The Department of Conservation & Recreation, or DCR (tel. 617/626-1250), oversees outdoor activities on public lands across the state through its divisions of Urban Parks & Recreation and State Parks & Recreation. (The Division of Urban Parks & Recreation replaced the Metropolitan District Commission, a name that still appears on many signs.) The incredibly helpful website includes descriptions of properties and activities, and has a planning area to help you make the most of your time.
There are great beaches for swimming within 45- to 90-minute drives from downtown Boston. All have public parking and some add concessions. Duxbury Beach on the South Shore and Plum Island and Crane Beach on the North Shore are serene and beautiful. Ogunquit Beach is a favorite, and although it’s in Maine, it’s only 78 miles away. It has a long, sandy beach, seaside parking and concessions, an ocean cliff walk, and a sweet little town with restaurants, a candy shop, and a toy store. It attracts many visitors from Québec, and many of the town’s signs are in both English and French. Walden Pond, in Concord, has a sandy beach and lifeguards in the summer.
The Charles River Bike Path on both sides of the river goes all the way to Watertown, a suburb 8 1/2 miles northwest of Boston (new bike path extensions even go beyond Watertown). Both sides are busy with bike commuters, runners, and walkers, especially closest to the city. You can enter and exit at many points along the way. A good PDF map can be found here.
In Cambridge, a section of Memorial Drive nearest to Harvard University is closed to cars on Sundays from 11am to 7pm (from the last Sunday of April to the second Sunday of November) and attracts leisurely and beginning bikers as well as in-line skaters.
In addition to Blue Bikes, which are designed for short-term rentals (up to 2 hr. at a time) and available at outdoor kiosks all over the city, full-day rentals are available for $40 from Urban AdvenTours, 103 Atlantic Ave. (tel. 617/670-0637). You can also check out Back Bay Bicycles, 366 Commonwealth Ave., near Massachusetts Avenue (tel. 617/247-2336); Cambridge Bicycle, 259 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/876-6555), near MIT; and Landry's Bicycles, 890 Commonwealth Ave. (tel. 617/232-0446), near Boston University. Massachusetts requires that children 16 and under wear helmets. Bicycles can be brought on the MBTA (most subway lines and all buses, on bike racks) during certain hours.
For additional information, including a calendar of events, contact MassBike (tel. 617/542-2453).
You won't get far in the suburbs without seeing a golf course, and given the sport's popularity, you won't be the only one looking. If possible, opt for the lower prices and smaller crowds that you'll find on weekdays. The Massachusetts Golf Association (tel. 800/356-2201 or 774/430-9100; www.mgalinks.org) represents more than 400 golf courses around the state and has a searchable online database.
Golf magazine’s “Best Courses You Can Play in Massachusetts” ranking lists Granite Links Golf Club, just south of the city in Quincy (tel. 617/689-1900), at number 9. It’s 6,873 yards and par 72. Greens fees are $75 to $150 depending on the time of day and day of the week and include a required golf cart. There’s a strict dress code, detailed on the website.
Also open to the public: Newton Commonwealth Golf Course, in suburban Newton (tel. 617/630-1971), a challenging 18-hole Donald Ross design. Greens fees are $18 to $40 depending when you play. For a quicker, less challenging outing, 9-hole Fresh Pond Golf Course, 691 Huron Ave., Cambridge (tel 617/349-6282) is a 3,161-yard layout adjoining the Fresh Pond Reservoir; it charges $24 (or $35 for two rounds) on weekdays; $27 and $40 on weekends.
Within the city limits is also the legendary 6,009-yard William J. Devine Golf Course, in Franklin Park, Dorchester (tel. 617/265-4084). As a Harvard student, Bobby Jones sharpened his game on the 18-hole, par-70 course, which is managed by the city parks department. Greens fees are $40 on weekdays, $45 on weekends.
Urban rock climbing space Brooklyn Boulders Somerville, 12A Tyler St., Somerville (tel. 617/623-6700) is the go-to spot in the region for indoor climbing. Day passes are $25 to $29 and include full access to the facility. Full gear rentals are $11.
If your hotel doesn't have a health club, your best bet is to ask the concierge or front desk staff to recommend one nearby; you may receive a pass good for free or discounted admission. Guests at the Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common, have the use of the over-the-top facilities at the 100,000-square-foot Sports Club/LA, which is otherwise closed to nonmembers. Other hotels with good health clubs include the Boston Harbor Hotel, the Charles Hotel, the Four Seasons Hotel, the Hilton Boston Logan Airport, the InterContinental Boston, and the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
The "Y" offers the best combination of facilities and value; each of these locations has a pool, gym, weight room, and fitness center. The Wang YMCA of Chinatown, 8 Oak St. W., off Washington Street (tel. 617/426-2237), is convenient to downtown and charges $15 for a 1-day pass. The Central Branch YMCA, 316 Huntington Ave. (tel. 617/536-7800), near Symphony Hall, charges $10. Fitcorp (tel. 617/375-5600; www.fitcorp.com) charges $20 for a guest pass and offers well-equipped facilities but no pool. It has a dozen area branches, including 1 Beacon St., near Government Center (tel. 617/248-9797); 125 Summer St., in the Financial District (tel. 617/261-4855); and 197 Clarendon St. (tel. 617/933-5090) and 800 Boylston St., in the Prudential Center (tel. 617/262-2050), both in the Back Bay. A day pass costs $20 at women-only, no-pool Healthworks (www.healthworksfitness.com), which has well-equipped facilities in the Back Bay at 441 Stuart St. (tel. 617/859-7700) and in Cambridge at the Porter Square Shopping Center, 35 White St. (tel. 617/497-4454).
There are 13 Boston Sports Clubs in the city. All have gyms and classes, and a few have pools, including the locations at 505 Boylston St., 560 Harrison Ave., and South Station. A day pass costs $15.
A Vacation in the Islands
Majestic ocean views, hiking trails, historic sites, rocky beaches, nature walks, campsites, and picnic areas abound in New England. To find them all together, head east (yes, east) of Boston to the Boston Harbor Islands (tel. 617/223-8666; www.bostonharborislands.org). The national park area's unspoiled beauty is a welcome break from the urban landscape, and the islands are not well known, even to many longtime Bostonians. Thirty-four islands dot the Outer Harbor, and at least a half dozen are open for exploring, camping, swimming, and more. Bring a sweater or jacket. Plan a day trip or even an overnight trip, but note that only Georges and Spectacle islands have fresh water, and management strongly suggests bringing your own.
Ferries run to Georges Island and Spectacle Island. Georges Island has a visitor center, refreshment area, fishing pier, picnic area, and wonderful views of Boston's skyline. It's home to Fort Warren (1833), which held Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. You can investigate on your own or take a ranger-led tour. Spectacle Island, which opened to the public in 2006, holds more than 3 million cubic yards of material dug up during the Big Dig -- then sealed, covered with topsoil, and landscaped to allow recreational use. It's home to 5 miles of hiking trails, a beach, and an eco-friendly visitor center with a cafe.
Allow at least half a day, longer if you plan to take the water shuttle ($3/day) to Bumpkin, Grape, or Lovells Island, all of which have picnic areas and campsites. On the largest island, Peddocks, you can hike and picnic but not camp.
Admission to the islands is free. To get there, take a ferry run by Boston's Best Cruises (tel. 617/222-6999; www.bostonsbestcruises.com) to Georges Island (30 min. or less) or Spectacle Island (15 min.) from Long Wharf. Round-trip tickets cost $14 for adults, $10 for seniors, $8 for children 3 to 11, $39 families (two adults, two kids); the water shuttle costs $3/day. Cruises depart daily on the hour from 9am to 5pm (6pm on weekends) from mid-June through Labor Day weekend, with shorter hours in the spring and fall. In the off season, check ahead for winter wildlife excursions (scheduled occasionally).
A public-private National Park Partnership administers the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area (www.nps.gov/boha). For more information, consult the staff at the Rose Kennedy Greenway Boston Harbor Islands Visitor Center Pavilion, on the Greenway across from Faneuil Hall Marketplace, or contact the Friends of the Boston Harbor Islands (tel. 617/740-4290; www.fbhi.org). The Friends coordinate a variety of cruises on and around the harbor throughout the summer and fall; check ahead for details.
For information about hiking in state parks and forests, visit www.massparks.org. The Boston Harbor Islands offer great hiking; circling the largest island, Peddocks, takes half a day.
Ice Skating & In-Line Skating
The outdoor ice-skating season runs from mid-November to mid-March, weather permitting. Check ahead for open hours and closures for private events.
For outdoor skating, Boston Common’s Frog Pond becomes a picture-perfect rink in winter, with teeny lights decorating the surrounding trees. (Afterwards, head to nearby L. A. Burdick Chocolate Shop to indulge in hot chocolate and a sumptuous pastry.) Admission price is based on the skater’s height: everyone 58 inches and over pays $6, everyone else is free. Skate rentals cost $12 for adults and $6 for kids.
Kendall Square Community Skating, 300 Athenaeum St., East Cambridge (tel. 617/492-0941; www.kendallsquare.org), is an open rink in a courtyard not far from MIT. It charges $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, $1 for children 13 and under; skate rentals are $8 for adults, $5 for kids. Validated discounted parking is available.
A favorite spot for in-line skaters is the Esplanade, between the Back Bay and the Charles River. It continues onto the bike path that runs to Watertown and back, but after you leave the Esplanade, the pavement isn't totally smooth, which can lead to mishaps. Your best bet is to wait for a Sunday in the summer, when Memorial Drive near Harvard Square in Cambridge closes to traffic from 11am to 7pm. It's a perfect surface. Unless you're confident of your ability and your knowledge of Boston traffic, stay off the streets.
To rent skates or blades, visit the Beacon Hill Skate Shop, 135 Charles St. S. (tel. 617/482-7400). It's not on Beacon Hill but near the Theater District, not too far from the Esplanade, and has a knowledgeable staff. Expect to pay about $15 a day. The InLine Club of Boston's website (www.sk8net.com) offers up-to-date event and safety information.
For year-round indoor skating, Warrior Ice Arena, at 90 Guest St. in Boston’s Brighton neighborhood (tel. 617/WARRIOR [927-7467]), became the new city favorite when it opened in 2016. Built by New Balance (the athletic shoe company has its headquarters next door), it is also used by the Boston Bruins hockey team for training. Admission is $9 for ages 13 and up, $8 for kids 12 and under. Rentals are $5. On Friday nights, Rock N’ Skate from 8 to 10pm is an all-ages events; admission is $10.
The Dr. Paul Dudley White Charles River Bike Path is also a jogging route. The 18-mile loop along the water is extremely popular because it's car-free (except at intersections), scenic, and generally safe. The bridges that connect Boston and Cambridge allow for circuits of various lengths. Be careful around abutments, where you can't see far ahead. Don't jog at night, try not to go alone, and keep the headphone volume low. Visit the DCR website (www.state.ma.us/dcr) to view a map that gives distances. If the river's not convenient, the concierge or desk staff at your hotel probably can provide a map with suggested jogging routes. As in any other city, stay out of park areas at night.
Sailboats fill the Charles River basin all summer and skim across the Inner Harbor in all but the coldest weather. Your options during a short stay aren't especially cost-effective, but they are fun.
In 1966, The Standells immortalized the Charles River with their pop song “Dirty Water”—back when the river was a mess. Today it’s cleaner and attracts lots of boaters. Near the entrance to the Esplanade from the Charles/MGH T stop, the Community Boating boathouse, 21 David G. Mugar Way (tel. 617/523-1038) rents sailboats, kayaks, and stand-up paddleboards to experienced boaters to take into the Charles River basin. Rentals cost $89 to $119 (depending on the vessel) for a sailboat for a day, $45 for a kayak or stand-up paddleboard.
Public courts are available throughout the city at no charge. Well-maintained courts that seldom get busy until after work are at several spots on the Southwest Corridor Park in the South End (there's a nice one near West Newton St.). The courts on Boston Common and in Charlesbank Park, overlooking the river next to the bridge to the Museum of Science, are more crowded during the day. To find the court nearest you, ask the concierge or desk staff at your hotel or visit the DCR website (www.state.ma.us/dcr).
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.