Things to do in Boston with kids

From fun-packed museums to waterside attractions, find the best things to do in Boston with kids

Photograph: Elan Fleisher
Boston for kids: Arnold Arboretum

Boston’s rich history and university-led educational bent translates into plenty of fun for the kids: The city boasts a plethora of historic attractions and educational activities that’ll hardly make you feel like you’re learning. The Children’s Museum and the New England Aquarium occupy a fond place in every born-and-bred Bostonian’s heart. Likewise, anyone who went to elementary school in the Boston area will go misty-eyed at the mention of the wondrous Museum of Science—especially the Rube Goldberg machine that perpetually clinks, clangs and pings in the lobby. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Best things to do in Boston with kids

Children's Museum

Founded in 1913 by a well-meaning group of local science teachers, the Children's Museum in Boston was just another collection of things to look at until director Michael Spock arrived in 1961. The son of the late American paediatrician and childcare guru Benjamin Spock, he took out the glass cases of rocks and dusty taxidermy and turned the museum into a joyously interactive hands-on experience. In 1979, it moved from Jamaica Plain to new premises: a handsome 19th-century brick warehouse overlooking Boston Harbor's Fort Point Channel.After nearly three decades of little feet trotting through its hallowed halls (it now attracts more than 400,000 visitors each year), the museum was outgrowing its building, and starting to show its age. But a $47 million restoration project, completed in spring 2007, including a glass-walled extension and a landscaped outdoor space, transformed the cramped, confusing layout into a series of light spacious open areas, with plenty of room for energetic kids. To children, it's like a vast indoor playground; little do they know how much they're learning in the process.The centrepiece of the new-look museum is the New Balance Climb, a twisty, turning three-story climbing structure made of serpentine wires and curved plywood sails. (The third-floor exit is guarded by museum staff, who compel fast-footed children to wait for their puffing parents to catch up.) On the ground floor, the new Kid Power exhibit explores health and fitness, complete with cl

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New England Aquarium

The breathtaking centerpiece of this excellent aquarium is the colossal 200,000-gallon salt-water replica of a Caribbean coral reef. The cylindrical tank, 40ft in diameter and three stories tall, is alive with moray eels, stingrays, gigantic sea turtles and menacing sharks. On a smaller scale, a touch tank exhibit lets children stick their hands into the cold water of a tidal basin and get up close and personal with starfish, sea urchins and hermit crabs. The huge indoor penguin exhibit (constructed so almost all of the balconies overlook it) is a hoot. If the lines are too long, peek at the playful inhabitants of the outdoor seal enclosure instead. The IMAX theatre offers state-of-the-art 3D glasses to put viewers in the middle of the action. From April to October, the Aquarium runs a naturalist-narrated whale watch boat trip, which visits one of the largest whale feeding grounds in the world.

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Swan Boats

What child could resist sitting in a swan? A part of Boston tourist history, these odd watercraft were created by designer Robert Paget in 1877, when the swan-drawn boat in the opera Lohengrin was a tad more familiar. Contemporary kids are more likely to know about Robert McCloskey's classic book Make Way for Ducklings, in which the Mallard family decides to move to Boston Pond, lured by the peanuts tossed by swan boat riders. (The Mallards also feature in an annual Duckling Day parade in mid May; see www.friendsofthepublicgarden.org.) You'll spend 15 minutes cruising around the small lagoon, amid the ducks and willows, as your children play at being swashbuckling pirates.

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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 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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The Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Library

Here's proof that Boston really is at the centre of the universe, or at least the world. The Mapparium—the world's largest walk-in globe—is among the city's quirkiest landmarks. Located at the Mary Baker Eddy Library in the Christian Science Plaza, it is, essentially, a three-story model of the globe built to scale. The perfect sphere runs 30 feet in diameter, traversed by way of the glass bridge that bisects its interior. It's a somewhat eccentric proposition in itself, but several unusual features up the oddball quotient considerably.For one thing, there are the weird acoustics. 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. Instead of depicting the world's current geography, the 608 stained-glass panels recreate the planet 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, hungrier, hardier entities. It is, as the piped-in voice overhead reminds us, "a world that no longer exists."Built in 1935 for the then-astronomical sum of $35,000, the Mapparium was originally conceived as a symbol of the Christian Science Monitor's global audience. Its creator, Boston-based architect Chester Lindsay Churchill, designed the rest of the library as well. Ironically, it's the map's obsolescence t

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Back Bay

Castle Island Park & Fort Independence

South Boston lays claim to one of the city's most appealing shoreline parks: the 22-acre Castle Island. It's also among the oldest fortified military sites in North America, centerpieced by Fort Independence, a pentagonal granite structure that was finished in the 1850s. Prior to its construction, seven other forts had been built and destroyed in the area, occupied by American and British troops in turn. Today, the island's green space and open air make for a pleasant outing.

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Arnold Arboretum

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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Skywalk Observatory at the Prudential Center

This glassed-in walkway high atop the Pru offers a 360-degree perspective from a height of 750 feet; on a clear day, you can see as far as 80 miles in any direction. Audio tours that pick out the Hub's many historical sites are available.

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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 at the Butterfly Landing (June-Sept). Some kids will happily ignore the animals altogether, and tackle the zoo-themed playground equipment instead.

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Rose Kennedy Fitzgerald Greenway

The Greenway is one of the most celebrated results of the now-infamous Big Dig (a kind of street-level answer to New York's High Line). Formed when I-93 was sunk underground, this verdant, mile-long ribbon of grassy parks and outdoor resting places invites the weary traveler (or office warrior) to stop and take a moment to appreciate the city's fleeting sunshine. There are also periodic festivals, events, and parades located on or near the park.

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