For a first-time visitor to Boston, it’s essential to endure the packs of tourists and explore the city’s past. The spots along the Freedom Trail walking tour — Faneuil Hall, the Old North Church, the home of Paul Revere and other monuments — are parts of our shared American history.
Boston is just as important for sports fanatics. Many visitors won’t book an airline ticket until they’ve also secured a spot at a Celtics, Bruins or Patriots game. And even the most stalwart Yankees fan would be foolish to miss an evening among the rowdy crowds at Boston’s Fenway Park.
But there’s more to a Boston vacation than the recommendations in a travel guide. The city’s visitors needn’t focus solely on historical sites or sports teams. If you’re the type of traveler who prefers to take a few risks, explore new neighborhoods and find your own Boston history, here are some alternatives.
All Saints Way
A stroll along the streets of Boston’s North End is a fitting end to a busy day. On an otherwise unassuming alleyway linking Hanover and Battery streets, you’ll find All Saints Way — the open-air, constantly changing creation of a man named Peter Baldassari. This “gallery” of pictures, lights, statues, trinkets, jewels and other bits of Christian iconography all combine to form a folk-art shrine to the saints. The alley area is Baldassari’s private property, and the sanctuary gate might be closed; still, you can peek through the bars for a closer look. Occasionally, Baldassari shows up to offer guided tours.
INFO There’s no admission fee, and the tiny street and its sights are always there for viewing.
Speckled along the greater Boston shorelines are the 30 individual Harbor Islands. Although most are silent and empty, together they make for an informative and scenic afternoon tour. Depending on the season, ferries depart at various times from Boston Seaport. Most operators move at a leisurely pace, but you may get lucky and find a daredevil who’ll honor your need for speed. Places you’ll likely see and sometimes explore include Castle Island (home of the Independence fortress, where Edgar Allan Poe began military service), Spectacle Island (so named because it resembles a pair of glasses) and The Graves (not much else but a spooky lighthouse and its keeper).
INFO Ferry tours $12-$24; 877-733-9425, bostonharborislands.org
The Museum of Bad Art
After the Gardner, it’s time for something completely different. The Museum of Bad Art is the ultimate paean to the tacky and the kitschy. With its origins in a junk-shop lover’s basement, this collection of ill-conceived, bizarre and just plain hideous paintings is housed in three locations: the central site in Brookline, as well as the lower floors of both the Dedham Community Theatre and the Somerville Theatre. After the initial shock and giggling fits subside, some viewers feel unexpectedly moved by the inherent earnestness that drove these anonymous artists to create.
INFO Free with the purchase of a ticket at accompanying movie theater; 781-444-6757, museumofbadart.org
The Warren Anatomical Museum
Interested in discovering what Boston Magazine calls the city’s “most overlooked tourist attraction”? This museum, located in the Harvard-owned Countway Library of Medicine and described as an “artifact history for health science learning,” is an off-the-beaten-path curiosity housing all kinds of strange skeletal and biological specimens. Visitors can view anything from a mammoth’s skeleton to the skull of Phineas Gage, “the railroad worker who had a 13-pound tamping iron blown through his head, and lived to tell the tale.”
INFO Free; 617-432-6196, countway.harvard.edu/chom/warren-anatomical-museum
The Boston Common, centrally located near the Massachusetts State House, is the city’s most popular park; its summer crowds, however, can be stifling. For a quieter yet equally spectacular substitute, drive a few miles southeast to the Arnold Arboretum. Maintained by Harvard University, this paradise of rolling hills, wildflower meadows and countless species of well-groomed trees can make you forget you’re still within city limits (until you reach Peters Hill, with its fantastic Boston view). The Arboretum is also a favorite hangout for dogs and their owners, so don’t be surprised if a curious pooch interrupts your picnic. Closed at night.
INFO Free; 617-524-1718, arboretum.harvard.edu
Emperor’s Garden Dim Sum
From the North End’s wealth of Italian cuisine to the South Shore’s no-nonsense clam shacks, the restaurants of Boston are among the most celebrated in New England. At Emperor’s Garden Dim Sum in the city’s Chinatown section, diners choose from varieties of dim sum that arrive tableside, but the real marvel here is the expansively grand dining room, which once served as one of Boston’s most respected theaters and opera houses.
The Hood Milk Bottle
The central part of Boston’s waterfront showcases a variety of essential tourist spots. Some are well-known — the terrific New England Aquarium, for example — while others are more obscure. Near the popular Boston Children’s Museum stands a 40-foot-tall oddity called the Hood Milk Bottle. Built in 1933 and painted with the red and white of the Hood company’s logo, the landmark often provides an effectively conspicuous meeting spot for travelers. In summertime, the milk bottle doubles as an ice-cream stand.
INFO It’s free to wander the waterfront area and see the bottle (you will be charged for ice cream). Aquarium admission $18.95-$27.95; 617-973-5200, neaq.org
Near the prestigious Berklee College of Music is the Mary Baker Eddy Library; hidden from street view is one of Boston’s most enchanting sights. This enormous multicolored globe, built in the 1930s, gives the impression of stepping into a kaleidoscope. A walkway leads from one half of Earth to the other. Although some country names are outdated, the Mapparium still serves as a fine tool for teaching geography. Before stepping back into the real world, be sure to try this fun acoustic trick: any secret whispered to a friend, no matter how far away in the rounded room, will be heard with perfect clarity.
INFO $4; 617-450-7000, marybakereddylibrary.org
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
After all that fresh air, you might want to check out one of Boston’s museums. While the city’s vast Museum of Fine Arts is excellent, there’s also this quaint, quirky and beloved collection. Named for one of America’s foremost art patrons of the early 1900s, the Gardner features a magnificent courtyard and several intimate rooms of paintings, sculpture and more than 2,500 other artifacts. In 1990, the Gardner was the target of the largest art theft in history. The thieves made off with a Vermeer, a Rembrandt and other works. The pieces remain missing, but don’t let that stop you from visiting — the Gardner collection is still among the country’s most eclectic and impressive.
INFO $15; 617-566-1401, gardnermuseum.org
Forest Hills Cemetery
Nearly every family or tour group contains one singularly strange member fascinated with a city’s darker secrets. Boston has no shortage of the morbid and won’t disappoint. You might seek out the North End location of 1919’s Great Molasses Flood; maybe you’ll want to locate the addresses of victims targeted by the infamous Boston Strangler. But to really satisfy your inner goth, take a ride to Boston’s southernmost edge, to the gorgeously sprawling Forest Hills Cemetery. Here, you’ll find the final resting places for some of the city’s past notables: suffragette Lucy Stone, playwright Eugene O’Neill, and local poets e.e. cummings (whose nondescript grave might take some time to find) and Anne Sexton (where obsessive fans often leave pages of handwritten verse, spent cigarettes and empty martini glasses). Closes before dusk.
INFO Free; 617-524-0128, foresthillscemetery.com