So many historical movements swirl around Boston—it’s a marvel how many trends intersect here. Within an hours’ drive from the city, you’ll find numerous destinations of historical significance, as well as spots of great beauty that feed the soul. Exploring can take as little as half a day or as long as a week or more.
History buffs won’t want to miss a trip west to Lexington and Concord, rich in American political and literary history. It was here that the U.S. Revolutionary War started, in the days after Paul Revere and William Dawes rode horses from Boston on April 18, 1775, to warn the colonists that British troops were on the march. Also in this region are the wilderness retreat of Walden Pond State Reservation, with the legacy of Henry David Thoreau, and Concord’s home of Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. Farther inland, the mill town of Lowell offers tours of its rich textile heritage. North of Boston, Marblehead, Salem, Newburyport, and Cape Ann embrace their colonial coastal heritage. South of Boston, Plymouth is where the American experiment started.
You Do the Math -- The MBTA (tel. 800/392-6100 or 617/222-3200) serves most of the destinations, but public transit isn't necessarily cheaper than renting a car for a day. For example, suppose you're visiting Gloucester with three other adults, each paying a total of $15 for the commuter rail. Even with summer gas prices, a good deal on a rental car will likely be cheaper than $60 in train fares. What's more, having a car allows you to make your own schedule instead of being tethered to the train's timetable -- and you don't have to leave from North Station. Just make sure that the car-rental company accepts returns at the time you anticipate returning to Boston, so that you don't get stuck paying to park.
Lexington & Concord
Lexington and Concord (say “conquered”) are often thought of as a joint destination, given their role in early U.S. history. The towns are 9 miles apart and a visit can easily fill a half- or full day. The battles of the U.S. Revolutionary War in 1775 started in Lexington, and the village wears this history proudly. Politically significant sites carry over into Concord, which also has sites related to early U.S. literary and artistic movements.
History buffs will probably want to fit in visits to both towns. Those with less interest in the Revolutionary era can probably get their fill in a visit to Concord alone, while having other interesting options close by.
The shooting stage of the Revolutionary War began here, and parts of the towns still look much as they did in April 1775, when the fight for independence began. Start your visit in Lexington, where colonists and British troops first clashed. Spend some time at Minute Man National Historical Park, on the border with Concord, investigating the battle that raged there. Decide for yourself where the "shot heard round the world" rang out -- bearing in mind that Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote those words, lived in Concord. Emerson's house and Louisa May Alcott's nearby family home are just two of the historic residences in this area that welcome visitors.
Some attractions close from late fall to March, April, or mid-April (opening after Patriots' Day, the third Mon in Apr). Information about both towns is available from the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau, 40 French St., 2nd floor, Lowell, MA 01852 (tel. 800/443-3332 or 978/459-6150).
A 19th-century textile center that later fell into disrepair, Lowell is a 21st-century success story. A city built around restored mills and industrial canals will never be a glamorous vacation spot, but thousands of visitors a year find Lowell a fascinating and rewarding destination, with sights concentrating on the history of the Industrial Revolution and the textile industry. They include boardinghouses where the “mill girls” lived; the workers, some as young as 10, averaged 14-hour days weaving cloth on power looms.
Start at the Lowell National Historical Park Visitor Center, 246 Market St. (tel. 978/970-5000), open daily from 9am to 5pm (until 4:30pm in winter). Rangers lead free tours on foot and by trolley. Boat tours of the canals ($12 adults, $10 seniors, $8 kids 6-16, free for 5 and under) have limited space; reservations are recommended. Ask for a map of the area, and use it to find your way around downtown. The New England Quilt Museum, 18 Shattuck St. (tel. 978/452-4207) is within walking distance. Unfortunately, the Smithsonian-affiliated American Textile History Museum closed in 2016.
Both the visitor center and the Quilt Museum are located in the vibrant Canalway Cultural District, which is also home to 10 other art galleries and museums, and over 10 parks and plazas. The Lowell Summer Music Series takes place at Boarding House Park, within the district and near to the small Jack Kerouac Park (the writer was a native son).
To drive to Lowell, take Route 3 or I-495 to the Lowell Connector and follow signs north to exit 5B and the historic district. The MBTA commuter rail (tel. 800/392-6100 or 617/222-3200) from Boston’s North Station takes about 45 minutes.
The North Shore & Cape Ann
The areas north of Boston abound with historic sights and gorgeous ocean vistas. Cape Ann is a rocky peninsula so enchantingly beautiful that when you hear the slogan "Massachusetts's Other Cape," you might forget what the first one was. Cape Ann and Cape Cod do share some attributes -- scenery, shopping, seafood, and traffic. Cape Ann's proximity to Boston and manageable scale make it a wonderful day trip as well as a good choice for a longer stay.
For convenience and flexibility, drive to destinations north of Boston if you can. Renting a car may be cheaper than the commuter rail, if your group is large enough; even if it isn’t, flexibility and access are priceless. Most North Shore destinations are about an hour’s drive from Boston. Traveling between the destinations listed here can also take as long as an hour. Consider choosing one as home base for a few nights. Each town is rich in history, wonderfully distinct, and worth a close look. The North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 978/465-6555) publishes a visitor guide that covers many destinations in this chapter. The website of the Essex National Heritage Area (tel. 978/740-0444) is another good resource.
The Boston Harbor Islands
In the waters near South Boston, 34 islands ranging in size from small to miniscule make up the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park. Six are publicly accessible by ferry and can be visited for day trips (a couple have campgrounds, too). They offer majestic ocean views, hiking trails, historic sights, rocky beaches, nature walks, and picnic areas.
Visiting the islands is a raw experience: limited concessions, limited toilet facilities, and limited shelter from sun or rain. None are accessible by car. That said, a visit can be an invigorating adventure and one of the most memorable ways to experience Boston and the Atlantic waters.
Georges Island has the historic Fort Warren to explore. Built before the U.S. Civil War, it became a prison for Confederate officers; visitors can walk its dark corridors. (Keep an eye out for the Lady in Black ghost.) There are paved and mostly level paths on Georges, and a snack bar that’s open daily in summer.
Spectacle Island, the highest point in the harbor, has spectacular views of Boston and the other harbor islands. It has 5 miles of trails, a swimming beach with lifeguards in summer, and a snack bar.
Peddocks Island has Fort Andrews, an active coastal fort decommissioned in 1946. Fort Andrew’s brick barracks each housed over 100 soldiers; you’ll also see elegant officers’ quarters and a hospital.
In downtown Boston, the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion and Welcome Center on the Rose Kennedy Greenway at 191 W. Atlantic Ave. (near Faneuil Hall Marketplace) is staffed by National Park Service rangers who can help plan your trip. Ferries (tel. 617/227-4321) serving the islands leave from One Long Wharf behind the New England Aquarium and travel from May through October.
During the summer season, the trip to Georges is 40 minutes, the trip to Spectacle is 20 minutes, and the trip to Peddocks is 1 hour. Check the website for schedules. Round-trip fares are $17 for adults, $12 for seniors & students, $10 for kids.
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.