A line of red paint or red brick on the sidewalk, the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail links 16 historic sites, many of them associated with the Revolution and the early days of the United States. The route cuts across downtown, passing through Downtown Crossing, the Financial District, and the North End, on the way to Charlestown. Markers identify the stops, and plaques point the way from one to the next.
The customary order to follow the stops on the trail is from Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument. It's important to remember that this is the suggested route, and nobody's checking up on you. You don't have to visit every stop or even go in order -- you can skip around, start in Charlestown and work backward, visit different sights on different days, or even omit some sights. Here's a suggestion: If you find yourself sighing and saying "should" a lot, take a break. That goes double if you're traveling with children.
A hard-core history fiend who peers at every artifact and reads every plaque can easily spend 4 hours along the trail. A family with restless kids will probably appreciate the enforced efficiency of a free 90-minute ranger-led tour. As of this writing, tours are leaving from the Boston National Historical Park Visitor Center, 15 State St. (tel. 617/242-5642; www.nps.gov/bost). Check before you set out to see whether the new visitor center on the first floor of Faneuil Hall, about a block away, is open.
The excursions cover the "heart" of the trail, from the Old South Meeting House to the Old North Church. From Patriots' Day through mid-June and September through November, they begin weekends at 10am and 2 and 3pm, weekdays at 2pm only. From mid-June through August, starting times are daily at 10am and 2 and 3pm. The first-come, first-served tours are limited to 30 people (rangers distribute stickers starting 30 min. before tour time) and not available in bad weather. No tours December through mid-April.
The nonprofit Freedom Trail Foundation (tel. 617/357-8300; www.thefreedomtrail.org) is an excellent resource as you plan your visit. The foundation's costumed Freedom Trail Players lead 90-minute tours ($13 adults, $11 seniors and students, $7 children 6-12, with a discount for buying online) of the trail. Buy tickets online, allowing time to explore the interactive website. It lists a plethora of other activities, including a pub crawl (participants must be 21 or older) and holiday stroll.
The best time to start on the trail is in the morning. During the summer and fall, aim for a weekday if possible. Try not to set out later than midafternoon, because attractions will be closing and you'll run into the evening rush hour.
Listen Up: The Audio Freedom Trail
A 2-hour tour narrative commissioned by the Freedom Trail Foundation (tel. 617/357-8300; www.thefreedomtrail.org) includes interviews, sound effects, and music that help bring the sites to life. It costs $15 (credit cards only); buy it as an MP3 download, or rent a handheld digital audio player, for use with or without headphones, that can be picked up at the Boston Common Visitor Center, 148 Tremont St. (and dropped off there or at several other locations).
Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a great spot for a break. Time your walk right, and it can be the starting point of a picnic lunch. Visit the Quincy Market food court for takeout, then head across the Rose Kennedy Greenway toward the water. Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park, on the left-hand side of the Marriott Long Wharf hotel, is a popular place to picnic, watch the action at the marina, and play in the playground. On this section of the Greenway, near the visitor center pavilion, a carousel operates in the summer.
Back on the trail, as you walk from Faneuil Hall to the Paul Revere House, you'll find yourself in the midst of Haymarket. On Friday and Saturday, the bustling open-air market on North, Blackstone, and Hanover streets consists of stalls piled high with produce, seafood, and flowers. Shoppers aren't allowed to touch anything they haven't bought, a rule you might learn from a hollering vendor or a cutthroat customer. It's a great scene and a favorite with photographers.
If you don't feel like retracing your steps at the end of the Freedom Trail, you have two public transit options. Return to the Charlestown Navy Yard for the ferry to Long Wharf, which leaves every half-hour from 6:45am to 8:15pm on weekdays (every 15 min. 6:45-9:15am and 3:45-6:45pm), and every half-hour on the quarter-hour from 10:15am to 6:15pm on weekends. The 10-minute trip costs $1.70 (or show your 7-day LinkPass), and the dock is an easy walk from "Old Ironsides." Alternatively, walk to the foot of the hill; on Main Street, take bus no. 92 or 93 toward Haymarket (Green or Orange Line).
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.