Visiting Boston: The cradle of liberty still rocks

A long weekend in Boston delivers art, history and oysters



BOSTON -- It was by happenstance, really, that we came across the memorial.

This was a trip to see the historic sights and taste the seafood for which this capital city is famous. Our hotel was on Copley Square, a name that sounded vaguely familiar. Coming up from the subway station with our bags, peering down at a city map, we expected to first see the Boston Public Library. Instead, we came face to face with the makeshift memorial that sprang up near the Boston Marathon bombing sites.

If you go

Boston

Getting there: Both JetBlue (one bag checked free) and US Airways offer daily nonstop flights to Logan International Airport. Booking early, we paid $180 for our roundtrip JetBlue ticket on a brand-spankin' new airplane. It was awesome.

If you'd rather travel by car, the 575-mile trip will take about 10 (mostly highway) hours, one way. Amtrak is another possibility but probably not for a weekend getaway: The shortest trip through Philadelphia takes at least 14 hours one way.

Getting from the airport into downtown Boston is easy and inexpensive, if you choose public transportation over a $40 cab ride -- take the MBTA Blue Line to Airport Station, and then simply hop on the "T" ($2 single ride, $11 for 1-day LinkPass, $18 for 7-day LinkPass; mbta.com) to downtown. It took us 45 minutes from touchdown on the tarmac to our hotel on Copley Square. If you're overnighting on the harborfront, you can take a water taxi (citywatertaxi.com or roweswharfwatertransport.com) or ferry across Boston Harbor to/from Logan ($10/$17 roundtrip). How's that for fun?

Boston is a walkable city, so wear comfortable shoes. But I also highly recommend getting a 7-day LinkPass so you can ride the subway from spot to spot when your feet tire -- it's easy to navigate, quick and we always felt safe. We also rented bikes one day through the city's Hubway bike-share program ($6 for 24 hours; thehubway.com). A Hubway app made it easy for us to find the nearest of the city's 100-plus stations.

A comfortable pillow: Boston offers endless possibilities when it comes to settling in for the night. From historic hotels to economy chains to chic boutique properties -- there's something for every budget and neighborhood within the city. Among the most glam are Back Bay's European-style Eliot Hotel, the modernist Nine Zero near Faneuil Hall and the Boston Harbor Hotel at Rowes Wharf, where well-heeled vacationers can moor their yachts. Our well-appointed room at the lovely Fairmont Copley Plaza in the heart of Back Bay ($289 and up) was perfectly located, within easy walking distance of Boston Common, fashionable Newbury Street and Beacon Hill. It's home to the very-happening OAK Long Bar. Amazing Moscow Mules!

Eat, drink and be merry: Shellfish allergies withstanding, it would be a crime to travel here and not sample the oysters, clam chowder and/or lobster roll. Legal Seafoods (several locations) and Union Oyster House (circa 1826) are two popular spots for both, and you also can't go wrong with tiny B&G Oysters in the South End -- if you can get a table. Its open kitchen is framed by a long white marble bar and there's a stone patio for outdoor dining. Another must is pizza or homemade pasta at one of North End's many Italian restaurants: Regina Pizzeria on Thacher Street has been cooking up pretty amazing brick-oven pies since 1926. Don't forget cannoli from either Mike's or Modern Pastry, which sit opposite on Hanover Street. Like to eat while people watching? Newbury Street features chic outdoor cafes; there's waterfront dining on the seaport. For farm-to-table, head to Craigie on Main or Henrietta's Table across the Charles River in Cambridge.

Playtime: There is so much to see in Boston that squeezing it all in over the course of a weekend is impossible. Visit art museums, retrace history on the Freedom Trail, tour Fenway Park, take a brewery tour, hop on a harbor cruise or go whale watching, empty your wallet shopping on Newbury Street or enjoy a beer at the Cheers bar at Faneuil Hall Marketplace. It helps to make a list.

The spontaneous public shrine originally appeared near the finish line on Boylston Street but now is across the street from the library on the picturesque public square. In the weeks since the bomb blasts on April 15, it's grown to include thousands of items -- everything from baseball hats, teddy bears, flags and flowers to handwritten notes and dozens of "Boston Strong" banners.

The hundreds of running shoes its many visitors have strung on fences are particularly poignant. So, too, are the blue-and-yellow knitted hearts a well-wisher wrapped around a light pole outside the Forum restaurant farther down Boylston Street, where the second explosion took place. It's the only business that still is boarded up.

One of the police officers patrolling the site told me that the city will eventually dismantle the memorial. But first, archivists have to figure out how to best preserve the many mementos. So the tokens of support keep piling up, along with the number of visitors -- the curious and those coming to pay their respects. Every time we passed the site on the way to our hotel, there were people milling around it.

The solemn memorial has become another tourist attraction in this city that draws more than 22.5 million a year from around the world, according to Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"Every day, we're amazed by the number of people out there, especially during lunch hours, walking around, reading the comments," visitor bureau president/CEO Patrick Moscaritolo said about the memorial. "People really have turned it into a moment. They just find it."

Because it's not an official tourist site, there's no way to count the exact number of visitors; Mr. Moscaritolo guesses it draws several thousand each day. What is clear is that the bombings have not had an adverse effect on tourism, an industry that brought in $8.6 billion last year.

The only travel segment that's dropped off in the past few weeks has been student groups, he said, and then only in postponements. Groups are rescheduling for next year.

If anything, tourism is on the rise, especially among international travelers. That segment is up 11 percent over the past three years, and there's every reason to believe it will continue to grow. Last month, a tourism group representing 36 nations signed a letter urging their citizens to visit Boston to show support and solidarity with the city.

"It is a great example of the remarkable support that our city and the marathon victims have received," Mr. Moscaritolo said. "The global tourism industry understands better than anyone how important and critical rallying behind a community is when a terrorist act occurs."

Our visit

We came to soak up an American experience, but a much older one. When it comes to towns with living U.S. history, it doesn't get much better than this pretty city of 625,000 on Boston Harbor. Settled by Puritan Colonists in 1630, Boston is where our country's fight for independence began in 1770 with the Boston Massacre, and cemented five years later when the opening shots of the Revolutionary War rang out at nearby Lexington and Concord.

Looking at the brass plaque that marks the spot of the deadly skirmish in front of the Old State House on Washington Street -- or any one of the 16 historic sites on the famed Freedom Trail -- it's hard not to get chills, even when the heat of a relentlessly sunny day and seriously tired feet beg otherwise.

Then there's the history it makes on the half-shell. Or maybe you're more of a chowder head. Boston is famous for that, too.

As much as I was looking forward to getting my inner Johnny Tremain on, I couldn't wait to sample the region's oysters, which depending on the restaurant and season range from the ultra-briny Wellfleet to the sweeter Island Creek. I especially wanted to try the bivalves at Union Oyster House, the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the country (since 1826). It was a favorite haunt of both John F. Kennedy (look for the plaque in booth 18 upstairs) and Daniel Webster, who is said to have eaten three dozen oysters per visit at its super-cool, semi-circular bar.

Determined to cram all we could into a long weekend, we hit the ground on a Friday afternoon at a gallop, maps and iPhone apps in hand. Even before I'd checked into our hotel in Back Bay's Copley Square (an easy 20-minute commute on the "T" from the airport), my husband was off to John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Columbia Point ($12, jfklibrary.org). After lunch with a colleague, I was hoofing it to Boston Public Garden, established in 1834 as America's first public botanic garden. Graced with roses, colorful annuals and giant weeping willows, it seemed the perfect spot to gather my thoughts before switching into crazy tourist mode.

Its bucolic beauty couldn't have been more welcome.

PG map: Boston spots
(Click image for larger version)

Boston Public Garden is a much happier space than Copley Square. As I waited for my husband to play catch-up, I watched couples and families take $3 rides in swan boats that have been a lagoon fixture for more than 100 years. There is plenty of public art tucked among the flowers, too, including a set of bronze ducks that pay tribute to Robert McCloskey's children's classic "Make Way for Ducklings."

It's easy to do, but Boston Public Garden is not to be confused with much-larger Boston Common, which lies on the opposite side of Charles Street. America's oldest public park, the 50-acre "Common" -- once used to graze cows -- served as a campground for British Redcoats before the Revolutionary War, and a site for public hangings until 1817. Today, it's the anchor of the Emerald Necklace, a system of parks linked by waterways and parkways throughout Boston. It's also a kicking off point for the city's primary must-do activity: The Freedom Trail (thefreedomtrail.org).

A note of caution here: Guidebooks say it takes about two hours to follow the 2 1/2-mile red brick trail, which winds its way through Old Boston past graveyards, churches and other historic buildings before ending across the Charles River in Charlestown at the USS Constitution. It took us more than five hours start to finish, not counting the $3 ferry ride back to Long Wharf, and we didn't even make it to Bunker Hill, we were so exhausted.

Granted, it wasn't nonstop walking. We spent a half hour alone exploring Granary Burying Ground, where more than 5,000 are buried beneath 2,300 headstones carved with winged skulls. Founded in 1660, it's Boston's third-oldest graveyard and home to some famous names -- John Hancock was laid to rest here along with Samuel Adams and Paul Revere. We also toured King's Chapel, poked around the Old North Church made famous by Revere's midnight ride and rehydrated midway with a mug of Samuel Adams at the replica Cheers bar at Faneuil Hall Marketplace (where you'll also find fabulous street performers).

To do the trail justice, plan on the better part of an afternoon.

National Park Service rangers offer free, 60-minute walking tours of the Freedom Trail beginning at Faneuil Hall (nps.gov/bost). The Freedom Trail Foundation also offers daily tours with 18th-century costumed guides ($11 and up). We opted to go at our own pace using the free, interactive Freedom Trail iPhone app. It's exceptional.

Cultural attractions

There's plenty new to see from other eras, too, especially when it comes to the booming arts scene. The Museum of Fine Arts ($25, mfa.org) has been wowing (or should I say overwhelming?) visitors with its collection -- one of the most comprehensive in the U.S., with nearly 450,000 works of art -- for more than 100 years. And it's not just about Van Gogh, Copley and Renoir. The Art of the Americas wing in 2010 added 53 galleries showcasing more than 5,000 works, while the new Contemporary Art wing (2011) pays homage to modern artists such as El Anatsui and Ellsworth Kelly. The Institute of Contemporary Art ($15, icaboston.org) at Fan Pier, in South Boston's waterfront "Innovation District," further showcases the works of the world's foremost modern artists. (An exhibition of Haegue Yang's work is now on display.) For music lovers, the city has a renovated opera house.

If you have time for only one cultural experience, I'd make it the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum ($15, gardnermuseum.org), housed in a 15th-century Venetian-style palace not far from MFA. Not only will its spectacular interior courtyard blow you away, but its three stories of galleries will, too: The collection includes everything from famous paintings and sculptures to furniture, textiles and books. It also was the site of the largest art heist in U.S. history in 1990, when thieves nabbed 13 pieces worth $500 million, including a Vermeer and three Rembrandts. Their empty frames still hang on the walls.

If you make it to Copley Square to visit the bombing site, spend a few minutes exploring Boston Public Library, either on your own or as part of a free public tour (bpl.org). The artist John Singer Sargent spent close to 30 years painting the religious murals in the third-floor gallery, and they're nothing short of magnificent. With its barrel vaulted ceiling and arched windows overlooking Copley Square, Bates Hall also is something to behold, as are a pair of marble lions guarding the main staircase. Sculpted by Louis Saint-Gaudens in 1894, they commemorate Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiments.

Beckoning across the square with its red clay roof and exquisite arches is Trinity Church, designed by Henry Hobson Richardson in 1872. You might recognize it from the 2004 movie "National Treasure" starring Nicolas Cage (he finds the grave of Charles Carroll inside). Or maybe it's just the familiar architecture that will give Pittsburghers pause -- Richardson went on to design the Allegheny County Courthouse and Jail four years later (as well as Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the North Side).

Baseball, biking, beer,

Like "doing" rather than "seeing?" Depending on how much you love baseball, it's possible to tour Fenway, billed as "America's Most Beloved Ballpark" ($16 adults/$12 kids). Better yet would be to take in a game when the Red Sox are in town. Boston also is home to the New England Aquarium, offers bike riding through the city's Hubway bike-share program (so convenient, and a blessing when your legs tire out) and a great place to get on the water. In addition to duck boat tours, several companies offer harbor (and beyond) cruises and you also can take a half-day whale watching tour.

Or, hop on the T's orange line toward Forest Hills to the Stony Brook Station, walk to 30 Germania Street and take a tour of Samuel Adams Boston Brewery (samueladams.com). They're offered every day but Sunday.

We'd planned on taking a sightseeing ferry to the Boston Harbor Islands ($15, bostonharborislands.com), where locals like to fish, picnic and troll for sea glass. Our visit to B&G Oysters in the South End, though, took longer than expected, causing us to miss the last boat by five minutes. We settled for a long stroll on the Boston Harborwalk, a breezy public walkway that stretches along Boston Harbor.

Downtown Boston is extremely walkable (America Walks ranks it No. 3 in the country). After overdosing on history, you'll want to explore Boston's main neighborhoods. Each is fun in its own way.

With its gaslit, cobblestoned streets and picturesque Federal-style rowhouses, Beacon Hill speaks to the wealthy aristocrats -- dubbed Boston Brahmins -- who reigned in the 19th century. It also is full of antique shops. The narrow, winding streets of the North End are lined with Italian trattorias, cafes and Italian pastry shops. We had terrific brick-oven pizza at Regina Pizzeria on Thacher Street (open since 1926) one night and homemade lobster ravioli at open-air Panza on Hanover Street the next. Naturally, we also did a cannoli taste-off between Mike's Pastry and Modern Pastry. (I preferred the smaller and crispier one at Modern.)

Back Bay is more modern, famous for (high-priced) shopping and dining on fashionable Newbury and Boylston streets. After missing brunch at Craigie on Main in Cambridge (we got lost on our bikes), we consoled ourselves with people-watching while noshing on amazing tapas and sangria at Tapeo, a sidewalk cafe.

Like fine arts? Fenway-Kenmore is where you'll find theater, classical music and MFA and Gardner museums, along with historic Fenway Park. The Seaport District offers waterfront dining and entertainment.

Boston also has a vibrant bar scene. Eastern Standard's long marble bar, in the heart of Kenmore Square, is standing-room only, and you'll also have to elbow your way through the crowds at OAK Long Bar in the Fairmont Copley Plaza lobby -- especially if you arrive after 9 p.m. We also enjoyed a cocktail, and sunset city views, at the Revere Hotel's rooftop bar off Boston Common.

And, of course, there's always Faneuil Hall Marketplace (faneuilhallmarketplace.com). Each year, about 18 million people visit this urban entertainment center, which includes 14 pubs and restaurants and more than three dozen international food vendors in four buildings. Before you dig in or take your first sip, make sure to catch a glimpse of the gilded grasshopper weather vane on top of the red-brick building, built as a public market place in 1742. During the War of 1812, it served as a lie-detector of sorts for Bostonians trying to ferret out spies. If someone asked you what was on top of the building and you answered correctly, you were a patriot. If not, maybe you were really a lobster back (a nickname for a British soldier, something I learned from reading "Johnny Tremain").

As a side note, modern-day invaders from hostile lands have to be careful, too. We timed our visit during the playoffs between the Penguins and the Bruins. If you want to see angry Bostonians, try cheering for Sidney Crosby in the middle of a crowded bar.

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Gretchen McKay: gmckay@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay. First Published June 23, 2013 4:00 AM


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