In addition to being, in Oliver Wendell Holmes's words, "the hub of the solar system," Boston is the hub of a number of delightful excursions. The destinations in this area -- Lexington and Concord, the North Shore and Cape Ann, and Plymouth -- make fascinating, manageable day trips and offer enough diversions to fill several days.
Like Boston, the suburbs are home to many attractions that rely heavily on aid from outside sources. Admission fees in this chapter are current at press time, but the double whammy of funding cuts and energy prices may have nudged them higher by the time you visit. In addition, some establishments have laid off staff (which means fewer guides), shortened open hours, and even stopped operating on the slowest day of the week, usually Monday. If you're on a tight budget or schedule, check ahead.
You Do the Math -- The MBTA (tel. 800/392-6100 or 617/222-3200; www.mbta.com) serves most of the destinations, but public transit isn't necessarily cheaper than renting a car for a day. For example, suppose you're visiting Gloucester with three other adults, each paying a total of $15 for the commuter rail. Even with summer gas prices, a good deal on a rental car will likely be cheaper than $60 in train fares. What's more, having a car allows you to make your own schedule instead of being tethered to the train's timetable -- and you don't have to leave from North Station. Just make sure that the car-rental company accepts returns at the time you anticipate returning to Boston, so that you don't get stuck paying to park.
Lexington & Concord
The shooting stage of the Revolutionary War began here, and parts of the towns still look much as they did in April 1775, when the fight for independence began. Start your visit in Lexington, where colonists and British troops first clashed. Spend some time at Minute Man National Historical Park, on the border with Concord, investigating the battle that raged there. Decide for yourself where the "shot heard round the world" rang out -- bearing in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote those words, lived in Concord. Emerson's house and Louisa May Alcott's nearby family home are just two of the historic residences in this area that welcome visitors.
Some attractions close from late fall to March, April, or mid-April (opening after Patriots' Day, the third Mon in Apr). Information about both towns is available from the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 40 French St., 2nd floor, Lowell, MA 01852 (tel. 800/443-3332 or 978/459-6150; www.merrimackvalley.org).
The North Shore & Cape Ann
The areas north of Boston abound with historic sights and gorgeous ocean vistas. Cape Ann is a rocky peninsula so enchantingly beautiful that when you hear the slogan "Massachusetts's Other Cape," you might forget what the first one was. Cape Ann and Cape Cod do share some attributes -- scenery, shopping, seafood, and traffic. Cape Ann's proximity to Boston and manageable scale make it a wonderful day trip as well as a good choice for a longer stay.
If possible, explore the North Shore by car. Public transportation in this area is good, but it doesn't go everywhere, and in some towns the train station is some distance from the attractions. For the full day-trip experience, try to visit on a spring, summer, or fall weekday; traffic is brutal on warm weekends. Many areas are practically ghost towns from November through March, but all of the destinations in this chapter have enough of a year-round community to make an off-season excursion worthwhile.
The North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, 10 State St., Ste. 309, Newburyport, MA 01950 (tel. 800/742-5306 or 978/225-1559; www.northofboston.org), publishes a map and a visitor guide that covers 34 municipalities, including Salem, Marblehead, and all of Cape Ann. It also coordinates Escapes North (www.escapesnorth.com), a clearinghouse for arts- and culture-oriented travel throughout the area. The Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce is another good resource.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.