Whether you want to immerse yourself in the colonial era or just cruise around the harbor, you can do it -- and plenty more -- in Boston. Throw out your preconceptions of the city as an open-air history museum (although that's certainly one of the guises it can assume), and allow your interests to dictate where you go.
It's possible but not advisable to take in most of the major attractions in 2 or 3 days if you don't linger anywhere too long. For a more enjoyable, less rushed visit, plan fewer activities and spend more time on them.
The recent economic climate has taken a toll on many cultural institutions. Admissions fees and hours listed are current as of this writing, but by the time you visit, establishments that rely heavily on corporate and government support may cost a bit more or close a little earlier. Prices for attractions that use fuel, such as tours and cruises, are subject to changes or surcharges depending on the fluctuating energy market. If you're on a tight schedule or budget, check ahead.
Visitors in 2012 will be able to visit a new wing at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the museum's first major physical change since 1924. It has a tough act to follow: The neighboring Museum of Fine Arts scored a major success with the 2010 opening of its Art of the Americas wing. Renzo Piano designed the new wing of the Gardner as well as the major renovation project that's under way at the Harvard Art Museums. Two of the three Harvard museums are closed through 2013. Re-View, the changing exhibit featuring highlights of all three collections, is up at the one that remains open, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
Downtown Boston gained not one but two new visitor centers in 2011. The Rose Kennedy Greenway Boston Harbor Islands Visitor Center Pavilion is on the Greenway near the New England Aquarium, not far from the National Park Service's Faneuil Hall Visitor Center, on the first floor of the historic building.
As of this writing, the Boston Tea Party Ship & Museum (tel. 617/269-7150; www.bostonteapartyship.com), which closed after a fire in 2001, was scheduled to reopen in 2012. Chronically delayed plans in place since shortly after the fire called for the construction of two more ships, doubling the size of the museum, and addition of a tearoom. Check at your hotel or call ahead before setting out.
The Top Attractions -- The attractions listed are easily accessible by public transportation; given the difficulty and expense of parking, it's preferable to take the T everywhere. Even the Kennedy Library, which has a large free parking lot, operates a free shuttle bus to and from the Red Line. To maximize your enjoyment, try to visit these attractions during relatively slow times. If possible, especially in the summer, sightsee on weekdays; if you're traveling without children, aim for times when school is in session. And if you're in town on a July or August weekend, resign yourself to lines and crowds.
A Note on Online Ticketing -- Many museums and other attractions sell tickets online, subject to a service charge, through their websites or an agency. This can be handy, but it can also cost you some flexibility and perhaps some money. If there's any chance that your plans will change, make sure you understand the refund policy before you enter your credit card info -- you may not be able to return or exchange prepaid tickets.
Let's Make a Deal
As you plan your sightseeing, consider these money-saving options. Check their respective websites for info about buying each pass.
If you concentrate on the included attractions, a Boston CityPASS (tel. 888/330-5008; www.citypass.com) offers great savings. It's a booklet of tickets (so you can go straight to the entrance) to the Museum of Fine Arts, Museum of Science, New England Aquarium, Skywalk Observatory at the Prudential Center, and either the Harvard Museum of Natural History or the John F. Kennedy Library. The price represents a 46% savings for adults who visit all five, and it feels like an even better deal on a steamy day when the line at the aquarium is long. As of this writing, the cost was $46 for adults, $29 for children 3 to 11, subject to change as admission prices rise. The passes, good for 9 days from first use, also include discounts at other local businesses.
The main competition for CityPASS is the Go Boston Card (tel. 800/887-9103; www.gobostoncard.com). The original Go Boston Card includes admission to 70 Boston-area and New England attractions, plus dining and shopping discounts, a guidebook, and a 2-day trolley pass. If you strategize wisely, this card can be a great value, but make sure you understand the logistics. It costs $50 for 1 day, $75 for 2 days, $96 for 3 days, $135 for 5 days, and $165 for 7 days, with discounts for children and winter travelers (some of the included businesses close in the winter). The Boston Explorer Pass lets you select three of the 26 included attractions and is good for 30 days. It costs $45 for adults and $29 for children.
If you're a Bank of America credit or debit card holder, the Museums on Us program gets you into cultural institutions around the country free on the first full weekend of each month. Participating establishments in eastern Massachusetts are the Museum of Fine Arts, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum. Visit http://museums.bankofamerica.com for details.
The MBTA's 7-day LinkPass (tel. 877/927-7277 or 617/222-4545; www.mbta.com) can be a bargain -- but only if you plan to use public transit often enough.
Network, Socially -- Just about every attraction in the Boston area communicates with visitors on Facebook and Twitter. Friend and follow the establishments that interest you as soon as you start planning your visit -- amid schedule changes and other humdrum announcements, you may find information about the exhibition, tour, event, or other offering that winds up being a high point of your trip.
The Harborwalk and Walk to the Sea
The Harborwalk is a path that traces 47 miles of Boston's shoreline, allowing public access to multimillion-dollar views of the water. In theory, it extends from East Boston to Dorchester; in practice, the pathway isn't continuous. Distinctive royal blue signs with a white logo and text point the way along the Harborwalk, which is an ideal route to take from downtown to the Institute of Contemporary Art, on the South Boston waterfront. The ambitious project has been in the works since 1984 and is more than three-quarters complete. Learn more by visiting the website, www.bostonharborwalk.com, which features a map and a free downloadable audio tour.
Intersecting the Harborwalk is the 1-mile Norman B. Leventhal Walk to the Sea (www.walktothesea.com), which begins on Beacon Street in front of the State House and ends at the tip of Long Wharf. It tracks 4 centuries of Boston history with compelling narration on freestanding trail markers; visit the website to download a map and get more information. The Walk to the Sea makes an excellent compromise if you don't have the time or energy to tackle the whole Freedom Trail or Black Heritage Trail, both of which it intersects.
On Top of the World
The Skywalk Observatory at the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/859-0648; www.topofthehub.net/skywalk_home.html), offers a 360-degree view of Boston and far beyond. From the enclosed observation deck on the 50th floor of the Prudential Tower, you can see for miles, even (when it's clear) as far as the mountains of New Hampshire to the north and the beaches of Cape Cod to the south. Away from the windows, interactive audiovisual exhibits chronicle the city's history. The admission price includes a narrated audio tour, available in versions targeted to adults and children. Wings Over Boston, a dramatic aerial video tour of the city, screens in the on-site theater. Also here are fascinating exhibits, including video presentations about refugees, on the history of immigration to Boston. Call before visiting, because the space sometimes closes for private events. Hours are 10am to 10pm daily (until 8pm Nov-Mar). Admission is $13 for adults, $11 for seniors and college students with ID, and $9 for children 12 and under.
Eyes in the Skies
For a smashing view of the airport, the harbor, and the South Boston waterfront, stroll along the harbor or Atlantic Avenue to Northern Avenue. On either side of this intersection are buildings with free observation areas. Be ready to show an ID to gain entrance. The space on the 14th floor of Independence Wharf, 470 Atlantic Ave., is open daily from 11am to 5pm. Across the way is Foster's Rotunda, on the ninth floor of 30 Rowes Wharf, in the Boston Harbor Hotel complex. It's open Monday to Friday from 11am to 4pm.
The 1.5-mile Black Heritage Trail covers sites on Beacon Hill that preserve the history of 19th-century Boston. The neighborhood was the center of the free black community, and the trail links stations of the Underground Railroad, homes of famous citizens, and the first integrated public school in the city. You can take a free 2-hour guided tour with a ranger from the National Park Service's Boston African American National Historic Site (tel. 617/742-5415; www.nps.gov/boaf). Tours start at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, on Beacon Street across from the State House. They're available Monday through Saturday from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and by request at other times; call ahead for a reservation. Or go on your own, using a brochure (available at the Museum of African American History and the Boston Common and State Street/Faneuil Hall visitor centers) that includes a map and descriptions of the buildings. The only buildings on the trail that are open to the public are the African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School, which make up the Museum of African American History. Check ahead for special programs year-round.
In February, the Freedom Trail Foundation (tel. 617/357-8300; www.thefreedomtrail.org) offers the African-American Patriots Tour, which focuses on the black community in 18th-century Boston and its role in the Revolution. Visit the website to make a reservation and buy tickets ($12 adults, $6 children 6-12), or to arrange a private group tour.
Across the river, the Cambridge African American Heritage Trail focuses on significant sites in the history of the city's large black community. To buy the guide, visit the office on the second floor of 831 Massachusetts Ave., download an order form from the website, or send a check for $3.50 (includes shipping) to the Cambridge Historical Commission, 831 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139 (tel. 617/349-4683; www.cambridgema.gov/historic, click "History and Links").
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.