Two excellent resources to investigate before you leave home are the Boston Center for Adult Education (tel. 617/267-4430; www.bcae.org) and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (tel. 617/547-6789; www.ccae.org). Multiple-week courses are the norm, but both schools also schedule single-day classes that last 2 hours or longer. The expert-led offerings include walking tours (often with a focus on local architecture), cooking classes and wine tastings, and workshops about everything from poetry to gardening. Prices start at $30, and preregistration is required.
The French Library Alliance Française (tel. 617/912-0400; www.frenchlib.org) is a cultural center that offers cooking classes as well as intensive language instruction.
For History Buffs -- Historic New England (tel. 617/994-5920; www.historicnewengland.org) offers a 2-hour walking tour of Beacon Hill and other excursions that concentrate on particular areas or topics -- surf ahead for specifics and schedules. Most tours begin at the Otis House Museum, 141 Cambridge St. Prices start at $12, which includes a tour of the museum, and reservations are recommended.
A map of the self-guided tour created by the Boston Irish Tourism Association (tel. 617/696-9880; www.irishheritagetrail.com) is available at the Boston Common and Prudential Center visitor centers. Check the website for an interactive map with pop-ups describing the sites, and information about guided tours.
For Architecture Buffs
Check ahead for walking tours and classes with the Boston Center for Adult Education or Cambridge Center for Adult Education.
For Criminal-Justice Majors
Free guided tours of the John Joseph Moakley U.S. Courthouse, 1 Courthouse Way, show off the waterfront building's dramatic architecture and introduce visitors to the workings of the justice system. You may even see part of a trial. Docents from Discovering Justice (tel. 617/748-4185; www.discoveringjustice.org) lead the 1-hour tours, which are available to individuals and groups by appointment only Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday throughout the year (reserve 2 weeks in advance).
The courthouse is on Fan Pier, off Northern Avenue across Fort Point Channel from the Coast Guard building at 408 Atlantic Ave. You can walk from downtown or take the Silver Line bus from South Station to the Courthouse stop, 1 block away. To enter the building, adults must show two forms of ID (one of which must have a photo), and everyone must temporarily surrender his or her cellphone. You don't have to take a tour to enter -- local office workers often visit the second-floor cafeteria, which has decent food and a breathtaking view.
Missing This Would Be a Crime -- A bailiff at the adjacent Suffolk County Courthouse tipped me off to the wonders of the John Adams Courthouse, one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston and one of the city's most interesting destinations. Constructed between 1886 and 1894, expanded in 1910, and extensively renovated around the turn of the 21st century, the courthouse recalls an era when public buildings were more like cathedrals.
It is the suitably impressive home of the Supreme Judicial Court, or SJC, the highest court in the Massachusetts system and the oldest (1692) appellate court in the Western Hemisphere. The French Second Empire facade of the courthouse conceals an unbelievably elaborate interior dripping with frescoes, moldings, paintings, and sculptures, all surrounding the soaring central space, the Great Hall, which sits beneath a richly decorated vaulted ceiling. The galleries on either side of the lowest level hold exhibits relating to history and the courts; John Adams: Architect of American Government will be on display during your visit.
The public is welcome to look around or to attend a court session if one is going on. The building is open Monday through Friday from 8:30am to 5pm, and you and your bags must be inspected before entering. The entrance is at 1 Pemberton Sq., hidden in plain sight behind the curving Center Plaza complex on Cambridge Street, across from City Hall Plaza and the Government Center T stop. Head to the second floor and ask for a brochure from the helpful staff of the Public Information Office (tel. 617/557-1114; www.mass.gov/courts/sjc), or arrange in advance to take a 1-hour tour with Discovering Justice (tel. 617/748-4185; www.discoveringjustice.org).
For Pedal Pushers
A group bicycle tour covers more in 2 1/2 to 3 hours than you could ever see on foot. The diverse offerings of Urban AdvenTours, 103 Atlantic Ave. (tel. 800/979-3370 for tickets, or 617/670-0637 for info; www.urbanadventours.com), include a tour that focuses on historic neighborhoods and landmarks and another that focuses on the harbor and the Charles River. You can also request a customized special-interest excursion. Prices begin at $50 per person and include bicycle and helmet rental. You can also rent bikes, which can be picked up at the North End shop (across the Rose Kennedy Greenway from Faneuil Hall Marketplace) or delivered to your hotel or any other location.
The unusual offerings of PhotoWalks (tel. 617/851-2273; www.photowalks.com) combine narrated walking tours with photography tips. On a 90-minute stroll around Beacon Hill, the Public Garden, or the Freedom Trail, visitors learn to look at Boston from (literally) a different angle -- that of a creative photographer. Adults pay $30, youths 10 to 17 $15. Tours run several times a week from April through October, and by appointment during the winter. Call or surf ahead for reservations.
For Movie Fans
Boston Movie Tours (tel. 212/683-2027; www.screentours.com/tour.php/boston) boast that they offer "behind-the-scenes trivia and insider gossip" about the city's incarnations on the silver and small screens -- a busy undertaking now that there's film production going on all over the state, but these tours keep up. Guides offer regularly updated info about the local color in The Departed, Good Will Hunting, Mystic River, Legally Blonde, and, of course, Cheers, among other projects. The 90-minute Boston Movie Mile walking tours ($21 adults, $18 seniors and students, $11 children 6-12) and 2 1/2-hour Theater-on-Wheels bus tours ($37 adults, $34 seniors and students, $28 children) operate April through October daily except Tuesday. Check start times and locations when you make reservations, which are strongly recommended.
For Horror-Movie Fans
Ghosts & Gravestones (tel. 888/920-8687 or 617/269-3626; www.ghostsandgravestones.com) covers burial grounds and other shiver-inducing areas in a trolley and on foot, with a guide dressed as a gravedigger. The 90-minute tour starts at dusk on weekends in April, May, and early November, and nightly from Memorial Day weekend through October. It costs $38 for adults, $24 for children 4 to 12. Children 3 and under are not allowed, and the company cautions that the tour might not be suitable for kids 12 and under. Reservations are required.
A neighborhood resident offers North End Market Tours (tel. 617/523-6032; www.foodtoursofboston.com), 3-hour excursions that stop at many of the shops in the legendary Italian-American stronghold. Tours include product tastings, cooking tips, and plenty of local lore. They cost $50 per person. The same company offers a 3 1/2-hour Chinatown Market Tour; the $65 fee includes a dim sum lunch. Visit the website to register and pay in advance.
A cooking or wine-tasting class makes an excellent, if pricey, break from shopping and sightseeing. Resources to check out before you leave home include: Boston University's Seminars in the Arts and Culinary Arts (tel. 617/353-9852; www.bu.edu/foodandwine); the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts (tel. 617/354-2020; www.cambridgeculinary.com); the Boston Vegetarian Society (tel. 617/424-8846; www.bostonveg.org); the Elephant Walk restaurant (tel. 617/285-0410; www.elephantwalk.com/classes); and the Bristol Lounge, in the Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St. (tel. 617/338-4400; www.fourseasons.com/boston/dining). Winter visitors can check ahead for classes during the Boston Wine Festival (tel. 888/660-9463; www.bostonwinefestival.net). Another resource for wine lovers is the Boston Wine School (tel. 617/784-7150; www.bostonwineschool.com).
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.