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
The area's premier shopping district is Boston's Back Bay, where dozens of upmarket galleries, shops, and boutiques make Newbury Street a world-famous destination. Parallel to Newbury is retail-rich Boylston Street.
Stretching from Boylston Street past Huntington Avenue are two high-end malls, the Shops at Prudential Center and Copley Place (linked by an enclosed walkway across Huntington Ave.), which bookend a giant retail complex. Here you'll find the posh department stores Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, and Saks Fifth Avenue. A branch of Barneys New York, the luxe fashion wonderland, is in Copley Place. The adjacent South End, though less commercially dense, boasts a number of art galleries and quirky shops; it's a great destination for strolling, shopping, and snacking.
Another popular destination is chain-heavy Faneuil Hall Marketplace. The shops, boutiques, and pushcarts at Boston's busiest attraction sell everything from candles to costume jewelry, sweaters to souvenirs. 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.
Beacon Hill is a classic shopping destination. Picturesque Charles Street, at the foot of the hill, is a short but retail-heavy street noted for its excellent gift shops and antiques dealers.
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.
Harvard Square in Cambridge, with its bookstores, boutiques, and T-shirt shops, is about 15 minutes from downtown Boston by subway. Despite the neighborhood association's efforts, chain stores have swept over "the Square." You'll find a mix of national and regional outlets, and more than a few persistent independent retailers.
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).
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.