Boston events calendar

Plan ahead with our guide to the biggest and best annual Boston events, festivals and concerts

Photograph: Yoon Byun

Consult the Time Out Boston events calendar for things to do year-round in the Hub. Everyone knows that Boston has the wildest tea parties around—given the city's revolutionary pedigree, it's hardly surprising the calendar features its fair share of historical re-enactments. But alongside such traditional local celebrations as the annual Boston Tea Party Re-enactment in spring and summer's Boston Pops Fourth of July Concert on the Esplanade in Back Bay are more offbeat events like the Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition's Freedom Rally on Boston Common in the fall and the unashamedly geeky sci-fi convention Arisia in winter. 

Boston Common Tree Lighting

The behind-the-scenes legwork for this annual holiday tree-lighting tradition is just as captivating as the ceremony itself, as a Boston tree scout treks to Nova Scotia to select a shapely 50ft spruce. (Ever since 1917, Nova Scotia has donated its trees as a gift, out of gratitude for Boston’s fast response to a devastating fire in Halifax.) A local dignitary (often the mayor) flicks the switch. The rest of the Common’s trees are strung with lights as well, while an illuminated Nativity scene and menorah grace the grounds near the Park Street T station. cityofboston.gov. Transport: Park St T. 

Christmas Revels

Put on by a local non-profit performance troupe, the Revels have practically become an institution come the winter solstice. Each year focuses on a different theme—based on culture and time period—of Christmas pageantry. Performances include dances, plays and plenty of audience-participatory carol-singing. This is Christmas, old-school style. revels.org. Transport: Harvard T. 

Boston Tea Party Re-enactment

Patriots gather for a town meeting at the Old South Meeting House to condemn the crimes of nasty old King George III. Fife and drum in hand, the excitable mob then marches to a replica tea ship on the waterfront and does the dirty deed. Another tea party re-enactment takes place at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, newly renovated in 2011 and home to three traditional tall ships. oldsouthmeetinghouse.org. Transport: State House T. 

First Night

Boston was the first city in the country to offer this alcohol-free alternative to ringing in the New Year. Launched in 1976, First Night is celebrated citywide, with over 1,000 artists and 200 exhibitions at nearly 40 venues. Events range from poetry readings to rock concerts. There are activities from noon, but the fun really starts in the early evening with the carnival-style Grand Procession in Back Bay, culminating in a midnight fireworks display at the harbor. The massive ice sculptures in Copley Square and on the Common are another signature feature. firstnight.org.

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Arisia

You don’t have to be a Star Wars-quoting, Asimov-obsessed über-nerd to have fun at Arisia (though that certainly doesn’t hurt). For this annual convention, the largest of its kind in New England, the science fiction-loving hordes (often with kids in tow) flock to Boston for futuristic speaker panels, workshops, art exhibits and movie marathons. The gala event is the masquerade ball, where professional and amateur costumiers show off their mind-blowing handiwork. arisia.org. Transport: Silver Line Waterfront to World Trade Center.

Boston Wine Expo

Every year, oenophiles storm the harborside World Trade Center for the country’s largest consumer wine event. The festival features tastings from over 450 domestic and international wineries, celebrity-chef demonstrations, and educational seminars. wine-expos.com/boston. Transport: Silver Line Waterfront to World Trade Center.

Chinese New Year

Dragons dance and fireworks explode in a swirl of color and sound at one of the nation’s largest celebrations of the first day of the Chinese calendar. Traditionally, festivities last 15 days, and much of the action takes place in and around Beach and Tyler Streets in Boston’s Chinatown. Expect plenty of fireworks and tantalizing Asian cuisine. bostonusa.com. Transport: Boylston or Chinatown T.

Beanpot Hockey Tournament

Players from Harvard, Northeastern and Boston Universities and Boston College go head-to-head in this annual ice hockey clash. The winning team gets a trophy shaped like a bean pot. beanpothockey.com. Transport: North Station T.

Boston Massacre Re-enactment

Witness the unruly scene that took place beneath the Old State House one winter night in 1770, when a group of "cowardly" Redcoats emptied their muskets on a mob of malcontent colonists. Costumes, muskets and—let’s hope—blanks are supplied courtesy of the Massachusetts Council of Minutemen and Militia. bostonhistory.org. Transport: State T. 

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Dine Out Boston

While some bemoan the conveyor-belt quality, there’s no other way you can get into so many high-end restaurants for such a low overhead. With more than 200 establishments participating, the hungry masses can sample the cuisine and enjoy the ambiance normally restricted to special occasions or the well-heeled during this two-week prix fixe event. The prices—$15-$25 for a two- or three-course lunch, $28–$38 for a three-course dinner—exclude drinks, tax and tips. bostonusa.com/visit/dineoutboston.

New England Spring Flower Show

This century-old event celebrates flora, bushes and blossoms in all their glory. The Massachusetts Horticultural Society sponsors six acres of landscaped gardens, flower arrangements and horticultural displays. Lately, the focus has been on environmentally-friendly gardening. masshort.org. Transport: Silver Line Waterfront to World Trade Center. 

St Patrick’s Day Parade

Boston is the undisputed capital of Irish America, and Southie is the Irish capital of Boston. Everyone and their dog wears a shamrock at the parade, making this both the best and worst place to be. The day kicks off with a time-honored traditional breakfast where politicians sing limericks roasting their peers and opponents, setting the jovial stage for one of the largest St Patrick’s Day parades in the US, complete with floats, marching bagpipers and, of course, waving politicians. Pubs along the route and throughout Boston overflow with green beer and ample merrymaking. Later on, the downtown streets are so full of soused pedestrians that hailing a taxi is tantamount to catching a fly ball at Fenway Park. bostonusa.com. Transport: Broadway T.

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Boston Underground Film Festival

Launched in 1999, Boston’s fringiest film festival gives venues and voices to local and national auteurs with little money and big dreams. Screenings at indie cinemas throughout the area culminate in an awards show where winners receive a Bacchus, the festival’s coveted demonic bunny trophy. Past attendees of the BUFF include legendary Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman and zombie-film pioneer George A Romero. bostonunderground.org.

PAX East

Gamers flock to the East Coast version of this festival celebrating first-person shooters and RPGs, with tournaments, free play and unreleased titles. Past festivals have seen over 60,000 attendees. east.paxsite.com. Transport: Silver Line Waterfront to World Trade Center. 

Boston Marathon

These days, Patriot’s Day in Boston has less to do with national pride and more to do with thousands of feet pounding 26 miles of pavement. The race begins in Hopkinton (south-west of Boston), wraps around the campus of Boston College and finishes in Copley—and you can be sure at least one jogging Batman will make the trek. Thousands of spectators come out to soak up the adrenaline and cheer on friends along the route; the best spot is near the finish line. baa.org. Transport: Copley T. 

Patriot’s Day Re-enactments

Stick around the city to see Paul Revere gallop past, shouting his warning—"the British are coming!"—to the colonists. Later, on Lexington Green, you can watch a full-scale re-enactment of the skirmish that produced the "shot heard round the world." tourlexington.us/libertyride.html; lexingtonminutemen.com.

James Joyce Ramble

The brainchild of a local runner and Joyce fan, who realized that struggling through Finnegans Wake was akin to running a particularly arduous race, this six-mile run/walk stampedes through suburban Dedham every spring. The Ramble pays tribute to its namesake by punctuating the road race with an ensemble of Joyce-reading actors dressed in period costume. Mile one features Finnegans Wake, mile three A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and mile six, appropriately enough, The Dead. ramble.org.

Together

The first edition of Together, the New England Electronic Music Festival, held in February 2010, was a resounding success, selling out clubs around the city for a week of DJs and dance parties—and the festival's popularity and size only continues to increase. togetherboston.com.

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Boston Pride

Toast Gay Pride in the first state in America to legalize same-sex marriage. Although unofficial festivities extend throughout the month of June, the main event is a week-long line-up of everything from club nights and book signings to an AIDS awareness walk. The festival culminates with a riotous parade through Boston’s own gay central, the South End, on Saturday, and further revels on Sunday. bostonpride.org.

Bunker Hill Day Celebrations

A weekend of historical talks and re-enactments of the infamous battle of Bunker Hill (which actually took place on neighboring Breed’s Hill)—complete with period costumes and muskets. Though British forces won the skirmish, they suffered such heavy casualties that they were forced to abandon their first major siege of Boston. The celebration finishes with a grand parade through hilly Charlestown. nps.gov/bost. Transport: Community College T.

River Festival

If crowding along the Charles on the Fourth of July isn’t your bag, come for this earlier celebration, which takes place on the section of riverbank between John F. Kennedy Street and Western Avenue. Sponsored by the Cambridge Arts Council, the riverside festival features an arts bazaar, concerts, children’s events and plenty of dancing. cambridgema.gov/arts. Transport: Harvard T.

Boston Harborfest

The annual maritime- and colonial-themed festival of fireworks, open-air concerts and (yet more) historical re-enactments in the run up to the Fourth of July now has 200-plus events taking place in more than 30 harborside venues. The Chowderfest (a celebration of New England’s traditional bivalve soup, in which top restaurants vie for the title of "Boston’s Best Clam Chowder") is the high point. bostonharborfest.com.

Boston Pops Fourth of July Concert

Not surprisingly, the Fourth of July attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to the birthplace of American independence—most of whom plant themselves along the banks of the Charles River to watch the fireworks. The Boston Pops are an American institution, and this concert is the center of the universe for fans. Frantically territorial families show up at dawn to claim their grassy patch for the day. Technically, the event is non-alcoholic, but that doesn’t stop savvy regulars from slipping drinks into plastic cups. In the early evening—after everyone is tuckered out from a sweaty day of guarding blankets (and hiding beer)—the Pops play in the Hatch Shell. The accompanying fireworks display, set off from a barge on the Charles, is not to be missed. july4th.org. Transport: Charles/MGH T.

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Bastille Day

This 60-year-old non-profit organization throws a street party on an evening before or after Bastille Day, with French cuisine, Francophone musicians, children’s activities and plenty of joie de vivre. frenchculturalcenter.org. Transport: Arlington or Copley T.

ArtBeat

Davis Square is a breeding ground for artists, writers, musicians, performers and sundry other Bohemian types, not to mention a funky place to spend an afternoon people watching on a summer afternoon. Every year, Somerville exalts its creative geniuses with a weekend-long celebration of all that’s artsy. The revelries include concerts by local indie, blues and folk bands, theatrical performances, readings and a street art market. somervilleartscouncil.org. Transport: Davis Square T.

Dine Out Boston

While some bemoan the conveyor-belt quality, there’s no other way you can get into so many high-end restaurants for such a low overhead. With more than 200 establishments participating, the hungry masses can sample the cuisine and enjoy the ambiance normally restricted to special occasions or the well-heeled during this two-week prix fixe event. The prices—$15-$25 for a two- or three-course lunch, $28–$38 for a three-course dinner—exclude drinks, tax and tips. bostonusa.com/visit/dineoutboston.

Caribbean Carnival

Franklin Park, in the Dorchester end of Roxbury, hosts this lively weekend celebration of Caribbean culture. Expect ethnic food, music, dance and a colorful parade. The feathered costumes and sun-drenched festivities offer a vibrant counterpoint to Boston’s buttoned-up re-enactments, and celebrate an entirely different strand of colonial history. bostoncarnivalvillage.com. Transport: Forest Hills T then 10min walk.

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Boston Arts Festival

This festival features visual and performance artists coming together on two stages in Christopher Columbus Park, one of Boston’s best. Over 60 artists—including performers from the Boston Ballet to the Blue Man Group—showcase their wares and strut their stuff. You might even discover the next Edward Hoppah… ityofboston.gov/arts. Transport: Haymarket T.

Boston Tattoo Convention

Until 2001, Massachusetts residents had to cross the state line in order to get a tattoo. Once it was legalized, though, it didn’t take long for Boston to establish itself as a hub for body art—as the Tattoo Convention proves. Over 100 tattoo artists converge at the Sheraton for the four-day event, which includes contests, vendors, galleries and performances, plus numerous ink-slingers setting up shop. bostontattooconvention.com. Transport: Hynes T. 

Boston Film Festival

This annual festival of lectures, panels and screenings showcases feature-length films, shorts and independent works. There’s a strong local contingent of participants, many from nearby colleges. Past entries include the Oscar-winning American Beauty and Billy Ray’s directorial debut, Shattered Glass. bostonfilmfestival.org. Transport: Chinatown T. 

What the Fluff? Festival

There’s more to Boston’s history than the fight for independence. In 1917, for example, the entrepreneur Archibald Query invented Marshmallow Fluff—the beloved confectionery spread—right here in Somerville. Union Square celebrates its favorite son with a day-long festival that includes a tug of war over a tub of Fluff, erupting Fluff volcanoes and Fluff-based nibbles aplenty. unionsquaremain.org/fluff-festival. Transport: Harvard T then bus 86, or Lechmere T then bus 87.

Massachusetts Cannabis Reform Coalition’s Freedom Rally

Every year, the city of Boston broods over issuing permits to this annual ganja-fest. Regardless, the rally always goes down, with thousands of proud stoners sneaking spliffs on to the Common. A handful of local bands play, which in former years has included Letters to Cleo and the Dresden Dolls. Booths manned by left-leaning activist groups preach to the converted. It goes without saying, but people inevitably end up getting arrested. masscann.org. Transport: Park St T.

Beantown Jazz Festival

Boston’s lively jazz scene steals the limelight at this yearly festival, which brings hot talents to Boston’s various venues. The festival includes performances at Sculler’s Jazz Club, Berklee Performance Center and the Beehive. Vendors and musicians also take to the streets in the South End. beantownjazz.org.

Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! Festival

Most famous for his seminal 1957 novel On the Road—an American traveler’s ode to wanderlust, amphetamines and boisterous adventure—Jack Kerouac was born and buried in Lowell, a former mill town north-west of Boston. While he never claimed to have taken much from the place, it still celebrates his legacy. Every year, the town commemorates its legendary tie to the Beat Generation with a three-day festival of open mics, jazz and poetry readings. lowellcelebrateskerouac.org. Transport: Commuter rail to Lowell. 

Harvard Square Oktoberfest

Celebrate all things frothy and boozy as Harvard Square transforms itself for a weekend into a Bavarian township. Bands, dancers, ethnic food and beer gardens line the streets, and some 200 regional artisans and merchants display their wares. harvardsquare.com. Transport: Harvard T. 

Head of the Charles Regatta

This is one of the most spectacular boat races anywhere. The hundreds of thousands of spectators lining the bridges and riverbanks along the Charles are a sight to be seen, as are the thousands of rowers who converge on Cambridge for this world-class regatta. Supporters bring blankets and picnic baskets to the banks of the Charles to cheer on the teams. hocr.org. Transport: Central or Harvard T then 10min walk. 

Salem Haunted Happenings

As you’d expect from a place that’s on the map for executing witches, spooky Salem hosts a wicked Halloween. The town is also a haven for present-day pagans. A huge costumed parade kicks off a month of jack-o’-lantern carving, haunted-house tours, candlelit vigils, modern witchcraft ceremonies, magic shows and a psychics’ fair. Leave your skepticism at home—but bring your wallet and the most fabulous costume you can dream up. hauntedhappenings.org.

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