The 50 best things to do in Boston

Your ultimate guide to things to do in Boston—from the city's best restaurants and shops to museums and sightseeing

Photograph: Elan Fleisher
50 things to do in Boston: The Public Garden

Boston is a city of superlatives. It has the best universities, it's the best walking city, and it has the best-preserved examples of Victorian architecture in the U.S. Perhaps it's the result of longstanding comparisons with New York, or the venerable history of many of Boston’s institutions, but fierce local pride extends to everything from the Red Sox to the city’s world-class art museums. Whether newcomer or native, take time to explore.

Scope out seasonal blooms

The most heartening sign that spring is coming is the emergence of tiny flower buds all around the city. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Arnold Arboretum take the enjoyment one step further in their annual springtime floral celebrations. Every April, the hyacinths that hang from the upper levels of the ISG’s garden atrium bloom for one month, displaying their vibrant orange blooms for winter-weary visitors. If lilacs are more your style, the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain boasts one of the oldest and largest collections of lilac bushes in the world, predating even the founding of the Arboretum in 1872. The Arboretum celebrates this fact every year with its annual lilac festival on the second Sunday in May, when thousands of people come to view the fragrant flowers in full bloom.

Get wild at the Franklin Park Zoo

As fascinating as lions and tigers, and uh… kangaroos are on the TV screen, they’re far more impressive in the flesh. The Franklin Park Zoo in Jamaica Plain has them all, as well as zebras, gorillas, giraffes and a host of other exotic animals that wouldn’t (or, perhaps, would) normally be seen dead in New England climate. Whatever your feelings about zoos, you have to admire Franklin Park’s mission to inspire people to protect and sustain endangered species.

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Gaze at the skies

Every Wednesday night (weather permitting) Coit Observatory at Boston University opens up its facilities for free public viewings of the stars. The viewing starts at 8:30pm, lasts about hour, and promises to help you to distinguish your Andromeda from your Milky Way. If you find yourself at the Museum of Science on a cloudless Friday night, visit the Gilliland Observatory. Located on the museum's parking garage rooftop (romantic, no?), the observatory is equipped with a powerful computer-controlled telescope and staffed by employees who are happy to give you a free crash course in astronomy. It’s generally a good idea to call the observatory hotline beforehand for an update on the weather and a list of currently visible objects in the night sky.

Go on an offbeat walking tour

Boston is packed with remnants of the past. The Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston Tea Party harbor and the pub Matt Damon and Ben Affleck go to in Good Will Hunting are all landmarks that Bostonians pass by every day, but never really see. Walking tours are a great way to (re)discover the city's incredible history. Boston’s “Movie Mile,” Literary Landmarks and Haunted Boston are just a few of the options available.

Commune with penguins at the New England Aquarium

More than 80 African, rockhopper and Little Blue Penguins live in the New England Aquarium’s first-floor display which surrounds the Giant Ocean Tank, a gigantic coral reef exhibit where big marine creatures—including sharks and a massive turtle—roam. The building is designed in such a way that the penguins can be seen from virtually anywhere in the aquarium. If you skim your hands over the water, they may even play with your shadow. There are also several penguin feeding sessions and presentations daily.

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Storm the fort at Castle Island

Locals sometimes forget about the 1850 granite bastion known as Fort Independence, poised at the ocean end of South Boston on Castle Island. In addition to the landmark, today’s Pleasure Bay also offers 22 acres of beach, bike paths, fishing grounds and picturesque views. It’s a good spot for an all-day picnic, or to pretend you’re going on a medieval raid. Free tours of the fort are available year round—and the lobster rolls and fried clams at Sullivan’s, a Castle Island institution, are a must.

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Tour Harvard

There’s a lot more on the grounds of Harvard Yard than elite pupils and posing tourists. The iconic redbrick walls have contained some truly stunning stories, and a visit serves as a Who's Who of American history—alumni include John Hancock, JFK and Barack Obama, while Matt Damon, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are among the famous dropouts. The campus also features striking architecture designed by such luminaries as Bulfinch, Le Corbusier (his only U.S. building) and Sert. Each Saturday, three free student-led tours leave the Holyoke Center at 10am, noon and 2pm for a one-hour tour of the nation’s top university.

Visit the Boston Public Library

The BPL is actually two libraries. The original structure, designed by Charles McKim and completed in 1895, is now the research library, while an extension opened in 1972 functions as a general library. Frequented by local students and casual book-browsers, the complex is well worth visiting. Most days you can join an informal art and architecture tour conducted by volunteers (call for times), but the labyrinthine structure is a joy to get lost in as well. At the center of the building is the cloistered courtyard, with its central fountain—a tranquil place to linger. Bates Hall (the expansive second-floor reading room, named after an early benefactor) runs the entire length of the library, and features a majestic barrel-arched ceiling. Another highlight is John Singer Sargent's recently restored epic mural, the Triumph of Religion, which dominates the third floor gallery; there are also murals by 19th-century French painter Puvis de Chavannes, among others. The modern wing of the library—which echoes its parent's materials, lines and proportions in a modernist vocabulary—has its critics, but has aged well.

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Back Bay

See the Symphony

Now a Boston landmark, Symphony Hall opened its doors in 1900 as the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Extended in 1990 to include the Cohen Wing, it continues to update its facilities with new audio reproduction technology. Still, it's the all-important acoustics of the original interior design that have made it one the world's top auditoriums. In July and August, the BSO decamps to Tanglewood in the Berkshires, Western Massachusetts, which also hosts the Festival of Contemporary Music and the Tanglewood Jazz Festival.

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Discover a lost world at the Mapparium

Here's proof that Boston really is at the center of the universe—or at least the world. The Mapparium, the world's largest walk-in globe, is among the city's quirkiest landmarks. It’s essentially a three-story model of the globe built to scale; the perfect sphere runs 30 feet in diameter, and can be crossed by means of a glass bridge that bisects its interior. Inside, sound bounces off the globe room's non-porous glass walls, amplifying it tenfold. The effect is pleasantly hallucinatory—whispers across the room register directly in your ear. Another idiosyncratic feature is the map itself. The 608 stained-glass panels recreate the world as it was in the mid-1930s, when the project was completed. Most of the borders are outdated; several of the countries shown have long since been swallowed up by larger entities. It is, as the piped-in voice overhead reminds us, "a world that no longer exists."

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Back Bay

Ride the Hubway

While driving around Boston can be, at times, both mystifying and terrifying, biking is a really great way to zip around the city. The city's bike-sharing system, Hubway, offers up affordable bikes for the commitment-phobic: you determine your level of involvement, choosing between one-day, three-day or annual memberships. You can pick up a bike at one kiosk and leave it at another at your leisure—it’s so convenient that we’d love to see this system used for other things. See you later, pants.

See a Sox game

Opening day at Fenway Park is no joke around these parts. You can root root root for the home team between late March and the end of September, but it’s often much easier to get reasonably priced tickets ($10 and up) earlier in the season. The general diehard home-team pride for which the city is notorious makes every victory that much sweeter—ask any local in one of Lansdowne’s many pubs to tell you all about the 2004 World Series win if you need a refresher.

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Hang out at Jamaica Pond

Visionary landscape architect Frederick Olmsted liked Jamaica Pond, the centerpiece of the Emerald Necklace, for its "reflections and flickering half-lights." A stroll through the woods around the pond will clue you into what he was talking about. The best place to relax, though, might be on the water itself: Rowboats, kayaks and sailboats are all available for rent. If you’ve got a fishing license for some reason, bring your pole and your best Huck Finn smirk.

Conquer the Minuteman Bikeway

Stretching from Cambridge to Bedford, the 11-mile Minuteman Bikeway is a great way to check out Greater Boston’s outer boroughs. Built on a former railway, it’s open to biking, rollerblading, jogging, walking and more—anything sans motor, basically. There’s also plenty to see along the way, including Alewife Brook Reservation, Spy Pond and Arlington’s Great Meadows. Casual pacing is the name of the game, so speed demons should look elsewhere.

Watch some whales

Whale-watching isn’t just for junior high school field trips. Hop on one of the boats that head out of Boston Harbor daily and rediscover how awesome it actually is to be within spitting distance of the largest mammals on earth. Bring a sweater and park yourself at the hull of the boat for the day so that you’re sure not to miss a second of the action. The snack bars aren’t the best, so make sure to pack provisions (you may want to leave the tuna fish sandwich at home, though). The boat's fully stocked bar is a plus.

Stroll down Memorial Drive on Sunday

Celebrate your right to thumb your nose at frustrated motorists as you blithely cruise down the double yellow on your in-line skates or sprint down the middle of the street pushing your baby carriage. Every summer, Cambridge poses the question “Why don’t we do it in the road?” and answers by blocking off Memorial Drive to automobile traffic along the Charles River on Sundays, and handing over the highway to pedestrians, bikers and Frisbee enthusiasts. And every summer, reams of distraught motorists forget this fact and pull up to the police barriers fuming audibly—which is all part of the fun.

Join an Italian festival in the North End

In the summer months, the North End turns into a slice of old Italy as the local Italian community put on a number of feasts and festivals in honor of Italian saints. The streets fill with participants and bystanders alike, all watching the confetti fly, the banners sway and the processions make their way through the narrow cobblestone streets. While it may seem like every single Sunday is a cause for celebration, the biggest are the Fisherman’s Feast of the Madonna in mid-August and Saint Anthony’s Feast later that same month. Expect great food, boisterous crowds and statues covered in dollar bills.

Take the T to the beach

Did you know that there are a number of awesome New England beaches just a short train ride away from Boston? Crane Beach can be reached by a shuttle bus that departs from the Ipswich commuter rail station throughout the summer, and also boasts some of the best wildlife-attracting salt marshes around. Singing Beach and Good Harbor Beach are also accessible by public transportation. If you’re not content with merely relaxing by the waves, hop on the train to Plum Island, where you can also explore the quaint seaside town of Newburyport—just keep an eye on the time so you don’t miss that last train home.

Go ice-skating on the Frog Pond

Bundle up, grab your skates (or rent them for $8) and take a spin in the middle of America's oldest public park—preferably on a clear, starlit night. Rink snobs need not worry: the Frog Pond is Zamboni-slick and has its own ice-making system. Pop over to Silvertone afterwards for a cozy booth, well-executed comfort food and some great cocktails that won't break the bank. We recommend the Joey Joe Joe Jr. Shabadoo, a potent blend of ginger beer and rye.

Explore Fresh Pond Reservation

Each time you drink a glass of water in Cambridge, consider that it comes straight from this source. Located just under two miles northwest of Harvard Square, these 162 acres of open space feature a golf course, a butterfly meadow, woods, several ponds and a 2.25-mile perimeter road to walk, jog or amble around. Take note of the restroom at the Rangers’ station in case all that water has you feeling, er, inspired.

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Discover the deCordova Museum & Sculpture Park

Galleries are great to visit in Boston’s brutal winters or blistering summers, but if you happen to be in town during one of the brief periods of pleasant weather, why not get your art fix outdoors in the sunshine? Situated about 15 miles outside the city limits, the deCordova Museum & Sculpture Park is the perfect place to do so, featuring astonishing art in a 35-acre area alongside Flints Pond.

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Take a tour with the SoWa Artists Guild

Every first Friday of the month, the SoWa arts district opens its doors to the public. With over 50 artist studios and 15 galleries, this creative hub has breadth and variety. A typical tour can include steampunk sculptures, stunning photography, feather-decorated hair fascinators and contemporary takes on famous paintings. Afterwards, stop in at Gaslight Brasserie for some killer Parisian-style steak frites. (First Friday of each month, 5pm–9pm.)

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The South End

Explore the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Modeled on a Venetian palace, the former home of the American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner is a sightseeing gem. As per Donna Isabella’s explicit instructions, the museum stands “for the education and enrichment of the public forever.” The ISG’s most famous treasures are still unlabeled, turning the whole thing into a glorious guessing game (though you can refer to printed guides in each room or print them from the website). Adding to the intrigue, since nothing can be moved, the frames of the three stolen Rembrandts still hang empty on the walls. The museum also boasts a flower-filled courtyard that blooms all year long. Plus, anyone with the first name Isabella gets in for free.

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Ask not what your country can do for you

Located behind the Dorchester campus of the University of Massachusetts, the JFK Presidential Library and Museum occupies I.M. Pei's dramatic concrete-and-glass monolith facing out to the ocean. Although the museum doesn’t see the tourist numbers that the Freedom Trail pulls in, the well-presented multimedia journey through the former president’s life is still fascinating—and emotionally resonant—more than half a century after his death.

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Get your art fix at the Museum of Fine Arts

Founded in 1870, the MFA moved from Copley Square to its current home, a neoclassical granite building on Huntington Avenue—the so-called "Avenue of the Arts"—in 1909. The globe-spanning collection encompasses 450,000 objects. Of particular note are the collection of American art, including Paul Revere's silver Liberty Bowl and paintings by John Singleton Copley; the Egyptian collection, much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century; the Japanese collection (the first in America and one of the finest in the world); and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including an impressive array by Monet—the second largest collection of his work in the U.S., after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The impressive new Art of the Americas wing (covering the art of North, Central and South America chronologically over three floors), completed in late 2010, has added even more variety to the collection.

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Arlington

Browse the Institute of Contemporary Art

Once crammed into a tiny building in Back Bay, the ICA moved to its spacious new home in late 2006, and is now the cultural cornerstone of the waterfront. With its 65,000-square-foot floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theater and a café. The museum prides itself on providing a platform for challenging works—the permanent collection includes pieces by the likes of Julian Opie, Paul Chan and Mona Hatoum, while changing shows explore broader themes that unite different artists' work, or focus on individual luminaries (Louise Bourgeois, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and the like). After you've contemplated the art, retreat to the deck outside, with its expansive vista over the harbor.

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The Waterfront

Dance in Central Square

The Boston area sure has its fair share of districts—the Financial District, the Theater District, the Leather District, the Garment District (okay, that last one is a actually a store)—and Central Square in Cambridge has become something of an unofficial Dance Party District. A far cry from the Top 40 club-banging hotspots on the other side of the river, the hodgepodge of offerings on a few choice blocks of Mass Ave cater to a wide variety of tastes. Check out Eastern European electro-club fare at the Middlesex Lounge’s Make It New (Thursdays), the eclectic throwback and hip-hop nights at Phoenix Landing or the live soul and funk stylings of Cambridge’s own Chicken Slacks at the Cantab Lounge (Thursdays).

See Shakespeare for free on the Common

Boston’s favorite way to see Shakespeare is in the park, on a blanket and with a cup of something that totally isn’t wine (wink). So claim a grassy spot on the Common and check out the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company's near-nightly productions of the Bard’s best works from late July through the end of August. The company sets up its stage in the open air, and you can see costumed players running around and stage hands working their magic by the glow of the State House’s dome. Performances are all free and make a perfect summertime date or relaxing literary outing.

Check out Coolidge @fter Midnite

With this weekly late-night film series, the Coolidge has established itself as the premier spot for campy, weird, avant-garde and niche cinema. The schedule runs the gamut from ’90s cheese such as Space Jam to horror staples like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, regular screenings of cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show to the so-bad-it’s-good-but-still-pretty-bad vanity production, The Room.

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Coolidge Corner

Hang at the Middle East

What began as a Lebanese eatery in 1970 has steadily grown into one of the city’s best locations for live music. Almost every night of the week, the Middle East club will crank out a show on each stage—Upstairs, Downstairs, and the Corner. Saturdays are especially busy, with frequent matinee concerts popping up on both the Downstairs and Upstairs stages. Each Saturday night, the complex’s fourth branch—the bar and restaurant ZuZu—hosts Soul-le-lu-jah, a funky throwdown fueled by classic soul tracks.

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Central Square

Go candlepin bowling at Sacco's Bowl Haven

Candlepin bowling is a uniquely New England quirk—as the name suggests, the pins are tall and much thinner than those of ten-pin or duckpin, and balls are closer to softball-sized. For those seeking this fun, cheap and unconventional group activity, Sacco's at Flatbread Somerville is a frequent favorite. This oasis of TV-free, retro splendor uses paper scorecards, features a jukebox and has generally retained much of its character despite recent renovations. The place also serves organic pizza with eccentric toppings, plus an impressive selection of wine and local beer.

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Laugh it up at the Improv Asylum

No matter how you’re feeling by Saturday night, Boston’s famed Improv Asylum will give you an excuse to laugh your face off. A blend of Saturday Night Live and Whose Line is It Anyway?, Improv Asylum’s Main Stage Show continues to draw praise from both professional critics and people who like to voice their opinions about things, and it’s never the same show twice. (8pm, 10pm, midnight.)

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The North End

Go wine-tasting for free

Chic wine shops like Central Bottle and Urban Grape offer regular tastings of their newest and/or best bottles. Wannabe oenophiles shouldn’t be intimidated by the insider-y gathering and swanky surroundings—both shopfronts aim to educate the uninitiated on wine-tasting and production—and send participants home with affordable bottles. Tasting times vary, so go online for the latest event listings.

Chase down a food truck

In Boston, there’s a whole world of food truck cuisine just waiting to be devoured. Comfort food abounds: M&M Ribs (a.k.a. Big Moe’s) serves up barbecue with soul food sides, all packaged up as take-out in the corner of a deserted lot. The self-explanatory Roxy’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese sets up shop on Beacon Street and Chestnut Hill Avenue in Cleveland Circle. But there are healthy options, too. One of the crowned victors of the City of Boston’s Food Truck Challenge, Momogoose offers Asian cuisine (including an impressive list of curries, some vegan), plus a dessert bar. MIT-area favorite Clover Food Lab opened a couple of brick and mortar outposts recently, but the original iteration can be found parked in a lot on the MIT campus or in the Financial District’s Dewey Square.

Take to the streets in Chinatown

Dim sum brunch at China Pearl is great all year round. The gigantic dining room is always packed no matter the weather, and the carts piled high with unidentifiable (but unwaveringly delicious) plates know no season. However, in the warmer months, Chinatown becomes more of a destination rather than simply a means to an end. Take a walk down Kneeland Street after you’ve eaten all you can, and stop by the multitude of Chinese markets that spring up on the corners. You’ll find everything from durian fruit to sardines stacked up for sale, and can easily spend a whole day wandering through the myriad shops lining the busy streets. If you’re feeling adventurous, stop in at Chau Chow City for its infamous “off the menu” selection of flaming drinks. Ask for the Flaming Ferrari to see what we mean.

Stop for a scoop

J.P. Licks is a local institution, its branches scattered all over the city. The local chain is known for its funky atmosphere, hip scoopers and flavors so good they'll bring you to your knees, so expect to wait in line on hot days. A bit tougher to get to—but worth the trek—is Christina's Homemade Ice Cream in Inman Square. It’s a favorite among local restaurateurs looking to amp up their dessert menu with the shop's painstakingly crafted, beautifully realized seasonal flavors, which include fresh rose, burnt sugar and ginger molasses. Toscanini's is another Cambridge spot with out-there ingredients. The staff constantly labors to come up with new and interesting varieties like the salty bacon and the smoky sweet burnt caramel (which was invented by accident).

Have a drink with a view at Top of the Hub

Sure, the view from the Prudential Tower’s Skywalk Observatory is worth the $16—but we’re of the mind that any vista is enhanced by cocktails, appetizers and a seat. Enter Top of the Hub, where the only thing more delicious than the panorama is possibly the pomegranate martini. Although the restaurant is a bit on the exclusive side and it’s often difficult to get a table on weekend evenings, the afternoon is more accessible for lighter fare and some of the best cocktails in the city.

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Slurp some history at the Union Oyster House

There are plenty of places in Boston to savor one of the region's true delicacies: raw oysters. But none have the history and provenance of America’s oldest restaurant, the Union Oyster House. Opened in 1826, the semi-circular oyster bar not only introduced the nation to the toothpick but also served many of the characters in your high school American history textbook, including plenty of Kennedys and Daniel Webster, who famously consumed about three dozen oysters per day there.

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Downtown

Make the donut rounds

Get your fill of fried goodness at some Boston’s top donut shops, spanning the latest cult bakeries, pop-ups and under-the-radar mom-and-pops. The antithesis of mass production (sorry, Dunkin’!), the treats are lovingly made from the South End to Somerville. Stick with the classics if you must, but we recommend tearing into the sea salt bourbon caramel and blackberry lavender.

Discover the local breweries

For a city that’s often hamstrung by booze-related blue laws, Boston sure has a fine collection of breweries. The city’s most famous brewer is Samuel Adams, the Revolutionary and “maltster” for whom the local brewing company is named. Tours of the brewery in Jamaica Plain are as affordable ($2!) as they are entertaining—affable tour guides and free beer is a win-win combination. Also a New England favorite, the Harpoon Brewery turns out spectacular IPAs, Hefeweizens and stouts right in South Boston. Belly up to the long table in the beer hall to enjoy some freshly brewed beers or plunk down $5 for a tour and a tasting.

Shop SoWa

The beloved SoWa Open Market (SoWa stands for “South of Washington,” if you were wondering) runs every Sunday from May through October. The area erupts into a weekly street fest that draws visitors from all over the city and beyond; a farmers' market, craft and antique vendors, and a Food Truck Court are only some of the attractions. And there's more inside the market building—the SoWa Vintage Market offers stall after stall of quirky vintage clothes and housewares.

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Browse through the Cambridge Antique Market

Compulsive garage sale browsers, jewelry collectors, interior decorators and treasure-hunters of all kinds love the Cambridge Antique Market for its five floors of vintage and antique finds and its T-accessible location. Most of the dealers specialize in specific items and eras, so ask around if you’re looking for something in particular. There's also an entire basement of refurbished vintage bicycles.

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Stock up on groceries at Haymarket

After nearly collapsing during the darkest days of the Big Dig, Boston’s historic open-air market has bounced back and then some. It’s thanks to the tenacity of the vendors and customers who continued to show up for the heavily discounted wholesale fruit, vegetables and fresh fish. And, post-Big Dig, the nearby Greenway is at your disposal for a post-shopping stroll. (Dawn–dusk.)

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Downtown

Splurge on Newbury Street

Newbury Street is Boston’s chicest shopping strip, starting at the high-end designer boutiques near the Public Garden and ending at the somewhat more approachable shops on the Mass Ave end, but offering a little bit of everything in between. Visitors include locals running errands, tourists browsing shops and galleries, and students from the nearby Berklee College of Music killing time in the coffeeshops and frozen yogurt outposts.

Experience Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market

Built for the city by the wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil in 1742, Faneuil Hall was later remodeled by prolific Boston architect Charles Bulfinch. It served a dual function as a marketplace (on the ground floor) and a meeting hall (upstairs). During Revolutionary times it became known as the “Cradle of Liberty,” as colonial heroes such as Samuel Adams regularly roused the Boston populace against the British here—it still hosts the occasional political debate and symposium as a nod to its history. Quincy Market was built in the 1820s to accommodate the spillover from neighboring markets; the center of the building consists of an artery of food stalls, while the outer sections house craft carts and souvenir shops. Flanking the Colonnade are the North and South Markets, which are likewise filled with shops. Old-time Boston restaurant Durgin Park is touristy, but still retains an air of authenticity with dishes such as scrod and Indian pudding on the menu. One of the city's top comedy clubs, the Comedy Connection, is also based here.

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