Back Bay: A Grand Boston Neighborhood Full of Surprises

An urban explorer's guide to the Back Bay from giant map to sneaky sneaker store

Back Bay is one of Boston's great neighborhoods—loaded to the gunnels with world-class shopping and dining on fancy Newbury Street, as well as the Prudential Center and Copley Plaza—but until the middle of the 19th century it was the strictly province of fishes. Thanks to landfill, a residential utopia of Victorian brownstones rose like a phoenix from the briny tidal swamp, and created a tony, leafy border to the bustling main drag of Boylston Street. The curious urban explorer will find amazing tucked-away art galleries, subterranean bars, unique back-alley restaurants, and one of the finest public libraries in the nation. So head over and get your feet wet, in the metaphorical sense, by discovering something new.

Porto's Squid Ink Bucatini


Any shortlist of great Back Bay restaurants can only whet the appetite for what's on offer, such is the range and quality of the dining here, but our favorites would have to include Porto, a modern Mediterranean revelation with an outstanding seafood stew and much more besides. Bar Boulud gives French master chef Daniel Boulud a smart-casual stage for his unshakeable excellence on the ground floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel—from French regional specials to raw bar to wine list, delights here are spread generously. And for Northern Italian steaks and pasta, look no further than Park Square institution, Davio's.



A good bookshop is essential to any neighborhood worth its salt and in Trident Booksellers & Café, Back Bay delivers a gem: it has free WiFi, a well-curated magazine section and an onsite cafe which serves a huge range of breakfast specials, not to mention bowls and sandwiches. Food for thought and food for pleasure, all under one roof. The sneakerhead meets the secret agent at Bodega, which looks for all the world like a tatty convenience store until you step on a broken floor tile and activate the sliding door disguised as a drinks vending machine. A secret world of footwear and apparel is then revealed.

Mural at Parish Cafe


Marlborough Street ranks among the prettiest of residential roads in all of Boston, and where it hits Massachusetts Avenue you'll find, half hidden from the eye, down a set of steps, one of the best pubs in the area: The Corner Tavern. It's cozy, especially in the winter months, the jukebox selection is vast and eclectic and it's open until 2 a.m. every night. Saltie Girl not only adds finesse and style to the tinned fish scene, but also excels in the booze department with a great selection of curated drinks and a very appealing cocktail menu: the Prickley Pear is a favorite. Parish Cafe is known city-wide for its sandwiches (all created by local chefs) and there's a full bar featuring all manner of bottled beers.

The Mapparium


The Lyric Stage, Boston's oldest professional theater, has provided a showcase for local actors, designers and directors since 1974—don't pass up the chance to see something great. Over on the Massachusetts Avenue western fringe of Back Bay, the Mary Baker Eddy Library is well worth a diversion from the mall pleasures of the nearby Prudential Center: the library's centerpiece is the Mapparium, a three story, walk-through, stained glass globe depicting the world as it looked in 1935. For those of you who like a late-night boogie, look no further than Storyville, a clever cocktail of nightclub and speakeasy.

Mike Hodgkinson
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