Help me refactor my family's Boston trip in September
September 1, 2018 8:34 AM   Subscribe

We were planning a refreshing family vacation from Houston to Boston in late September to attend an important family wedding. Then our flood insurance bill went up 600% (Thanks, Harvey!) Help us change this trip into the cheapest possible but still have family fun.

I just want to focus on making the trip as cheap as possible without being dour and Scrooge-like. But we need to save every penny we can to finish fixing our house from the last storm and insure it against future storms. (Please, I just want to focus on the vacation, not how to reduce the flood insurance bill.)

We are six people, 3 adults and three late teens, staying in Medford and renting a car to get around. We will be there Thursday through Saturday. With wedding obligations, we have all day Thursday and the daytime on Friday and Saturday to explore the area like the penniless band of flaneurs we are forced to become.

I need tips on surprisingly cool sights and experiences of Boston that are:

Family friendly
Preferably free or at least dirt cheap
Captures the local flavor of Boston
Not the usual touristy stuff. (Not because we don't want to see that touristy stuff but because we can no longer afford touristy prices. Plus, we can find the touristy stuff pretty easily ourselves.)
Instagrammable photo ops (for our teens who care about that stuff)
Cannot do/afford "day trips" from Boston, so we need to stick in the area.

In Houston our family really loves to walk in great parks, attend festivals, walk through farmers markets. And we really love going to see art, public art and street art especially. We also love seeking out the kinds under-the-radar, hole-in-the-wall places that serve outstanding food that Houston is becoming known for.

What are the astonishing, beautiful, unexpected, and downright favorite places you know of in Boston? Bonus for stuff that would even impress a bored teenager.
posted by cross_impact to Travel & Transportation around Boston, MA (27 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The USS Constitution is part of the Boston National Historic Park all free and open pretty much daily. But check the ID requirements for the ship which still belongs to the Navy.
posted by Botanizer at 8:53 AM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Do you have a car or will you be taking the T (subway)?

Was going to suggest Swan Boats (touristy but also unique and interesting) but they will be closed by then. That area around Boston Common is nice though, they have self-guided Freedom Trail Tour and it's not that far from Boston Public Library (gorgeous on the inside, also with a nice cafe for recharging and free wifi and actual fun teen hangout area). I'm a history nerd (and from MA) and there are some exhibits at the MA Historical Society (free)

ICA is free Thursday nights from 5-9 pm and is worth going to.

The Commonwealth Museum is nice historical free and a little snoozy but it gets you right out by the waterfront which is nice if you're a walking-around family. I also enjoy Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market (walking tour on Saturday) but hard to get a feel for what it would look.feel like to people from out of town.

You can check the Boston Calendar to see if anything else piques your interest (note, a lot of it is NOT in Boston, I was interested in the biohacking talk but it's way out in the burbs) however some stuff is pretty nearby like the Toy Camera Festival (really more of a gallery exhibit)

WBUR has ranked Boston's best public art and you can skim and see if there's anything you'd like. I am not at all helpful as far as food.
posted by jessamyn at 9:12 AM on September 1, 2018 [4 favorites]

Crane Hill, an old Gilded Age estate, is $15 per car. There's some modern art installation going on there now, plus it's pretty, and you can go to the beach if you like. About an hour's(?) drive from the city. Maybe not as urban as you're seeking, though.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge is the U.S.'s first "garden cemetery" and is quite beautiful. There's also a tower you can climb for a panoramic view.
posted by praemunire at 9:25 AM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Boston is very walkable although parking is tough/expensive. Secret 4hr spot shh;-) Secret free 2hr closer in.

The BPL is old, beautiful, worth a walk through. The 'Harbor Walk' is nice. USS Constitution is free. Piers Park near the airport is really nice and a walk down the pier is fun and there are art installations. A walk around Deer Island gets out to the ocean. Getting to these areas without tolls is interesting but not bad and sometimes faster.

MIT has a fun little ship museum and walking down the infinite corridor is interesting and better than the science museum.
posted by sammyo at 9:27 AM on September 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

I also enjoy Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market (walking tour on Saturday) but hard to get a feel for what it would look.feel like to people from out of town.

I lived in Boston for a number of years and ... crazy touristy is how it looks even to me.
posted by praemunire at 9:29 AM on September 1, 2018

Eastie food (near Piers Park) KO Pies is Aussie transplants cool but in Maverick SQ I like the Cactus Cafe for south american (take out it's tiny).

(don't worry there are mutants but they stay inside in their pricey condos mostly)
posted by sammyo at 9:34 AM on September 1, 2018

The Freedom Trail is, of course, touristy, but free, very cool, and has lots of instagram-worthy spots.

The Emerald Necklace is a chain of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and they're gorgeous. My favorites are the Boston Gardens and the Arboretum.

Davis and Harvard Squares can be fun to poke around in.

Some of my favorite cheap eats:

- Chacarero in downtown crossing. Amazing Chilean sandwiches.
- Pizzeria Regina in the North End.
- Soup dumplings at several places in Chinatown.
- JP Licks ice cream wherever you find it.
- Darwin’s for awesome sandwiches and baked goods outside Harvard Square.
posted by lunasol at 9:36 AM on September 1, 2018

The Freedom Trail can be remarkably cheap, especially if you bring your own snacks/lunch, and it's a great way to see the city.

Definitely do not drive into Boston and park, because the driving is crazy and the parking is ridiculously expensive. I'd park at Alewife, the end of the T's red line (possibly close to where you're staying?). Parking is about $8/day and even public transit tix for 6 will be less than parking somewhere more central.

What else are the teens interested in? If any of them like street performances or dogs, hanging around Davis/Harvard/Central Square (Cambridge) might be fun for them, or just wandering Boston Common and the Public Garden. If any of them are into window shopping, Newbury St/Back Bay is for them.
posted by TwoStride at 9:41 AM on September 1, 2018

If you're meandering in the Boston Common area, your bored teenagers will lose their minds of you take them to Primark which is Downtown Crossing.

While there are hundreds of Primarks in Europe, there are only a handful in America and they're known for their fashion-forward, incredibly inexpensive clothing which is seriously on-trend. They can get completely new outfits for $25, including shoes.

Even people who are eh about shopping go into the Downtown Crossing Primark and lose their minds.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:47 AM on September 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

Quincy Market is still a market in the morning, walk through, gaze upon the Faneuil Hall marketplace, watch some street performers, read historic plaques, then go to the Nat. Park Service desk to get a map of the Freedom Trail. Last I knew, you could park at a commuter lot on the Green Line and take the T into town without having to hassle with parking, which is a massive, expensive pain. Boston benefited from massive federal funds to run roads underground in The Big Dig and the resulting open green space above is worth admiring. Boston is a port and has fishing boats, so walk along the waterfront where you can.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 AM on September 1, 2018

Coming from Houston, the architecture, not to mention street layout, is quite different Here are some self-guided walking tours.
posted by theora55 at 10:06 AM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Greetings from Medford! Depending on where you're staying, Wellington Station has plenty of parking and is an Orange Line stop which will take you to downtown Boston in a few stops. Warning: the traffic patterns around the station can be really challenging (e.g. lots of unintuitive signage and intense rotaries).

If it's fall, it's cider donuts time in New England which is my favorite time of the year. If you're in Boston, you can get some from Red Apple Farm at their stall at the Boston Public Market. The market also has lots of other local food vendors and it's convenient to other sites downtown and to public transportation.

Since you have a car, you're maybe a 20 minute drive from Wilson Farm in Lexington. On weekends, they have fresh cider donuts and other types of typically fall things (like hay rides or whatever) which may make teenagers roll their eyes hard. But, those donuts!
posted by profsnaggle at 10:14 AM on September 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you are there on Saturday Sept 22, check out the What the Fluff? the
annual Marshmallow Fluff Festival in Union Square Somerville (which is next to Medford). It celebrates the invention of Marshmallow fluff and includes weird games, live music, contests, etc. I cannot overstate its awesomeness! Plus it's free.
posted by pangolin party at 10:15 AM on September 1, 2018 [6 favorites]

Don't park in the city.

If you can swing it in the budget, get everyone a 7-day pass for the MBTA, which will include unlimited travel by bus and subway. That'll get you access to Boston, Cambridge, and a lot of surrounding towns, all of which are pretty walkable. (Medford is on the bus line, even. It's also close to several subway stops.)
posted by current resident at 10:21 AM on September 1, 2018 [2 favorites]

If you're there for the last Saturday of the month, the ICA will be free.
posted by xo at 10:38 AM on September 1, 2018

Seconding Mt Auburn Cemetery.

The ICA's new Watershed is free.

Not sure if it counts as public art, but the Madonna Queen of the Universe Statue in East Boston is beautiful and has good views over the eastern parts of the city.

Central's graffiti alley.

The Esplanade is a nice place to hang out and has the Arthur Fiedler statue head.

Castle Island

Maybe Franklin Park and/or Forest Hills Cemetery. The abandoned bear cages in the park are an interesting sight. Jamaica Plain, the same general neighborhood, often has local festival type events.

Maybe Haymarket, though there are a number of farmer's markets so you can probably find one closer to where you're staying (and likely drive to, if you go north or west).

Maybe Walden Pond.

Of the places above, Mt Auburn and Walden are the only ones to drive to. Maybe the queen of the universe statue. If you're in Medford, with any luck you can walk to Davis, but if that's too far, drive to Alewife (on preview: or Wellington) and park. Have the kids load up on music or podcasts and make the T part of the experience.
posted by orangejenny at 11:39 AM on September 1, 2018

Thirding Mt. Auburn Cemetary. The foliage will be starting by late September and it is a fantastic walk.

By no trips outside the city do you mean no day trips or just no traveling by car? I live in Concord which is 25 minutes from Medford (easier to get to than downtown) and has a ton of history hikes and sights.
posted by lydhre at 11:49 AM on September 1, 2018

Best answer: I always recommend my neighborhood, Jamaica Plain- I am biased, but I think it is a great place for tourists. We have a large portion of the Emerald Necklace located in or around our neighborhood. You can even tour Frederick Law Olmsted home and office close by in Brookline. Forest Hills Cemetery is a great place to go for a walk in the fall. We also have the Arboretum. Lots of great food places: Brassica Kitchen, Ten Tables, Vee Vee, Casa Verde and Tres Gatos. Lots of great shopping (for not so much $) Papercuts is our book store, On Centre has great gift items. We also have Doyles (old political bar that is in a lot of movies) as well as Sam Adams Brewery.
posted by momochan at 12:01 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For Instagrammable public art: if you'll be in Cambridge, MIT maintains a map of all of the public art on campus, and the List Visual Arts Center on their campus is free and open to the public.

The Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, on Harvard's campus, is also free and open to the public. The building itself makes for a nice photo op if you like modern architecture. It's the only building designed by Le Corbusier in North America, and you can peek into most of the gallery and studio spaces without even entering the building by walking up and down the ramp that cuts through it.

The Harvard Art Museums are a little pricey for their size for adults, but students receive free admission (upon showing their IDs) and you don't need to pay to enter the building and look around the courtyard and lower level. Admission to Adolphus Busch Hall, about a block away, is free.

Other museums on Harvard's campus have some niche historical and scientific collections that could be quirkily interesting (or just completely boring) to your teens, but they definitely have a specific local flavor. They're concentrated on the north side of Harvard's campus within easy walking distance of one another and Harvard Square. The Semitic Museum and the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (which you'd have to visit on Thursday or Friday) are totally free. The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and the Harvard Museum of Natural History are both open on Saturdays, and while they're not free, you only need pay once to visit both of them.
posted by Anita Bath at 2:47 PM on September 1, 2018

Best answer: I MeMailed you. Happy to provide access to the aquarium on a budget if you like.
posted by danapiper at 3:18 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you do end up in Harvard Square, the classic cheap eat is a tomato basil Sicilian at Pinocchio's. Noke's has the advantage of feeling like an actual place where college students would eat, a feeling more and more difficult to find in the Square these days. You might also like the experimental mini-chain Clover Food Lab, which I think is entirely vegetarian. For slightly more, go to Cardullo's and get sandwiches to eat in the Yard.
posted by praemunire at 4:01 PM on September 1, 2018

If you are there on Saturday Sept 22, check out the What the Fluff? the
annual Marshmallow Fluff Festival in Union Square Somerville (which is next to Medford). It celebrates the invention of Marshmallow fluff and includes weird games, live music, contests, etc. I cannot overstate its awesomeness! Plus it's free.

If go to this, also check out the Union Square farmer's market, 9-1 on Saturdays!
posted by peacheater at 4:52 PM on September 1, 2018 [1 favorite]

Fourthing Mt Auburn Cemetary! It was one of the highlights of a recent trip to visit friends in Somerville and it's totally free.
posted by maggiemaggie at 8:26 PM on September 1, 2018

Best answer: If you walk along the Emerald Necklace, there's currently a really cool - highly instagrammable - piece of Fog Public Art.

I'd skip Quincy Market and go to the Public Market. That's right next to the Rose Kennedy Greenway, which also has some instagrammable public art and is a lovely green space walking through downtown. If you're there on a Friday or Saturday, the Haymarket is its own special sort of farmers marketish thing. The Freedom Trail goes through the North End and will take you past a bunch of touristy spots, but it's also a nice walk and you go through twisty-turny brick cobbled streets and you can stop and grab a cannoli at the anointed Mike's Pastry or really any other place on the North End. From there, you can take a really lovely walk along the harbor all the way down to the Seaport (should you, for some reason, desire) or go the other way and cross over to Charlestown to get to the aforementioned USS Constitution.

If you go to Copley, you can get a tour of the really beautiful main branch of the Boston Public Library. Newbury Street is nice for browsing and you can walk all the way to the Public Garden and the Common. If you walk west along Newbury Street, you'll eventually come to Mass Ave and you can take a leisurely walk down the Esplanade. Coming back up to Mass Ave, you can walk across the Harvard Bridge into Cambridge and count the Smoots; you also get a very nice view of the Boston skyline. It's the beginning of the semester - depending on how cool your teenagers are, check the schedule for movies being shown at MIT's LSC. In high school, I used to go see movies there maybe every couple of months and pretend to be an MIT student and that felt pretty cool. It's a good campus for wandering around on, too. There are cool sculptures and the aforementioned Infinite Corridor and ship museum.

Coolidge Corner has pretty good kosher and kosher-style deli, and a really excellent bookstore and movie theater.

For $11.95 a bowl, Santouka Ramen in Back Bay and Harvard Square is pretty amazing. Lucy's Cafe on Mass Ave has good and pretty cheap Ethiopian.
posted by ChuraChura at 5:54 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

I’m a curator at Harvard’s main rare book and manuscript library and we have a free public tour every Friday at 2:00. If by some weird chance your teens are super interested in rare books, I might be able to set up something fancier, in which case Memail me.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:38 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

My Boston memory is rusty, but hopefully at least one of these tips is helpful. I think the Capitol building / state house is free to see? And I believe there is a totally charming instagrammable narrow cobblestone street with lots of greenery somewhere right nearby, north west of the state house perhaps? Maybe someone local can comment on that. We had $0.50 oysters there in some bar during happy hour and did not get sick from them, might be worth a Google when you're there. We accidentally got into the aquarium for free by taking the elevator up from the cafeteria. Not sure if they fixed that secret entrance, that was years ago so it might not be worth trying now unless you're walking by anyway. Boston is a great city for walking around for free. Freedom trail, walking by the water, Boston commons for people watching, etc. Grab some picnic ingredients and enjoy it all! The market is also instagrammable and you'll get the feel of it even if you don't want to buy your lunch there.
posted by at 9:24 PM on September 2, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all your great suggestions. You gave us a lot of great options to choose from. It was a great family trip.
posted by cross_impact at 8:25 PM on September 23, 2018

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