City Guide

Four Hours in Boston 2006

1 Dec 2006 by Tom Otley

History is still being made in Boston, with the Big Dig creating parks where once there were roads. Tom Otley tours the new sites and the old, taking in museums, cobbled streets and high society on Beacon Hill


1. Institute of Contemporary Art

Boston started life as a peninsula and, for all the landfill that has occurred over the last four centuries, wherever you are, you’re not far from the water. Now the former quays are being reclaimed from their heavy industrial heritage. A 20-minute walk from the centre of Boston, heading southeast over Fort Point Channel, you’ll find the new Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, The Westin Boston Waterfront and the Institute of Contemporary Art (opening in December). The magnificent ICA, designed by Diller Scofidio & Renfro, is now, ironically, home to the oldest museum in the US dedicated to contemporary art. Founded in 1936 as The Boston Museum of Modern Art, it has exhibited and collected Cubist Georges Braque, Expressionist Oskar Kokoschka and Edvard Munch, and also shows temporary exhibitions. 100 Northern Avenue, tel +1 617 478 3100. Open Tues-Wed 10am-5pm, Thurs-Fri 10am-9pm, Sat-Sun 10am-5pm, closed Mondays. Visit icaboston.org. Admission costs US$12.

2. Dig in without the diggers

The big story in Boston of the last 20 years is the Big Dig. This is now largely dug, but has not been without its challenges, including closed lanes on the underground freeway and occasional leaks and partial collapses. The creation of the Rose Kennedy Greenway along the former path of the elevated road was followed by the opening of the Sel de la Terre restaurant close to the excavations in 2000. Nothing if not adventurous, chef Geoff Gardner had spent eight years as the sous chef at Boston’s prestigious L’Espalier restaurant with Frank McClelland. The pair left to set up this stylish French brasserie serving seasonal and locally-grown Provençal-inspired cuisine in a casual (if at times dusty) setting. Thankfully the air has cleared, and it is possible to enjoy the home-made breads, local seafood and eclectic wine list. If you don’t have time to do justice to the menu, picnic baskets can be ordered in advance and picked up from the small shop at the front of the restaurant. 255 State Street, tel +1 617 720 1300, seldelaterre.com. Open Mon-Fri for lunch, 11.30am-2.30pm; daily for dinner, 5pm-10pm.

3. North End

Boston is a history lover’s dream, with both grand monuments and gritty neighbourhoods which have welcomed wave after wave of immigrants. The North End, at the northernmost tip of the Boston peninsula, is the perfect example: over the last 400 years first the English, then African-Americans, Irish, Polish and Russian Jews, and finally Italians, have fashioned the neighbourhood and given it layers of character. The building of the Central Artery cut off the area for several decades, and it is now an upmarket enclave for Boston’s young and well-to-do. Don’t miss the Paul Revere House at 19 North Square; the Pierce-Hichborn House, built in 1711 and possibly the oldest brick house in Boston; St Stephen’s Church; and Christ Church. There are many walking tours of the area available, with maps showing the sights. You can also wander at will. You won’t get lost: you are surrounded by the waters of Boston Inner Harbour.

4. Union Street

This short street is evocative of a Boston of old, which was mostly destroyed by city planners to make way for the ugly Government Center. Laid out in 1636, Union Street was once close to the waterfront, as the neighbouring narrow cobbled Salt Lane and Marsh Lane testify. The street is home to several excellent bars, including a couple of good Irish-themed ones – try the Green Dragon Tavern (11 Marshall St) or the Purple Shamrock (1 Union St). For eating, the Union Oyster House (41 Union St, tel +1 617 227 2750, unionoysterhouse.com) grabs all the headlines, as the oldest continuously operating restaurant in America, but many of the bars also serve good food.

5. Beacon Hill

Another famous neighbourhood can be found by passing through the centre of Boston, averting your eyes from the brutalist Government Center and walking up to 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 centres 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 anywhere in the US. One of them is home to 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry.

6. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

You’ll need to take a cab here, but this museum is so outstanding that if you had only two hours instead of four, I’d say go here and miss the rest. 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 – as the phrase engraved over the doorway of one of her homes “C’est mon plaisir” indicates. 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, 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 US$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 11am-5pm. Admission US$12.

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