The sky was sapphire blue and the sun cornflower yellow as a long line snaked around the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
It was Memorial Day, and the museum was offering free admission for the day. Many in line were dressed in lightweight pants, comfy shoes and Red Sox T-shirts and ball caps as the team had an early evening game set against the Phillies in nearby Fenway Park.
There was much to celebrate there for Bostonians — the three-day weekend, glorious weather, an art museum renowned for its diverse collections, a winning start to a young baseball season.
But the long banners draped in front of the museum were a reminder of what was foremost on the minds of Boston residents this past spring. Boston Strong, heralded the bright red banners with their bold white lettering. Boston Strong, proclaimed shirts and sweatshirts, souvenir cups and bus placards and heart-filled signs plastered on statues of heroes from America’s past.
Boston Strong, of course, emerged as the motto of the city’s recent past, when bombs wracked the city’s marathon, killing three and injuring more than 250. But Bostonians fought to transcend the horror and despair of the day and within a week law-enforcement officials had apprehended the two suspected terrorists.
A makeshift memorial for the victims — with crosses and peace signs, footballs and teddy bears and running shoe after running shoe — sprang up in Copley Square near the bombing location. Boston and its residents captured the hearts of their compatriots with their compassion and resilience.
But strength and perseverance in the face of adversity is nothing new in Boston. Bostonians dumped tea into their harbor in 1773 to defy the British and stand up for their rights. They were among the earliest troops when the Continental Army was formed in 1775 and were ready to fight when revolutionary Paul Revere rode through the city, warning patriots of the enemy’s advance.
Visit Boston, and you can’t miss this sense of determination. Through the downtown streets and into the North End winds the Freedom Trail, a major tourist attraction that includes about 16 official historic sites such as Old North Church and the Paul Revere House, where American history was forged.
But along some of these same busy streets are shops and office buildings, tech companies and large crowded buses that mark a present that is doing well.
Before this spring, I had not been to Boston in more than 40 years. The last time was in June 1969, to attend my older brother’s college graduation. I was in middle school, and to me Boston was a huge city where people lived and worked and dreamed for the future.
Visiting again last month, I was struck by just how long Boston had been a busy city. It was founded around 1630 and is one of our nation’s oldest. As I toured around, I realized that with more than 380 years of history, the city holds a key to understanding our past, appreciating our present and realizing our future.
Boston is nestled off the Massachusetts Bay. The Charles River runs across the northern part of the city and separates Boston from Cambridge, home of Harvard University, the oldest university in the United States and the place where Facebook was born. With a prime spot on the bay, the city grew steadily as a seaport and later as a manufacturing center. Many of the historic sites along the Freedom Trail date to the late 17th or early 18th century.
For example, the Old State House was built in 1713 and originally housed the colonial government. On July 18, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was first read to Bostonians from the state house’s balcony. Queen Elizabeth visited the site during the U.S. Bicentennial celebration and from the same balcony gave thanks for the strong ties between the United States and her native land.
Northeast of the state house is the Paul Revere House and The Old North Church.
Revere and his family lived in the house, built around 1680, in the late 1700s. Relatively nondescript now on the outside, the restored two-story house of 3,000 square feet contains artifacts that once belonged to the Reveres. The family’s dining chairs, a sewing table and a chest of drawers sit on the second floor in what was once called the “Best Chamber,” a combination bedroom and parlor where the family received guests.
Revere and The Old North Church are, of course, famous from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride,” which immortalizes the patriot’s warning the colonists of the British Redcoats’ imminent attack. In a backup plan in case his ride was thwarted, Revere arranged for two members of Old North to shine light from the church bell tower to signal how the enemy would attack — “One if by land, and two is by sea,” Longfellow writes in his epic poem.
The large golden chandeliers in the front of the church were installed shortly after the church’s opening in the early 1720s. The boxed pews from the colonial days, when families would buy a place to sit together in church, also remain. The closer to the altar a family sat, the more desirable and more expensive the seats. The low walls around the pews helped keep congregants warm during Boston’s harsh winter months.
Now known as Christ Church of the City of Boston, it is home to an Episcopalian congregation whose members can sit where they please for services.
A sense of history pervades much of the rest of Boston, not just the Freedom Trail.
Boston Common, located just west of Freedom Trail, is the nation’s oldest park at some 350 years old. Over the years, it has hosted auctions, cattle grazings and public hangings. Tall trees line the park’s neat sidewalks, where residents and tourists alike can enjoy a leisurely stroll.
Right across the street from Boston Common is the Public Garden, the nation’s first botanical garden. The garden, with its lush greenery and seasonal flower displays, is another good place to relax and unwind after a busy day of sightseeing. Children can enjoy a ride on one of the pond’s swan boats or have their picture taken with the “Make Way for Ducklings” brood. The eight statuettes were made in 1987 to celebrate the park’s 150th anniversary and to pay tribute to Robert McCloskey’s children’s story about a family of ducks who once lived there.
Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, celebrated its 100th anniversary last year and is the oldest active major league baseball stadium. The park is famous for its 37-foot green wall in left field but green abounds everywhere — the huge sign outside the park that beckons to the fans; the press box and upper deck above home plate; the bullpen in centerfield; and even the restroom doors.
Fenway is a neighborhood ballpark with its entrances and first-floor concourse right off the streets of southeast Boston. The concourse has the feel of an old-fashioned boardwalk, with concession stands and souvenir shops under canopies with red and white stripes. A ballgame at Fenway is first and foremost a ballgame, and there are few gimmicks or sideshows between innings. That’s when a park employee runs down the warning track in front of the left-field wall and manually changes the scores for National League games in play.
Tickets to a Red Sox game are notoriously hard to get, especially when the team is winning. To find more information about touring the park or attending a game, check out the website http://boston.redsox.mlb.com.
Also in southeast Boston is the Museum of Fine Art with extensive holdings from all over the world. It has a large collection of Asian art, with pieces that date to 4,000 B.C., and owns more paintings by French painter Claude Monet than any museum outside of Paris. A few years ago, it opened a new collection of American art that includes more than 170 pieces of silverware crafted by Paul Revere.
The MFA is huge, and art aficionados could easily spend two days visiting its varied exhibits. The museum is open until 9:45 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays to accommodate long visits. For more information, see MFA’s website at www.mfa.org.
A visit to Boston probably wouldn’t seem complete without a walk along the Charles River. Sightseers have several good vantage points along Memorial Drive on the Cambridge side of the river.
While in Cambridge, check out both Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both schools have architectural gems on campus. For Harvard, it is Memorial Hall, built in memory of alumni who died in the Civil War. The MIT Chapel, dedicated in 1955, was designed by the noted architect Eero Saarinen. Other places to see include the MIT Museum with exhibits on the university’s current technological research and Harvard’s Museum of Natural History.
And down along the river, as sailboats and canoes, kayaks and speedboats share the water, don’t miss the tall buildings of Boston, standing tall, standing strong in the distance.
Tips for touring Boston
• We drove to Boston, which is about 550 miles or a nine- to 10-hour trip from Indiana. But no matter how you get there, whether via train/plane/car or bus, once you are there, use a Charlie Card to get around.
Driving around Boston can be hazardous to your sanity. Bicycles are quite popular in Boston although for many tourists they are not a realistic alternative.
A CharlieCard is your pass for Boston’s subway and buses. Fans of the old Kingston Trio may remember Charlie as the man who got stuck on the “MTA.” The song is legendary in Boston and so officials named the fare card after “the man who never returned.”
CharlieCards can be bought by the trip or for a day, week or month. A day’s pass is $11; a week’s is $18. We chose the latter option and didn’t have to worry about fare costs for the rest of our stay. Check out the website http://www.mbta.com/fares_and_passes/passes/ for more information.
• Boston is a big city, and though subway stops are strategically placed, expect to do considerable walking and wear comfy clothes and shoes.
If you are visiting in the hot, hazy days of summer, carry around a bottle of water. And plan your day trips accordingly. For instance, the Freedom Trail with Boston’s famed historic sites stretches for 2.5 miles. Not counting stops for lunch and another break, we spent about 4-1/2 hours and still didn’t hit all the stops. You may want to pick and choose what you see.
If the day is hot, think about pairing the history tour with something more relaxing such as a visit to Boston Commons or the Public Garden.
Another idea would be to take a ferry boat ride to one of the islands off Boston’s coast. Docks are just past Faneuil Hall, one of the sites on the history trail. On a hot day, Spectacle Island could be a good choice as it offers a cafe and visitors’ center and a sandy beach for sunning and swimming. Georges Island offers swimming as well as a hike around the remains of Fort Warren, built in the early 1860s. Union troops trained at the fort, and later the federal government imprisoned captured Confederate soldiers there.
• Take some time to explore Boston’s neighborhoods or nearby towns.
Boston’s North End and waterfront areas are great places to find good food.
Italians settled in the North End in the late 1800s and by 1930 they comprised more than 99 percent of the area. Today, that percentage is drastically reduced and the neighborhood is a mix of young professionals, college students and families. Still, Italian pastries, coffee shops and restaurants fill the streets. On a warm afternoon, lines were long at Mike’s Pastry, which offered yellow cream, pistachio, strawberry, Florentine, chocolate-dipped, hazelnut and about a half dozen other kinds of cannoli.
Seafood lovers will find heaven along Boston’s waterfront. Legal Harborside, the flagship of the Legal Seafood chain, offers an oyster bar on its first floor and fine dining on the second. The Union Oyster House, founded in 1826, is also close by.
Cambridge, home of Harvard and MIT, is a nice walkable town with shopping, a small movie theater, plenty of moderately priced restaurants and a busy center plaza where street entertainers regularly offer free shows.
Check campus calendars for modestly priced entertainment and programming. When we visited, Harvard’s Loeb Theater offered performances of “The Pirates of Penzance” and, in its experimental theater, the new play “Abolitionists Project,” written to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
• Plan ahead and get tickets for a few activities/events that you know you would like.
Red Sox tickets are always hard to get, so searching online before your visit may help. Boston has a theater district and information on regular- and discount-priced tickets is available at www.theatermania.com/boston-theater/ and www.artsboston.org/. And keep in mind the very popular Boston Pops, now in its 132nd year, with its personable conductor, Keith Lockhart. The symphony will perform often this summer, and will pick up again later in the fall after a few quiet weeks in early September. Check the schedule at www.bso.org/.
-- By Mary Ann Slater