If you turned straight to this section, you're in good company: Surveys of visitors to Boston consistently show that shopping is their most popular activity, beating museum-going by a comfortable margin.
Boston-area shopping represents a tempting blend of classic and contemporary. Boston and Cambridge teem with tiny boutiques and sprawling malls, esoteric bookshops and national chain stores, exclusive galleries and snazzy secondhand-clothing outlets.
One of the most popular shopping destinations in New England will most likely be closed during your visit: Filene's Basement temporarily shuttered its flagship store in 2007 to make way for extensive renovations and construction in the building upstairs, which slowed in 2008 along with the global economy. Ask at your hotel to see whether the retail landmark has reopened, or check out the Back Bay branch, which carries an excellent selection of discounted fashion but doesn't offer the original's beloved automatic-markdown policy.
This section concentrates on only-in-Boston businesses, and it includes many national (and international) names that are worth a visit. I'll point you to areas that are great for shop-hopping and toward specific destinations that are great for particular items.
The Shopping Scene
One of the best things about shopping in Massachusetts is that there's no sales tax on clothing priced below $175 or on food items. All other items are taxed at 6.25%. Just about every store will ship your purchases home for a fee, but if the store is part of a chain that operates in your home state, you'll probably have to pay that sales tax. Be sure to ask.
In the major shopping areas, stores usually open at 10am and close at 6 or 7pm Monday through Saturday. On Sunday, most open at noon and close at 5 or 6pm, but some don't open at all. Closing time may be later 1 night a week, usually Wednesday or Thursday. Malls keep their own hours, and some smaller shops open later. Days and hours can vary in winter. Year-round, many art galleries close on Monday. In short, if a store sounds too good to pass up, call to make sure it's open before you head out.
Great Shopping Areas
BACK BAY & BEACON HILL
New England’s premier shopping district offers dozens of upscale galleries, shops, and boutiques. Newbury Street is a world-famous destination, starting at the Boston Public Garden and running west for 1 mile. At its easternmost end the real estate and merchandise are elegant and pricey (Burberry at no. 2, Tiffany at no. 5, Chanel at no. 6), but shops get quirkier with each passing block (Johnny Cupcakes T-shirts at no. 279, Newbury Comics music and pop culture tchotchkes at no. 332, the beloved independent Trident Booksellers & Cafe at no. 338).
Charles Street, just a few blocks from the eastern end of Newbury, is the charming main street of historic Beacon Hill, with its gaslights, cobblestones, and brick row houses. Commercially dense and picturesque, the [bf]1/3-mile stretch from Cambridge Street (at the Charles/MGH T stop) to Beacon Street (at the entrance to the Boston Public Garden) is chock-a-block with boutiques, antiques stores, and restaurants, plus practical outlets like a pharmacy and a hardware store
Two high-end indoor shopping malls are conveniently located next to each other, with an enclosed pedestrian walkway connecting them: Copley Place, 100 Huntington Ave. (tel. 617/262-6600) and The Shops at Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St. (tel. 617/236-3100). Copley has Neiman Marcus, Barneys, and Stuart Weitzman; the Prudential Center has Saks Fifth Avenue, Vineyard Vines, and Microsoft Store. Also in “the Pru” is Eataly, a three-story emporium of Italian food and dining.
Faneuil Hall Marketplace is a visitor-centric indoor-outdoor complex featuring dozens of kiosks with tourist knickknacks and Boston memorabilia, chain stores including Yankee Candle Company and Uniqlo, and a standalone Sephora megastore.
Just a few blocks from Faneuil Hall, the more modest Boston Public Market is a year-round farmers market that offers an opportunity to pick up travel-ready local fare, including beer, honey, smoked fish, and yarn.
Nearby, the North End has augmented its dozens of Italian restaurants with a limited but fun retail scene. Venture beyond the main drag, Hanover Street, and you'll find worthwhile stops on Salem, Parmenter, and Richmond streets.
One of Boston's oldest shopping areas is Downtown Crossing, a traffic-free pedestrian mall along Washington, Winter, and Summer streets near Boston Common. With construction ongoing at the site of the old Filene's building (and the century-old Filene's Basement flagship on hiatus), the center of this area can be something of a mess. But you'll still find Macy's, Swedish fashion phenomenon H&M, tons of smaller clothing and shoe stores, food and merchandise pushcarts, and a Borders bookstore.
The bookstores, boutiques, and T-shirt shops of Harvard Square lie 20 minutes from downtown Boston by subway. Despite the neighborhood association’s efforts, chain stores have swept across the Square, and you’ll find a mix of familiar national and regional outlets, including quirky gift shop Black Ink, 5 Brattle St. (tel. 617/497-1221); bookstore The Coop, 1400 Massachusetts Ave. (tel. 617/499-2000), for Harvard merchandise; The Curious George Store, 1 John F. Kennedy St. (tel. 617/547-4500), for children’s books and toys; tiny poetry powerhouse Grolier Poetry Book Shop, 6 Plympton St. (tel. 617/547-4648); and Mint Julep, 6 Church St. (tel. 617/576-6468), purveyor of candy-colored dresses and sparkly jewelry.
Cambridge’s indoor mall, the CambridgeSide, 100 CambridgeSide Place, is in East Cambridge near the Charles River, with indoor parking; it’s a short walk from the Lechmere stop, or a 15-minute walk from the Kendall/MIT stop. EZRide provides a shuttle bus to the mall from the Kendall/MIT stop ($2 adults, $1 seniors and kids 12–17, free for kids 11 and under).
For a less generic experience, stroll from Harvard Square along shop-lined Massachusetts Avenue toward Porter Square to the north or Central Square to the southeast. About 10 minutes up Prospect Street from Central Square is Inman Square, home to a number of vibrant independent retailers.
Stay on the Red Line subway for one stop beyond Porter Square and you'll come to Somerville's Davis Square, where the relatively reasonable rents have helped create a hipster mecca with plenty of retail options. Another neighborhood with a well-deserved reputation for shopping variety is Brookline's Coolidge Corner, which is worth a trip (on the Green Line C train).
A Gift That Says “Boston”
Need a good Boston souvenir? The Gurgling Cod Pitcher from luxury goods store Shreve, Crump & Low (39 Newbury St.; tel. 617/267-9100) has a unique fish shape, which causes its contents to give up a glug-glug when poured. It’s a touch of extravagance from a business founded in 1796. Red Sox caps from the shops on Jersey Street next to Fenway Park are good for baseball fans, and “Harvard” T-shirts from vendors on the Boston Common or Faneuil Hall Marketplace are a popular option. Merchandise from the USS Constitution museum is a classy nautical choice, and bean pots, available from Old Sturbridge Village, definitely say Boston. The Omni Parker House invented the Boston cream pie in 1856 and will ship a modern version anywhere in the U.S. (it’s actually not a pie but a cake filled with pastry cream and topped with chocolate). Feeling committed? Get a “B” tattoo in the font of the Boston Red Sox logo or a green three-leaf clover in the style of the Celtics. In a last-minute pinch, there’s always a pink-and-orange Dunkin’ Donuts mug—the franchise was founded in 1950, just 30 minutes away in Quincy, and its mugs are available at any of the bajillion locations in the city.
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.