Monday, October 5, 2015

Traveling with History: Boston

By Jeff Burns

Even for the most avid history buff, there are places where there is a danger of a historo-sensory overload, and Boston is definitely one of those places.  Of course, history is relative, but for Americans, it’s difficult to go much farther back than Boston, established in 1630, in the history of European settlement.  A vacation in Boston is a history lover’s dream, but there’s so much to see and do that the experience can be overwhelming, and I strongly suggest that your trip is preceded by some planning, including planning a return trip in the future.

We took a fall break trip to Boston, and here are some suggestions to maximize your trip.  First, here are some suggestions for getting around.  We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in the Dorchester neighborhood.  It was our first Airbnb experience, and we were very happy.  It was a large, clean apartment, located in a nice working-class neighborhood, with easy access to public transportation.  That access is important because driving in Boston is crazy, and parking is impossible.  Do yourself a favor and get MBTA passes which allow you to use buses, subway, or commuter rail and use the system.  It works great and gets you where you want to be, but it can be extremely crowded during rush hour, and there are occasional glitches, like when our subway car’s doors failed to open at our stop once, and we couldn’t get off.

"Prince Hall" in front of the New State House

Once we arrived, checked into our apartment, and gotten back to the city, we started at Boston Common.  At the Visitors’ Center there, you can get your bearings, ask questions, and embark on a tour of the Freedom Trail, either self-guided or led by a costumed guide.  I highly recommend the guided tour.  Our guide was “Prince Hall,” actually Sam a professional comedian, who leads tours as Prince Hall, a noted black abolitionist of colonial Boston who founded Black Freemasonry in America.  Sam took us on a two hour walking tour of the major historic sites.  He was extremely informative and entertaining, and it’s a great way to get an overview, and you can also decide what sites you may want to go back to explore in more depth later.
Paul Revere's grave in Granary Burial Ground,
a stop on the tour which includes the graves of
John Hancock, Sam Adams, & victims of the Boston Massacre
The Freedom Trail guided tour ends at Faneuil Hall, built in 1742 as a public market and used by Samuel Adams for large anti-British meetings leading up the Revolution.  Today, Faneuil and the adjacent Quincy Market are home to souvenir shops, food vendors, and restaurants. Thee is also a museum inside Faneuil. The complex attracts 14 million visitors every year.  From there, take a walk to the North End, now Boston’s version of Little Italy, filled with Italian restaurants and bakers.  Have a meal or just pick up some cannoli as you see sites like the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church, the church spire from which Revere was signaled that night. 

You can also go back and spend more time at the Old State House, the seat of the British colonial government and site of the Boston Massacre (across the street), or the “New” State House (built in the 1790s).  In front of the New Stat House, you can see Robert Gould Shaw/ 54th Massachusetts Infantry Memorial created by Augustus St. Gaudens. In addition to the Freedom Trail tours, the National Park Service also conducts Black Heritage Trail tours which start from the Shaw Memorial.

For more recent history, go to the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.  Some might say that the museum is much like the man himself, style over substance, but it’s a must see if you are interested in presidential history and presidential libraries.

For art lovers, there are two major museums that have to go on your list.  The Museum of Fine Arts is one of the largest museums in the country, and one afternoon is not nearly enough time.  There are fantastic examples of art from around the world, from ancient to modern.  We didn’t have time on this trip to see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an Italian palazzo designed by Gardner to house her personal art collection of some 2,500 works of Renaissance and Old Masters artists. It’s regarded as a premier museum.

You can also take a trip to Cambridge and visit Harvard.  Check out Harvard Square and Museums like the Harvard Museum of Natural History and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. 

After a few days in Boston, we were exhausted, and there was so much left for us to do, and for you to explore:  Fenway Park, Old Ironsides (the U.S.S. Constitution, Bunker Hill, the list goes on and on).  More visits are in order!

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