Beantown Activities
February 15, 2011 1:43 PM   Subscribe

Mefite Beantowners: Wife and I are heading to Boston for a week in May. What to do?

The Wife and I are going to Boston in May for a wedding and are planning on extending the trip a few days to celebrate her graduation from vet school (yay!). Can you give us some recommendations for things to do and see besides the obvious (Duck tour, Aquarium, Freedom Trail)? We like quirky, off-the-beaten path type activities and sights. Also, museums.

I have checked this AskMe for restaurant recommendations, but if you have any to add, they are welcome.

Recommendations which are accessible by public transportation a plus!
posted by SugarFreeGum to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Go have breakfast at Zaftig's in Brookline. God I miss that place. You can ride the Green Line trolley to the Coolidge Corner stop from downtown. Then spend some time wandering around Brookline, Allston and Brighton. Check out Brookline Booksmith. Climb the huge hill just off Beacon St. Eat at Anna's Taqueria for lunch.
posted by killdevil at 1:53 PM on February 15, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I should add: we are not big drinkers/partiers.
posted by SugarFreeGum at 1:54 PM on February 15, 2011

While I've never been to Boston, I have always wanted to go to the beautiful Gardner museum. But, then, I really really like red damask wallpaper, so I'm biased.
posted by monkeymonkey at 1:57 PM on February 15, 2011

Go check out the quirky Jamaica Plain neighborhood and visit Frederick Law Olmsted's jewel, the sprawling Arnold Arboretum, just a few blocks from there. In May things will just be starting to bloom.

Slightly further afield, the Blue Hills Reservation a few miles from Boston is an awesome place to take a hike, and the view from the top is of pretty much the entirety of southeast Massachusetts, spread out below you and out to the horizon.
posted by killdevil at 2:00 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check out this thread also - the title is misleading, and it contains many suggestions for great activities in the area.
posted by darsh at 2:07 PM on February 15, 2011

Zaftigs is fantastic. Bostonians seem to love Anna's Taqueria, which I just do not understand at all. I'd go for bagels and lox at Kupel's instead (closed on Saturdays).

Go on the Swan Boats in the Public Gardens next to Boston Common. They're just $2.75/person. I've lived in boston for over 3 years, but just went on them for the first time last fall. A wonderfully serene little voyage in the middle of the city.

If you're outdoorsy people, things should be coming to life again in the Arboretum. Mount Auburn Cemetery is also incredibly beautiful to stroll around.

Go eat in the North End. Eat at Giacomo's. There's usually a bit of a wait, but if you go at off-peak times, it shouldn't be too bad.

Get coffee or gelato, and chill out on Long Wharf. If it's too crowded, take the Blue Line one stop across to Maverick (this is all very close to the Aquarium area), walk 5 minutes down Summer Street, and relax in off-the-beaten-path Piers Park (not crowded, not touristy), which is wonderfully maintained and has some incredible views of Boston.

Or go to Piers Park in the morning after getting Brunch at the nearby, delicious but cash only Scup's in the Harbour.
posted by raztaj at 2:12 PM on February 15, 2011

Go check out the Ether Dome, the Mapparium, the Athenaeum (tours for the public are available), and the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The Museum of Fine Arts just recently opened its new Art of the Americas Wing which may be worth seeing. The Gardner Museum is next door, and I believe admission to both can be had with some sort of package ticket that includes a few other attractions in town. Right across the street is the Fenway, which is a long park that stretches through the southern half of town and is a very pleasant walk.

The MIT Museum is recommended pretty frequently, and they recently acquired a whole bunch of artifacts from Polaroid if you're into that sort of thing.

If you'd like outdoor activities, you can grab a ferry and go out to the Harbor Islands (Georges Island and Spectacle Island are the big ones). Or, you can go out to Castle Island - which is not really an island - in South Boston where there's another fort and is a nice place to see the harbor and watch the airplanes take off from the airport.

For food, Craigie on Main is phenomenal and if you want to splurge you can get a 10-course tasting menu. We've also recently really liked The Savant Project, Casablanca, Sibling Rivalry, and Beehive. These are geographically all over the place so I'd look at a map before deciding on any of them. Right downtown is sort of dead as far as good food goes - all the restaurants there really cater to tourists and the bros that come out at night for the club scene.
posted by backseatpilot at 2:17 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Gardner is one of my favorite places in Boston, so + 1 to that.

If you're there in May, there's a good chance that the weather is going to be gorgeous. And Boston is a great place to walk. Here are some places I like to walk in Boston:
* Along the Charles River
* Across the bridges over the Charles River (avoid bridges under construction)
* Up and or down any of the following Back Bay streets: Beacon, Commonwealth, Newbury, Boylston, Marlborough
* All the way to the end of Boylston and through the Back Bay Fens
* Along the waterfront; Long Wharf (at the Aquarium) is a good place to start
* In the North End (on Hanover Street and Salem Street, sure, but also wandering down the crooked little streets)
* In the South End and Bay Village (a tiny neighborhood sort of between the South End and Chinatown)
* Oh, and Beacon Hill, why not
* And the Arboretum

I used to walk home from work at the Museum of Science to Washington Square in Brookline when it was nice out. Good times.
posted by mskyle at 2:25 PM on February 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and the new Art of the Americas wing at the MFA is, indeed, well worth seeing.
posted by mskyle at 2:26 PM on February 15, 2011

If you are really looking for Mexican, I'd suggest El Pelon over Anna's.

Definitely Jamaica Plain will be beautiful in May. Check out the Arboretum, get ice cream at JP Licks, walk along Centre and South Streets for a bit. The Hallway Gallery is on South Street and by then another new gallery should be open a block away. I know you're not big drinkers, but if you want the Boston Irish pub experience, JP has some fine examples (Brendan Behan, James' Gate and Doyles).

It's not as quirky as it once was, but if you've never been it's worth walking around Harvard Square in Cambridge. Harvard's Peabody Museum is pretty cool--actually Harvard has a few art museums to see. There are some nice bookshops and a few interesting stores around.

Second the swan boats and as touristy and goofy as it is, I enjoyed the duck boat tour. I'm a native, even. But how often do you get to ride into the Charles River and have your car become a boat? It's a lovely view of the city.
posted by jdl at 2:26 PM on February 15, 2011

Check out the ICA (Institue for Contemporary Art)! Tons of places for lunch afterwards, but you can also do a Harpoon Brewery Tour just a short walk up the street (I know you said not big drinkers, but you also can easily just do the tour and not drink during the tasting portion at the end).

You can also rent kayaks at the Charles River Canoe Company in Allston (all MBTA accessible) and go Kayaking on the Charles. It gives the city an entierly new perspective. You could easily do a picnic or grab lunch nearby afterwards.

Shopping on Newbury Street is always fun (though expensive), but you can window-shop the high end stores and hit the vintage/secondhand shops too.

Take a stroll through Chinatown for some crazy sights and cheap lunch.

If you're there over a weekend, the South End Open Market is a giant, quirky flea market in the South End where you can buy anything from art to food, to...crazy stuff!!
posted by floweredfish at 2:28 PM on February 15, 2011

I strongly encourage you to take the Harbor Cruise out to the islands for one day of your trip. Bring a nice picnic. When you get to George's Island, get off and explore. But also go and visit some of the other islands -- Grape Island is very nice, for example.

I second the Gardner Museum. It's an experience unlike any other art museum.

An unusual item I would add to your list is to visit the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts building right off the Common on Tremont Street. Even if you have no interest in Freemasonry whatsoever, the building is quite beautiful and the tour includes lots of history. They usually do two tours per day -- call in advance for times.

The Duck Boat Tours are a little pricey, but they are also a great deal of fun and a good introduction to the city. And they go in the water. That's always a plus. Take one on the first full day you are in the city to help figure out what you'd like to get a closer look at.

Also consider a trip to see the glass flower collection at the Harvard Natural History Museum. The flowers are beautiful and the techniques that were used to create them have been lost -- so, they are something you'll only see here.

Lastly, find a nice table at one of the cafes on Newbury Street and enjoy the people watching.

If you have any particular interests or requirements, let me know. I love helping people explore my adopted city.
posted by driley at 2:39 PM on February 15, 2011

Oh, sorry, I forgot to say that first thing you should do when you get to the city is to each get a Charlie Card. Just approach one of the officials at an MBTA station and ask for one. Then buy yourself a pass for however long you'll be in the city so you don't have to worry about paying for transportation around Boston. You can get nearly everywhere through the combination of T and bus -- but if you are going to use the bus system, you might want to figure out how to use on your cell.
posted by driley at 2:45 PM on February 15, 2011

Following up on the Arnold Arboretum recommendations, Lilac Sunday is May 8th this year and highly recommended if you'll be in town then.

Speaking of scheduling . . . most of the dozens of local colleges hold graduations in May, so hotels and ticketed events tend to fill up early.
posted by Signed Sealed Delivered at 4:07 PM on February 15, 2011

The aquarium is overpriced for what you get to see, if you ask me.
Unless you have a real crappy Aquarium where you are from, I would skip on this. I do appreciate that they do a lot of research there, though.

I would also skip on the Harvard Museum of Natural History if that comes up. It's pretty much a dump with taxidermy animals that are falling apart, gems/rocks and some glass flowers.

I second the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

I always enjoy Museum of Science.

I spent a lot of time in Davis Square. Has a bit of everything and it's less touristy.
If you go there, check out Museum of Bad Art in the Somerville Theatre basement.

Zaftigs is pretty decent. While you're there, see a film at Coolidge Theatre in Brookline and check out Brookline Booksmith.

the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) is an awesome art museum to check out. It's along the harbor and it's a nice walk from South Station. Not really much else around it.

Harvard square is also great to walk around in.

Outside of the city (public transportation available or you can use a Zip Car):

-A trip to Concord is nice. History trails, old graveyards, little shops, etc.
-deCordova Sculpture Park & Museum is probably one of my favorite places to visit. You can take the commuter and walk a mile or two... or rent a zipcar.
-Salem is a nice place to visit. It's on the water and has nice shops. You can take the commuter rail or express bus. Check out the peabody essex museum and take a tour with Hocus Pocus Tours.

There's lots of live music and events all over the city. Check the Phoenix or Weekly Dig for the week you will be there to see if anything may interest you guys.

posted by KogeLiz at 4:07 PM on February 15, 2011

Wow. I would not make a special trip to Zaftig's. It's decent, and the neighborhood is worth a walk about, but I'd go to Rami's across the street for really good falafel first.

Nthing that is the weather is nice, you should walk as much as possible. Boston is best viewed on foot, and tends to be beautiful in May. If so, nthing the arboretum, public garden, streets of Beacon Hill/Back Bay, and renting kayaks on the Charles (the Kendall Square location is close to the Red Line).

It's gorgeous unless it's rainy and cold, in which case, the Gardner Museum is fabulous, and currently the cream of Harvard's great art collection is all in the Sackler, which is well worth the visit.

Agreeing that Craigie is great, best meal of my life was had there. Enjoy Boston!
posted by ldthomps at 5:46 PM on February 15, 2011

Nthing the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - this is my favorite place in Boston.
posted by naoko at 6:34 PM on February 15, 2011

If you're here in nice weather, try the Boston Harborwalk! The part I'm most familiar with starts you in the North End (you can see the USS Constitution across the way in the Navy Yard) and all along the water, past the NE Aquarium and out to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Southie. You'll get some great views of the downtown buildings, the boats in the harbor and there'll be plenty of touristy things to take leave of the trail for along the way.

If you're baseball fans, check out Bleacher Bar, which is the bar inside Fenway Park, on Lansdowne St. (Take the T to Kenmore Sq or to Fenway - short walk from there)

Seconding the suggestion that you get a CharlieCard - a Charlie Ticket (which prints out of the machine as opposed to being a plastic card) will get you charged more per single ride, if you start adding money on (T ride on Card is $1.70, on Ticket is $2). Otherwise, I think the cost of a day or week pass should be the same on either.
posted by dayspteh at 6:42 PM on February 15, 2011

Totally agree with the idea of going to Mount Auburn Cemetery - I did that last Memorial Day weekend and it was really lovely. And absolutely go to lunch nearby at Sofra. Ohmigod, it is amazing Middle Eastern/North African bakery/"deli", but that's a little misleading. It was started by the chef of a high class restaurant in Cambridge so she could do more casual entries. Get the chocolate-rose tea and a doughnut and the apricot-pistachio tea bread and oh god I want to go there rightnow.

Anyway, you can take one of the 70 buses from Harvard Square out to Mount Auburn and Sofra is about a block away. If I had to pick one thing, I think that would be it.

If I could pick any others - the MFA is really great, especially if you're stuck with a rainy day. Harvard Square is all shopping, but will probably keep you amused for a bit (I especially recommend the Harvard Book Store [not the Coop, which is the university's book store], Black Ink, Burdick's Chocolates, Clover for a cheap healthy lunch, and a quick wander through Harvard Yard), and the tour of Fenway if you are big baseball fans (if you aren't, it's a little pricy).

Davis Square is great for dinner (and a movie if you want a lowkey evening), but there's not that much else to do. Museum of Science is fun, but I don't know that it's more remarkable than any other city's. The MIT Museum is fun, but small and not really in an area with other stuff (although nearby Flour bakery is well thought of). Chinatown is pretty small if you've been to NYC or SF, but kinda fun if you're from a more rural/less diverse area.

(And, as a qualifier - counting college, I've been in town 10+ years, I live in Davis Sq, and I am from a less diverse area, so I'm not dissing those things. And it does kinda pain me to recommend Harvard Sq so heavily, but it is a good place to spend some time.)
posted by maryr at 7:06 PM on February 15, 2011

If you go into the Prudenial Center, they have a restaurant called Top of the Hub. It's expensive, but if you go there at night you can get a couple drinks and an awesome view. Definitely worth the extra cost.
posted by hipersons at 5:15 AM on February 25, 2011

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