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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

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.

Top 9 Boston attractions

Museum of Fine Arts

Critics' pick

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 US, after the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.The Upper Rotunda in the centre of the building is adorned by John Singer Sargent's spectacular murals, which pay tribute to the museum's role as guardian of the arts through references to Greek mythology. As well as the vast permanent collection, all of which is presented in an accessible way with a contemporary eye for design and placement, the MFA hosts major temporary exhibitions on such diverse themes as couture fashion and Spanish art during the reign of Philip III and retrospectives of greats such as Edward Hopper.A new American wing (covering the art of North, Central and South America) and an enclosed courtyard, designed by the firm of British architect Norman Foster, famous for the con

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Arlington

Arnold Arboretum

Critics' pick

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.

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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 equipment instead.

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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 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. The building has such unusual features as a downward-sloping Mediatheque that culminates in a front window framing a patch of water.

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The Waterfront

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 Charles Hayden Planetarium, the Zeiss Star Projector reproduces a realistic night sky. There's an enormous gift shop, a decent café courtesy of celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and a spectacular view of the river to admire from the vast windows at the back of the museum.

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Trinity Church

Critics' pick

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 of southern France. It proved to be his masterpiece, so much so that the term 'Richardsonian Romanesque' entered the architectural jargon. The church is also known for its extensive murals - almost every inch of wall was handpainted by a team led by American artist John La Farge. The impressive stained-glass windows include four that were designed by the English Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and made by Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris.

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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 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 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 had its critics but has aged well.

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Back Bay

Faneuil Hall

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 its history. The building is part of Boston's National Historic Park, and rangers provide brief historical talks in the Great Hall every half hour. The ground floor is given over to gift shops and, surprisingly, a branch of the post office.

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Government Center

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Critics' pick

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 into being after Jack's death.It opened in 1903, with the widowed Gardner residing on the fourth floor until she died in 1924. She wanted the arrangement of the architecture and artworks to engage the imagination, so every piece in the 2,500-piece collection, spanning European, Asian and Islamic art from classical times to the turn of the 20th century, is meticulously placed according to her personal instructions. The result is an idiosyncratic mix of paintings, sculptures, tapestries, rare books and furniture. Among the many highlights are John Singer Sargent's El Jaleo, Titian's Europa and works by Botticelli, Rembrandt and Raphael.In 1990, 13 pieces, including Rembrandts, a Vermeer and Degas drawings, were stolen in America's largest art heist, and the empty spaces—which can't be filled under the terms of Gardner's will—are a poignant sight. Many of the works aren't labeled, but you can buy or borrow a guide to the collections and the security staff are charming and helpful. There are also detaile

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