4 Hours In …
History is still being made in Boston, with new sights and old – museums, cobbled streets and high society on Beacon Hill
The Common is so called because in the early days of Boston, the parcel of land was bought by the Colony’s founding fathers and set aside as a common field for the settlers. The commemorative plaque that marks the spot reads in part that the grounds were to be used “for a trayning field which ever since and now is used for that purpose and for the feeding of cattell.”
The cattell have long since departed, making way for leisurely strolls and outdoor activities, but it’s a good place to start your Boston experience, since this is where the brick-lined Freedom Trail begins (thefreedomtrail.org). How much of the two and a half-mile trail you choose to follow will depend on your time and interest, but a turn around the perimeter of the Common is dotted with monuments and markers, all denoting some noteworthy events. On the east edge of the Common is the historic Park Street Church and the Old Granary Burying Ground, final resting place of such luminaries of American history as John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Crispus Attucks. To the west is the Public Garden, which many out-of-towners mistakenly assume is part and parcel of the Boston Common, but is actually a separate, more formal space, America’s very first botanical garden.
THE MASSACHUSETTS STATE HOUSE
On the Beacon Street edge of the Common sits the “new” Massachusetts State House. It was opened in 1798 – which puts the idea of “new” in a Boston context – replacing the old State House which still stands at the corner of Washington and State Streets, the oldest public building in Boston. The Beacon Street edifice is still home to the Commonwealth’s legislature and governor’s offices. The landmark golden dome was originally wood, but that leaked, so in 1802 Paul Revere was brought in to sheathe the roof in copper; the gold leaf was added later. Tours of the Massachusetts State House are led by volunteers called Doric Docents, a reference to the ten Doric columns that uphold the main reception hall. The tours are conducted from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM weekdays; admission is free, but you’ll need reservations. Visit sec. state.ma.us.
A stroll westward down Beacon Street leads you into one of Boston’s most prestigious neighborhoods, Beacon Hill. A who’s who of Boston society has lived here: poet Robert Lowell lived at No 91 West Cedar Street, and mentioned it in his best-known work “Life Studies,” while on Willow Street, No 9 is the house where Bostonian Sylvia Plath lived in the 1950s. Beacon Hill centers around Louisburg Square, a small private square built in the 1830s with a statue at either end, black iron railings and surrounded by mansions. The lower west side of the square is considered the finest row of houses found anywhere in the US.
Along the Freedom Trail not far from the Common is Faneuil Hall. It was built as a marketplace and meeting hall in 1742 and was the site of key speeches by patriots such as Samuel Adams, earning it the nickname, “The Cradle of Liberty.”
Today, along with Quincy Market next door, this cluster of restored market buildings is home to a lively food hall and numerous stalls selling souvenirs. Boston residents tend to be scarce here, but it’s an irresistible draw for out-of-towners and suburbanites. All very touristy, but it’s a fun spot to wander around and you may catch some street performers.
For something a little more sobering, a few steps away from here on Union Street is the New England Holocaust Memorial. Erected in 1995, it comprises six glass towers, each named after a concentration camp. Steam shoots up from the metal walkway as you walk through – it’s a searing monument, and one that doesn’t leave much to the imagination.
MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS
Boston is an imminently walkable city, with most attractions within a short distance of one another. However to save a bit of the day, you may want to cab down Huntington Avenue – Boston’s “Avenue of the Arts”– past Copley Square, where you’ll find the Museum of Fine Arts.
You could feasibly spend your whole day here – there are more than 450,000 works, including ancient Greek and Egyptian mummies; Asian pieces dating back to 4,000 B.C., such as Japanese prints, Chinese ceramics and Islamic art; African sculptures; and paintings by European masters such as Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh.
If your time is limited, try the colonial New England room in the Lee Gallery, which contains austere portraits of Boston patriots rendered by the aforementioned John Singleton Copley. The new wing for the Art of the Americas collection doubles the number of objects from the collection on view, including several large-scale masterpieces not displayed for decades. Open daily 10:00 AM – 4:45 PM (until 9.45 PM Wed-Fri). Entry $25.Visit mfa.org.
MISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM
Situated just around the corner from the Museum of Fine Arts on Fenway, this museum is so extraordinary, more time here might be worth a return visit all on its own. There isn’t anything in the world quite like this testament to one woman’s creativity and good taste. Isabella Stewart was wealthy, first because of her father, David Stewart, and then her husband, John Lowell Gardner, and could afford to indulge herself. A friend and patron of John Singer Sargent and James McNeil Whistler, she collected art from over 30 centuries, touring Europe to buy paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, Rubens, Titian and Holbein. To display them she bought a ruined Venetian palazzo and had it shipped back to Boston and reconstructed. She decreed that after her death, which occurred in 1924, it should be opened as a museum on condition that nothing was changed or sold. It has remained that way, though several works worth $300 million were stolen in 1990. The spaces are as unmissable as the artwork. 280 The Fenway, tel +1 617 566 1401, gardnermuseum.org. Open 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Thursday until 9:00 PM). Admission $15. BT