At the beach in Koh Nang Yuan, Thailand

By Norbert Figueroa, an experienced architect, travel writer, long-term budget traveler, and photographer with over 13 years of travel experience in over 139 countries and counting. @globotreks


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This is a guest post by my friend Matthew Kepnes of Nomadic Matt, who grew up in Boston and knows the city inside and out. So, who better than him to share some tips on the best non-touristy things to do in Boston so you can explore the city beyond its typical sights?


Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States. I grew up here and, even with all my world travels, it has remained one of my favorite places. It’s a relatively small city that sometimes really just feels like a collection of towns strung together by transit lines. Each neighborhood has its own distinct culture and vibe.

In “the town,” you’ll find friendly locals who will take you in like family, die-hard sports fans, great pubs, good restaurants (especially if you love seafood), and tons of famous historical sites and attractions.

There are also a lot of fun, off-the-beaten-track things to do in Boston that visitors often miss. Today, I want to share some of those with you:

Freedom Trail Sign in Boston

1. Walk the Freedom Trail

OK, this is obviously not “off the beaten path,” as it’s one of the most popular things to do here (so, literally a well-worn path), but it’s so good, I want to make sure you remember to explore it!

Spend a day outdoors walking this 2.5-mile (4 km) route that winds past most of the sites important to the history of the city (and the country), especially the colonial and revolutionary periods.

Simply follow the brick markers along the pavement to the various stops downtown (and across the Charles River) and get in touch with the past. These include famous burial grounds, the Old North Church, Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House, the Boston Massacre site, Bunker Hill (see below), and the USS Constitution.

2. Take a walking tour

Boston has a plethora of awesome walking tours. You can find food tours, history tours, ghost tours, and everything in between. They’re a great way to get oriented and see the major sights without breaking the bank. For more, check out this post on the best walking tours of Boston.

Bunker Hill Monument, Boston

3. Climb the Bunker Hill Monument

The Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775 was one of the first major clashes of the Revolutionary War. While a lot of people view the monument, few actually climb it, which is free to do! There is also a nearby free museum about the monument and battle (which actually mostly occurred on Breed’s Hill!).

You can also check this other post for more free things to do in Boston.

4. Visit Harvard University

Established in 1636, Harvard is the oldest educational institution in the country. It offers lots of free walking tours of the campus; you just need to register in advance. These are fun, student-led, one-hour walks through the grounds (mainly Harvard Yard, the most central and oldest part of the campus).

The university is also home to numerous fascinating art, science, and history museums. Afterward, grab a coffee and people-watch in nearby Harvard Square, which is filled with cool and arty shops, not to mention the impressive Harvard Coop (not pronounced “co-op”) bookstore.

5. Stargaze at the Coit Observatory

Spend some time beholding your favorite constellations at Boston University’s Coit Observatory, which offers free stargazing on summer Wednesdays (whether permitting, of course). Tickets are free, but space is limited, so definitely book in advance. Also, the telescope is outdoors, so be sure to bundle up if you’re visiting during the cold months.

6. Visit Castle Island

Castle Island, located in South Boston, is famous for Fort Independence, a British stronghold built in 1634 that later became a US prison.

The island has excellent beaches; locals come here in droves during the summer to hang out, picnic, and explore the old fortification (there are free tours in the summer). I go there a lot with my friends.

Tip: Go early if you are driving because parking fills up fast.

Beer in a Brewery

7. Drink at Sam Adams Brewery

Sam Adams, named after the Founding Father, is a major brewer in Boston, and locals drink its beer widely and frequently. Tours and tastings at the brewery take place Monday-Saturday, with dates and times varying by the day.

The signature tour costs $10 USD. There are also several in-depth specialty tours ranging between $20 and $35 USD, which include some generous beer tastings. It’s a fun activity, and there’s an outdoor patio you can drink on too.

8. Visit the Arnold Arboretum

Located south of the city, this is the oldest public arboretum in the country (founded in 1872). There are running trails, lush gardens, broad lawns, and lots of flowers from all over the world. There’s also a great bonsai tree collection that I really love.

This place is much quieter than the Public Gardens downtown — since it’s kind of out of the way, it sees fewer tourists — and offers a wider variety of plant life.

Forest Hills Gate, Boston
Image from Wikipedia

9. Visit Forest Hills Cemetery

In this serene, Victorian-era cemetery sit the resting places of a few noteworthy individuals, such as the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, the playwright Eugene O’Neill, and the poet E.E Cummings.

In 2006, as part of an exhibition, sculptures, including miniature buildings, were added to the 275-acre rural cemetery, which also has an arboretum and Colonial and Gothic Revival buildings.

10. Visit Revere Beach

I grew up hanging out here, the first public beach in the US. It used to be a lot less developed, but now there are a lot of restaurants and shops across the boulevard. The wide and long (three-mile) shore is a great place to relax, and it’s close to the subway (called “the T” in Boston), so it’s easy to get to.

It’s definitely popular with locals and not so visited by tourists, who generally don’t know about it. (Although a million people go there for the annual sand sculpture competition!)

11. Visit the Mapparium

In the 1930s, architect Chester Lindsay Churchill was commissioned to design the new Christian Science Publishing Society headquarters. There he included the Mapparium, a three-story, inside-out, stained-glass globe with a walkway running through it.

Standing at the very center of the globe, looking out, the eye is the same distance from every point on the map, which colorfully reflects the political boundaries and name of all the countries and colonies as they appeared in 1935, when it was built.

JFK Library in Boston

12. Visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

This large, beautiful museum, designed by the well-known architect I.M. Pei, highlights the life, presidency, and assassination of John F. Kennedy; the library serves as the official repository for his administration.

There are a number of permanent exhibits (for example, about the space race, Jackie Kennedy, and gifts from heads of state), plus special exhibits and a collection of Ernest Hemingway documents and belongings.

13. See the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Isabella Stewart Gardner traveled the world in the 1800s after her child died at a young age. She brought back many beautiful objects and artworks from her travels; her collection — in a building in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace — includes European, Asian, and American paintings, sculptures, tapestries, framed textiles, and letters, all on the esoteric side.

Most visitors skip this eclectic collection in favor of other, more conventional museums in town, but it is well worth seeing.

Boston Public Library Hall

14. Gaze at Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library is one of the most famous systems in the world. Its main branch is a huge, gorgeous building in Renaissance Revival and Beaux-Arts style (now a National Historic Landmark), and you can take tours of it, taking in the murals (one by John Singer Sargent) and the grand reading room. There is also a modernist addition.

While the New York Public Library is more well known, the BPL, often overlooked by tourists, is well worth a visit.

15. Hike the Blue Hill Reservation

Located 10 miles south of Boston are the beautiful Blue Hills, with lots of easy hikes and stunning views of Boston’s skyline in the distance. I used to hike here a lot when I wanted to get out of town but not drive too far. It’s a very popular spot for locals.

***

For its size, this city punches way above its weight. You’ll find lots of well-known things to do and see in Boston, but there are a lot of lesser-known and “local” attractions that don’t get a lot of press. The list above will get you away from the crowds and hanging out with Bostonians who will ask, “How did you find out about this?!”


Matt Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site nomadicmatt.com, which helps people travel the world on a budget. He’s the author of the NYT best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day and the travel memoir Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, Afar, Budget Travel, Time, and countless other publications, as well as on CNN and the BBC. You can follow him on Instagram at @nomadicmatt.

15 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Boston, Massachusetts
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