As well as being the birthplace of the American Revolution, Boston has always influenced much of the USA’s way of life, from politics to music
Founded in 1630, Boston is the matriarch of American cities; but, thanks to a massive programme of revitalisation, the old lady is looking good. There are new parks, hotels and restaurants, plus a 47-mile HarborWalk along the waterfront. But what kickstarted it all was the 'Big Dig'. Ask any local about it and opinions will come thick and fast. And no wonder; everyone was affected by the 15-year project. Down came the overhead expressway that cut through downtown; into new tunnels went the traffic. The result was a facelift for the historic heart of my favourite American city.
As for what to do, think lively pubs and funky clubs, vibrant theatre, great shopping and music, and some of the country’s best museums. Whatever your taste, you can pack plenty into 48 hours, which is why Boston is perfect for a short break.
Enjoy the best bird’s-eye view from the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower, where the Prudential Skywalk Observation Deck is 700 feet up, with views across the city and across the harbour to Cape Cod. Then follow Boston’s famous Freedom Trail, linking 16 buildings that are signposts of American history. Walk this 2.5-mile route and you will understand not just the hows and whys of the American Revolution (which started just outside the city), but also how a true American identity was born. Start on Boston Common, where the Visitor Information Center has maps, audio guides and more. Then follow the red bricks set into the pavement, meeting costumed actors along the way, whose stories bring the past to life.
The Trail goes through the North End, Boston’s equivalent of Little Italy, so lunch couldn’t be easier. Pop into a deli, such as Salumeria Italiana (151 Richmond Street) for a sandwich – then press on.
Complete the Freedom Trail, walking over to Charlestown to see USS Constitution, the oldest warship still afloat. Nicknamed ‘Old Ironsides’, she defeated HMS Guerriere in a battle in 1812 and launched a legend. Not far away, the Museum of Science, one of the world’s best hands-on museums, is fun for children of all ages – and for adults! The must-see is the lightning show: yes, lightning is made to order in the world’s largest air-insulated Van de Graaff generator. From the museum, hop on the Boston Duck Tour, an irreverent look at Boston’s past from an amphibious bus that starts on the street, then splashes into the Charles River.
Or, head for Newbury Street, the Bond Street of Back Bay, where shops and cafés rub shoulders with art galleries. As well as internationally-known names, there are fun little boutiques. Bostonians are ice cream aficionados; one of the city’s best places for a cone is Emack & Bolio’s (290 Newbury Street).
Have a beer with the locals at the Sevens pub (77 Charles Street). The Cheers pub might be around the corner, but the Sevens is the real thing. Dine in another local spot, the Paramount (44 Charles Street) or at Figs, an upmarket pizza place that is small, crowded and buzzy (42 Charles St).
With its cobbled streets, brick pavements and Victorian street lamps, Beacon Hill is one of America’s poshest areas. At the top is the State House, whose gold dome often appears on TV and in films such as The Departed. Stroll the old streets, see 200 years of the Upstairs, Downstairs side of life in the 1804 Nichols House (55 Mount Vernon Street). Then hop on ‘The T’, the clean, quick and cheap metro system, and go over the Charles River to Cambridge. Although part of Greater Boston, Cambridge is a city in its own right. It is best-known for 370-year-old Harvard University, where presidents such as Barack Obama and John F Kennedy studied. Learn more on a free, student-led tour from Harvard Square.
For a good burger and a menu with a sense of humour, it has to be Mr Bartley’s (1246 Massachusetts Ave), a Cambridge institution.
Go back over the Charles River, to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), one of the USA’s great galleries. Late in 2010, a spectacular new wing opened, highlighting the great treasures even better. I could spend days here, but must-sees include European art (with a fine collection of Impressionists) and American art (including portraits by John Singer Sargent). While the MFA’s art and artefacts provide a world tour, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, just a few steps away, is small and intimate. In this Italianate palazzo are paintings by Titian and Rembrandt, Holbein and Rubens. Check out the schedule of concerts, on Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Music buffs should also see what’s on at the century-old Symphony Hall. Home of the renowned Boston Symphony Orchestra, this gem of a concert hall boasts the finest acoustics in the USA. (For arts listings, see The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix.)
The South End is a fast gentrifying area of homes, shops and restaurants. Small and casual, B&G Oysters (550 Tremont St) is great for a glass of wine and molluscs. One of Boston’s best restaurants, Hamersley’s Bistro (553 Tremont Street) features New England produce: seared sea scallops with caramelized endive; pan roasted lobster with white truffle oil; his signature roast chicken with garlic and lemon, braised lamb shank.
American Airlines fly from the UK to Boston. Tour operator Virgin Holidays offers package deals.
No car is needed in Boston, but for trips out of the city, try Dollar Rent A Car. The Boston Visitor Pass offers seven days' unlimited travel on ‘The T’/MBTA.
Save up to 50% on entry to the main attractions with the Boston CityPass.
Where to stay
The Fairmont Copley Plaza: gilt, glamour and history are part of the experience in this 1912 grand hotel.
The Copley Inn: not far from the Prudential Tower and handy for all the sights; each of the 20 rooms has its own kitchenette.
Encore Bed & Breakfast
: a four-room B&B with plenty of character and an artsitic theme. Ask for the Albee Room where playwright Edward Albee has stayed..
The Kendall: formerly the Engine 7 Fire House, this is now a funky hotel with some rooms in the old fire station, others in the new block. Busy restaurant bar right in the lobby air gives areal buzz.
The Liberty Hotel: what was once a jail is now one of Boston's trendiest and most luxurious hotels. In converted cells, the bars and restaurants bear witty names such as Clink and Alibi.
Omni Parker House: one of the city's great hotels with a guest list stretching back to Charles Dickens. Home of the Parker House Roll.
FifteenBeacon: also 'XV Beacon' this is a luxury contemporary boutique hotel with prices and service to match.
Seaport Hotel: on the reinvigorated harbourfront, overlooking the water. Large, with excellent service and spectacular views.