Where would we be without our green spaces? Boston may have notoriously fickle weather, but when the time is right to get outside, the city has plenty of beautiful green space to enjoy some fresh air and nature. The so-called Emerald Necklace—the nation’s oldest linear park system—links several of Boston's best parks, including The Fens, Boston Common, and the Public Garden. Other options include the celebrated Arnold Arboretum and the multi-use Rose Kennedy Fitzgerald Greenway. Whichever one you choose, make it a perfect outing by pairing that stroll through a park with a bite at one of the best restaurants in Boston, or with a drink at one of the best bars in Boston.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Boston
Best parks in Boston
The Public Garden is the city’s heart. History stands on the park’s perimeters; statues to the great and the godly document the importance Boston played in creating modern arts and sciences. Bostonians know the long hard winter is over when the Swan Boats are trucked in and dusted off for another season. Perhaps most memorable is the statue of General George Washington on his noble steed, still leading the charge through the USA’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. Until 1817, the Common was used for public hangings, including the vicious sanctioned murder of four Quakers in 1660, hung by the hypocritical Puritan elite simply because of their faith. Latter-day uses include festivals and rallies, concerts and fairs. It’s also the site of the city’s annual holiday tree lighting, as well as the home of Frog Pond, where ice-skating in winter is a time-honored ritual.
This sliver of a park, a gorgeous green space, snakes its way above Interstate 93. (Its creation was part of the infamous Big Dig.) Named for the Kennedy Family matriarch, the Greenway unites the city with its beautiful, varied spaces and lively events, especially during the summer, its busiest season. The carousel delights youngsters, and local brewery Trillium’s seasonal beer garden does likewise for adults. Food trucks gather near the carousel and at Dewey Square, especially at lunchtime.
The Esplanade—Boston’s riverside park—is accessed in the Back Bay by footbridges over Storrow Drive. The most notable is the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge, originating at Arlington and Beacon Streets, and named for the iconic conductor who led the Boston Pops Orchestra for 50 years. The Esplanade is home to the Hatch Shell bandstand, where the Boston Pops Orchestra holds court for the massive July Fourth celebrations. During the warmer months, the shell hosts free movies and concerts, from pop and rock to classical and jazz, with iconic names often on the bill. The Esplanade is a popular location for runners, but walking its paths by the river, as boats bob in the water, is a soothing activity.
Mount Auburn Cemetery is many things: a public park, burial ground, arboretum, and wildlife sanctuary (popular with birders). Keep an eye out for arts and educational programs as well. This National Historic Landmark—which occupies 72 acres—was founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscaping is magnificent and the wildlife, from foxes to wild turkeys, is extraordinary for a busy city. It draws nature lovers, horticulturalists, folks looking for famous graves, and funerary art fans alike. Landmarks include the secluded Dell, the more contemporary and formal Asa Gray Garden, and the romantic architecture of Bigelow Chapel. The cemetery hosts walks, events, and workshops of all stripes, plus an outdoor Cemetery Cinema program during the summer. After a short climb, Washington Tower provides a spot for panoramic views over the city and beyond.
The Arnold Arboretum occupies 281 acres and is one of the world’s major horticultural research institutions. The design of the Arboretum grew out of famed dendrologist C.S. Sargent’s close collaboration with Frederick Law Olmsted. Designed to be less formal, and more natural than a botanic garden (similar to England’s Kew Gardens), the arboretum is also 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, free of charge, from sunrise to sunset every day of the year.
It might be small, but this harborside park is a focal point for the North End and the waterfront communities. Several nearby bars and restaurants make it a popular thoroughfare. It’s a true city park in that it is more of a busy gathering place where humans dominate, rather than a place of quiet and nature. It’s vibrant and fun, and hosts several festivals annually.
Part of the Emerald Necklace linking the Public Garden to the Back Bay Fens, this noble linear park is flanked by giant old trees, which provide shaded sanctuary during the summer heat. This is where the posh pooches are walked, and the beautiful people who frequent Newbury Street’s boutiques traverse, shopping bags in hand. Like the Back Bay Fens, this area was part of the massive landfill project to extend Boston inland. Its monuments include the Boston Women’s Memorial, featuring Abigail Adams (the wife of the second president of the United States and mother of the sixth), poet Phyllis Wheatley (a slave brought from Africa to Boston, who was the first published African writer in America), and Lucy Stone (a staunch abolitionist and suffragist).
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 slither 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 relaxing: there is a picnic area (grilling is allowed), restrooms, and even showers for rinsing off after a dip in the ocean.
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, which is 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 and feel free of urban cares.