One Day Off the Beaten Path in Boston

Hidden gems and other fun things to do in this city

Welcome to Boston. If you’re traveling to this city, you’ve likely got plans to walk The Freedom Trail, eat at Durgin-Park, and explore the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts. Do that; these are amazing experiences that show off some of Boston’s best-loved attractions. But, if your tendency is to turn off the beaten path, we have a whole day’s worth of other incredible things to do, things that fly under the radar, things you'll be intrigued to discover. Check out these hidden gems: a university campus where more than 50 world-class works of art are just hanging out; a museum dedicated to the cultural history of the Americas; a lobster sandwich that beats out all its competition. Let's go!

8:15 am: Zinneken's

Popular among Harvard Square habitués but essentially unknown by outsiders, Zinneken's should be your stop for breakfast, and it'll be a sweet one. This tiny corner waffle shop bakes authentic Liège sugar waffles to order, and then tops them with such things as fruit, whipped cream, Belgian chocolate and/or Speculoos cookie butter. (1154 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass., 617.876.0836)

9 am: Peabody Museum

Peabody Museum Arts of War gallery (©President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Now that you've fueled up on sugar waffles and coffee, it's time to get a fix on human cultural history. It's a short walk down Quincy Street at the edge of Harvard Yard to get to Harvard's own Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, where exhibits focus on Latin America circa 1492, the indigenous peoples of North America in the 19th century, and the Aztec tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. (11 Divinity Ave., Cambridge, Mass., 617.496.1027)

10:30 am: MIT Campus Art

Mark di Suvero's "Aesop's Fables, II" (©Michael Piazza)

Come back into the sunlight mid-morning for a stroll around the MIT campus, and art buffs, prepare to be wowed. Sol LeWitt’s geometric floor installation “Bars of Color within Squares (MIT)”; Jaume Plensa’s haunting “Alchemist”; Frank Stella’s wall relief “Heads or Tails”; Henry Moore’s bronze “Three-piece Reclining Figure, Draped.” These are only a few of the more than 50 incredible works of fine art created by masters of the 20th and 21st centuries that exist as part of the university's permanent public art collection. Lots to see—and for free. (Kendall Square, Cambridge, Mass.)

Noon: Alive & Kicking Lobster

Lunchtime! Louis Mastrangelo's seafood counter (in what resembles a house, off Central Square down by the Charles River) quietly serves the Hub's best lobster sandwich (yeah, decidedly, not a roll). At Alive & Kicking, there's very little mayo, no celery, no fuss; just fresh lobster meat stuffed between two slices of toasted and buttered scali bread served up at outdoor picnic tables in a parking lot. (269 Putnam Ave., Cambridge, Mass., 617.876.0451)

1 pm: Bodega

Its name implies a mini-mart where one might stop for a Snapple or a Snickers bar—and indeed you can. But approach the vending machine to the right of the register and you've stumbled upon the access point to Bodega's undisclosed sneaker and lifestyle apparel boutique. Bodega is, actually, one of Boston's most fashion-forward streetwear retailers, one that often forges partnerships with top-tier brands such as Adidas in order to present exclusive and limited-edition footwear and gear. Around town, Bodega's showroom is a not-so-secret secret, but for travelers who don't know its location and want to shop, now you know where to look. (6 Clearway St., Boston, Mass.)

2 pm: The Mapparium & The Mother Church

The Mapparium (Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, MA)

The behemoth Christian Science complex in the Back Bay features a number of attractions, two of which are The Mapparium and The Mother Church. The former is tucked inside the recesses of the Mary Baker Eddy Library and is not a room of maps, but rather one room that is, in essence, a larger-than-life spherical map of the earth. Visitors can take a 20-minute guided walk-through to learn about the world as it was in 1936 when Chester Lindsay Churchill created the cartographic piece of art. Vivid stained-glass panels make for historical eye candy, and its quirky acoustics a fun experiment at the end of the tour. Next door, The Mother Church serves as the headquarters for the Church of Christ, Scientist, a branch of Christianity founded by Eddy. Visitors can tour the church building, which ranges in architectural style from Romanesque to Byzantine-Renaissance. (Mapparium: 200 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, Mass., 617.450.7000; First Church of Christ Scientist: 210 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, Mass., 617.450.2000)

3:30 pm: Brattle Book Shop

Brattle Book Shop and its sale lot (©Chris Ball/Flickr cc license)

On your journey from the Back Bay over to the waterfront and North End, make a pitstop at Ken Gloss' Brattle Book Shop. Among those in the know, this place is famous—and we do mean famous—for its rare and antiquarian books, maps, prints, postcards and other ephemera. The 250,000-tome collection is fun for any book lover to browse. Affordable used and out-of-print books cram the first and second floors of the shop, with prices starting as low as $1. (9 West St., Boston, Mass., 617.542.0210)

4:30 pm: Observation Deck at Independence Wharf 

At the foot of the Moakley Bridge and original site of the Destruction of the Tea (aka Boston Tea Party) stands one activity about which not too many locals even know. The fly-under-the-radar observatory may not be the city’s highest vantage, but it offers some stunning bird’s-eye views of Fort Point Channel, the Seaport District and the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Not to mention, there’s no charge for admission—just make sure you bring an ID to gain access and visit before 5 pm, when the building closes. (470 Atlantic Ave., Boston, Mass., 617.737.0974)

5:30 pm: Bricco Panetteria

Head down an alley off Hanover Street in the North End to discover Bricco's well-hidden bread counter that sells fresh-baked, crusty loaves in a variety of styles, from prosciutto-parmesan ciabatta to sunflower seed batard to mountain boule. Grab a loaf at this European-style commodity and then stop next door at Bricco Salumeria for olives and cheese accompaniments; these make for an easy and tasty picnic on the nearby Greenway or a late-night snack back at your hotel room. (241 Hanover St. Rear, Boston, Mass., 617.248.9859)

6:30 pm: La Summa

Since the North End is bursting with Italian restaurants, many stacked along Hanover Street like a horizontal sleeve of store-bought cookies, one must step off the main drag to have dinner at a hidden gem. One fantastic find that doesn't get nearly as much recognition as it should, lifelong neighborhood resident Barbara Summa Sullivan's La Summa exists quietly on Fleet Street creating classic—and pretty incredible—Italian American dishes like chicken parmesan and pasta salsiccia con rabe. (30 Fleet St., Boston, Mass., 617.523.9503)

Leigh Harrington
About the author

Leigh formerly served as the Boston editor for Where and was the br...