Since the Puritans laid the foundations for Boston, the capital of Massachusetts has been a cultural epicenter. Thanks to the Boston Common, which fostered a sense of community and independent thought, the historic city was well-placed to establish itself as arguably the most important city in US history.
From the North End to Back Bay and Cambridge, Boston is lathered with historic buildings, streets and green spaces. Each tell the tale of rebellious gatherings, of Paul Revere crossing the Charles River, hundreds of years of graduations in Harvard Yard and the rise of Italian influence within North End.
In keeping with its community tradition, so many of things to do in Boston are free to visit. A highlight of which is the Freedom Trail. This is an illustrious 2.5-mile journey through time and architecture that connects some the best budget-friendly and memorable attractions in Boston.
Read on to see what other Boston highlights you can experience without hurting the budget.
16. Bunker Hill Monument
The second-last stop on the Freedom Trail is the first major battle in Boston during the Revolutionary War. The Bunker Hill Monument marks the spot where Colonel William Prescott led his rag-tag band of Provincial soldiers and defied the odds.
The army stood toe to toe with the Redcoats. Over two of the battle’s three waves, they sent the British back down towards the Charles River. Inflicting injury or death on almost half of the Redcoats army of 2,400.
The third wave would prove too much for the inexperienced fleet. However, the result proved to inspire them to greater heights while signaling the beginning of the end of the British occupation.
Today, the Bunker Hill Monument is a striking 221-foot obelisk completed in 1842 and a place of learning and reflection.
15. Boston Public Library
In the eye-catching Copley Square, the Boston Public Library goes beyond being a literary refuge. The building itself is a star attraction, offering memorable Renaissance Revival architecture, towering archways, and large glistening windows.
The facade draws you in. But it’s the duo of stone lions that stand tall at the main entrance that will stick in your memory. From there, wander inside the library’s sprawling lobby. Beyond is Bates Hall home to a 50-foot barrel-arched ceiling spanning into the distance.
Daily free tours take you by these highlights while exploring the many murals including the stunning Triumph of Religion that reside in the library.
14. North End
Have an appetite for food and history? Those two go together like wine and cheese in Boston’s North End. The North End was one of Boston’s original neighborhoods and has long been a hotbed for immigration.
It’s here Paul Revere, whose historic home is the oldest living residence in Boston, lived with any one of his 16 children. He bucked the trend, staying in the North End as the city’s elite moved blocks away to Beacon Hill.
The movement ushered in a new era, beginning the city’s storied Irish connection and eventually a wave of Italian denizens. In the last 120 years, the North End has become Little Italy, home to mouthwatering cuisine, the famous Mike’s Pastry, and the best coffee in town.
13. Massachusetts State House
Set in beautiful Beacon Hill, the Massachusetts State House is as much a celebration as a place of government. Once John Hancock’s cow pasture, the State House replaced the “Old State House” in 1798. This was a direct reaction to winning the Revolutionary War.
Designed by Charles Bulfinch, with inspiration from Sam Adams and Paul Revere, the building is a grandiose celebration of the city’s prominent role. From different parts of Boston, including Cambridge, you can spot the lavish golden dome, shining under the sunlight atop Beacon Hill.
Visitors can explore the intricacy of the architecture and its history on a free tour.
12. Beacon Hill
There’s no better place to get lost in Boston than within its gorgeous Beacon Hill neighborhood. On the edge of the Common and Public Garden, Beacon Hill is lavished with stunning brownstones and townhouses. Boston Ivy grows upon the rich red brick, inviting you along the cobblestone streets punctuated by sparkling lampposts.
But it wasn’t always this way. In the 1600s, a beacon was established at the neighborhood’s peak. Sailors and ne’re-do-wells would visit, tarnishing its reputation. However, in 1798, a new State House attracted Boston’s upper class who moved out of downtown and the North End.
Historic names included John Hancock, while notable authors Sylvia Plath, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Robert Frost turned the neighborhood into a literary mecca.
11. New England Holocaust Memorial
Steps from Quincy Market, in the historic Blackstone commercial district, the New England Holocaust Memorial is an eye-catching and vital site. Since 1995, a half-dozen 54-foot glass towers have given pause for reflection over the tragic events during WWII.
Each tower represents the six major concentration camps and each are etched with six million numbers. A path guides visitors between each tower where quotes from visitors are strewn across, creating a reflective, emotional experience.
You can visit the New England Holocaust Memorial by taking a few steps off the Freedom Trail. Afterward, you’ll be close to some of Boston’s oldest restaurants, including the Union Oyster House.
10. Boston Public Garden
Set alongside the Boston Common, the Boston Public Garden plays the perfect complementary role. Created in 1839, the Public Garden is the first official public botanical garden in the country.
Where the Boston Common harbors an abundance of local history and modern events, the Public Garden is a decorative masterpiece, showcasing exceptional landscaping.
Its boundaries are marked by a lengthy Victorian-era cast iron fence, encasing a treasure trove of lush trees, ornate plants, and fountains. All of which you can visit along a series of meandering paths.
Surrounded by high-rises, the Boston Public Garden is a place to escape the city rush. While providing couples and families with a quaint picnic spot.
9. Museum of Fine Arts
Discover history and culture of a different kind at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As the largest museum of its kind in Massachusetts, visitors can expect a vast range of historic art and artifacts spanning several centuries.
The Museum of Fine Art offers a global spectrum. You can travel around the world without leaving this beautiful space. Visitors can’t pass up the Claude Monet gallery which is the highlight of the museum’s European Wing. Likewise, the MFA’s exceptional Korean art collection and ancient Egyptian artifacts are sure to stop you in your tracks.
For budget travelers, Massachusetts residents can visit the Museum of Fine Arts for free on specific Mondays during the year
8. Take a Free Tour of Harvard
The illustriousness and history of Harvard is on full display as you walk through campus. At the core of the university is Harvard Yard where some of the college’s oldest buildings stand before you. The spectacular architecture from the Widener Library to the Memorial Church will capture your hearts.
The highlight of any Harvard tour is the statue of Mr. Harvard himself. However, this is where you’ll discover the Three Lies of Harvard. The first being that John didn’t found Harvard, instead he was a major benefactor to what was then called, New College.
Number two, Harvard wasn’t found in 1638 but two years prior. The best lie, however, is that the statute isn’t even of John but instead of former US District Attorney and Harvard grad, Sherman Hoar.
7. Granary Burying Ground
More than 350 years old, the Granary Burying Ground is the final resting place for some of Boston’s most noteworthy citizens. Among the hundreds of markers, many of which have been washed clean by the passage of time, include Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Sam Adams. At the Old Beantown Pub, you can drink a cold Sam Adams before walking across the street to see the real cold Sam Adams buried beneath.
As you walk around the Granary Burying Ground, noting how old some of the headstones are, watch your step. In the mid-1800s, it was decided that the headstones weren’t organized particularly well. The groundsmen decided to rearrange them, of course, without moving the bodies. So it’s safe to say, you never quite know what’s below your feet.
6. USS Constitution
Marking the end of the Freedom Trail, the USS Constitution (the ship is free to visit) is a vital part of both Boston and US history. This famous ship, also known as Old Ironsides was first commissioned by George Washington and completed in Boston’s North End in 1797.
Still sailing, the USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned navy vessel on Earth. But it was her early exploits, including her role in the War of 1812 that made this ship legendary. Pelted by British cannons, the USS Constitution merely deflected each fire, leading to her captain proclaiming, “ahh! Her sides are made of iron!”
The USS Constitution represented safety and victory to a young developing nation, leading Congress to pass a bill ensuring the USS Constitution remained a part of the navy for all times.
5. Faneuil Hall
Built-in 1741, Faneuil Hall represented the first major marketplace in Massachusetts. Originally, it worried local farmers and artisans but the growing competition led to a flourishing economy.
However, its beginning as a place of commerce falls second on the hall’s vital role in the Revolution. It was here that the Sons of Liberty, outspoken “rebels” against the British crown gathered, starting the hall’s ascension to town hall and place of debate.
At Faneuil Hall, the likes of John Hancock and Sam Adams lead powerful speeches against British taxation and other major issues accelerating the move towards conflict and eventually a brand new country.
4. Boston Common
In 1634, the Boston Common became the first public park in what would become the United States. It was here that Puritans would first gather, to exchange not just goods and the odd public execution, but ideas. You could argue, the seed that would inspire the Revolutionists was first planted in these hallowed grounds.
Over the centuries, community spirit heightened and the sense of a greater good flourished on this “common ground”. Now, public hangings, and the community cows have gone. But the Boston Common has remained a vital piece in public discourse, where protests take place from the Civil Rights Movement to the Vietnam War.
Visitors can explore, learn the history of the Common, or simply kick back and enjoy a picnic in the heart of Boston.
3. Back Bay
It was Paul Revere that once paddled through the Back Bay to warn the Continental Army (US Army) of Britain’s arrival. However, if you were to try and replicate this heroic feat, you’ll find yourself stuck in a canoe on a busy road.
Once literally a bay, Back Bay is now one of the top neighborhoods in Boston. The area is lined with parks squished between stunning brownstone buildings, including Tom Brady’s old residence, shopping, and the beautiful Charles River.
Walking around the Back Bay, which features one of Boston’s rare grid layouts, is a treat. Beyond the historic homes are some of the tallest buildings in Boston. You’ll never be far from green spaces, including Copley Square and the Charles River Esplanade.
2. Quincy Market
Faneuil Hall may have been the first major market structure in downtown Boston, but today, it’s the Quincy Market that keeps that spirit alive. As vendors and patrons flowed out of Faneuil, it was decided that Quincy Market would take care of Boston’s expanding need for produce and goods.
The gorgeous Greek Revival creation was completed in 1826 and features an expansive plaza that showcases the building’s columns and pediments. Through the middle of the 20th-century, Quincy Market fell into disrepair. However, extensive work has returned the marketplace to its 19th-century grandeur.
Today, it’s a highlight of the Freedom Trail, a stellar place to eat and relax (hello, lobster roll!) while perusing the extensive collection of souvenirs
1. Walk the Freedom Trail
At two and a half miles long, the Freedom Trail is a remarkable stretch of cobblestone guiding you through Boston’s historic best. There’s no better way to capture the story and timeline of Beantown as you’re guided back to the very beginning when the Puritans found a home along the Charles River.
The Freedom Trail begins in the Boston Common, where native Americans, Puritans, and modern Bostonians have long gathered. From there, prepare for a whirlwind journey through the defining moments of the Revolutionary War, by the house of Paul Revere across the river to Bunker Hill and eventually, the USS Constitution.
The trail highlights how well Boston has preserved its fascinating past. But that hasn’t stopped the pull of modern society. Boston’s oldest commercial building, built in 1718, is now home to Chipotle.