City life: Boston

If ever there was a city with a dual identity it's Boston — a preppy, Old World enclave of brownstones and Revolution tours, home to the lobster taco, a prison hotel and quirky local nightlife that owes much to its immigrant heritage

By David Whitley
Published 27 Nov 2013, 12:44 GMT, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 15:20 BST

That Boston's most rebellious moment was done with consummate politeness is fitting. The Boston Tea Party of 1773 saw 342 chests of tea thrown off three British ships and into the harbour. The anti-taxation protest was conducted without violence or damage to the ships, and the protagonists had the decency to sweep the decks afterwards.

That the spark for the American Revolutionary War was conducted with such a British sense of decorum won't come as much of a surprise after a few days ambling around the city. In many ways, Boston remains the US city that's most attached to the Old World. It has a very un-American sense of walkability. Most of the key areas are within an easy stroll of Boston Common, the occasionally scruffy patch of grass the city grew up around. The tightly packed brownstone houses of Back Bay and Beacon Hill hark back to handsome European reserve rather than brash New World swagger.

The history is celebrated — sometimes shamelessly. Anything with a whiff of old world about it gets a plaque slapped on it. But the city never falls into the trap of becoming a relic — and an odd dichotomy in the population can be thanked for that. The rest of the States tends to see Bostonians as the overeducated liberal elite. The city is surrounded by a host of the country's top universities, bookshops do disproportionately well and a preppy, scarves-and-slacks dress code is prevalent.

But that's not how Boston sees itself. Immigrant heritage — particularly of the Irish and Italian varieties — has led to a salt-of-the-earth self-image. It's best seen in the city's bars — pretentious never gets too far here — or at Fenway Park. The home of the Boston Red Sox is the oldest baseball stadium in the country. It's dog-eared and massively idiosyncratic, but that's just the way the fans like it. The city may be Democratic, but it's conservative at heart. Tradition is important here — Boston doesn't like change all that much.

It charms rather than thrills; a warm cuddle rather than an exhilarating fling. It's a city of storytelling rather than tech-driven experiences, designed for gentle exploration rather than breakneck hurtling. And if there was ever to be another revolution in the US, Boston is the least likely place for it to start.


Boston 2013 isn't Boston 1773. Feelings ran high then, and most of the key sites of revolutionary fervour have been strung together as the Freedom Trail. A red-brick stripe running along pavements through the city marks it out, with signs giving explanations of what happened where. It's worth going with a guide for colour and context. Boston By Foot does good basic Freedom Trail tours, but can arrange longer, more in-depth jaunts.

If cherry-picking sites on the trail, forget the mystifyingly eulogised Faneuil Hall, and head to the Old South Meeting House, where the pre-Tea Party rallying meeting was held. Displays inside explain the mounting anger — about 'taxation without representation' from a distant land — and the bravery of the leaders who stuck their neck out to lead the independence movement.

The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum focuses more on the events of the night itself, but it's high on the hokey costumed actors factor. It works as a way to keep kids interested in what might, to them, seem like dry history, but adults get a little too much eye-rolling practise.

There are few duds in the city's armoury — the Boston Harbor Cruises, Fenway Park tours, Museum of Science and Museum of African American History are all thoroughly enjoyable, for instance. But to my mind, the only truly brilliant attraction is the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Kennedy was a Boston boy, and his life story is told in a striking I.M Pei-designed waterfront building. It's full of biographical nuggets, such as his time spent stranded in the Solomon Islands during World War II and the strict rules he adhered to create his distinctive TV-friendly speaking style. Sections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the incredibly tight 1960 election and the aftermath of his assassination are wonderfully absorbing too.


On the whole, however, Boston is a city made for mooching. Nowhere is this more apparent than Newbury Street, the handsome, carefree artery of affluent Back Bay. Starting at Massachusetts Avenue, there's a clear progression towards the designer and the bank-busting as you head east. But it's more interesting before the recognisable brand names start. Much of the charm comes from the twin levels of shops in the old brownstone buildings. Many of the more interesting boutiques require a few short steps down into what is more or less a cellar.

For fashion, Rescue, Lipstick Boutique and Lunarik are engaging browses, while Newbury Comics should keep vinyl, film and comic book foragers occupied for hours. But the experience is really one of experimentation, flitting from jeweller to artisan olive oil-maker to milliner.

A dog-leg left leads to Charles Street in even more well-to-do Beacon Hill. It's lined with stores selling antiques, nest-feathering homewares and cutesy stationary. But Beacon Hill Chocolates is the stand-out. It sources high-quality chocs from all over the world and packages them up beautifully — it's the golden ticket for easy souvenir gift shopping.


The A-grade food shopping is to be found in the North End. It's an overwhelmingly Italian enclave, and ingredients are all bought the old-fashioned way — from specialists rather than supermarkets. Michele Topor, of Boston Food Tours, has been leading tours — well, more like educational missions — through the North End for 18 years.

"Shopping is also socialising here," she says, as we enter Maria's Pastry Shop, an unassuming spot run by the eponymous Maria with a rod of iron. "She doesn't have a single recipe," says Michele. "She just makes it up depending on her mood, the weather and moisture in the air."

The result is canoli, biscotti, breakfast pastries and chocolate turrons made properly — without the Americanised over-sweetness that has crept in with so many Italian-American counterparts.

The lecture continues among the cheeses, olives and fresh pasta of DePasquale's Homemade Pasta Shoppe — "In Italy, the sauce is a condiment that barely coats the pasta." It heads past the prodigious seafood dishes of the lunch-trade-focused Mercato del Mare — "They do oyster-shucking classes on Saturdays." And it peaks at Monica's Salumeria, where the Sicilian pizzas, arancini and freshly made Italian meat sandwiches that border on perfection draw in jostling crowds. Want to sit down and tuck in at a more leisurely pace? Well the trattoria of the same name is across the road.

The North End is an area that has kept its overwhelmingly Italian character, although outside influences are beginning to creep in. A positive example of this is at Taranta, a multiple award-winning southern Italian restaurant that incorporates a Peruvian twist. That leads to odd combos such as a salmon and herb risotto with Peruvian asparagus and a pisco-Incan goldenberry sauce. It's best to roll with it and enjoy the experimentation.

That's something that applies to Boston's burgeoning food truck scene as well. They don't always stay in the same place, but they cluster in key spots such as the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway and State Street in the Financial District. I stumble across a couple on Stuart Street, behind Back Bay station. The Chubby Chickpea immediately grabs the attention; the speciality sandwiches, such as lamb schwarma and buffalo chicken, come with hummus and Israeli salad. The benefits of competition are crystal clear — it's a thoroughly delicious meal of restaurant quality, albeit eaten with my hands while standing up in the mild drizzle.

The New England region is best known for its seafood, however, and Boston has no shortage of highly regarded fish restaurants. Many of the most-hyped are on or near the waterfront, but head east to Brookline (get off at the Coolidge Corner T stop) for a real in-the-know treat.

Here, Lineage has a buzzy neighbourhood favourite vibe and reasonable prices for the world-class food. The lobster tacos are exhilaratingly fresh, the scallops carnivorously meaty and mains calculated to work the palate out with a subtly complex range of flavours.


The hallmarks of highly knowledgeable craftsmanship are continued at Drink, an underground cocktail bar missing that all-important item: a cocktail list. The idea is you say what sort of things you fancy, and the chap or chappess behind the bar will dig into their knowledge bank and create something. If mixology can ever be justified as an art form, it's here. I end up with a dark rum, apple brandy, pomegranate and lime juice concoction blessed with an almost overpowering knock-out punch.

The gimmick at the Meadhall in Cambridge is the sheer number of beers available. The chalkboard listing them all is a daunting example of too much choice. It's probably possible to spend weeks working through the Russian Imperial Stouts, maibocks, lambics and abbey Tripels.

Drinking in Boston is at its best when you eschew barn-like joints like the Meadhall in favour of small, local bars where you can perch on a stool and talk nonsense with whoever else is gathered around spouting opinions. The Bukowski Tavern in Back Bay, with its Wheel Of Indecision that picks drinks for you when you can't decide, is a classic example of this. So too is Anchovies in the South End. It's pretty much full every night of the week, Tiffany-style lamps hang over cosy booths, cow skulls adorn the walls and it's so narrow that everyone on a bar stool has to squeeze up when someone walks past. Like the moose head wearing sunglasses above the bar, it's a little silly, and it doesn't take itself in the slightest bit seriously. This is a city that does warm far better than it does cool.


That said, just occasionally Boston pulls off cool so well that you can't help but genuflect in acknowledgement. The Liberty Hotel is a triumph of renovation, turning a former prison into a dazzling chutzpah-fest. Entering the lobby offers arguably the biggest wow in Boston — the central octagon has epic space, yet possesses rich seams of details, such as tiled mosaic portraits of former inmates in the elevators. Don't take one of the rooms overlooking the octagon if you're a light sleeper — it's a popular venue for events and swanky soirees.

The Nine Zero doesn't quite have the same impact, but it does ooze sass. Rooms come with stylised backdrops of the State Capitol Building and old Boston maps, as well as zebra-print bathrobes and a mini-bar that includes a cocktail shaker and mixers. There's a free wine hour every evening and an extensive list of things they're happy to provide if you've forgotten to pack it, ranging from chargers and aircraft-friendly plastic bags to fashion tape and straightening irons.

A couple of blocks away is the Omni Parker House hotel, the city's grand dame, which opened in 1855 and counts Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh among its former employees. Rooms are small by modern standards, but the traditional furnishing is in keeping with the hotel's history — and there are some great off-season bargains to be had.

If Boston has an Achilles heel it's that such bargains are rare — it's a very expensive city to stay in. There are some good, homely options in Back Bay, such as The Inn at St Botolph and the Charlesmark Hotel, but even they usually come in over the £100-a-night line.

But distinctive rarely comes cheap. And Boston is most definitely distinctive. It's a place where history, mythology and strong sense of identity have combined to create somewhere that could never be confused for any other US city. Ask any Bostonian, and they'll tell you this — politely, of course.


Getting there
American Airlines, British Airways, Delta and Virgin Atlantic all fly from Heathrow while KLM offers non-direct options from regional airports such as Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Average flight time: 6h.

Getting around
From the airport, taxis to most central hotels should cost around €21 (£13.50). Or, the free Silver Line bus transfers arrivals to South Station. From there, the subway, the T, covers most places of interest. Buy a rechargeable CharlieCard for multiple journeys — each trip costs $2 (£1.30). Don't hire a car; taxis are relatively inexpensive due to the small size of the city.

When to go
September to November is prime time, as the leaves fall and create that colourful, New England patchwork quilt look. Summer — June to August — is arguably the best time weather-wise, with temperatures around 22C. Winter — December to February, in theory — can be bitterly cold and snowy.

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens can travel under a visa waiver scheme, but have to fill in ESTA forms online in advance, priced at $14 (£9).

Currency: US dollar ($). £1 = $1.60.

International dial code: +1.

Time difference: GMT -5.

More info

Lonely Planet Boston. RRP: £13.99.

How to do it
Ebookers has seven nights, room only, at Omni Parker House and return flights from Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic from £645 per person. 

Travelbag offers four nights at Nine Zero, room only, from £819, including flights with US Airways from Gatwick. 


Published in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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