Guided Walking Tours
Even if you usually prefer to explore on your own, I heartily recommend a walking tour with Boston By Foot (tel. 617/367-2345; www.bostonbyfoot.org). From April to October (the full schedule starts in May), the nonprofit educational corporation conducts historical and architectural tours that focus on particular neighborhoods or themes. The rigorously trained guides are volunteers who encourage questions. Buy tickets ($12 adults, $8 children 6-12) from the guide; reservations are not required. The 90-minute tours take place rain or shine. On the last Sunday of each month, a special tour ($15) covers a particular subject or area such as Art Deco design or Harvard Square. In addition, the company offers themed holiday strolls and year-round group tours.
Note: All excursions from Faneuil Hall start at the statue of Samuel Adams on Congress Street.
The Heart of the Freedom Trail tour starts at Faneuil Hall daily at 10am and Friday through Monday at 2pm. Tours of Beacon Hill begin at the foot of the State House steps on Beacon Street weekdays at 5:30pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2pm. Other tours and meeting places are Victorian Back Bay, on the front steps of Trinity Church, Monday at 5:30pm, Friday at 2pm, and Sunday at 10am; the North End, at Faneuil Hall, Friday through Sunday at 1pm; Literary Landmarks, School and Washington streets, Saturday at 10am; and the Dark Side of Boston, Hanover and Cross streets, North End, Saturday at 5:30pm.
Boston Underfoot looks at subterranean technology, including the subway and the relocation of the Central Artery. It starts at Faneuil Hall Sunday at 1pm and costs $14 (including subway fare).
Unofficial Tours (tel. 617/674-7788; www.unofficialtours.com), the brainchild of some entrepreneurial Harvard grads, offer an insider's perspective on Harvard Square and a separate tour of the Freedom Trail. Two guides lead each of the tours, which cost $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and students, and $6 for children.
Behind the Scenes at the BSO -- From October through early May, free volunteer-led tours of Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/638-9390; www.bso.org), take visitors all around the landmark building and relate the Boston Symphony Orchestra's fascinating history. The 1-hour tours start on Wednesday at 4pm and on the second Saturday of each month at 2pm, subject to change (always check ahead). E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to request a slot, then meet in the lobby at the Massachusetts Avenue entrance.
The most unusual and enjoyable way to see Boston is with Boston Duck Tours (tel. 800/226-7442 or 617/267-3825; www.bostonducktours.com). The tours, offered from late March through November and on the first 3 weekends of December, are pricey but great fun. Sightseers board a "duck," a reconditioned World War II amphibious landing craft, behind the Prudential Center on Huntington Avenue or at the Museum of Science. The 80-minute narrated tour begins with a quick but comprehensive jaunt around the city. Then the duck lumbers down a ramp, splashes into the Charles River, and goes for a spin around the basin. Fun!
Tickets, available at the Prudential Center, Museum of Science, and New England Aquarium, are $33 for adults, $28 for seniors and students, $23 for children 3 to 11, and $10 for children 2 and under. Tours run every 30 or 60 minutes from 9am to 30 minutes before sunset, and they usually sell out. Discounted (by $2-$4) 55-minute tours leave from the New England Aquarium starting at 3pm daily from June through August and on weekends in April, May, September, and October. Timed tickets go on sale 30 days ahead online, in person, and by phone; same-day in-person sales start at 8:30am (9am at the aquarium). Reservations are accepted only for groups of 20 or more. No tours late December through mid-March.
The ticket vendors who clamor for your business wherever tourists gather will claim that no visit is complete without a day on a trolley. Sometimes that's true. If you're unable to walk long distances, are short on time, or are traveling with children, a narrated tour on a trolley (actually a bus chassis with a trolley body) can be a good idea. You can get an overview of the city before you focus on specific attractions, or use the all-day pass to hit as many places as possible in 8 hours or so. In some neighborhoods, notably the North End, trolleys stop some distance from the attractions -- don't believe a ticket seller who tells you otherwise. Because Boston is so pedestrian-friendly, a trolley tour isn't the best choice for the able-bodied and unencumbered making a long visit, but it can save time and effort. For those who are physically able, I can't say this enough: Climb down and look around.
The business is very competitive, with various firms offering different stops and add-ons in an effort to distinguish themselves from the rest. All cover the major attractions and offer informative narratives and anecdotes in their 90- to 120-minute tours; most offer free reboarding if you want to visit the attractions. Each tour is only as good as its guide, and quality varies widely -- every few years a TV station or newspaper runs an "exposé" of the wacky information a tour guide is passing off as fact. If you have time, you might chat up guides in the waiting area and choose the one you like best.
Trolley tickets cost $25 to $40 for adults, $16 or less for children. Most companies offer online discounts and reservations, and you may find discount coupons at visitor information centers and hotel-lobby brochure racks. Boarding spots are at hotels, historic sites, and tourist information centers. Busy waiting areas are near the New England Aquarium, the Park Street T stop, and the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street South, across from Boston Common. Each company paints its cars a different color. They include orange-and-green Old Town Trolley Tours (tel. 617/269-7010; www.trolleytours.com/boston), red Beantown Trolley vehicles (tel. 800/343-1328 or 617/720-6342; www.beantowntrolley.com), silver CityView Trolleys (tel. 617/363-7899; www.cityviewtrolleys.com), and yellow-and-green Upper Deck Trolley Tours (tel. 877/343-8257 or 617/742-1440; www.bostonsupertrolleytours.com).
Moon River, Moon Harbor
Fire up the camera as you approach the water. Every bridge that crosses the river between Boston and Cambridge affords an excellent perspective. If your travels take you to the area around the Esplanade or Kendall Square (T: Red Line to Charles/MGH or Kendall/MIT), wander out onto the Longfellow Bridge, especially at twilight -- the views of the river are splendid, and if you hit it just right, the moon appears to shine out of the Hancock Tower.
In warm weather, check the time of moonrise and stroll down to the plaza at the end of Long Wharf (T: Blue Line to Aquarium). The full moon seems to rise out of the Boston Harbor Islands, and because it's so close to the horizon, it looks huge. For astronomical reasons, this only works in the summer, but boy, is it cool.
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.