Boston is a one-of-a-kind American city that offers visitors opportunities to relive history, immerse themselves in the arts, cheer for hometown sports teams, explore museums, discover "hidden" harbor islands, and imbibe at local breweries. If you're visiting Boston for the first time or if you've never spent an extended period in Massachusetts' capital city, here are our picks for Boston's 21 must-see places and attractions.
Feel Scholarly at Harvard
Most college campus tours are designed for incoming students, but Harvard University in Cambridge is a tourist attraction in and of itself. It's not only the oldest university in the U.S., but one of the most prestigious schools in the world, counting among its alumni eight U.S. presidents, over 150 Nobel Prize laureates, and hundreds of Rhodes Scholars and Marshall Scholars. Harvard Yard is the center of campus and the oldest part of the school, surrounded by the iconic red-brick buildings that the university is known for. Campus tours are free to attend and led by current students, with options of a historical tour or an arts walk.
Indulge in Oyster Happy Hour
Oysters are a New England staple, and no trip to Boston is complete without slurping down at least a few of these bivalve delicacies. Although they may seem like a lavish snack, many local bars and seafood restaurants include a daily "oyster happy hour" where you can get a few oysters and a drink for a reasonable price. Fresh oysters are practically ubiquitous throughout the city—and New England—but some of the best places to try them include the Union Oyster House, which is America's oldest continuously operated restaurant, or Lincoln. However, feel free to ask a local for their favorite spot and you won't be steered wrong.
Take a Trip to a Venetian Palace
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum isn't just an art museum, but an art museum housed inside a replica of a real-life Venetian Palace. Isabella collected works from celebrated painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt and promised to keep them on display to the public. Apart from the expansive art collection, one of the most impressive parts of the museum is the inner courtyard, styled after the Palazzo Barbaro in Venice with its distinctive Renaissance architecture and year-round garden. Isabella was known as an eccentric socialite in her day and that legacy lives on in her museum. For example, anyone with the name "Isabella" has lifetime membership and can enter for free.
Step Inside the World's Largest Walk-in Globe
If you're a geography nerd, you can't miss taking a stroll through the Mapparium, the world's largest walk-in... world. Located inside the Mary Baker Eddy Library, this three-story globe offers a perspective of the Earth in a way you've never seen it before. Built in 1935, the Mapparium still shows the world as it was then and includes former countries and bygone borders. The exhibit also includes a special presentation called "A World Of Ideas" of orchestrated music, lights, and narration to enhance your experience.
Walk Along the Freedom Trail
A walk along the two-and-a-half-mile Freedom Trail is one of the best ways to get acquainted with Boston and to efficiently visit the city's bounty of historic landmarks. If you're in a hurry and in pretty good shape, you can cover the length of the trail in as little as an hour, but that won't really allow you time to stop and visit any of the sites along the way. Your best bet is to allow three hours or more to walk the trail at a leisurely pace and see all of its Revolutionary landmarks. Boston also has an Irish Heritage Trail you may want to explore.
Visit the Boston Public Garden and the Swan Boats
Boston Public Garden, located along Charles Street adjacent to Boston Common, is the nation's oldest botanical garden. The famous Swan Boats return to Boston Public Garden each spring and have done so since they were first invented in 1877 by Robert Paget. The rental business, which operates from mid-April through Labor Day, is still run by descendants of the boats' inventor.
Shop (and Eat) at Quincy Market
Quincy Market is actually just one part of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, but many locals refer to the whole complex as "Quincy Market." The famous indoor-outdoor market is a great place for both shopping and dining, and a perfect place to try local specialties (like the lobster rolls). Quincy Market colonnade houses more than thirty food merchants, so definitely arrive hungry in order to fully take advantage of this culinary attraction.
See a Reenactment of the Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party is reenacted daily, and you can participate. Really! Steep yourself in history at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. Rebuilt and reimagined following a devastating 2001 fire and another in 2007, the attraction reopened in 2012, and it's now one of the city's most engaging experiences.
Watch the Red Sox Play at Fenway Park
On a sunshine-filled summer afternoon, there is perhaps no better place to be in all of New England than Fenway Park, the historic home of Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox. Baseball fans have been energized and agonized by the exploits of some of baseball's greatest players at Fenway since 1912. If you can't score tickets to a Red Sox game, look into behind-the-scenes tours of Fenway Park.
Visit the Museum of Science
Boston's museums are as good as any you'll find in the world, and one of the most visited is the Museum of Science at Science Park. It has more than 700 interactive exhibits including A Bird's World, a 4-D theater, Thrill Ride 360°, a butterfly garden, and a planetarium. Take the kids for a full day of easy entertainment.
Taste Beer at Sam Adams Brewery
These days, Samuel Adams is known as much for being a brewer as a patriot. Tour the Sam Adams Brewery in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston—which is also home to the Boston Beer Museum—for a glimpse of the beer-making process and a sample of the finished product. The brewery itself is on the outer edges of the city, but you can always visit the Sam Adams Tap Room right in the city center for a more conveniently located taste of this all American beer.
Visit the New England Aquarium
Want to see sea lions smile and penguins play? Head to the New England Aquarium, one of Boston's perpetually popular family attractions. Once inside, you'll find yourself immersed in a watery world, where you can wave your flippers at cavorting sea lions and press your nose right up against the glass of the poisonous fish tank—if you dare!
Take a Day-Trip to a Boston Harbor Island
Want to swim, hike, explore the ruins of an old fort, and camp out under the stars at a National Park? Believe it or not, you can do all of these things without leaving the city of Boston. The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area consists of 34 narrow isles scattered in New England's most historic harbor, and you can visit these "hidden" outdoor spaces by boarding seasonal ferries from Quincy and Boston's Long Wharf.
Take a Walking Tour of Back Bay
Back Bay is one of Boston's oldest and most picturesque neighborhoods—especially if you time your trip with the fall foliage. Start with a walk along the Charles River to take in the beauty of this historic neighborhood near downtown Boston. Enjoy a quiet stroll down Commonwealth Avenue, admiring the brownstones that dot this tree-lined street modeled after Paris’ Haussmann renovation. Continue south to shop along trendy Newbury and Boylston streets. If you prefer a bit of guidance, free walking tours are available almost year-round.
Relax at Boston Common
The oldest city park in the United States—established 1634—the Boston Common consists of 50 acres between Charles Street and Downtown Boston. Originally used to graze cattle, the Common is now the place for Bostonians to come to graze during a lunch break or a weekend picnic. The Common is also the beginning of the Freedom Trail, making it the perfect place to sit for a while after walking it. When winter arrives, ice skating is available at the Boston Common Frog Pond.
Take in the History of the Boston Public Library
While a trip to a public library may not rank highly on everyone’s vacation to-do list, the Boston Public Library is a must-see for visitors thanks to its many prominent murals, huge reading rooms, and Italian Renaissance-inspired interior courtyard complete with fountains and arched pathways. The library also hosts unique, free events throughout the year, ranging from readings to theater performances.
Relive the 1960s at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
President John F. Kennedy's library and museum offers a glimpse into the 1960s and a chance to experience the life of the president firsthand. While Kennedy only spent a thousand days in office, the museum is home to more than 20 multimedia exhibits and period settings from the White House. I.M. Pei designed the memorial, which sits on a 10-acre waterfront site on Columbia Point. From there, you can see Boston's skyline and nearby Harbor Islands.
See Ballet at the Boston Opera House
Initially built in 1928 as a movie palace, the Citizens Bank Opera House lay empty from 1991 to 2004. Following a massive restoration and refurbishment, the Boston Opera House became home to the Boston Ballet. The ornate theatre is also the place to catch touring Broadway shows as well as their annual production of The Nutcracker each holiday season.
Hover Over Boston Harbor at the Institute for Contemporary Art
One of the best pieces at the Institute of Contemporary Art? The building itself. This South Boston museum is housed in a modern piece of glass architecture that contrasts the rest of Boston’s historic buildings. A highlight is the rear of the museum, a cantilevered glass expanse that hovers over Boston Harbor.
Support Local Productions at Huntington Theatre
Boston’s leading professional theatre since 1982, the Huntington theatre has won the Tony award for "Best Regional Theater" and more than 150 Elliot Norton and Independent Reviewers of New England Awards. Since its opening, the Huntington has played to over 3.5 million people, and presented more than 200 plays—18 of which went on to Broadway or off-Broadway.
Have a Toast at "Cheers"
Famous as the inspiration for the television show Cheers, the former Bull & Finch Pub, now officially known as Cheers Boston, is located in Boston's Beacon Hill District. It's definitely a tourist trap with souvenirs galore for sale and overpriced pub food, but it's still one of those places that fans of the show make a beeline for when they're in Boston. There's a second replica of TV's most famous bar now, too, at Faneuil Hall Marketplace.