The Back Bay
Start: The Public Garden (T: Green Line to Arlington).
Finish: Copley Square.
Time: 2 hours if you make good time, 3 hours if you detour to the Esplanade, and longer if you do a lot of shopping.
Best Time: Any time before late afternoon.
Worst Time: Late afternoon, when people and cars pack the streets. And don't attempt the detour on July 4th, when concertgoers jam the neighborhood. This walk is mostly outdoors, so if the weather is bad, you may find yourself in lots of shops. You decide whether that makes an overcast day a "best" or "worst" time.
The Back Bay is the youngest neighborhood in central Boston, the product of a massive landfill project that transformed the city from 1835 to 1882. It's flat, symmetrical, logically designed -- the names of the cross streets go in alphabetical order -- and a refreshing contrast to downtown Boston's tangled geography.
Begin your walk in the:
1. Public Garden
Before the Back Bay was filled in, the Charles River flowed right up to Charles Street, which separates Boston Common from the Public Garden. On the night of April 18, 1775, British troops bound for Lexington and Concord boarded boats at the edge of the Common ("two if by sea") and set off for Cambridge across what's now the Public Garden.
Explore the lagoon, the trees and other flora, and the statuary. Take a ride on the Swan Boats (mid-Apr to mid-Sept), and then make your way toward the corner of Charles and Beacon streets, staying inside the Public Garden (follow the sound of delighted children).
Here you'll see a 35-foot strip of cobblestones topped with the bronze figures that immortalize Robert McCloskey's book:
2. Make Way for Ducklings
Installed in 1987 and wildly popular since the moment they were unveiled, Nancy Schön's renderings of Mrs. Mallard and her eight babies are irresistible. Mrs. Mallard is just 38 inches tall, but that doesn't keep people of all ages from climbing on. If you don't know the story of the family's perilous trip to meet Mr. Mallard at the lagoon, ask one of the parents or children you'll find here.
The city bought the site of the Public Garden from private interests in 1824. Planting began in 1837, but it wasn't until the late 1850s that Arlington Street was built and the land permanently set aside. George F. Meacham executed the design.
Cross the lagoon using the tiny suspension bridge -- reputedly the smallest in the world -- and look for the statue of:
3. George Washington
Unveiled in 1875, this was Boston's first equestrian statue. It stands 38 feet tall and is considered an excellent likeness of the first president of the United States, an outstanding horseman. The artist, Thomas Ball, was a Charlestown native who worked in Italy. Among his students was noted sculptor Daniel Chester French. Pass through the gate onto Arlington Street. Before you begin exploring in earnest, this is a good place to detour.
4. Take a Break
Turn right and walk up Arlington Street to Beacon Street. On your right, across the busy intersection, is Cheers, 84 Beacon St., originally the Bull & Finch Pub. The food at this tourist magnet is tasty enough, and the bar looks enough like its TV offspring to satisfy all but the most devoted fans (you'll find a replica of the set at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace spin-off).
Alternatively, turn right on Beacon Street and walk 1 long block to Charles Street. You can pick up food to go at Panificio, 144 Charles St. This street is also a promising place for a shopping break.
After you've picked up something to eat, backtrack along Beacon Street past Arlington Street to Embankment Road and turn right. Take the Arthur Fiedler Footbridge across Storrow Drive to the Esplanade, proceed forward across another (smaller) bridge, and unpack your food near the giant head of:
5. Arthur Fiedler
Installed in 1985, this sculpture by Ralph Helmick consists of sheets of aluminum that eerily capture the countenance of the legendary conductor of the Boston Pops, who died in 1979. The amphitheater that's visible from all over the Esplanade is the Hatch Shell, where the Pops perform free in early July.
When you're ready, retrace your steps to the corner of Arlington Street and Commonwealth Avenue. You're looking down the:
6. Commonwealth Avenue Mall
The 8-block mall is the centerpiece of architect Arthur Gilman's design of the Back Bay. The graceful promenade is 100 feet wide (the entire street is 240 ft.) and stretches to Kenmore Square. Elegant Victorian mansions, almost all divided into apartments or in commercial or educational use, line the street. One of the great delights of being a pedestrian in Boston is taking in the details that adorn these buildings, which superficially look very much alike and up close resemble the members of a large, stylish, exceedingly eccentric family. Down the center of the boulevard, an apparently random collection of sculptures adorns the mall. They begin with Alexander Hamilton, across Arlington Street from George Washington. The most moving sculpture is at Dartmouth Street: The Vendome Memorial honors the memory of the nine firefighters who lost their lives in a blaze at the Hotel Vendome in 1972.
Two blocks from the Public Garden, at 110 Commonwealth Ave., at the corner of Clarendon Street, is the:
7. First Baptist Church
Built from 1870 to 1872 of Roxbury puddingstone, it originally housed the congregation of the Brattle Street Church (Unitarian), which had been downtown, near Faneuil Hall.
The Shape of Things to Come -- The First Baptist Church on Commonwealth Avenue is a fine building, but the design is notable mainly because its creators went on to much more famous projects. The architect, H. H. Richardson, is best known for nearby Trinity Church. The artist who created the frieze, which represents the sacraments, was Fredéric Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty.
At Clarendon Street or Dartmouth Street, turn left and walk 1 block to:
8. Newbury Street
Commonwealth Avenue is the architectural heart of the Back Bay, and Newbury Street is the commercial center. Take some time to roam around here, browsing in the galleries, window-shopping at the boutiques, and watching the chic shoppers.
Walk down Newbury Street to Exeter Street. At 26 Exeter St. is the building that was once the:
9. Exeter Street Theater
Designed in 1884 as the First Spiritualist Temple, it was a movie house from 1914 to 1984. Once known for the crowds flocking to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it now houses offices and a restaurant.
When you're ready to continue your stroll (or when your credit cards cry for mercy), turn back toward the Public Garden and seek out three of Newbury Street's oldest buildings, starting with the:
10. Church of the Covenant
This Gothic revival edifice at 67 Newbury St. was designed by Richard Upjohn and completed in 1867. The stained-glass windows are the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Across the street, set back from the sidewalk at 234 Berkeley St., is the original home of the:
11. Boston Museum of Natural History
A forerunner of the Museum of Science, it was built according to William Preston's French Academic design. The 1864 structure, originally two stories high, still has its original roof, preserved when the building gained a third floor.
Cross Newbury Street again and continue walking toward the Public Garden. On your left, at 15 Newbury St., is:
12. Emmanuel Church
The first building completed on Newbury Street, in 1862, this Episcopal church ministers through the arts, so there might be a concert (classical to jazz, solo to orchestral) going on during your visit. Check ahead for schedules.
Now you're almost back at the Public Garden. On your left is the swanky Taj Boston hotel, which until 2007 was known as the original Ritz-Carlton (1927).
Turn right onto Arlington Street and walk 1 block. On your right, at 351 Boylston St., is the:
13. Arlington Street Church
This is the oldest church in the Back Bay, completed in 1861. An interesting blend of Georgian and Italianate details, it's the work of architect Arthur Gilman, who laid out this whole neighborhood. Here you'll find more Tiffany stained glass. Step inside (ask at the office for admission to the sanctuary) to see the pulpit that was in use in 1788 when the congregation worshipped downtown on Federal Street.
Follow Boylston Street away from the Public Garden. Two blocks up is:
14. Copley Square
Enjoy the fountain and visit the farmers' market if it's operating that day.
Overlooking the square is one of the most famous church buildings in the United States. This is:
15. Trinity Church
H. H. Richardson's Romanesque masterpiece, completed in 1877, is to your left. The church, 206 Clarendon St., was built on 4,502 pilings driven into the mud that was once the Back Bay. Brochures and guides are available to help you find your way around a building considered one of the finest examples of church architecture in the country.
Across Dartmouth Street is the:
16. Boston Public Library
The work of architect Charles Follen McKim and many others, the Renaissance revival building was completed in 1895 after 10 years of construction. Its design reflects the significant influence of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Wander up the steps to check out the building's impressive interior. Daniel Chester French designed the doors.
Head back across the street to Copley Square. In a sense, you've come full circle; as at the Public Garden, you'll see a playful and compelling sculpture by Nancy Schön:
17. The Tortoise & Hare at Copley Square
Designed to signify the end of the Boston Marathon (the finish line is on Boylston St. between Exeter and Dartmouth sts.), this work was unveiled for the 100th anniversary of the event in 1996.
From here you're in a good position to set out for any other part of town or walk a little way in any direction and continue exploring. Copley Place and the Shops at Prudential Center are nearby, Newbury Street is 1 block over, and there's a Green Line T station at Boylston and Dartmouth streets.
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.