Boston transportation options for travelers
Boston is a beautiful city, full of history and easy to walk.
It isn’t easy to drive, or park, so don’t even consider driving in the city if you’re just visiting. If you don’t want to or can’t walk you can rent a bike for a pittance using the city’s Hubway bike sharing program . They have more than 1,500 bikes at 155 stations and more open in the winter every year (brrrr..) . But please wear a helmet, don’t ride on the sidewalks and do obey traffic signs and signals.
There’s also Boston’s extensive subway system (the T) which is fairly easy to navigate.
For the most part the cabs are awful (in my tactful) opinion but OK for short distances. For anything more ambitious you might want to use Uber.
Boston Accommodation Suggestions
Boston’s so popular (and home to so many college graduations/events and some baseball team) that often the obvious suspect hotel chains are sold out.
Here are a couple options you may want to try:
- Clarendon Square on Brookline Street in the city’s South End (easy walk to Hynes Convention Center). I haven’t stayed here but a friend who has traveled extensively just did and thought it was wonderful.
- The Eliot Hotel is right in the heart of the Back Bay, another easy walk to the Hynes Convention Center and has UNI, which was named among the “Best Restaurants in America” by Zagat. It’s where celebrity chef Ken Oringer – winner of the James Beard Award and the Food Channel’s Iron Chef Competition – hangs his spatula these days.
- The Chandler Studios look very nice and is in a good location for enjoying the restaurants in the South End and the shopping in Back Bay or the Theater District. (I’m a little biased as I lived two blocks up the street for 17 years.)
Free things to do for visitors to Boston
- There is an ongoing series of free and interesting guided tours conducted by the Boston Park Service Rangers. One of the best deals is the 60 walking minute tour of The Freedom Trail. These are first come first served tours and have a maximum of 30 people. The Freedom Trail is really fascinating and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in American history.
- Music and sound lovers can enjoy a free tour of Boston Symphony Hall; said to be the most acoustically perfect venue in the US. You need to send in a request in advance and the tours are at 4:00 on Wednesdays and two Saturdays a month at 2:00. Go here for more specifics and to request a tour.
- The Boston Landmark Orchestra has lovely, free concerts on the Esplanade along the Charles River from mid-July through August. (What, you thought they would have them in January?)
- Boston Public Garden (Back Bay/Beacon Hill part of town) was created in 1837 and is small, painstakingly maintained, a place for great photo-ops and has the absurdly low tech and wildly popular (at least if you have kids) Swan Boats which operate from Saturday, April 16 to Sunday, September 18, 2016. A year-round delight to those with little kids is the small duck statues from the book “Make Way for Ducklings.” You are required to force your child to sit on one for a photo-op. Tip: Don’t feed the birds, squirrels or geese in the Public Garden. Just don’t!
- How about a museum unlike almost one you’ll see anywhere else? This one can be seen if you walk through Beacon Hill on Charles Street, cross Cambridge Street and turn right. It was opened in April of 2012 and “explores the rich legacy of progress in medicine and health care at Massachusetts General Hospital”. It is open to the public and is free. Tip: Prepare to be impressed by all of the things pioneered at MGH.
- There are a lot of good plays in Boston. Half-price day of performance tickets can be found at Bostix’s locations in Copley Square and Faneuil Hall Marketplace and availability can be checked online before going. There is also a Ticketmaster outlet and you can buy full priced advance sale tickets including ones to the popular Duck Tours (or just get those in person at the Prudential Mall across from the Barnes and Noble store or the Museum of Science in Cambridge). Tip: Duck Tours that start at 9:00 a.m. cost a bit less in terms of price and waive the annoyingly named “convenience fee”.
- A quick tour and very interesting place to go is the Mapparium at the Mary Baker Eddy Library at the Christian Science Church. You’re probably rolling your eyes now and thinking “Oh yeah, I bet that’s just great, but it is. It’s a three story painted glass globe you stand in and listen to a shortish recording. What’s cool is that the globe is as the world was in 1935. It’s amazing how many countries now have different names, no longer exist, etc. Also this attraction is very near (maybe 10 minutes if you’re a total slow poke) from the Hynes Convention Center so you can duck out of a boring conference session and be back before anyone will know you were gone (unless you were supposed to be speaking). It only costs $6 and tours of the Mapparium run every 20 minutes, lasting 15-20 minutes. The first tour of the day starts at 10:20 a.m., and the last tour starts at 4:00 p.m.
- The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the site of one of the largest art thefts in history (25+ years ago) so you won’t be seeing those paintings but you should check out the newest wing and the impressive art collection. Tip: Combine this with your trip to the MFA as they are in easy walking distance of each other. The Gardner museum is closed on Tuesdays.
- The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) is only a few minutes walk from the Isabella Stewart Gardner, and has a less new, but newish, addition housing American art and a yummy restaurant. Tip: Keep your tickets and you can go back “for free” once within 10 days. If you consume museums in small bites, that could end up being a money-saver as adult tickets are not cheap.
- Fenway Park which is home to the Red Sox baseball team, the famous “Green Monster” wall and the oldest ballpark in the United States. Tours are fun, even if you aren’t wildly keen on baseball, and they can be booked in advance. Occasionally there’s a day when they don’t hold tours so be sure to check the schedule ahead of time. Tip: Do not wear a New York Yankees cap or T-shirt. If you do, expect to be treated with open hostility – at best.
- A very enjoyable and inexpensive way to see views of Boston from the harbor is to take the ferry from the Marriott Long Wharf to Charlestown Navy Yard. Here’s their schedule. You can tour the USS Constitution (aka Old Ironsides, the oldest ship in the U.S. Navy) at the Navy Yard and just come back – it’s only a 10 minute ride.
- If you’re brave enough to cross the Charles to Cambridge the Harvard Museum of Natural History is an overlooked absolute gem. Yes, it’s a bit cramped and the facilities need a massive overhaul, but it’s so full of amazing goodies that you will be very glad you went. Tip: If you’re a Massachusetts resident you can get in for free every Sunday morning (year-round) from 9:00 am to noon but need to show proof of residency (they might accept a Red Sox hat.) Another Tip: It would be possible to see this museum in a wheelchair but it sure wouldn’t be easy.
- Erbaluce The chef, Charles Draghi, is actually in the kitchen making the meals every night so there aren’t “off nights” and they literally have their own mushroom forager. They also have a different and excellent selection of wines at prices that won’t make you hit your credit card limit. This is a cool place with yummy food and it’s truly local, not owned by any out-of-towners. (Very important to Bostonians as it should be!) Tip: Make reservations to guarantee a table as it’s a smallish place but, if you eat at the bar, you can choose between both the bar and dining room menus. Try anything the chef has made from wild boar – you will truly love it.
- Picco – Good place if you want to eat tasty food inexpensively and/or have children in your group. But they do not take reservations unless a group has 8 or more peeps so get there by 6:30 max if you don’t want a long wait. Tip: Their pizzas are wicked awesome (Boston term that needed to used somewhere in this post) and they make them “well done” which can mean “with a burnt crust” so speak up if you want a medium rare pizza crust. Second tip at no additional cost (from me, they charge for it) – they have sinfully good homemade ice cream.
- If you are (inexplicably and horrifyingly) into sushi rumor has it that some of the best is at Douzo near back Bay Station on Dartmouth Street. They’re open for lunch (another place to skip out to if at a conference) and dinner. Tip: A reservation for dinner is a very good idea, but if you blow that, they have take-out.
- If you have a yen to go to the North End (notice how I didn’t use the “yen” pun with sushi thereby showing admirable restraint) I recommend Carmen. It’s a very small and very authentic enoteca. Definitely make a reservation and ask not to be seated right in front of the door as that can get old (and cold) fast – it’s a tiny restaurant. Tip: If your cab driver never heard of it tell him (if you can interrupt his cell phone conversation) that it’s beside Paul Revere’s House (seriously).
- A couple years ago the Oak Long Bar and Kitchen at the Fairmont Copley was redone and reopened to celebrate its 101st year of operation. The food is good if a bit over-priced but it’s well worth checking out even if only for a drink. Tip: Great place to eavesdrop – lots of pretentious conversations. It does get mobbed and they don’t take reservations so don’t go there with anyone who will be stressed out by that situation.
- In Cambridge there’s a very casual (you stand in line to get your food but there are tables where you can sit down) restaurant that serves the tastiest vegetarian cuisine anywhere. It’s Life Alive and they can satisfy the vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, raw, gluten-free or other food-challenging person in your group without anyone else feeling like they’ve suffered. And even better you can get wine there too! Tip: If you want dinner without standing in line for half an hour try to get there before 6:00 p.m. Another option is to phone in for take-away 617-354-5433. They don’t have table service but they do have tables (and chairs).
- The MFA has a lovely restaurant, Bravo, which features local and sustainable ingredients and a menu that changes often. Tip: If you dine there after 5:00 p.m. you get complimentary parking in the MFA’s garage. (They also have other less expensive dining options.) Reservations for the restaurant are recommended and may be made through OpenTable or by calling 617-369-3474.
- The Seaport area of Boston is the new happenin’ place and also home to the Museum of Contemporary Art. You need reservations to eat at most places in Boston but they’re mandatory in this area. Some favorite places to check out are Legal Seafoods (mostly because it’s a venerable Boston institution) Legal Harborside which has different menus on different floors so be sure your reservation suits your taste and budget. (Note: I do not recommend Legal’s “Test Kitchen” across the street – I don’t think it’d pass the test for most people.) Rosa Mexicano (yes, the same as in NYC and Washington, D.C.) is reliably good and has obscenely delicious guacamole prepared tableside. And for the carnivores among you there are two steakhouses – Morton’s and DelFriscos (I favors DelFrisco just because Morton’s seems like somewhere you go with old white guys on an expense account and I’ve done enough of that.) Tip: Unless you’re staying in the Seaport area the easiest way to get there is probably a cab although the Silver Line T from South Station goes there (and you get to South Station on the Red Line.)
All-purpose Boston tips/travel advisories:
- Bostonians will try to laugh if you ask if they “paaahhked your caahh in Haahvaad Yaahd” but are only being polite and wishing you had more original material.
- Do not call it Beantown – ever – it is “The Hub”.
- South Boston is also known as Southie (traditionally very rough and tumble Irish but now gentrifying) and is NOT the same as the South End (yuppy, used to be very gay, lots of designer dogs and well-dressed babies).
- If you hear the news and they talk about “today on Beacon Hill” they mean the statehouse, not the area.
- In Boston people still really really believe the Kennedys matter – you can’t win at this one.
- Jokes about pedophile priests are tolerated better than you would expect (asking about Spotlight, the movie, should start a lively conversation).
- Boston sports fans are rabid about their teams even as they savagely insult them. Don’t you dare say anything bad about Tom Brady.
If you have any questions about visiting Boston please leave them in the comments and I’ll answer them.