Downtown is the best place in Boston for people-watching. Find a bench and a takeout lunch for a break between visits to historic landmarks, and watch the street performers and passers-by. Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market are among the city’s most-visited landmarks, replete with shops flogging kitschy gifts, and eateries catering to tourists. And then there’s Chinatown, a bustling enclave home to some of Boston’s best Chinese food. Once you’ve had your fill of Downtown, keep the good times going by checking out the best Boston attractions, best free things to do in Boston, and best museums in Boston.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston
Where to go in Downtown Boston
The Greenway is one of the most celebrated results of the now-infamous Big Dig. 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. A variety of eating and drinking spots - some seasonal, some transient - keep visitors satiated. There are also periodic festivals, events, and parades located on or near the park.
Perhaps the city’s most famous building, Faneuil Hall was built by the wealthy merchant Peter Faneuil in 1742, and then later remodeled by ubiquitous Boston architect Charles Bulfinch. 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.
Small and splendid, this rococo building near the heart of Downtown Crossing has an elegance that belies a checkered past; it only just survived the Combat Zone era, when it became an adults-only theater. It fell into horrendous disrepair, but with the help of Senator Edward Kennedy, was renovated and reopened in 2004 with its baroque décor of fairytale white terra cotta, gilded moldings, and crystal chandeliers gleaming anew. The Opera House is the Boston Ballet’s home venue and also features top Broadway musicals, as well as big name musical artists.
A popular post-work hangout near Downtown Crossing, jm Curley doubles as a cozy option for a rendezvous over well-made cocktails. Guests select from an elevated menu of comfort fare, highlighted by a popular grass-fed burger and an assortment of cheesy macs. Concoctions both new-fangled and classic are prepped by friendly bartenders. Beer aficionados select hard-to-find brews off of a lengthy beer list.
Open space in this 20-seat, cash-only noodle house can be hard to come by. Office workers in shirtsleeves rub elbows with hoodie-clad students as they tuck into steaming bowls of spicy soup and orders of hand-pulled flour noodles (smacked into shape on the premises). Carnivores have plenty of choices, such as the stellar cumin-lamb noodles and the namesake pork or beef flatbread sandwiches, a staple food in the owner’s home region of Xi’an. Most customers take their orders to go.
The Wilbur was built in 1914 in a Federal Revival style. It might seem plain compared to its more fantastically conceived Theatre District neighbors, but rather than a faux European showcase, its architecture replicates a Beacon Hill mansion, honoring Boston’s own significance as an artistic center. Though the Wilbur mostly showcases national comedy and popular music acts these days, and no longer counts as numero uno for splashy theatrical productions, it is a major, much cherished entertainment venue for the city.
In its former life as the legendary Roxy, this Theatre District nightspot hosted some of the city’s biggest bashes. Today, Royale continues to host national-level music acts on various nights, and on weekends the clubs kids pack in to dance the night away. The massive room has a grand stage, an elegant marble foyer, cushy seating nooks, a fantastic sound system, a festive light show and more. There are VIP balconies if you feel like getting away from it all. Check the venue website to see what's on offer; big-name DJs often come through to spin house tunes.
In replacing Locke-Ober—the revered, wood-paneled downtown institution that hosted a million three-martini lunches—Yvonne’s has saved what matters: the 19th-century mahogany bar and the same clubby ambiance. Creative small plates include crispy tater cubes, chicken quinoa meatballs, baked oysters and popcorn brulee. Large-scale (i.e. scorpion bowl-sized) cocktails like the Moscow Mule are lovingly crafted and best enjoyed in the separate Library Bar, a tome-tiered respite that invites you to imbibe like a Brahmin.
Forward-thinking in its backward-looking ways, subterranean Silvertone was a local pioneer of the trend for classic cocktails and American comfort food—and the long wagon train of regulars it immediately formed remains firmly hitched. The owners' good-natured commitment to a bygone era manifests itself in everything from the old prom pictures and liquor ads that line the walls to the confoundingly low prices charged for smart wines by the glass, served alongside much-loved staples such as macaroni and cheese, quesadillas and meatloaf.
Established in 1825, this highly regarded antiquarian bookshop in the heart of downtown Boston has amassed around 250,000 books, maps, prints and other collectible items; the abundant stock spills over into a substantial outdoor space, so you can browse alfresco.
Chef Jody Adams oversees this airy space featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, artistic light fixtures, a cluster of high-top tables, and a long marble bar—perfect for after-work crowds seeking cocktails and light fare. The focus here is on small plates—more than a dozen globe-spanning choices, from scallion pancakes with chili dipping sauce to fish tacos and spicy pork belly lettuce wraps. Sit at the bar and watch your gourmet-topped flatbread (mushroom and figs with gorgonzola, roasted squash and bacon) emerge from the fiery oven.
The Paramount reopened in 2010; it took a $92 million renovation project to restore the theater to its Art Deco glory. It originally opened in 1932 as a movie theater, owned by Paramount Pictures, and was an immediate success as the talkies were taking off. Now owned by Emerson College, the Paramount boasts a 596-seat main theater, a small black box theater that seats up to 150, and a 170-seat film screening room. The Paramount has hosted many new, groundbreaking theatrical works and regularly books US premieres.
This low-key, low-lit bar is an institution in Boston—a hangout for bike messengers, tattooed masses, business suits and borderline bums. Anyone who’s lived in Boston for long has met someone at Foley’s, or broken up with someone at Foley’s, or met and broken up with them there on the same evening. The hearty assortment of pub grub and a well-stocked bar keep the party going, especially when after-work crowds show up to blow off some steam.
Between the expansive seating, subway tiles, and overall sophistication of the space, you’re forgiven for thinking you’ve walked into a bistro. The industry veteran George Howell has quite the resume, and his outlet inside the urbane Godfrey Hotel provides an excellent spot for focusing on the beans of his labor. There’s a massive marble bar, two espresso machines, coffee education classes, a retail corner for purchasing brewing equipment and beans, and a menu of upscale treats.
Built in the mid-1820s, when Boston’s population was rapidly outgrowing the smaller marketplace in Faneuil Hall, Quincy Market was originally right on the harbor. Today, the neoclassical Colonnade building is lined with fast food stands. On either side of the central hall, rows of carts loaded with souvenirs and crafts lure tourists to part with still more dollars, as do the street performers who flock to the place. Flanking the Colonnade are the North and South Markets, which are likewise filled with shops.
The history of Boston’s iconic open-air market dates back to 1820. Open only on Fridays and Saturdays, Haymarket is best known for its colorful vendors and dirt-cheap prices. Note that little of the produce is local; be prepared to sift through the stands if you're looking for the freshest fruits and veggies. The experience of haggling and comparison shopping among the dozens of vendors—most of whom set up their stands before sunrise—is an attraction in itself; keep your ears open and you'll hear every accent under the sun.