Big (but not too big) city life in Boston MA

Boston was my first stop in the US, but I’ve delayed posting about it because I liked it so much that after touring around New York and New England for a few weeks I decided to come back again. It’s a great little city. Amazing live music, beautiful parks, cute old buildings, and wonderfully friendly locals. By no means the cheapest US destination around, but I felt so at home there that it was worth paying a little extra.

One of the first things that strikes me wandering around Boston is how friendly everyone is! Every time I look remotely lost or confused someone offers me directions without me even asking for them. Sometimes people are so helpful that it’s a bit ridiculous. One guy was yelling at me from 50 m away across a park for a while before I clicked that it was me he was talking to. “You! Yeah you! DO YOU NEED DIRECTIONS?!” Oh! No, I’m fine…random guy! Thank you though! For my find public transport adventures I barely have time to focus my eyes before helpful people swoop in to spare me the trouble of reading the subway maps. The last major city I was in was London, so just the fact that strangers are bothering to talk to me seems very strange, but being helpful as well? Completely outlandish.

In case your American history is lacking, Boston is one of the oldest cities in the US and the home of many key events of the American Revolution. The standard touristy thing to do is called the Freedom Trail and is basically a long walk around the city that will take you to some of Boston’s key historical locations. It’s easy to follow on your own, there’s a red line on the footpath starting in the Boston Common that will guide you to all the sites. I find a lot of the buildings somewhat lacking in significance without a guide, but the graveyards are really interesting and if you don’t know you’re way around it’s a nice way to begin exploring the city. I end up not really following the Freedom Trail exactly, but wandering off towards things that look interesting and then linking back up with it once I’m out of ideas.

Boston, Massachusetts

Historic buildings at Beacon Hill

King’s Chapel Burying Ground is the oldest cemetery in the city and was Boston’s only burying site for 30 years. It has less of the famous names that litter Granary (although does still sport a few significant figures) but it’s age makes it interesting, particularly combined with some of the other graveyards in the city. The original inhabitants were extremely Puritan so the older graves are very spartan. Elaborate carvings were seen as idolatry. The carvings that do adorn the gravestones, particularly the older ones, are very grim and reflect how harsh and fleeting life was for the early settlers. The number of surviving gravestones isn’t at all representative of the number of people buried here. Many of the original markers haven’t survived, and those that did have been rearranged to make more orderly paths.

Boston, Massachusetts

Skull motifs in King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Granary Burying Ground is just down the road from King’s Chapel and is the resting place for many figures of the American Revolution. Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Robert Paine are buried here (three of the signers of the declaration of independence if your history’s a bit rusty). Paul Revere is hanging around too, along with the five victims of the Boston Massacre and plenty of lesser known revolutionary figures. Don’t get too excited by the huge Franklin memorial though. Benjamin Franklin isn’t here, it’s a memorial that he had built for his parents. It’s a beautiful cemetery and it’s interesting to see the progression of the gravestone carvings over time after visiting King’s Chapel. As life became a little less uncertain and the Puritans loosened up a little, the gravestones became slightly less grim and elaborate gravestones were no longer such a taboo. In fact, since Puritan churches were so spartan, gravestone carvings were one of the only outlets skilled carvers had for their creativity. The result is an interesting progression from simple skull motifs to much more elaborate carvings detailing more prosperous lives.

Boston, Massachusetts

Samuel Adams’ grave with the Boston Massacre victim’s to the left

There are some interesting information boards around Granary that give a good picture of the lives of some of the people buried there and also the conditions of the graveyard. Granary got pretty overcrowded, with gravediggers complaining that they were burying corpses four deep. On top of that, the ground was quite marshy and after heavy rains there were often incidents where corpses would be found out of their caskets floating around in the underground tombs. Grave digging. Lovely job.

Boston, Massachusetts

Over crowding. Granary Burying Ground

On a lighter note, one of the high points of a visit to Boston is getting out to experience some of the night life. Some of the best bars are actually across the river in Cambridge, which is close by but technically a separate city. Both cities are great for seeing live music, there’s a lot of great local talent here, but I’ll save my adventures in the venues for another post. If you’re staying in Boston, have at least one night out in Cambridge, or vice versa. For one thing it’s worth experiencing the scene on the other side of the river, but aside from that, if you get the subway home between the two cities, you’ll be treated to one of the best views of the Boston skyline around as the train goes across the Charles River. It’s pretty in the day time as well but the city lights make it extra special. Only $2 if you’ve got a Charlie Card too. Can’t ask for a cheaper tour than that. In fact, a note on the subway, it’s the cheapest and easiest public transport system I’ve experienced so far. Grab a Charlie Card, they’re free and make your fares cheaper, or if you’re around for a while grab a 7-day pass. Some lines have nicer trains than others, but they’re all safe, easy to navigate and will take you pretty much anywhere you’d want to go.

Boston, Massachusetts

Skyline near the North End

If you’re not quite up for a bar (or just hungry), dinner in the North End is another great way to spend an evening. It’s the old Italian part of town, with lovely historic buildings and a huge selection of Italian restaurants. Hanover Street is the main drag and can get a bit touristy and overpriced, but if you explore down Salem Street instead you’ll find lots of wonderful little places that are just as good but less crowded and a bit cheaper. Don’t forget to stop for pastries or gelato afterwards!

Boston, Massachusetts

Quirky architecture at MIT

Another thing Boston/Cambridge is famous for is the number of prestigious schools around town. Being a computer nerd, I can’t resist getting a tour of MIT. I wish I’d gone to school here, it makes me miss being a student. The place is full of immensely clever people but also has a quirkiness to it that I really like which extends from the strange architecture of the Computer Science building to the impressive array of pranks that the students play around the school. I mean I remember playing pranks as a student but nothing on the scale of these. My favourite is the giant Tetris games that some students set up on the side of a building (the biggest building in Cambridge too, with the windows being used like huge pixels) but there are many more. Also, there are mandatory Physical Education classes here, but they don’t just have boring ball sports, you can do all sorts of interesting things. In fact, if you do all four of pistol, archery, sailing, and fencing, then MIT will actually give you a certificate to confirm that you are a certified pirate. No shit.

Boston, Massachusetts

The Charles River

There’s so much to do around the city, but actually one of my favourite things here was just chilling out in some of the parks around town. There are plenty to choose from but my favourite was strolling along the Charles River on the Boston side. It’s a gorgeous park, lots of water with ducks and kayakers chilling out and a great view of Cambridge across the water. I just walked along the shoreline but if you’re slightly more onto it there are kayaks for rent with and some offshoots of the Charles that would make a wonderful lazy paddle.

Boston, Massachusetts

Skyline over the Boston Common

I enjoyed Boston so much that after road tripping around New England for a while, instead of checking out some other places for my last week, I decided to just come back to the city again. It’s a pretty little city, very walkable, lots going on, easy to get around, the people are friendly (can you tell I like it here?). I’ll talk more about the music side of things in another post but holy hell, there are some wonderfully talented people hanging around here if you can be bothered scoping them out. If you like music, history, parks, or just want to oggle some of the pretty university buildings, it’s a great place to visit.

Oh, great used bookstores too.

Listening to: Skin it Back – Little Feat


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