(This post is irregularly updated – a Norwegian version is also available.)
I have lived in the Boston area for about eight years altogether, not counting frequent shorter visits. Since there are many universities and conferences in that part of the world, I am often asked by colleagues and others what they should do when they are in Boston. This is a list of my personal recommendations. Note that these are my personal favorites – your mileage may vary.
I will start at Harvard Square, not really Boston but in neighboring Cambridge. The Square is in the middle of the constantly expanding Harvard Campus and is one of my favorite places – though, as a slew of critics like to point out, it has become less personal and more mall-like over the years. I agree, but still like it.
- Before bookstores go the way of video rentals: Take a deep dive into The Harvard COOP Bookstore (the large and “official” university bookstore) or the Harvard Bookstore (my favorite, an independent bookstore with great selection, competent staff and a great used book basement) Spend time browsing (nobody will bother you) and wearing down your credit card.
- Amble around the Harvard Yard, and, if you want to see what an unlimited lawn care budget can do, the Harvard Business School.
- Have a burger at Mr. Bartley’s Gourmet Burger Cottage (right next to the Harvard Bookstore.) No alcohol, but great lemonade, crispy onion rings and a huge selection of excellent burgers. Cash only, noise level can be high. If you are alone, ask for a seat in front of the kitchen – great entertainment! Have a frappe for dessert, if you can manage.
- Buy Harvard paraphernalia for the kids and people back home at the COOP (cheap and good by Norwegian standards)
- Have a coffee at Peet’s Coffee (worn locales but good coffee) at Brattle Square. This is the place to bring your newly purchased stacks of books and dig into them without feeling awkward.
- Visit the “glass flowers” at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and spend an hour or more at the Harvard Fogg Art museum (one of my Norwegian colleagues, an art buff, characterized it as “small and selective, just great for a relatively short visit.”)
- Bring a bunch of friends and have a Tex-Mex dinner with much shouting and joking at the Border Cafe (which, unfortunately, have stopped serving John Steinbeck’s favorite Bohemia beer). The bar here is also good, try a Marguerita as an aperitif. No reservations, expect some wait.
You can take the T (i.e, tube or underground) to MIT/Kendall Square, where you can
- (nerd alert!) visit the MIT Press bookstore (not to be confused with MIT’s branch of the COOP, which is on the other side of the street.) MIT Press Bookstore is tiny and on the right side of the street when you look towards Boston, at Kendall Square. (Not that the MIT Coop is bad, that’s where you get your MIT souvenirs).
- Take a tour of MIT (in my opinion, MIT’s tours are better than Harvard’s) – they are free and start at 11am and 3pm every day. MIT has lots of history, the tour includes strobe light demonstrations and many tales of student hacks. The architecture is also interesting – pictured is the Stata Center.
In Boston proper, you could
- Start at the Mass General T stop and amble along Charles Street, with interesting stores and nice little coffee houses. Eventually, you will get to the Boston Public Garden, where you can admire the duckling sculptures and, in the summer, take a ride on a Swan boat. At the other end of the park you will find …
- …Newbury Street, Boston’s place for upscale shopping and showing off. Brand stores, of course, but on a Saturday this is where you see the beautiful people (many of them rich Eurotrash students from BU) ritzing down the street. Have a drink at Joe’s Bar (a chain restaurant, but the location is great.) If you want to do more shopping, swing south to Copley Place. If not, continue the amble down to the end of Newbury street and have a beer at The Other Side, a really great brewpub/café.
- Visit the Museum of Fine Arts and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- Stay away from Cheers, a bar that from the outside looks like the TV series. There are plenty of nice bars (especially Irish-looking pubs) down around Quincy Market – but be warned, this place is the 7th most visited tourist attraction in the USA and prices and milieu reflect it.
- Have dinner in North End, the Italian district. Lots of good restaurants along Hannover Street and in the side streets. (My favorite is Gennaro’s at North Square). Cannoli for dessert is obligatory!
- Have seafood at the Union Oyster House, USA’s second oldest continuously operating restaurant. It is regarded as a bit of a tourist trap by the locals, but it has been a huge hit with anyone from abroad I have taken there.
- If you can get tickets, Boston has good teams in the four main US sports: Basket (Celtics), baseball (Red Sox at legendary Fenway Park), football (New England Patriots) and ice hockey (Boston Bruins).
- In the Fall or Spring, take a walk in the Arnold Arboretum.
- If you can get someone to lend you a bicycle, bike up and down the Charles River, past MIT, Harvard and Boston University.
- Walk around and explore – Boston is a city of culture, with interesting stores and restaurants. A car is not necessary. It is very safe – there are a few dodgy areas, but they are out of the tourists’ way, for the most part.
Outside Boston (mostly requires a car, easily rented):
- Go to Newburyport and Plum Island. Eat seafood from one of the food joints.
- Visit Concord, have lunch at the Concord Inn and take a walk around Walden Pond (Where Thoreau wrote his book)
- Go to Marblehead for an ice cream, a stroll along the harbor, and some seafood.
- If you have a short weekend or a long day, drive (or take the fast ferry) to Cape Cod, visit Provincetown (“P-town”, if you want to sound local) at the tip of the peninsula. P-town is also the gay capital of eastern US, and sitting at a cafe and watching all the gay couples walking up and down the main street on a Sunday can be quite entertaining – hetero middle-aged couples sometimes dress alike, but gay middle-aged couples take it to a new level. And the tower (pictured) is actually quite fun to climb.
- If shopping is your thing, drive to Wrentham Village outlet mall– designer clothing, shoes and sports equipment at very low prices, 45 minutes from Boston. My trick is to position myself in the bar at Ruby Tuesday after I am done (they have big screens with sports) and take the job at keeper of the goods the family/entourage bring in.
- If you have an oval weekend: Go to Marthas Vineyard or Nantucket. Needs a bit of planning, and can be expensive in the tourist season. But great.
- If you want to shop sports/camping/fishing equipment, it might be worth it to drive to the L.L.Bean store in Freeport, Maine, which is open 24 hours – it has actually been open continually since 1951, except for two Sundays. L.L.Bean has a store in Burlington, just north of Boston, but it is rather small and not well stocked, in my opinion.
Lastly, my favorite way to end my stay in Boston [NOTE: Legal is no longer available in Terminal C! Your best bet it probably to eat somewhere outside the airport.]:
- Most flights to Europe leave in the afternoon or evening. Check in three hours before the flight leaves (hence, no lines). Check-in is in terminal E, the international terminal.
Then go to terminal C (long walk through corridors) and have a great seafood dinner at Legal Seafood, the best seafood chain restaurant in the USA. I recommend the lobster bake (a full lobster dinner with clams, chowder, chorizo) – but the signature dish is really the clam chowder (pronounced “chowdah”) which is great as an appetizer.
There are, of course, lots of other things to do and see, but these are some of the things I particularly like. I have deliberately not mentioned the most common tourist things (such as the Freedom Trail, the Constitution, etc.), mostly because, well, I’d rather do the things mentioned here.
Have a great trip!