Wicked Cool Boston

Boston has never been on my radar particularly but with the visa situation dragging on, it soon peaked my interest. Obviously I’d heard of it; the harbour, Matt Damon, the Red Sox, Harvard University and of course, the outrageous accent. Seeing pictures on Pinterest of the architecture and finding a $35 return ticket sealed the deal.

Boston is steeped (excuse the pun) in history, it’s one of the oldest cities in the United States having been founded in 1630 by English Puritans. The city played a major role in key historical events linked to the slavery abolitionist movement and the American Revolution. It’s also home to the nations first public school, subway station (sorry NYC) and public park. 

The 19th century brought around big changes for the city with a rapid growth in population. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants arrived trying to escape the potato famine and by 1850 around 35,000 of them had taken up residency. Later on it became more varied with large groups from European, Eastern European & Middle Eastern countries reaching the shores of America. To accommodate all these newcomers, the city tripled it’s land mass by filling in marshland and mudflats which has resulted in the famous harbour we see today.

Disembarking the bus at South Station was a relief after the 5 hour slog from NY, I was keen to get going and explore the city. As I stepped out of the terminal, I instantly knew I was going to like Boston. It’s fresh, salty air, it’s wide open spaces and it’s almost visible easy-going character. According to my map, everything was pretty close together and the Boston Tea Party Museum was only a 10 minute walk away. 

The first time I heard of this pretty important historical event, was when I visited the well known chain of coffee shops in the UK about 6 years ago. The unique name of the establishment caused me to google the company, which inevitably ended up with me ‘falling into a Wikipedia hole.’ One link led to another and then suddenly I’m in a horror story involving a substantial amount of tea ending up in an American harbour. Now I had the opportunity, I had to find out more. 

At $28 the museum was pretty expensive but I threw it in with the ‘you only do it once’ group and handed over my money. The tour was led by a very enthusiastic, expressive guide wearing full historical dress, we were encouraged to ‘huzzah’ with raised fists at every turn. There were life size replicas of the ships that carried the tea as well as the only known surviving tea chest from that night. One thing I didn’t realise before going to the museum was that this incident kick started the whole American Revolution.

The protest was organised by the Sons of Liberty, a group dedicated to fighting taxation from the British Crown. They resented the idea of paying an extra 3 pence for tea when they had none of their own representatives in parliament. “No taxation without representation.” On December 16th, 1773 protesters boarded the 3 vessels and destroyed the entire shipment of tea by throwing it into the harbour. None of the other goods were touched as in agreement with the crew and they even swept the deck before they left. The British government retaliated harshly by passing the Boston Port Act, which essentially closed Boston off completely from trading due to it’s almost water locked location. The other 12 of the Thirteen Colonies responded, the situation intensified and the American Revolutionary War began in 1775. 

After finishing up at the museum, I followed the Boston Harborwalk all the way around to the neighbourhood of North End. Since 1984 the project has been establishing green spaces, supporting art installations and providing a scenic route along the waters edge via piers & wharves. When it is eventually completed it will run for 47 m/76 km linking up notable historical sites, neighbourhoods and other trails throughout the city. 

I ended up walking to the hostel as it was only an hour away. My route took me over two bridges, past the Bunker Hill Monument, through the city’s ugly industrial area and finally to Everett- Massachusetts most diverse city and the location of my hostel. It was your standard backpackers really, however the one surprise was meeting a girl staying in my room from the town where I went to high school. Oh Droitwich, I just can’t shake you off!  

My second day in Boston begun early. I took the 86 bus to Harvard University, where even at 9 am the campus was bustling with people. Tour groups were wandering the grounds in a babble of foreign languages and new students had arrived to register for their dorms. It was fascinating people watching that’s for sure. An interesting mix of highly intellectual, quirky individuals, beaming parents, nervous first year’s and wishful people like me, wondering if I fit in with the crowd or not. 

The main campus is centered around the original and the most famous part of the university, the Harvard Yard in Cambridge which is where I stood. It’s the location of the university’s oldest building, Massachusetts Hall as well as it’s most important libraries, Memorial Church, classrooms and the freshman dormitories. Harvard is the oldest institute of higher education in the United States having been established in 1636 and has always been known for it’s wealth and influence.

I had a great time wandering around the neighbourhood of Cambridge. Upmarket stationary stores, window displays all in crimson and alfresco dining. The really interesting thing about it is the cross over between the students from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The bicycles with wicker baskets, tote bags and pretty buildings were blended and then replaced by dark coloured suits, loud phone calls and functional architecture. It sounds awfully cliché but that’s really what I saw. 

Walking across Longfellow bridge gave me great views of the skyline from a different perspective and eventually took me into the heart of the Beacon Hill neighbourhood. This residential area of Boston is well known for its narrow streets, red brick sidewalks and colonial row town houses. It is regarded as one of the most desirable places to live in the whole city. 

In the 17th century it was used for livestock grazing and military drills. When the signal beacon was constructed in 1634, the area took a down turn attracting sailors and other mischievous characters. Two centuries later and the wealthy folk called the ‘Boston Brahmans’ moved in. The South slope became known as the seat of power and was the location of the golden domed Massachusetts State House.

The wealth that settled here in the past, is still very much apparent. Wide entrance ways with sweeping stairs, ornate door knockers, window boxes brimming with flowers, freshly painted shutters, uneven cobble streets, elegant iron work, towering gas lamps. It reminded me a lot of Greenwich Village in NYC, just on a hill and less hipsters around. 

To take advantage of the excellent subway system, I took the orange line out to Jamaica Plains to the Harvard owned Arnold Arboretum. It was founded in 1872 when Benjamin Bussey, a scientific farmer & merchant donated his country estate along with part of his fortune. His only instructions were to use the 281 acres of land for agriculture, horticulture and related subjects. The university set up the Bussey Institute which is devoted to agricultural experimentation and the arboretum is a haven for 14,980 individual plants.

It wasn’t the quietest public space I’ve ever been to but the bonus of it being so accessible outweighs the hum of traffic in the background. The highlight was a huge meadow of wildflowers which had been left to it’s own devices, creating a sea of yellow between the tree’s.

When I was reading up on Boston and after I arrived, I kept seeing two words: lobster roll. Even Mcdonalds serves one for $8.99! I had always considered this to be a Maine tradition but it seems the whole of New England has jumped on the bandwagon. Having never tried a lobster roll before, I decided to go all out and experience the number one on Tripadvisor, Neptune Oyster. The reviews were pronouncing 2-3 hour waits, the cost was $$-$$$ and the lobster was always at market price, so you never knew the final result until you got there. Not to be deterred, I went anyway. Being a solo diner I only had to wait 20 minutes and happily soaked up the atmosphere from a corner. I tried to keep out of the way of busy servers, teetering platters of oysters and the constant stream of people inquiring about the wait time.

The restaurant was small and loud with every available space taken. The wine was flowing, groups were admiring their meals and a lady in the window was shucking oysters with quiet concentration. Even for someone who dislikes them greatly, the selection was impressive. Mostly they came from Massachusetts but also Alaska, Rhode Island & Canada. But I was here for the acclaimed lobster roll, which arrived with a flourish and a glass of Riesling. A mighty sandwich, buttery and golden, stuffed to the brim with blushing lobster, lined with dark grill marks. It was truly delicious- but how could it not be with all that butter? 

My third and last full day in Boston began with a ferry over to Spectacle Island, a place I knew would be pretty but didn’t realise would be so interesting. The island has a varied and grimy history for such a small spot. It was first used by Native American tribes for fishing prior to the colonists arrival. They set up farms until 1717 when a small pox quarantine centre was established, it was used for 20 years. More than 2 centuries later, two resorts were built but were shut down in 1857 after a brothel was discovered. That same year a horse rendering plant was opened as well as a rubbish incinerator. Rubbish was then dumped on the island until 1959 causing water pollution in the harbour. Nothing was done until 1992 when the ‘Big Dig’ project began, the excavated dirt from the tunnel was used to resurface and raise the whole island. 

34 islands are located in the harbour, not all of them are open to the public but 6 of them are accessible by ferry all year round. Spectacle Island opened in 2006 with a swimming beach, walking trails and a visitor centre- you could easily spend the whole afternoon there. The ferry goes right past the historic fort on Castle Island, delivering panoramic skyline views before dropping you at the jetty 30 minutes later. I did the longest hike on the island, munching on wild blackberries as I went and admiring how natural they had managed to make it look. The soft grasses swayed in the breeze, a soft taste of salt was on the air and white sails dotted the harbour, gliding past green patches of land. The ocean looked so inviting, I decided to take a swim at the stony beach but when there’s only children in the water, you know it’s going to be cold! 

I spent the rest of the afternoon split between the Boston Common and the Boston Public Gardens which are both adjacent in the centre of the city. Originally the commons were used for cow grazing, then as a British military camp during the revolution. These days it’s a well known spot for protests and picnics. Food trucks were doing a roaring trade and the stall owners were doing their best to persuade people that they did actually need that lobster fridge magnet. A lady was playing the piano as people ate their lunch, a homeless man with a crutch hustled the sitting ducks and I watched with undisguised eagerness as tourists tried to feed ‘friendly’ squirrels. There was recently an incident in Brooklyn where a ‘rabid’ squirrel took a liking to 6 people. I highly doubt they were just innocent bystanders…

The public gardens were much less exciting, or more relaxed depending on how you look at it. I sat under a tree for a good hour reading my book whilst an Asian man played an erhu (Chinese violin) in the background. The pristine white swan boats floated past on the lake scattering offended ducks. During winter when it freezes over, it’s turned into an ice skating rink full of excited children and offends the ducks even more. 

North End was by far my favourite neighbourhood of Boston that I walked through during my trip. The area is also known as Little Italy, I like to think it’s what New York’s used to be like 20 years ago before it became a nasty tourist trap. There’s not a tacky souvenir shop in sight with red, white & green merchandise spilling onto the sidewalk, no cheap pizza deals and it actually feels genuine. On my first walk through I passed two old Italian men sat outside a cafe, gripping tiny espresso cups in their wizened hands, arguing like they’d been doing it all their lives. They both stopped their squabbling to give a polite nod to an older lady they knew and resumed once she was a respectful distance away.

It’s the oldest residential neighbourhood in the city, dating back to the 1630’s. It’s pretty small but has seen it’s fair share of set backs. There’s been numerous fires, copious amounts of it’s residents died due to pandemic’s, half of it was knocked down to make space for a highway and the most interesting of all- the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. I kid you not. A storage tank burst causing an 8 m wave of molasses to rush through the streets at an estimated 35 mph. 21 people were killed and 150 injured. For decades after, the community would claim on hot, summer days that there was a sweet smell in the air.

On a different visit, I found the most amazing store advertising Italian lemon slushies. Inside where barrels and jars of all different sizes, piled on every surface with handwritten labels. Spices, beans, herbs, pasta. Behind the counter on shelves were coffee beans, at least 30 different flavours. As I was stood there taking it all in, a lady came in with her family asking for the chocolate raspberry variety. The store worker took down the jar, unscrewed the lid and unceremoniously poured the beans into the basket of the old fashioned scales. Wow. It was the most heavenly scent, I despise coffee but this, this transported me to a time when they used to worship chocolate. The best part about this experience was that the whole time I was in there, there were 2 men in the corner arguing about mozzarella. You literally couldn’t make this shit up. 

On my final day in Boston before catching the bus home, I did The Freedom Trail. It’s a 2.5 mile long route that takes you past 16 significant locations linked to the history of Boston and the United States. It’s marked by a double red brick line that winds through the downtown crossing area, into the neighbourhood of North End and over the river to the Bunker Hill monument. Sites along the way include; the gold domed State House, burial grounds, Faneuil Hall and the Old North Church. People who lead the paid tours along the trail are mostly in full historical dress. A true highlight of the city is seeing these tour guides on their way to work, with lets say, a modern backpack & talking on a smart phone, in full historical dress.

Well, that’s all for my Boston trip. It truly is a fabulous city with so much to offer. I feel like I managed to pack quite a lot in during my short trip and if you’re reading this sentence- I didn’t bore you to death retelling my shenanigans!