The oldest public park in the United States, tree-strewn Boston Common (bordered by Beacon, Park, Tremont, Boylston, and Charles sts.) slopes confidently down from the prim mansions of Beacon Hill to the skyscrapers of downtown, overlooked by the gold dome of the State House. In colonial days, it was at various times a public cow pasture, gallows site, and British army encampment; today it bustles with picnickers, Frisbee and softball games, kite flyers, and busking musicians. The Frog Pond, where there really were frogs at one time, makes a pleasant spot to splash around in the summer and skate in the winter.
Many visitors confuse the rambling Common with its neighbor, the more sprucely landscaped Public Garden, the country's first botanical garden, where the famous swan boats glide over a man-made pond and a popular set of bronze statues commemorate the classic children's book Make Way for Ducklings. The Public Garden is lovely, yes, but there's something quintessentially American about Boston Common, despite the occasional bald patches of ground.
At the Boylston Street side, the Central Burying Ground contains the grave of famed portraitist Gilbert Stuart, and free concerts and plays are held at the nearby Parkman Bandstand. The aristocratic brick town houses of Beacon Hill overlook the Common along its north side, and the gold dome of the State House presides over the east end (note the eccentric codfish weather vane on top). On the Beacon Street edge of the Common, across from the State House, a stunning memorial designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens honors Bostonian Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the Union Army's 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment, the first American army unit made up of free black soldiers, celebrated in the 1989 movie Glory. And lest we get too historic, we should also mention the irresistibly touristy Cheers, 84 Beacon St. (tel. 617/227-9605; www.cheersboston.com), originally the Bull & Finch Pub (a replica of the TV set is at Faneuil Hall Marketplace).
The Common is, appropriately enough, the starting point for the Freedom Trail (tel. 617/357-8300; www.thefreedomtrail.org), a historic 3-mile walking route (follow a red line painted on the sidewalks); maps are available at the visitor information booth at 148 Tremont St. My kids enjoy its connect-the-dots approach to sightseeing every bit as much as I did as a child. A hard-core history fiend can easily spend 4 hours along the trail, but a family with restless children can easily do it in less -- especially since you can quit at any point. (Just don't miss the Paul Revere House, at 19 North Sq., one of my childhood favorites.)
Nearest Airport: Boston Logan International.
Where to Stay: $$ DoubleTree Suites by Hilton, 400 Soldiers Field Rd. ([tel] 800/222-TREE  or 617/783-0090; www.doubletree.com). $ The Midtown Hotel, 220 Huntington Ave. (tel. 800/343-1177 or 617/262-1000; www.midtownhotel.com).