Arnold Arboretum
Photograph: ShutterstockArnold Arboretum

The 11 best parks in Boston

Enjoy some fresh air at any of these glorious green spaces

Olivia Vanni
Written by: Cheryl Fenton
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It’s no secret that the Hub holds court as a walking cityand there’s no better way to enjoy it than getting a glimpse of nature in one of the best parks in Boston. From the lush Emerald Necklace (the nation’s oldest linear park system) to the celebrated Arnold Arboretum, there are plenty of places that offer serene green space where you can take a breather from the city rush and unwind. If you need even more of an escape, leave the bustle of downtown behind with one of the best hikes near Boston or the best beaches near Boston

RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston

Best parks in Boston

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Boston Common

The Public Garden is the city’s heart. History stands on the park’s perimeters, with statues documenting the importance Boston played in creating modern arts and sciences. Bostonians know the long hard winter is over when the Swan Boats are dusted off for another season, and Romeo and Juliet leave their winter home in the Franklin Park Zoo to create the next generation of actual swans that will waddle along the pond’s banks. Perhaps one of the most recognizable of Boston’s statues is that of General George Washington on his noble steed, forever leading the charge through America’s first botanical garden. Across Charles Street, the Boston Common—the country’s first public park—was once common land used for sheep and livestock grazing, but today, it finds families picnicking, students studying on blankets, people tossing balls to their pups, festivals and rallies. It’s also the site of the city’s annual holiday tree lighting, as well as the home of Frog Pond, where ice skating is a time-honored winter ritual and April turns it into a lovely reflection pool.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • The Esplanade

Running along the Charles River and accessed in the Back Bay by footbridges over busy Storrow Drive, The Esplanade is a popular retreat for the active set (think joggers, bicyclists and rollerbladers), as well as those who enjoy meandering its winding paths along the water to watch sailboats bob in the distance. The most notable footbridge is the newly renovated Arthur Fiedler Footbridge, originating at Arlington and Beacon Streets, and named for Boston Pops Orchestra’s iconic conductor. The Esplanade is home to the Hatch Shell bandstand, where the Pops hold court for its world-renowned July Fourth celebrations. During warmer months, the shell hosts free movies and concerts, with iconic names often on the bill.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Downtown

Once the home of the main highway and now a peaceful outdoor setting with fountains, a carousel and benches for sunny-day appreciation, this sliver of a park is a gorgeous green space that snakes its way above Interstate 93. (Its creation was part of the infamous Big Dig.) Named for the Kennedy Family matriarch and running from Chinatown to the North End, the Greenway unites the city with its beautiful, varied spaces and lively events, especially during the summer (its busiest season). The carousel delights youngsters with 36 seats dedicated to animals native to Massachusetts, and local brewery Trillium’s seasonal beer garden has plenty of seats for adults. Food trucks gather near the carousel and at Dewey Square, especially at lunchtime, along with farmers and local artist markets.

  • Attractions
  • Cemeteries
  • West Cambridge

Mount Auburn Cemetery is many things: a public park, burial ground, arboretum and wildlife sanctuary (it’s very popular amongst bird enthusiasts). This 72-acre National Historic Landmark was founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, making it America’s first garden cemetery. Designed by the father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, its use of natural boundaries is magnificent, and the wildlife is extraordinary for a busy city. It draws nature lovers, horticulturalists, folks looking for famous graves and funerary art fans alike. The bucolic landscape boasts peaceful ponds, statues (peep the giant Sphinx), breathtaking mausoleums and a panorama of Boston and Cambridge from Washington Tower. Landmarks include the secluded Dell, the more contemporary and formal Asa Gray Garden, the romantic architecture of Bigelow Chapel and the Mary Baker Eddy monument, an anchor of the Halcyon Lake landscape.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Jamaica Plain

Founded in 1872, the Arnold Arboretum is one of the lushest green spaces in Boston. A partnership between Harvard University and the City of Boston, this world-renowned living collection features 15,000 plants throughout its 281 acres, and it's celebrated as one of the most comprehensive of its kind. It’s also a beloved link in Boston’s Emerald Necklace chain of parks, full of pathways, ponds and pristine nature. Its design grew out of famed dendrologist C.S. Sargent’s close collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted (known as the father of landscape architecture and the designer of the Mt. Auburn Cemetery). Meant to be less formal than a true botanic garden (similar to England’s Kew Gardens), the arboretum also serves as a classroom for the study of both local and international botanical species. The casual visitor might not realize that there are designated areas with specific groups of plants of the same family and genus—like humans, plants do well in family groups and when they stick together. Mostly, the Arnold Arboretum is a place to walk and breathe fresh, tree-cleaned air and marvel at the magnificence of nature. The grounds are open (although picnics aren’t allowed except for on Lilac Sunday), from sunrise to sunset every day free of charge, though donations are appreciated.

6. Cambridge Common

Enjoying its status as a National Historic Landmark, this 16-acre park outside of Harvard Square hosts more than 10,000 pedestrians and cyclists on its paths and sidewalks on a daily basis. While George Washington would gather his troops here during the Revolutionary War, today’s Common visitors enjoy the popular Alexander W. Kemp Playground, benches, a playing field, lawns, historic monuments and winding walkways. 

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Waterfront

It might be small, but this harborside park is a focal point for the North End and waterfront communities. A popular thoroughfare on your way to several nearby bars and restaurants, this true city park knows its place as a busy gathering spot, rather than a place of quiet and nature. Its tiered grassy areas and steps are vibrant and fun, and it hosts several festivals annually. Winter’s holiday season finds its famous gigantic trellis covered in twinkle lights, while summertime translates to concerts and the occasional outdoor movie.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Back Bay

Inspired by Parisian boulevards, this 32-acre historical avenue is a grand alley of shade trees connecting the Public Garden to Back Bay Fens. Part of the Emerald Necklace, it’s where posh pooches stroll, local workers relax on benches with lunchtime reads, and several statues and monuments take you through the city’s rich history. The trees are decorated in the winter with twinkling lights, while the springtime fills the air with tiny pink buds on the trees in front of the rows of historical brownstones.

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  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • South Boston

Head to South Boston for this unique green space, which is part of the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. Cross the causeway and instantly feel like you are at the beach—because you are! The sliver of white sandy beach isn’t the only attraction. In fact, the main draw is the mighty granite Fort Independence, which dates to 1851 and overlooks the water. There are two walking/running routes: the short, easily managed Castle Island Loop, and the longer two-mile Pleasure Bay Loop. Though dogs aren’t allowed on the beach from May through September, Castle Island is the kind of place where you can easily spend the day relaxingthere is a picnic area (grilling is allowed), restrooms and even showers for rinsing off after a dip in the ocean. Grab a hot dog or fried clams at Sullivan’s, a seasonal local institution, walk out to the very tip of land and take a seat on one of the benches overlooking the water.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Fenway/Kenmore

This pretty park is a reminder of the very thing that gave the Fenway its name: wetlands. It’s hard to believe that this was once tidal saltwater marshland connected to the Atlantic Ocean. But, as part of the massive landfill operation that created the Back Bay, it was cut off from the sea. As part of the Emerald Necklace development, Frederick Law Olmsted created a fresh water lagoon amongst the park’s shrubbery and trees. There are formal gardens including the Kelleher Rose Garden, where spring blooms bring color and fragrance. Landmarks include The Westland Gate with its lions heads, the cottage-y Duck House, the Fire Alarm Office (a municipal building of great neoclassical beauty) and the Japanese Temple Bell, which dates to 1675 and was brought from Japan at the end of WW2 by the crew of the USS Boston. The Fens houses many interesting memorials, several sports fields and space to wander free of urban cares.

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11. Cambridge Crossing

At the intersection of Cambridge, Somerville and Boston lies an outdoor homage to Mother Earth. An escape of custom-built features and natural land space, Cambridge Crossing (affectionately known as CX) was created to enhance nature and allow people to live peacefully within it. The 50 unique species of native trees, shrubs and plants help to clean the air and regulate climate to reduce the heat often experienced in urban environments, while also providing a habitat for birds, insects and other wildlife. Go for a stroll or enjoy a seat in Picnic Grove, a locale of seating benches, fountains, low walls and landscape features built from repurposed granite blocks (2,000 to be exact) of the original neighborhood.

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