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Boston embodies contrasts and contradictions -- blue blood and blue collar, Yankee and Irish, Brahmin banker and budget-conscious student. The city is home to the country's first public school and to a problematic educational system. A one-time hotbed of abolitionism, it retains an intractable reputation for racism; a proud seaport, it faces a harbor recently reclaimed from crippling pollution. Boston is a famously parochial, insular city whose traditional obsessions are "sports, politics, and revenge," but it's also a magnet for students and intellectuals from all over the world and is the capital of the first U.S. state to make same-sex marriage legal.

Compact in size yet boasting a virtually inexhaustible supply of interesting activities and diversions, Boston is a magnet for history buffs, art lovers, sports fans, shoppers, families, and convention-goers. Whether you fit into one or more or none of those categories, you're still in for an enjoyable time. The interests that draw you here can monopolize your schedule, but you'll have a better experience if you make some room for serendipity -- on your schedule and in your attitude.

Boston is a living landmark that bears many marks of its colonial heritage, but where it's theoretically possible (this is just an observation) to spend days without going near anything built before 1960, or even going outdoors. Pick out a suitcase that has room for your walking shoes and get ready for your own adventure.

Written in Stone

All over Boston, you'll see plaques commemorating long-gone people, events, and even places ("On this site stood . . ."). Each one tells a little story, in both its text and its context. A plaque commemorating the first Catholic Mass in Boston (on School St. near Washington St., across the street from the Freedom Trail) doesn't seem like a big deal now, but in a Puritan city, toleration of "popery" couldn't have come easily. On Commercial Street near Hull Street, a marker (pictured here) describes the Molasses Flood of 1919, during which 2 million gallons of raw molasses spilled out of a ruptured storage tank into the streets, killing 21 people. The story recalls the days when manufacturing and industry dominated the area that's now the residential North End and scenic waterfront. Look around as you walk around -- history is everywhere, just waiting for you to discover it.

Boston Today

Twenty-first century Boston is a hot destination. The city has nearly shaken off the well-deserved reputation for stodginess that dogged it for most of its first 4 centuries of existence; the Boston area enjoys a reputation as a hotbed of innovation, its economy slowed but not crippled by the recession that started in 2008. Thanks to a massive highway-construction project that formally wrapped up in 2007, downtown Boston looks better than it has in decades. The parks of the mile-long Rose Kennedy Greenway parallel the waterfront, driving private development and drawing the public with its still-evolving recreational offerings. The "new" convention center -- it opened in 2004 -- has spurred the ongoing transformation of an industrial neighborhood into a tourist magnet, and the triumphs and travails of the local sports teams help keep Boston in back-page headlines around the country.

Today you'll find a metropolis of some 645,000 at the heart of the Greater Boston area, which encompasses 83 cities and towns that are home to 4.4 million people. The hospitals and medical centers are among the best in the world, and healthcare was a hot topic long before the state took a leading role in the country's ongoing debate on the issue. Education and tourism are pillars of the local economy, which has mirrored national trends (positive and negative) in unemployment statistics. The ongoing real-estate downturn has put a damper on the red-hot Boston market, but the city remains one of the most expensive places in the country to live -- and to visit, if you don't budget carefully.

As they have for more than a century, immigrants -- Irish, eastern European Jewish, Italian, Portuguese, African American, Latino, and West Indian -- flock to the Boston area. In the last quarter-century, the Asian and Latino populations have soared.

Whatever their origins, most Bostonians share at least a passing interest in sports. ("How about those Red Sox?" is a favorite conversational gambit all over town.) The New England Patriots, who play in a distant suburb, triumphed in the Super Bowl in 2002, 2004, and 2005 -- only to find that their third title was virtually a footnote. Three months earlier, in October 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time since 1918. Many Sox fans believe that victory ended a curse, and they point to the Sox's 2007 Series crown as evidence.

Pro sports are only part of the story, though: In a region with an enormous student population, college athletics are a big deal, too. You may have heard that Boston is a college town, but you may not realize just how true that is until you're out and about, tripping over chattering post-adolescents nearly everywhere.

To get a sense of what present-day Boston is and isn't like, hit the streets. All over town, you'll find traces of the groups, institutions, and events that shaped Boston's history and created the complex city you see today.

We're Number 1!

Boston's list of firsts is a long one. Here are some highlights:

  • America's first public school (Boston Latin School, 1635)
  • America's first printing press (in Cambridge, 1638)
  • America's first post office (1639)
  • America's first regularly published newspaper, the Boston News Letter (1704)
  • America's first St. Patrick's Day parade (1737)
  • America's first chocolate factory (1765)
  • First operation under general anesthesia (removal of a jaw tumor, at Massachusetts General Hospital, 1846)
  • America's first subway (1897)
  • First successful human-to-human organ transplant (of a kidney, at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, 1954)
  • First successful reattachment of a human limb (a 12-year-old boy's right arm, at Mass. General, 1962)

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.