Things to Do in Massachusetts
Founded in 1848, the Boston Public Library contains over 23 million items, making it the second largest public library in the U.S., after the Library of Congress. Of those millions, about 1.7 million are rare books and works, including medieval manuscripts and incunabula (a book or pamphlet printed prior to 1501 in Europe). Among the rare books are also the personal library of John Adams, early editions of works by William Shakespeare, drawings from Thomas Rowlandson and musical archives from the Handel and Haydn Society.
The McKim Building, with its vast research collection, and the Johnson Building, where you can find the circulating collection, are two of the most important parts of the library. The McKim Building is even a National Historic Landmark. And while the library system technically includes a whopping 24 branches, the original Copley Square location offers plenty to see, including Bates Hall, the Chavannes Gallery, the Abbey Room and the Sargent Gallery.
Boston’s oldest residential neighborhood, the North End has been inhabited since the 1630s and is now the city’s Little Italy. Visit to see a variety of historical and cultural attractions, such as the Paul Revere House (the starting place of his famous “midnight ride” in 1775) and enjoy Italian-American fare.
The starting point of the Freedom Trail, Boston Common is the oldest park in the country. At 50 acres (20 hectares), it is the anchor for the Emerald Necklace, a system of connected parks that winds through many of Boston’s neighborhoods. The historic park was once a campground for British troops during the Revolutionary War.
Faneuil Hall is a bustling marketplace best known for its ever-changing lineup of street performers and its central location on Boston’s historic Freedom Trail. Tourists and locals alike flock to the complex’s shops and Quincy Market, featuring 30-plus food stalls selling everything from exotic coffee to fresh seafood and artisanal bread.
Newcomers to the city of Boston often refer to it as “the city of history” because while walking along the Freedom Trail, you encounter so many important historical points—points that were instrumental in the founding of America. It makes for an incredible walk through time, and one of the highlights on this Freedom Trail is a visit to the Massachusetts State House.
Built in 1788, the “new” Massachusetts State House is built across from the Boston Common on the top of Beacon Hill. Known far and wide for its gilded gold dome (it’s actually made of wood and copper, but topped with 24-karat gold), the State House symbolizes what the founding fathers had envisioned upon landing at Plymouth Rock – to build a city upon a hill. Inside, the working State House houses working government officials, beautiful murals depicting colonial times of war, spacious marble-filled corridors, and other historical items that reflect the heritage of the Boston area – a pinecone high atop the dome pays homage to Boston’s logging industry, and the “Sacred Cod” is a nod to the fishing industry—both paragons of the early industry that made Boston one of the most influential cities in America.
The Boston Public Garden is a 24 acre (10 hectare) botanical oasis of Victorian flowerbeds, verdant grass, and weeping willow trees shading a tranquil lagoon. At any time of the year, it is an island of loveliness, awash in seasonal blooms, gold-toned leaves, or untrammeled snow.
A statue of George Washington, looking stately atop his horse, greets visitors at the main entrance on Arlington Street. Other pieces of public art in the park, however, are more whimsical. The most endearing is Make Way for Ducklings, always a favorite with tiny tots who can climb and sit on the bronze ducks. But it’s the peaceful lagoon that draws visitors and locals a like to the Public Garden. For it is hear, you should take on the slow-going swan boats, a serene relic of bygone days.
The Salem Witch Trials Memorial preserves a moment in history, when 17th-century residents of colonial Massachusetts tried and executed women and men accused of witchcraft. The site, a small grassy area surrounded by stone walls and locust trees, is just one of the many witchcraft hysteria attractions in the historical town of Salem.
Though recently rebranded as 200 Clarendon, this towering Boston structure was for decades known as the John Hancock Tower. The building soars nearly 800 feet above the city, and is not only Boston's tallest building but also the tallest building in all of New England.
The 62-story John Hancock Tower was built in 1976 as the home of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance, but in 2004 the company moved to a different Boston location. The building is now officially known as Hancock Place.
It's a glass-covered skyscraper in the shape of a parallelogram rather than a square or rectangle, and the blue-tinted glass panels beautifully reflect the city and scenery around the tower. There is an observatory deck at the top of the John Hancock tower, but it has been closed to the general public since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The observation deck is available for private events, however.
At the Salem Witch Museum, relive the tragic Salem witch trials of 1692 through a series of life-size stage sets. See and hear how neighbors turned against neighbors, and learn more about everyone involved. You’ll also get an overview of the evolving perception of witches throughout history.
Founded in 1660, the Granary Burying Ground is Boston’s third-oldest burial ground, and final resting site of some of the most famous Bostonians to ever walk the earth, including three signers of the Declaration of Independence, Paul Revere, and five victims of the Boston Massacre. With as many as 2,345 graves, few cemeteries anywhere else in the world hold such a high percentage of notable people in such a small space, and for this reason it is routinely featured as a highlight along Boston’s famous Freedom Trail.
Still, there is something timeless about visiting historic cemeteries, and perhaps this is why so many choose to stroll the green lawns of Granary Burying Ground, thinking of the times before ours, and, perhaps, the time to come afterwards.
Notable burials among the Granary Burying Ground include John Hancock (a statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence), Samuel Adams (also a statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence), Paul Revere (civil war patriot), John Endecott (first Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony), Samuel Sewall (Salem Witch Trials Judge) and many others.
More Things to Do in Massachusetts
Dating back to 1800, Charlestown Navy Yard was among the most prolific, historic, and vital navy yards in U.S. history. It served as the home of many of the nation's elite warships for the purposes of resupply, maintenance, retrofitting, and service.
The navy yard's most critical role was during America's two largest wars before it closed for good in 1974. From the beginning, Charlestown Navy Yard remained a pioneer of shipbuilding technology and served as a center for electronics and missile conversions. During its almost 175-year history, its staff constructed, christened, and launched over 200 ships and serviced thousands more.
After its closing, thirty acres of the yard were earmarked as part of Boston National Historical Park. Today, the U.S. National Park Service oversees this most critical portion of the shipyard. In addition, as part of their overall program, the USS Constitution and USS Cassin Young combine to represent Boston's rich, almost 200-year history of ship building.
As a bonus, the Boston Marine Society can also be found at Charlestown Navy Yard. Marine history buffs will appreciate this as the world's oldest association of sea captains, in operation since 1742. Admission is free and visitors are invited to stop by Building 32 – home to a noteworthy collection of historical art, artifacts and a small library of books.
Boston’s most cherished landmark isn’t Bunker Hill or the Tea Party Ships, but rather old Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. A must-see for sports enthusiasts as well as history and architecture buffs, Fenway Park is famous for its uniquely shaped playing field and towering left field wall known as the Green Monster.
Taking in 16 of Boston’s most famous cultural and historical sites, the 2.5-mile-long (4-kilometer) Freedom Trail winds through downtown Boston, from southerly Boston Common, the nation’s oldest public park, to the Bunker Hill Monument on the north side of the Charles River. The red-brick path and its designated stops, including colonial-era churches, museums, and meeting houses, make for an excellent introduction to Boston and its role in the American Revolution and United States history.
Relive the events of December 16, 1773 at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. Located in Boston Harbor, this floating museum provides visitors with an immersive experience, complete with full-scale replica tea ships, live costumed actors, a multi-sensory documentary, interactive exhibits, historic artifacts, and more.
Home to the Massachusetts State House, Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood is reminiscent of 19th-century London—replete with cobbled streets, brownstone buildings, and flower-filled window boxes. At night, gas lanterns flicker to life and create a romantic atmosphere for fine dining and bar-hopping.
Built in 1797 and named by George Washington, the 3-masted USSConstitution frigate in Boston is the US Navy’s oldest commissioned ship and one of the world’s oldest warships. Visitors can go aboard the ship, docked at Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard and restored to its original glory, to explore an important slice of US history.
The main hub of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Quincy Market has attracted locals and visitors alike for nearly 200 years. The historic food hall located within a Greek Revival-style building is packed with more than 50 shops, 14 restaurants, and 40 food court stops—plus stalls and pushcarts selling everything from exotic coffee to fresh seafood and artisanal bread.
Built in 1713, Boston's Old State House is the city’s oldest public building and considered pivotal to prerevolutionary US history. Dwarfed by Boston’s skyscrapers and a fixture on its revolution-tracing Freedom Trail, the onetime government building is now a museum to the city’s revolutionary era and the events that kindled the American Revolution.
Set on the 50th floor of Boston’s Prudential Tower, the Skywalk Observatory offers 360-degree views of the city and surrounding landscape. Here you can learn about notable landmarks, visit the onsite Dreams of Freedom Museum, or venture two floors up to enjoy a meal at the Top of the Hub Restaurant and Lounge.
Located in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston, Copley Square is among the most beautiful public parks in the city. For more than 100 years, it has been a hub of downtown activity and historical significance for the sheer number of institutions built here since the 1800s. Many still stand today, including the stunning Boston Public Library, Trinity Church, Old South Church, the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel and New England's tallest skyscraper, John Hancock Tower.
The square is best known as the site of the finish line for the annual Boston Marathon, and there is a 1996 memorial here celebrating the race's 100th anniversary. It is also well known as a downtown commercial hub with a variety of upscale restaurants and shopping options. The onsite Copley Place mall includes high-end stores such as Louis Vuitton, Michael Kors, Porsche Design and Tiffany & Co.
Visitors will also appreciate the rotating calendar of events offered in the park throughout the year, ranging from large concerts to farmers' markets.
The beautiful Boston Symphony Hall is widely considered one of the premier classical music venues in the United States. Adored with Greek and Roman statues and gilded ceilings, the hall is known for its beautiful interior as well as its superb acoustics. It is home to the Boston Symphony Orchestra, one of the country’s oldest and most celebrated.
The walls of the stage even slope down to increase the quality of the sound in the giant concert hall. Every detail was created or modified to enhance the acoustics, which makes for a phenomenal listening experience. The hall also contains an impressive 4,800-pipe organ.
With its exterior lined with columns and classical design, the hall obtained status as US National Historic Landmark and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Past performances have included the works of classic composers such as Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, Brahmns, and more.
An athenaeum is defined as "an association of persons interested in scientific and literary pursuits, meeting for the purpose of mutual improvement; a literary or scientific club." The Boston Athenaeum was founded in 1807, placing it among the oldest independent libraries in the country. For more than 200 years, it has proven a vital cultural and educational institution for the city. Today it houses more than 600,000 titles, including a sizable circulating collection, a children's library, multiple reading rooms for newspapers and magazines, and ample quiet spaces.
The public is welcome to view the first floor and exhibition gallery, while a membership is required to visit all remaining floors.
Non-members interested in exploring and learning more of the building's history can take a weekly Art and Architecture Tour which is open to the public. The 40-minute tour focuses on theimportance of the Athenæum’s architectural history as well as its fine arts collection. The building has been moved, expanded, and renovated multiple times over the past two centuries, including most recently in 1999-2002.
Dating from 1729, Boston’s Old South Meeting House was a congregational church and a gathering place for protestors who sparked the American Revolution with the 1773 Boston Tea Party. A key site on Boston’s Freedom Trail, the brick building is now a museum where visitors can chart the beginnings of the country’s 1776 revolution.
The second-oldest cemetery in Boston, Copp's Hill Burying Ground is a landmark area and peak tourist attraction for those interested in the deep historical roots of Boston – one of the first cities built in the New World. Established in 1659, this burial ground is closing in on 400 years old, and with such tenure comes thousands of interred. A self-guided tour will reveal Boston’s long history of artisans, craftsmen, some notable founding fathers of Boston, as well as thousands of African Americans in unmarked graves on the Snowhill Street side of the burial ground.
Now a stop on the Freedom Trail, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground was added to the list of National Register of Historic Places in 1974 thanks to its repeated interest by tourists and photographers. Strolling the grounds will lend a new perspective on Boston, its peoples, and its history, perhaps best summarized by Thomas Williston’s grave, whose epitaph reads: “Stop here my friend and case an Eye. As you are now so once was I. As I am now, so you must be, prepare for death and follow me.”
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