From storied landmarks to world-class museums—including some of the best art museums in America—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. Plus, there are the usual things to do in Boston you just have to tick off (hello, Boston Public Garden!) on any visit. One big bonus about these Boston attractions? They’re all within a stone’s throw of Boston’s best restaurants—so make a day, or night, of it.
Best Boston attractions
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, and the Egyptian collection, much of which was acquired through excavations in conjunction with Harvard University in the first half of the 20th century. 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. There’s also a program of arthouse films and festivals and, increasingly, new and world music, in the Remis Auditorium and the Calderwood Courtyard.
The dual jewels of the Emerald Necklace, the city’s historic park system, perfectly reflect the vision of venerated landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Public Garden is America’s first botanical garden and a Paris park in miniature, with pathways designed for promenading, formal flower beds and a petite lagoon fringed with weeping willows and crossed by a wrought-iron bridge. The waterfowl-shaped Swan Boats, introduced in 1877, are adored by children as well as adults and attract long lines the moment they reopen in April. Across Beacon Street is the Boston Common, long ago a dangerous locale, now a lunchtime hangout for students, families and downtown office workers. Depending on the season, you can ice-skate on the Frog Pond, play softball or tennis, or simply lounge with a book on one of the grassy knolls, the majestic State House behind you.
Seeing a game at the Red Sox’s stomping ground Fenway Park is a quasi-religious experience for many people. The catch? As charming as the oldest ballpark in the Majors is (it dates from 1912), it’s also the smallest (with about 38,000 seats), so tickets are hard to come by. As the ample guided tours will have you know, the celebrated stadium boasts a colorful history. It opened just days after the Titanic sank; for decades, fans thought it must have been an omen, as the Sox didn’t win a World Series for 86 years. This was also put down to the “Curse of the Bambino,” after owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919. However, the spell was famously broken in 2004, an event depicted in the U.S. film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel Fever Pitch. The most famous part of the stadium is its 37-foot-high left-field wall, known affectionately as the Green Monster.
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. 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.
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—is in the midst of a three-year, $75 million renovation that will enhance many interior spaces as well as the exterior aesthetic.
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 65,000-square-foot floor space, the dramatic, glass-walled building houses galleries, a theater 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. It has has even hosted summertime diving competitions, in which divers spring from a rooftop platform down to the Boston Harbor 80 feet below.
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.
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.
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.
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.