Boston, Massachusetts, USA
7 days, 1 city, and countless cups of coffee.
At 21, it felt somewhat momentous to be venturing out to the States for the first time since being bestowed with legality concerning alcohol consumption. And flying solo, no less. Swanning through the airport I felt a certain freedom that accompanied my lack of accompaniment. I could invent a whole new story about who I was, or why I was jetting out to Boston in March. My passport may have encumbered such attempts at reinvention, but the possibility was there no less! This taste of freedom was pleasantly washed down by a Bloody Mary aboard the flight and had it not been for a swift delivery of food alongside the complimentary bottle of wine (a mini-one), I risked resembling Kristen Wiig a la Bridesmaids. But all in all it was a smooth flight tempered by excitement and delusions of maturity.
It appeared to me a serene and languid city, one that rewarded those not in a hurry and whom had the time the soak up the distinctly different vibes of each neighbourhood.
That we were there for a week and not in the peak of tourist season seemed the perfect amount of time to explore without rushing. To revisit favourite cafes and restaurants, and do things off the beaten track.
With that in mind, I have compiled a list of sorts that regales the best bits of my Bostonian experience.
(Photographs are all my own).
As with any city, the skyline is often the place to look for 5 star views and Boston certainly didn’t disappoint. Especially when combined with the series of intense sunsets that took place over the several nights we were there. This is a view into Back Bay from our hostel, overlooking the John Hancock tower.
I would recommend walking along the Charles River, from pretty much any angle, for spectacular views across the city. Along the Esplanade (a 3 mile walk next to the River) you have the city behind you (or to the right) whilst surrounded by trees, joggers and pond life which can provide a tranquil respite from the hustle and bustle of taxi horns and shoppers – though this is pretty limited in Boston anyway. However I preferred walking over the Harvard Bridge, because you then end up distancing yourself from the skyline and therefore obtaining a much better perspective of the stunningly integrated architecture. The river itself happened to be partially frozen in spectacular curvatures, which gave a beautiful juxtaposition between the white solidity of the ice and the darker recesses of the flowing river. (See first picture). And it was this monochrome polarity that inspired the mainly black and white photographs I took of the city.
Equally impressive – though perhaps harder to achieve – were the views from the top of the Bunker Hill Monument. You have to travel over to Charlestown, which felt more like the sleepy, rural America of the Mid-West and of classic road trip movies, and then up 294 steps. However, it is free (for the view and the workout), and the end result is pretty rewarding. It’s never until you’re elevated above the ground that you realise the expansiveness of the city you’re in and how dense it is. Boston is a strange, but equally attractive, mix of futuristic contemporary architecture with sleek glass exteriors and older architectural styles (definite Georgian and Gothic influences), using red-brick facades and punctuated by columns, domes and lots of stairs.
Other architectural styles present in Boston – which create a lively and sometimes incongruous panorama – include Art Deco, (Paramount theatre), Modernism (John Hancock Tower), and the bizarre postmodern design of the MIT campus…
Forgive me for lapsing into a bit of motherly-advice, but definitely pack comfortable shoes. Boston is a city that you can easily navigate via foot and it’s the best way to stare up to the skies and absorb your surroundings.
Coming from a person who tends to buy most of their clothes online and finds the process of trying on garments in a boxy room with unflattering lighting both tedious and bothersome, you should take this advice VERY SERIOUSLY. Bring a bit of spending money with you AND some spare suitcase space, because American retailers ARE cheaper and you can get some great finds for a fraction of the price. Sorry for the over-zealous and liberal use of capital letters, but I had to get my point across. American shop assistants are also incredibly friendly and operate like wind-up merchants or the ‘Woody’ Toy Story doll spouting lines on repeat such as ‘How’s it going?’, ‘That is SO cute’, ‘Can I help you with anything at all’, or ‘This would look FABULOUS on you’. At first my aloof and taciturn British self couldn’t handle such unbridled and enthusiastic communication, but you gradually come to embrace it. I was practically BFF’s with a waiter upon my second visit to one particular bookshop.
The ‘Everything is Cheaper’ rule doesn’t just apply to clothes of course. As a literary soul and part-time paperback addict I also splurged on several books (Brattle Street Bookstore and the Raven Bookstore are secondhand favourites, rammed full of romantically antique and rifled through copies of fiction fabulousness). For this kind of a habit though you might need a whole new suitcase; I bought 9 books and was on the verge of a meltdown after repacking my case 4 times to try and fit them all in.
The main shopping district in Boston is Back Bay, with Boylston and Newbury street their version of London’s Oxford. However if you’re looking for a retail experience that doesn’t involve H+M, Urban Outfitters and a Starbucks on every corner, then venturing further out may be required. On our last day in Boston we strolled into South End where a weekly Vintage Market is held. It’s in this strange hermetically sealed enclave, with a boardwalk of boutique shops selling jewelry, hats, beads and fabric, as well as art galleries and furniture stores. At the end is an abandoned warehouse type building where sellers of all things retro gather to entice the nostalgically-inclined. It was a haven. They had pretty much everything from typewriters, cameras and copies of LIFE magazine to suitcases, coats and an enviable range of knitwear. I ended up purchasing some cute $1 postcards (I remind you, this was on the last day and I had very literally taken my advice about bringing some spending money and spending it.) Some of them had actual messages on the back, whilst most just provided an insight into how Boston and America in general used to look. I’ve scanned a couple of the postcards below… The best part of the vintage market experience however was this hilariously entertaining and effervescent black man whom seemed to work there, or was otherwise just wandering about with the sole purpose of making people laugh. Upon entering the warehouse his little face popped into the window of the door we were attempting (and failing) to enter, causing us to scream girlishly. He then reassured us we needn’t be scared, ‘it was only a black man’. Ha. Of course we laughed awkwardly and made sheepish remarks, but to me he summed up the friendliness of the people in Boston. People are not only willing to converse, but seemingly want to. I had a great little chat with a woman whilst watching ‘The Princess Bride’ about how much Claire Underwood has changed. Buttercup got mean!
Bring comfy shoes, bring money, but most of all, bring your appetite and do away with any guilt you have about eating more than one indulgent dish in a day.
$ – We frequented this friendly Irish pub ‘JJ Foleys’ which did standard American food (pizza, burgers, clam chowder, Guinness stew) but in a chilled out and friendly environment. We also came across a glorious coffee-shop-cum-book-store on Newbury Street that ensconces you in volumes of literature as you sip refill house coffee for $1.95. Even better they play movie classics such as ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘The Princess Bride’ in the background. And even better than that, the menu is amazing. It offers healthier brunch cuisine, with breakfast burritos (avocados, scrambled eggs, mushrooms), fresh fruit and pancakes, alongside soups, quesadillas, tortillas and a variety of puddings. Tuck in.
Another treasure trove of a find was Grendel’s Den near Harvard Square, Cambridge. It caters mainly to the students of the area and does half-price meal deals everyday between 5-7pm. It’s got quite a quaint, cosy, hippie vibe and sort of looks like you wandered into someone’s dining room (in a good way). The staff were very friendly and the cider was delicious. You have to stroll up a few side streets to find it, but it’s well worth scouting out.
$$ – House of Siam did amazing Thai food, which we experienced in true American style by ordering take-out and slobbing about in our pajamas. (A day of walking and book-shopping can really take it out of you!) We also found this delightfully rustic Italian restaurant called ‘Antico Forno’ in North End (Boston’s Little Italy) which does decent sized pizzas for under $10.
$$$ – Our Saturday night treat was a visit to ‘Stephi’s on Tremont‘, an upmarket American bistro place which had a bustling atmosphere and cocktail bar. It’s menu combined contemporary cuisine with classic comfort-f0od favourites such as ‘Mac and Cheese’. It was definitely on the pricier side, with about $17 your average price for an entree, $9 for a glass of wine and $10 for a pudding, but as a one-off I would definitely recommend.
We also visited ‘L.A. Burdick‘, a gourmet chocolate shop, a bit like ‘Thornton’s but with a cafe attached. Their cake slices are absolutely divine and dainty enough to not make you feel like that fat kid and the gateau in ‘Matilda’ .
Other recommendations: Sonsie, Stephanie’s and Boloco and anywhere that does cheesecake.
Boston certainly isn’t the ‘Big Apple’ in terms of glitz and glamour, and in fact, most residents resent the comparison. However, something that is fantastically electrifying is the experience of witnessing a baseball game at Fenway Park. This time I went before the season begins, but upon my last visit was fortunate enough to watch the Red Sox play two home games, one against the Indians and the other against the Yankees. Baseball doesn’t reward fidgets, the easily distracted, or those not interested in sport. It’s a slow-burning game of tactics and often a frustrating one. Why on earth have you put this in the ‘thrills’ section I hear you cry?! But once you get into it, the atmosphere at the games is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Between each inning there’s a giant crowd sing-song or Mexican wave, and at the end of the 9th inning at Red Sox home games everyone stands up and belts out ‘Sweet Caroline’. Plus if the Red Sox happen to win, the crowd go absolutely wild. Like batshit crazy mental. In the most endearing way possible. It’s bonkers and a little bit scary, but simultaneously wonderful. And if you actually follow the game at the same time, then even better. Just for god’s sake don’t ask if it’s like rounders.
Walking alongside Boston Harbour (despite the ferocious wind) made for a glorious sunny morning. You can explore Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market and then cross the road for resplendent views across the ocean. In the summer (when I went last time), the Boston Harbour Hotel does free concerts wherein the entertainment perform on a stage-slash-jetty on the ACTUAL water. You have to book in advance to get a table but once that’s sorted, it’s smooth sailing. (I can only apologise).
There are also a plethora of reasonably priced yoga or pilates classes throughout the city. The Back Bay Yoga studio does $5 community classes that run for an hour and a half and you can just drop into. So if sight-seeing gets a bit strenuous, go and stretch it out.
There’s more culture in Boston than you can shake a stick at. Being a fairly academic city, with a college on almost every block (forgive the hyperbole), there’s also a great cultural scene for students. The Museum of Fine Arts and Institute of Contemporary Art are free for certain hours during the week, whilst theatrical shows and improv comedy sometimes do student prices.
Our burst of culture came in the form of a trip to ‘Kendall Square Cinema’, an independent cinema in Cambridge near the MIT campus which shows art-house or quirky films. We saw ‘Her’, the latest Spike Jonze and Joaquin Phoenix film about dating in the technological age. Visit my other blog for a review coming soon!
There was also a small art gallery near the SoWa vintage market that specialised in Cuban paintings called ‘Galleria Cubana’. At the time they were showcasing the work of Aneet R. Fontes, who depicts the urban landscape of Havana in vividly photographic style using acrylics on canvas.
If that doesn’t satiate your cultural cravings, there are plenty of others art galleries, museums and events going-on throughout the year to explore. The Harvard Bookstore does literary talks and philosophical evenings for instance, and quite a few places I spotted do ‘live jazz’ nights, so it’s definitely worth planning ahead of your trip to see what’s happening!
There are lots of statues, hidden enclaves and enchanting little sidewalks to appease keen photographers and explorers alike. I’d definitely recommend walking through Beacon Hill and Boston Common. Here a few final random photographs that summarise just some of what I saw strolling through this magnificent city.