Flipside Boston: 6 Excellent Alternatives to Tourist Clichés

Open up an alternative Boston with our city guide for sideways travelers.

The English writer G.K. Chesterton, famous for his Father Brown detective novels, pumpkin-like physique and comedy moustache, smartly observed: “The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.” A quick survey of Boston’s best-known sights and landmarks reveals that the traveler/tourist schism is still as deep as ever—some visitors feel compelled to check off all the big-name attractions one by one, as if a failure to do so would break some unwritten law, while others prefer to take the road less traveled and add some serendipity and chance to their explorations.

In the spirit of the bold traveler who proudly declares “fie upon schedules!” and “down with the hordes!” we’ve barreled into a handful of Boston’s most popular attractions—from the Freedom Trail to the Make Way for Ducklings statues—and bounced off them at unexpected tangents. Hopefully, a parallel Boston universe will open up, full of all the usual delight and fascination, but lacking the chatter of crowds and the clatter of selfie sticks. It’s time to bust a few Boston tourist clichés.

Dumplings at Shojo

MAKE WAY FOR DUMPLINGS

The Make Way for Ducklings statue in the Public Garden is a hugely popular homage in bronze to the enduring children’s book by Robert McCloskey, and finding it is a rite of passage for most Boston visitors—which generally means a gaggle of tourists engaged in a mass selfie meltdown and an endless queue of tykes waiting to ride Mrs. Mallard like pint-sized rodeo cowboys. The alternative: exchange ducklings for dumplings. Take a 10-minute stroll to Chinatown and check out the lip-smacking options at Shojo, where the pork belly dumplings are legendary.

THE FLEADOM TRAIL

Nothing takes you to the heart of American history faster than the Freedom Trail, with its vast selection of tour options— from simple self-guided walks, to ‘olde’ pub crawls with all the pewter bells and whistles. A simple play on words, however, can re-route you onto the Fleadom Trail, which isn’t actually a thing (we just made it up) but offers hours of browsing fun, whether you choose to stay in town to explore the seasonal FLEA at MIT and the excellent SoWa Vintage Market or head north to the Todd Farm Antique and Flea Market in Rowley.

Moby Squirrel, aka Steve

WHORL WATCHING

The waters off Boston offer some of the best whale watching in the US, if not the world, thanks to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, home to roaming pods of humpback, minke and fin whales, among many other species. However, Boston’s landlubbing “white whale” can occasionally be glimpsed among the whorls, branches and knots of the trees in the Public Garden, the first public botanical garden in America. Keep your eyes peeled for Moby Squirrel, aka Steve, a handsome critter who’s usually happy to pose for photos.

A CORNY TREAT

Justly hailed as one of the most photogenic cobbled roads in all of New England, Acorn Street in Beacon Hill draws a steady stream of brides-to-be and graduating students, all eager to bask in the location’s guaranteed Instagram glow. Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway canoodled here in “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) and half a century has done nothing to blunt that old-school romantic vibe—so you may end up diluting it with a horde of snap-happy strangers. If that happens swap Acorn Street for a corny treat at Toro where you can find grilled corn with alioli, lime, espelette and aged cheese among the outstanding selection of tapas calientes.

MGH Ether Dome

THE OLDEN DOME

One of the finest architectural signatures in the city is the golden dome of the State House, originally made from rolled copper but gilded with gold leaf in 1874 and re-gilded in 1997. As domes go, it’s a known quantity, so if you fancy seeking out something older and a little less conspicuous—but no less mesmerizing—try the Ether Dome at Massachusetts General Hospital. It was here, back in 1846, that Dr. William T.G. Morton showcased the first public surgery using anesthetic. Today it’s used as a teaching amphitheater and accepts visitors unless there’s a faculty meeting in progress. The building is also home to an Egyptian mummy called Padi.

BOSTON COFFEE PARTY

Boston and tea have been synonymous ever since the famous protest of 1773—re-enacted at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum on a regular basis—snowballed into the American Revolution and, well, the rest is history. As a consequence, many tourists consider taking afternoon tea in the city obligatory but most locals know that coffee is the hot beverage of choice, given the huge variety of options available. Our favorites include people-watching hub, Barrington Coffee Roasting Company and Ogawa Coffee where the baristas’ foam patterns qualify as art.

Mike Hodgkinson
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