Boston for the Busy Traveler

Make every second count with our guide to touring the city when you only have limited time.

Not all travelers have leisure time. Perhaps you're on business and can only step out at lunch, or you have an airport layover at Logan and you're looking for a way to kill a few hours. If you find that these or other circumstances are cramping your desired itinerary, know that you can still get a taste of Boston. 

Make the most of this amazing city in limited time by picking one (or as many as you can) of the destinations below—each can be experienced in 80 minutes or less.  


QUICK VISIT 1

Trinity Church

Trinity Church is a special place of worship for Christians, but for American art and architecture enthusiasts, it is the Holy Grail. H. H. Richardson revealed a new concept in architecture when he completed construction on Trinity in 1877. His stony marvel, snatched from the landscape of Medieval Europe and plopped on the center of Boston’s perennially Victorian Back Bay, is striking and puts Richardson’s own bold spin on the French Romanesque architectural style.

The building is just as arresting today as it was 136 years ago. American artist John La Farge is largely responsible for the church’s interior decorative schema. He painted many of its religious murals with fellow artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In the decade after its consecration, Trinity’s colorful glass windows were installed; a variety of methods were used to handcraft them. Edward Burne-Jones and A. Oudinot painted on glass with enamel, while La Farge and his apprentice Louis Comfort Tiffany developed a new technique of layering opalescent glass.

To fully understand the building’s majesty, one must stand at its crossing, observe its gilded chancel, and exist in its luminous light. For Christians and art enthusiasts, this holy house’s spirit lies at its heart. Visitors can stop in and explore the sanctuary on their own, and 60-minute guided tours are hosted often, usually a couple times daily up to five days a week (Trinity is closed to the public on Monday and Tuesday). Outside the gift shop on Trinity’s lower level, visitors can also examine original pilings—still holding the church up!

Some of Trinity Church's stunning murals
Some of Trinity Church's stunning murals (©Michael Piazza)


QUICK VISIT 2

Mary Baker Eddy Library

Local 19th-century writer, leader, teacher and businesswoman Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Science religion, The Church of Christ, Scientist, and international newspaper The Christian Science Monitor. Today, her museum and research center offers the public access to her life’s work through educational exhibits and displays.

Visitors can stop first at the Hall of Ideas, a beautiful room with a cast glass and bronze sculpture by Howard Ben Tré at its center and inspirational quotes flowing out of it and onto the walls. The Quest Gallery delves into Eddy’s life in the 19th century. Computer-based stations, children’s games and archival displays featuring photographs and documents shed light on medical, cultural, and religious history in America. The gallery also offers the story behind “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” Eddy’s main written work and the foundation of her religion.

For the final 20 of your 80 minutes at the Mary Baker Eddy Library, visit the incredible Mapparium, tucked inside the recesses of the building. It is not a room of maps, rather one room that is a three-story, stained glass spherical map of the earth, frozen in time— 1936 specifically—the year Chester Lindsay Churchill built it. Newcomers to Boston often don’t know it's there, since it can't be seen from outside. Its lighting has just been updated with LED fixtures—sounds boring, but really, it’s a treat because it allows for brighter and deeper color tones. Visitors can take a guided walkthrough to learn about the world as it was in 1936 and experiment with its quirky acoustics.

Mary Baker Eddy Library's hidden gem, the Mapparium
Mary Baker Eddy Library's hidden gem, the Mapparium (Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, MA)


QUICK VISIT 3

Union Oyster House

Take a leisurely lunch and get your tourist fix in one shot at Union Oyster House, established in 1826. With its gold-scripted signage and glowing, wide-paned windows, this is one of the oldest still-operating restaurants in the country.

First, you must sit at the downstairs bar and order fresh local oysters shucked right in front of you. Daniel Webster used to, with his brandy, nearly every day. Then head upstairs to the dining room for the main course. The menu is heavy on seafood cooked simply or in the New England tradition. Hits include broiled scrod, broiled scallops, old-fashioned fish cakes and fresh-off-the-boat COD (or, catch of the day). Go big by wrapping the meal up with Indian Pudding, homemade gingerbread or apple cobbler, sweet, regional treats. 

While you’re waiting for your meal, observe the National Historical Landmark’s wall mountings and other ephemera that harkens back to the building’s fascinating past. In the 1770s, Isaiah Thomas printed his weekly pro-Patriot political rag The Massachusetts Spy here, and Ebenezer Hancock paid out wages to the Continental Army. During a period of exile at the turn of the 19th century, France’s last ruling king, Louis Philippe I, lived in the upstairs apartment and tutored young ladies in French.

Here’s one tidbit from the 20th century: John F. Kennedy frequently patronized the restaurant and still has a booth reserved for family members.

Union Oyster House is a stone’s throw from Faneuil Hall and the Freedom Trail.

Union Oyster House
Union Oyster House (©Jeramey Jannene/Flickr, Creative Commons)


QUICK VISIT 4

Old North Church Historic Site

One if by land, two if by sea. This adventure isn’t relegated to the sanctuary where Paul Revere had those famous lanterns hung. In an hour and a half, a visitor can explore a number of historic buildings on the campus of the Old North Church Historic Site. Start with Old North, of course; today Boston’s oldest surviving church building is called Christ Church. Self-guide your way around its interior and feel free to ask questions of the docents, who can tell you about interesting architectural details (the clock, the box pews) and historical tidbits (a teenage Paul Revere was a bell ringer here). What many visitors don’t realize is that Old North’s congregation was loyal to the King of England, as in, members did not champion seeking independence. Ironic, considering its role in thwarting the British cause.

Sandwiched between Old North and the Paul Revere Mall, the Clough House plays host to two unique “living” attractions. At Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, interpreters dressed in colonial-era garb demonstrate how early Americans made chocolate—yes, visitors get to sample—and describe its history and how it is tied to Boston. Next door, the Printing Office of Edes & Gill shows off an 18th-century printing press in an environment that mimics a colonial print shop, complete with a master printer. Learn how The Boston Gazette and Country Journal influenced politics and contributed to the American Revolution, see a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and examine authentic artifacts.

If the weather is fair, stroll through or have a quiet moment of contemplation in one or more of Old North’s four gardens. There’s one dedicated to plants and shrubs commonly used in the 18th century; another is cloistered and ideal for meditation.

Box pews inside at Old North Church
Box pews inside at Old North Church (©Tim Sackton/Flickr, Creative Commons)


QUICK VISIT 5

Bunker Hill Monument & Museum

Often compared to the District of Columbia’s Washington Monument, Boston’s Bunker Hill Monument precedes it by a few decades. In fact, one of the memorial designs submitted during the planning stages of Bunker Hill and then rejected went on to become the model for the DC memorial.

Our iconic obelisk is the final stop of the Freedom Trail and the most energy-exertive. For starters, you have to climb just to get to its base on Charlestown’s steep Breed’s Hill. The 221-foot-tall monument stuns visitors with its svelte elegance, and its bird’s-eye views of Boston Harbor, the Mystic River and the city—if one is willing to mount 294 steps to its pinnacle.

The effort doesn’t burn bucks (it’s free), and it clearly burns calories, so only sightseers in good health and ready for a challenge should do it. Be warned: There’s no elevator.

Across the street from the monument, visitors interested in learning more about real-life events can visit the Bunker Hill Museum, staffed by National Park Service rangers. The two-floor exhibit educates on the eponymous Revolutionary War battle, during which the colonial militia were ousted by British regulars, but not before taking down more than 1,000 soldiers—half the King’s troops. See artifacts from historic Charlestown, a large-scale cyclorama of the battlegrounds, authentic original design submissions and lots more. Children can build their own version of the monument using paper and crayons to display or take home.

Due to heavy crowds, visitors must obtain a free climbing pass at the museum from April 2 through June 27.

Bunker Hill Monument in Monument Square, Charlestown
Bunker Hill Monument in Monument Square, Charlestown (©Leigh Harrington)


QUICK VISIT 6

Historic Boston Sightseeing Cruise

Boston’s waterfront is and always has been one of its defining characteristics—and boy is there a lot of it. Visitors can explore the coast in a variety of ways, from sunbathing in South Boston to dining downtown, but if you’ve only got 90 minutes then a harbor cruise is the way to go. Boston Harbor Cruises’ Historic Boston Sightseeing Cruise is a 101 lesson in local maritime and Revolutionary history plus a review of new attractions set to a stunning coastal backdrop. The sailing course departs Long Wharf and explores both the inner and outer harbor. The Frederick L. Nolan Jr. makes a wide loop past the Seaport District, Castle Island and Fort Independence, out into Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area by Spectacle Island and Long Island, as well as Little Brewster Island where Boston Light stands as the oldest light station in the country. It then swings back around by Logan Airport’s runways in East Boston and by Charlestown and the Navy Yard where the USS Constitution and the USS Cassin Young warships are berthed. Sail by the North End skyline before returning to dock. Technically, this sightseeing cruise takes a full 90-minutes, so if 80-minutes is really all you can squeeze in to your schedule, you can opt for BHC’s 45-minute USS Constitution Cruise that sails over to Charlestown and allows you to disembark. All the boats all have indoor areas, so scheduled cruises depart rain or shine.

Cruise into Boston Harbor
Cruise into Boston Harbor (©Boston Harbor Cruises)


QUICK VISIT 7

USS Constitution Museum

Over at Charlestown Navy Yard this summer, the USS Constitution Museum rings in 40 years heralding the accomplishments of her titular naval warship.

Originally launched in 1797, Old Ironsides herself is currently in dry-dock undergoing a restoration project. Visitors can still briefly hop aboard for a look around and a photo opp, but the museum is your best bet for learning all about the ship.

Did you know she was named by George Washington and that Paul Revere contributed to her construction? The museum’s newest interactive exhibit “Forest to Frigate” gives the whole story of her origins as well as fun facts about the inception of the United States Navy.

In fact, the museum’s permanent collection includes more than 10,000 artifacts that run the gamut from rare books to locks of hair. You can browse some of these in other exhibits and displays including “All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812”—the War of 1812 was heyday for the Constitution—and “Old Ironsides in War and Peace,” which delves into her 216-year commissioned legacy.

Around the galleries, kids actively engage in a daily, hands-on programs. “Tools of the Trade: Caulking” shows kiddos how to do so, while “Outrun Outgun Design Challenge” has them building and testing the strength and speed of their own mini ship. “Make Your Mark on Old Ironsides” is a personal favorite that has you signing a sheet of copper sheathing to be installed on the ship. I’ve done it; now it’s your turn!

USS Constitution Museum (© USS Constitution Museum)
USS Constitution Museum (© USS Constitution Museum)
 

 


QUICK VISIT 8

Public Garden

Out-of-towners often confuse the Public Garden with Boston Common. Well, here’s the difference: Boston Common was established in 1634 and is the oldest park in the nation. At 50-acres large, it’s been used for cattle grazing, hangings, troop encampment and a public place of celebration. Across Charles Street South, the Public Garden is former tidal marshland that flanks the Common. In 1837, the 20-acre plot was turned into a botanical garden for the public’s use, and it remains so today.

The Garden is noted for its extraordinary collection of ornamental trees from around the world, including redwoods, maidenhair, weeping willow, beech, cherry and plum, as well as bedded plantings that change with the season, although tropical displays and spring tulips are favorites. And yet nature is not the Public Garden’s only draw. One of Boston’s most iconic attractions glides around the garden’s serpentine pool from April until September, where the Paget family has been pedaling passengers on Swan Boats since 1877. Today a 15-minute ride goes for $3.50.

Art turns up at every bend along strolling paths. Sculptor Daniel Chester French is responsible for a bronze statue of statesman Wendell Phillips as well as an angel monument and fountain. Thomas Ball was commissioned for the commanding equestrian statue of George Washington, and Nancy Schön has been providing parents with photo opps since 1987 at her Duckling Sculpture, created after Robert McCloskey’s award-winning children’s book.

The Public Garden blooms with color in every season (©Paul Gelsobello)
The Public Garden blooms with color in every season (©Paul Gelsobello)


QUICK VISIT 9

Charles Street

Beacon Hill’s main drag is boutique heaven for high rollers, offering a mix of apparel, winsome and unique gift items and gourmet edibles. But shopping isn’t the only pursuit that one can try out on the short but well-stocked Charles Street.

To backtrack, Charles Street gets its name from the nearby Charles River, the waters of which once flowed in this very spot before it was filled with land shorn off Beacon Hill’s hills back in the Colonial era, and then turned into a business district. Historic sites along the route include the Charles Street Meeting House designed by Asher Benjamin and built in 1807 as home of the Third Baptist Church, and the Boston Common running from the corner of Charles and Beacon streets up to the Massachusetts State House at Park Street.

Walk north on Charles from Beacon, noting the brick sidewalks and Federal and Greek Revival architecture. Stop in at shops along the way. One can find preppy styles popular on the Vineyard at J.McLaughlin, and contemporary party frocks at Holiday, Crush and Dress Boston. Gear and apparel for kiddos are the standard at NRO Kids or at longtime favorite Red Wagon. Gift shops run the gamut of interests and attitudes: it’s quirky at Black Ink, Brahmin-esque at Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill and rusti-chic at Flat of the Hill. Eugene Galleries sells prints; Fastachi has nuts.

As befits one of the city’s oldest ‘hoods, Charles Street is also rife with antiques shops like Devonia, Marika’s and Upstairs Downstairs.

Looking down Charles Street (©Paul Gelsobello)
Looking down Charles Street (©Paul Gelsobello)