Boston for First Timers

Day 12 of the challenge to write a blog post every day in May and time to head for some familiar ground.

MY first port of call in the US, the place visited most often over the Atlantic and my bolthole if needing an overseas trip with no hassle, a sense of familiarity and the need to relax without any pressure to hit the tourist trail too hard.

In many ways, Boston is my spiritual home away from home outside the UK. And during too many televised baseball matches way too late.

It happened pretty much by chance, my travelling companion on my first US road trip having grown up in the Lincolnshire town which gave its name and we both fell in love with the place. And, for one of us, in the place.

So why head there? And what to do when you get there?

Boston is not New York – around four hours down the coast by coach – with a more limited list of things to do, but there’s is a bit more room to draw breath and take things at your own pace. To say nothing of an awful lot of history (by US standards at least).

Getting there

Boston is about as easy to get to as any US city from the UK – a fair selection of flights which have the added advantage of being shorter than any other transatlantic trips.

Prices reflect that and, even with the demise of the Wow Air budget option via Reykjavik (believe me, it was worth paying extra for non-stop), you can pick up returns for under £300 if far enough in advance.

Can work out cheaper to fly to Boston for a couple of nights and heading down to New York rather than flying direct (if you can get a decent hotel deal, but we’ll get to that).

Boston has the advantage of Logan International Airport being close to downtown – you can sit on the waterfront and watch the planes coming in and out across the harbour.

You can catch a water taxi, but the easiest options are subway (with a free bus to the terminals) or taxi, normally about a 15 minute drive downtown if the traffic is not too bad.

Where to stay

Central Boston is pretty small so you are pretty safe if you stick close to the centre, but what you save on flights you may struggle to hang on to with accommodation.

Unlike New York, Boston is not overrun with hotel rooms and with so many conferences and students heading into town, they can fill up pretty quickly. Book early.

Most of the bigger, newer well-known names are congregated in Back Bay around Copley Square, which will give you easy access to pretty much anywhere you need to be. And there’s a few new swish ones down by the water.

There’s a few more interesting choices – there’s a Hilton tucked away in the Business District which is surprisingly handy, but if you want something with some character, the doyen of Boston hotels the Omni Parker Hotel is right in the heart of Downtown.

JFK proposed there, Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh worked there and while it can look a bit dated, if you can get a good deal (and they are there to be had), take it.

There is a Hostelling International as a budget option but it has moved since last used it so can’t tell you too much about it.

Getting around

After you have got a taxi from the airport, cars are largely pointless in Boston – its size and traffic make other ways of getting around far easier.

The subway – the T – is the oldest in the States (you will hear that a lot in Boston) and can look it at times, but is perfectly good to get you to outlying places or anywhere in a hurry. Forget it near Fenway when the Red Sox have just finished.

But the city is small enough and (Beacon Hill apart) flat enough that you can walk pretty much everywhere. There’s enough bars for a quick stop if you get tired.

Food and drink

There’s four things you can’t help but notice in Boston – sport (city teams have won all four major sport titles in the US this century and hold two of them), history, the Irish influence and students.

It adds up – now a lot of the leftovers of puritan history have been swept aside – to a distinct nightlife culture.

There’s all the normal American food options with the Boston institution Dunkin Donuts never too far away, but with a distinct Irish tinge to its bars.

Some may be a bit of a tourist trap – most notably Cheers, the original inspiration and the copy at Faneuil Hall, and the row of bars around the Blackstone Block – but pulling up a stool, grabbing a Sam Adams and something to eat while watching the game is a perfect way to while away a few hours. Or more.

It might be a bit further out, but Brendan Behan’s Irish pub in Jamaica Plain will always have a special place in my heart.

Seafood dominates the restaurant scene while Quincy Market offers an array of options in a food court which again falls into tourist trap territory but is perfect for refuelling on a day’s sightseeing.

Things to do for free

  • Freedom Trail – Boston is littered with historic sites battling for space with the modern city, largely based around the early days of a nation and the beginning of the fight for independence.
    Many of the key figures are buried in cemeteries (sheltered escapes if it gets a bit hot) which are among the attractions linked together in this walking tour, handily marked out by a red line or bricks.
    From Boston Common to Charlestown Navy Yard, it takes a few hours but is a great way to find your way around – much of the city is not on a grid like most American cities and roads often do not appear where you think they should – and handily passes by Quincy Market’s food hall and the Italian pastry shops of the North End.
    You can stump up for a guided tour, led by an actor in costume .
  • Walk or bike – Head along the banks of the Charles River, down Charles Street and adjoining, exclusive Beacon Hill (complete with gas lights, secluded squares and steep, narrow, cobbled streets) or window shop in Newbury Street. There’s plenty of cheaper place to actual shop.
  • Public Garden – At some point, your walk will take you to one of the green areas which litter the city. The Public Garden sits across the street from Boston Common, dividing Downtown and Back Bay with the historic swan boats patrolling the lake.
    A cool place to while away some time.

What to pay for

  • Fenway Park – Slightly biased here, but if you are going to shell out for one thing in Boston, head out to “America’s Most Beloved Ball Park”. Certainly the oldest and home to the World Series champions (at least for another five months).
    Head out for a tour, take in a game (book tickets before you go, don’t rely on being able to get them on arrival) or at the very least grab a beer in the Bleacher Bar under the Green Monster and look out across the park.
    After the New York for First Timers piece, somebody tried to argue Fenway could not match Miller Park in Milwaukee. Having not been there, can’t say definitively… no, forget that. Fenway is better.
    History and character in every corner. A bit like the city itself.
  • Harvard – This could be in the free section and the student tours used to be. Take the Red Line T to Harvard Square and while you can wander around on your own, pay the price for a tour from one of the undergrads in the crimson Hahvahd T-shirts for the tour. It’s well worth it (although pointing out your old school is about 100 years older when they rattle on about history does not go down well).
  • John F Kennedy Library & Museum – Add a fifth thing you are pretty much guaranteed to hear about in Boston: the Kennedy family. Anyone with the slightest interest in modern history should head out around the Harbor on the T (and free shuttle bus) for a fascinating insight into the life and legacy of a key figure in the shaping of the modern world.
  • Whale Watching – If you are there at the right time, head out on one of the regular boat trips from the Harbor. It’s a good few hours (and escape from the heat of the city in the summer) even if you do not see whales, which you should if looking in the right direction. And then it’s spectacular. Told the associated New England Aquarium is worth a visit, but a bit pricy.

Sure forgotten a few things, there’s certainly a fair few museums worth a stop, but this is just a beginner’s guide. Feel free to point out what’s been missed.

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