Visitors to Boston will discover an attractive, vibrant, culturally aware city that’s proud of its past as one of the oldest metropolitan areas in the United States while serving as a home to many fine colleges and institutions of higher learning. The “East Coast” and Northeast vibes are strong in Boston, and the city’s Brahmin, aristocratic, and intellectual traditions are inseparably intertwined with the histories of American politics, literature, science, business, and the arts.
Although the population and borders of the city are expansive, the area of the peninsula that many consider “Boston Proper” is relatively small and dense. The quaint old-fashioned brownstones and houses of Commonwealth Avenue and Beacon Hill markedly contrast with the newer skyscrapers of the business district and the waterfront. Historic neighborhoods like Roxbury and the North End are unique to the city, and despite the non-gridded layout of streets, Boston is relatively easy to get around and unchaotic.
Below are key things for out-of-towners to know about Boston that will help them to plan a visit and guide their way around.
Weather in Each Season
Boston has a reputation for weather extremes that are not often matched by other American municipalities, except perhaps for far northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, or Minneapolis.
The winter in Boston can be exceptionally cold due to the wind chill (Chicago may be called “The Windy City,” but Boston is actually windier). Staggering accumulations of snow that might not be out of place in, say, Buffalo, New York or Juneau, Alaska are not unheard-of.
On the opposite end of the thermometer, Boston in the summer can be hot and muggy, with extremes of heat that might not be out of place in Miami or the American Southwest. The heat can feel hotter because of the humidity.
Because of this, the best times to visit Boston may be in the spring or fall.
The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), or “T” for short, is Boston’s public transportation system, which is responsible for the city’s subways, buses, rail lines (see below), and ferries. With 153 subway stations along both underground lines and street-level light rail spokes, Boston has an efficient, safe, and clean transportation network when compared to some other East Coast cities.
Using the T, you can easily get from Boston to Cambridge, Somerville, Brookline, Newton, Malden, Medford, Quincy, Braintree, or Revere, among other places. The rapid-transit lines are conveniently color-coded (Blue, Green, Red, Orange, and Silver lines), and you can transfer for free from one line to another at the key downtown stations (Park Street, Downtown Crossing, Boylston, State, Chinatown, Tufts Medical, Haymarket, South Station, and Government Center).
The earliest trains on most lines start at roughly 5 a.m., while the last trains are at approximately 1 a.m. Many of the T buses run on the same schedule, but a few key routes have limited overnight service. Almost all of the subway and bus stations are handicapped-accessible, and the ends of some of the lines, like Alewife, Braintree, Riverside, Forest Hills, and Oak Grove, have large parking lots or car garages.
There are 170 T bus routes, including some express buses, which go out as far as Boston’s closer suburbs. Many of the bus lines also stop at the T subway stations, but unfortunately, there are no free transfers between buses and subways.
The T operates three ferries that serve downtown Boston from communities across the water. The F1 service runs from Hewitt’s Cove in Hingham to Boston’s Rowe’s Wharf. The F2H service runs from Hewitt’s Cove to Boston’s Long Wharf, with some ferries stopping at Logan Airport, Boston Harbor islands, and/or Pemberton Point in Hull. The F4 service runs from Charlestown Navy Yard to Long Wharf. Additionally, there are seasonal ferries that run between Boston, Salem, and Winthrop.
Logan International Airport in East Boston is Boston’s gateway and connection to the wider world. Getting to Logan Airport from downtown Boston is quick — just 13 minutes on the Silver Line or 5 minutes on the Blue Line of the MBTA. The Blue Line has a dedicated stop for the Airport, from which you can take a shuttle bus that goes in a loop to all the terminals and to the rental car center, while the Silver Line runs directly to Terminal A, and you can transfer to the shuttle bus that goes to all the other terminals from there.
Airlines that serve Logan include Aer Lingus, Air Canada, Air France, Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, American Airlines, American Eagle, British Airways, Cape Air, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Delta Connection, El Al, Emirates, Hawaiian, Iberia, Icelandair, ITA Airways, Japan Airlines, JetBlue, KLM, Korean Air, LATAM Brasil, Level, Lufthansa, PLAY, Qatar Airways, Scandanavian Airlines, Southwest, Spirit, Swiss, TAP Air Portugal, Turkish Airlines, United, United Express, and Virgin Atlantic.
MBTA Commuter Rail and Amtrak Service
If the T subways, buses, and ferries can’t get you to where you want to go, the MBTA commuter rail trains will take you to the suburbs and even as far as Newburyport, Worcester, or Providence, Rhode Island. Service operates daily (with limited weekend service on many lines), with more trains operating at peak commuter hours.
Like the subways, the commuter trains are reasonably fast, efficient, clean, and safe. Many of the stations have ample parking, and just about all of them are handicapped-accessible. Commuter trains depart from both South Station (for points South and West) and North Station (for points North and West).
Downtown Boston’s South Station is a major East Coast hub for Amtrak, and trains depart daily for Chicago, Hartford, New Haven, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and other destinations.
Intercity Buses/South Station
For a lower-cost alternative to planes and trains, long-distance buses leave from South Station for destinations all over the United States. Bus lines that serve South Station include Boston Express, C & J, Concord, DATTCO, FlixBus, Greyhound, Lucky Star, Megabus, Peter Pan, and Plymouth & Brockton. Some of these lines feature inexpensive coaches that depart hourly on nonstop routes to New York City (travel time is approximately four hours) and offer tickets as cheap as $30.
Boston has no shortage of fine dining establishments, complete with world-renowned chefs (Julia Child and Todd English are among the city’s culinary alumni). Boston has restaurants serving everything from traditional New England staples (including baked beans, lobster, cod, Boston creme pie, and Parker House rolls) to modern haute cuisine. A number of the city’s best restaurants lie within hotels, such as Aujourd’hui, [Gordon] Ramsay’s Kitchen, Grana, Contessa, Uni, and Bar Enza in Cambridge.
Websites such as Eater, TimeOut, Boston.com, and Boston Magazine have trustworthy restaurant reviews. Reservations at highly regarded establishments should be made a few nights in advance.
There are many fine hotels in Boston, ranging from the Langham and the Mandarin Oriental to the Four Seasons and the Ritz-Carlton. If small or eccentric are more your cup of tea, try XV Beacon or The Verb.
Bear in mind that Boston is a big college town, so know that May and June are times when many hotel rooms are booked by parents coming for their sons’ or daughters’ graduations. Likewise, in August and September, parents may be staying and helping their kids get settled into school.
In October and November, there can be high demand for rooms from visitors who want to take day trips to see the fall foliage in western Massachusetts and/or New Hampshire and Vermont. October weekends are when the Head of the Charles collegiate rowing event (which draws thousands of spectators) occurs. The fall also brings waves of convention-going visitors to the city. In the spring, April is when the Boston Marathon (see below) happens, which also draws throngs of out-of-towners.
Parks and Outdoor Activities
A large grouping of the beautiful parks and wetlands of Boston and the surrounding area are collectively known as the “Emerald Necklace,” an agglomeration designed and laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, the co-designer of New York City’s Central Park and perhaps the most renowned landscape designer in history.
Chief among these parks are the Boston Common and Public Garden, located in the heart of the city. Most famously, the Public Garden is the location of a large lagoon complete with ridable “Swan Boats,” while the Common features ice skating on its “Frog Pond” in the winter.
Along the Charles River, the three-mile-long Esplanade is a greenway that has its own Hatch concert/performance band shell (where music greats from Luciano Pavarotti to Green Day have played), along with bicycle and jogging paths.
Sailing and canoeing are possible on the Charles River, or if tennis is your thing, try the 120-year-old Boston Tennis & Racquet Club (membership may be required). For runners, the Boston Marathon is one of the greatest American road races, which starts in suburban Hopkinton and ends at the entrance to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square.
For larger expanses of greenery and pretty scenery, check out the parkland that surrounds Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain or the fauna of the Arnold Arboretum. Castle Island in Boston Harbor, Christopher Columbus Park near the North End, and the Back Bay Fens all have additional green appeal.
Harbor, island, and dolphin and whale-watching cruises are popular, and if you like fishing or just want to see the fireworks over the Esplanade on July 4th, you can charter a boat to do so. Cape Cod and the two large islands nearby (Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket) beckon and make great weekend getaway trips. The North Shore, South Shore, and even the shorelines of Dorchester and South Boston all are picturesque in parts and are great places to spend a hot summer day or evening.