Michelle Mannion delves into the heart of Massachusetts’ capital, one of the oldest cities in the US, and discovers modernity and history sitting side by side
1. Museum of Fine Arts
Boston’s compact layout means it’s walkable, with most attractions within a short distance. Begin your tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, on Huntington Avenue, the “Avenue of the Arts”. A mammoth complex, it is adding even more space with a four-level Americas wing designed by Foster and Partners due to open late next year.
You could feasibly spend your whole four hours here – there are more than 450,000 works, including ancient Greek and Egyptian mummies; Asian pieces dating back to 4,000BC, 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 by John Singleton Copley of the Boston patriots who helped to lead the American Revolution, such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams. The photography in the Herb Ritts Gallery is also worth seeing – when I was there the exhibits included everything from moving shots of a mutilated Hutu to Ritts’ iconic close-up of singer Sinead O’Connor. Open daily 10am-4.45pm (until 9.45pm Wed-Fri). Entry US$17. Visit mfa.org
2. Prudential Tower
From the museum, walk up the Fenway, passing on your right the system of rivers and parkland known as the Emerald Necklace – the wildest area of greenery you will find in this well-groomed city. At the top, turn on to Boylston Street and enter the Back Bay, Boston’s historic heart. A few minutes’ walk will take you to the Prudential Tower, which at 52 floors is the second-highest building in the city, after the John Hancock Tower.
The latter’s observation deck was closed after September 11, 2001, so the Pru is the best place to go for a 360-degree view of the city. Take the ear-popping journey up to the 50th-floor Skywalk Observatory and you’ll find stunning vistas as well as exhibits on Boston’s immigrant past (skip the snore-inducing audio tour). Or spend the US$12 entrance fee on a drink at the top-floor Top of the Hub bar and restaurant, where you can enjoy the same views.
Closer to the ground you’ll find a shopping centre with more than 75 outlets and eateries, including Saks Fifth Avenue and the delicious Cheesecake Factory. Skywalk open daily 10am-10pm (8pm Nov-Feb); Top of the Hub 11.30am-1am; shopping centre 10am-9pm (11am-6pm Sun). Visit prudentialcenter.com, topofthehub.net
3. Copley Square
Continue up Boylston Street for a couple of minutes and you’ll come to Copley Square, named after the aforementioned painter (there’s a bronze statue of him on the northern side). The square is home to some of the city’s most historic buildings, such as Boston Public Library (visit bpl.org), built in Italian Renaissance style in 1852 and the first library in the US to allow people to borrow books, and Trinity Church, a striking Romanesque structure built by Henry Hobson Richardson in 1877.
Across from the church is the John Hancock Tower itself, a slimline 60-storey skyscraper built in 1976 by I M Pei. It was designed in such a way as to defer to the Trinity, and the church mirrored in the tower’s reflective blue glass exterior is a classic Boston image. Visit trinitychurchboston.org
4. Newbury Street
Head northward on to Dartmouth Street and take the first right on to Newbury Street, which runs parallel with Boylston (the Back Bay is laid out in a grid system). Newbury is Boston’s high-end shopping street and is home to designer stores, boutiques, antique shops, art galleries and restaurants, all housed in the Victorian brownstones characteristic of this area of the city. If you’re in need of some sustenance, Joe’s American Bar and Grill is an elegant diner that serves an excellent clam chowder. Visit joesamerican.com
5. Boston Common and Boston Public Garden
Follow Newbury eastward and you’ll come to Boston Public Garden, established in 1837 as the first public botanical garden in the US. It’s a pretty, well-manicured space ideal for a stroll or a sit-down, with a variety of native and European trees. There’s also an imposing statue of George Washington and a large pond where you can take a swan boat ride in warmer weather.
Walk through the garden, cross the road and you’ll come to Boston Common (the road marks the intersection between old and new Boston, with the Back Bay side built from landfill to extend the city – the public garden used to be marshland). One of the oldest city parks in America, dating from 1634, the 50-acre common has long forgotten its history as the site of public hangings for suspected witches and is now home to strolling couples and impromptu games of football.
At the north-east corner of the common you’ll see Massachusetts State House, the golden dome of which twinkles in the sun. In front is a statue of Joseph Hooker, a major general for the Union Army in the American Civil War. Popular myth says the colloquial term for prostitutes originated with him, owing to the nocturnal activities of his regiment, but others argue the term “hooker” originated before that.
6. Faneuil Hall
This part of the common is also near the beginning of the Freedom Trail, which tracks Boston’s Revolution-era sights through downtown and across the river to Charlestown. How much of the 4km trail you choose to follow will depend on your time and interest, but it’s a good route through to Faneuil Hall, the 11th stop (the sights are all rather concentrated, so it’s only a short walk). 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, it’s home to a lively food hall, numerous stalls selling souvenirs, and a replica Cheers bar. 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, if one that doesn’t leave much to the imagination.