humpback whales have been identified and named by researchers, all dependable returnees each summer. Many of them are females that bring their new calves to Stellwagen Bank to feed in the food-rich waters and teach their calves to hunt.
You can board a Whale Watching Tour in Gloucester or Provincetown, the closest harbors to the Stellwagen Bank, or from Boston or several other towns on Cape Cod. For the best experience, look for a company that offers trained naturalists to provide commentary during the trips and help identify species and explain their behavior.
8 Old Sturbridge Village
One of the state's most visited tourist attractions, Old Sturbridge Village re-creates life in New England as it was in the early 1800s, in more than 40 historic homes, craft shops, stores, mills, and farm buildings brought from various places to this 200-acre site. Costumed interpreters demonstrate daily tasks of farmers, blacksmiths, housewives, and craftspeople, and offer hands-on activities for children. A working farm demonstrates early farming and gardening, complete with back-bred livestock and heirloom plant varieties. You can also see two operating mills using water power to process wool and saw timber for buildings.
Address: 1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, Massachusetts
9 Tanglewood Concerts
The Boston Symphony Orchestra decamps in the summer to Lenox, in the heart of the Berkshires, where Tanglewood becomes a magnet for musicians and music lovers from late June through August. In the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Ozawa Hall, and other venues throughout the campus, various resident and guest musicians rehearse, learn, and perform. The concerts vary from the full symphony orchestra to chamber groups and soloists, and from student groups, such as the Boston University Tanglewood Institute, to top-name performers like popular singer Tony Bennett and operatic soprano Renée Fleming.
The music of the BSO is often enhanced by the 120 voices of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and throughout the summer, the programs may include jazz pianists, string or wind quartets, Medieval music, contemporary works, opera, classics, and other forms and styles. Free Fun Fridays are designed to appeal to the whole family, and Saturday morning rehearsals are open to the public by reserved ticket. Along with concert-style seating, audiences enjoy some of Tanglewood's most popular concerts seated on the well-manicured lawns.
Address: 297 West Street, Lenox, Massachusetts
10 Island Life on Martha's Vineyard
Nowhere in the state can you experience a more idyllic laid-back island life than on Martha's Vineyard, only five miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod. You'll feel the island's relaxed vibe almost from the moment you board the ferry from Woods Hole or New Bedford. "The Vineyard" has six small towns, miles and miles of beaches, lighthouses, weathered shingle houses, sand bluffs, protected waters for kayaking, and a plenty of ocean for sailing. In its low, rolling landscape, you'll find working farms with farm stands selling everything from just-picked strawberries to fresh eggs. In its villages, which have a real year-round life of their own, locals mix easily with summer people, some of whose families have been coming here for generations. You may get a glimpse of some of their "cottages," as they refer to the posh estates built by wealthy New York and Boston families.
Oak Bluffs still has rows of little 19th-century "gingerbread" cottages from its days as a Methodist Camp meeting site, along with one of the oldest merry-go-rounds, the Flying Horses Carousel. Edgartown is a bit more sedate, with white clapboard buildings lining tree-shaded streets. The oldest is Vincent House, built in 1672 and now a museum. Board the Chappy On-Time Ferry to Chappaquiddick, an even smaller island with beautiful protected beaches and the outstanding Mytoi Japanese garden. You can sample some of the things to do here on a day trip to Martha's Vineyard from Boston.
Accommodation: Where to Stay on Martha's Vineyard
11 Harvard Square and Museums
Harvard University, one of the world's leading academic centers, is an attraction in itself, filled with historic buildings and exceptional museums. But its surroundings are just as appealing to visit, as the shops, restaurants, cafés, and bookstores around Harvard Square throb with activity at any time of year. The Harvard Art Museums now combine three major collections, each of which formerly ranked as major U.S. art museums. Fogg Art Museum specializes in Italian early-Renaissance art, and the Busch-Reisinger concentrates on German and northern European Expressionist art, with works by Kandinsky and Klee. The Chinese jade and bronzes, Japanese prints, Indian art, and Greco-Roman antiquities at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum comprise some of the finest collections in the world.
Four more world-class museums sit two blocks away on Oxford Street, Harvard's research collections displayed in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology, the Mineralogical Museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and the Botanical Museum. The exceptional Native American exhibits show art and artifacts in the context of a living culture that changed as contact with Europeans increased. The best known exhibits here, however, are the more than 3,000 glass flowers and plants, so realistic that it's hard to believe they are manmade. The secret of how these were made died with their creators, and the process has never been replicated. You can take a Harvard Campus Walking Tour that includes admission to these museums.
Address: 32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts
12 Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Two neighboring museums overlooking Boston's Fenway Park trace fine and applied art from the ancient world to modern masters. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts is renowned for its collections of Impressionist paintings; Asian and Persian fine arts; and works from ancient Greece, Egypt, and the Middle East. An entire American Wing displays outstanding collections of American paintings, decorative arts, folk art, furniture, silver, and design from pre-Columbian to Modernist.
A few steps away is the somewhat eccentric collection of Isabella Stewart Gardner, bequeathed as a museum, along with her Venetian-style palace in which these treasures are displayed. The more than 2,500 works range from paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer to exquisite handmade lace and medieval furniture. Behind her palace is a glass-encased building designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, creating spaces for music and contemporary art.
Museum of Fine Arts
- Address: 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Massachusetts
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- Address: 280 The Fenway, Boston, Massachusetts
13 Norman Rockwell Museum
One of America's most beloved artists, Norman Rockwell lived and painted in the Berkshires for the last 25 years of his life, and his legacy is preserved here in the museum containing the world's largest collection of his original artworks. Rockwell is best known for his characterization of American life, especially in small towns, and for his representation of the country's ideals. His ability to portray ordinary people and to convey nostalgia, gentle humor, and his deeply held concerns, such as civil rights and America's war on poverty, give his paintings warmth and tremendous appeal. Highlights of the collection are favorites from his Saturday Evening Post covers, the Four Freedoms, and Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. The Berkshire region has attracted artists, writers, and other creative figures since the early 19th century, and several of their homes and studios are open as tourist attractions, including those of Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, and Daniel Chester French.
Address: 9 Route 183, Stockbridge, Massachusetts
14 Historic Deerfield
The remarkable history of the Pioneer Valley village of Deerfield is told in its impressive collection of well-preserved Colonial and Federal period homes and at the 14 houses of Historic Deerfield and the Flynt Center of Early New England Life. Especially outstanding are the collection of American quilts, the 1824 Federal Wright House with its collection of Chippendale furniture and the Asa Stebbins House, which contains a unique arched doorway and notable collection of wall coverings.
Historic Deerfield's houses and galleries contain more than 27,000 objects made or used in America from 1650 to 1900, one of the largest collections anywhere. Helen Geier Flynt Textile Gallery alone holds one of the finest collections of early American textiles and costumes in any museum, and frequent programs explore their history and techniques. Throughout the season are demonstrations of early American skills, crafts, and cooking.
Address: 84B Old Main Street, Deerfield, Massachusetts
More Things to See and Do in Massachusetts
For a relatively small state, Massachusetts is packed with interesting towns and cities and scenic regions to visit, including the historic mills of Lowell, the Berkshires, and the historic seaports of New Bedford and Fall River. Not far south of Boston and Cambridge, and one of the many easy day trips from Boston, is Plymouth, site of the Pilgrims landing in 1620. To the north are beautiful Cape Ann and Salem, and for more beaches, no visitor should miss Cape Cod and the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
All of New England is fairly compact, so the neighboring states of Rhode Island (don't miss Newport and its mansions) and Connecticut are close. To the north, Massachusetts borders New Hampshire, where historic Portsmouth is only a short trip from Boston. From here, it's a short drive to the scenic White Mountains, a playground for hiking, skiing, and camping. Vermont, with its own skiing and hiking trails, borders western Massachusetts.