Essential Boston attractions

We’ve sifted through the city’s museums, parks and historic sites to select the very best Boston attractions

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Essential Boston attractions: Boston Public Library

Essential Boston attractions: Boston Public Library Photograph: Shutterstock

From storied landmarks to world-class museums, the top Boston attractions defy the city’s famously changeable weather with plenty of opportunities to duck indoors. You could spend the better part of a day exploring the new Art of the Americas wing of the Museum of Fine Arts, let alone the rest of the museum's vast collection. For a more intimate cultural experience that’s unique to Boston, visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, a short walk along the Emerald Necklace. If your tastes are more contemporary, the Institute of Contemporary Art in the evolving Seaport District mounts intriguing exhibitions. Have lunch on the ICA's deck and take in sweeping views of Boston Harbor. For a crash course in Revolutionary history, take in 16 historic Boston attractions along the Freedom Trail, a two-and-a-half-mile self-guided walk through Downtown Boston, the North End and Charlestown.

Top 9 Boston attractions

Museum of Fine Arts

  • Critics choice

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

  1. 465 Huntington Avenue, (at Museum Road)
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Arnold Arboretum

  • Critics choice
  • Free

The arboretum, one of the world's leading centres for plant study, was established in 1872. In a beautiful, 265-acre park setting, this living museum is administered by Harvard University. Open to the public, it provides the opportunity to see more than 7,000 specimens of trees and plants from around the world. Free guided tours are available on designated days throughout the year - phone for details. In May, Lilac Sunday is a day-long celebration of the fragrant, flowering shrub.

  1. 125 Arborway, (at Centre Street)
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Franklin Park Zoo

Kids can walk right up to the glass enclosures at Franklin Park Zoo and make faces at young gorillas or peek at stalking lions, and actually pet the sheep and goats at the Contact Corral. Brilliantly colored birds dart through the Tropical Forest over the heads of pygmy hippos and capybaras (and visitors), and butterflies flutter on to outstretched hands atthe Butterfly Landing (June-Sept). Some kids will happily ignore the animals altogether, and tackle the zoo-themed playground

  1. 1 Franklin Park Road, (at Blue Hill Avenue)
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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 65,000sq ft floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theatre and a café.

The museum prides itself on being 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

  1. 100 Northern Avenue, (at Seaport Boulevard)
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Museum of Science & Charles Hayden Planetarium

This extremely child-friendly museum is committed to providing an interactive and educational experience, making science accessible through a wealth of hands-on activities and engaging exhibits. Highlights include the Thomson Theater of Electricity, which houses a giant Van de Graaf generator, providing a safe way to experience a dramatic lightning storm at close range; the domed Mugar Omni Theater for IMAX movies; and the new Butterfly Garden conservatory. At the multimedia

  1. 1 Science Park, (at Monsignor O'Brien Highway)
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Trinity Church

  • Critics choice

The unabashedly ornate Trinity Church is the visual centerpiece of Copley Square. And now that a much-needed, $47 million restoration project is complete, its interior murals and stained-glass windows are equally impressive. The original church was on Summer Street, but was destroyed by fire in 1872. Commissioned to build a replacement, architect Henry Hobson Richardson rejected the Gothic Revival style prevalent at the time and instead took inspiration from the ancient churches

  1. 206 Clarendon Street, (at Copley Square)
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Boston Public Library

  • Free

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 to function 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

  1. 700 Boylston Street, (at Copley Square)
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Faneuil Hall

  • Free

Built for the city by the wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil in 1742, the hall was later remodeled by ubiquitous Boston architect Charles Bulfinch. It had 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

  1. 15 State Street, (at Congress Street)
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Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

  • Critics choice

As unique as its founder, the eccentric socialite and patron of the arts who was the inspiration for Isabel Archer in Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, the Gardner museum is a lavish reconstruction of a 15th-century Venetian palace, complete with a luxurious interior courtyard with a seasonally changing floral display. Initially conceived by Gardner and her husband Jack to house the growing collection of art and objects amassed during their extensive travels, the museum only came

  1. 280 The Fenway, (at Palace Road)
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