There's something about the peculiar, the unusual and the fantastic that we as humans find appealing.
From turn-of-the-century circus sideshows to kitschy roadside attractions, we'll go out of our way to gawk, wonder at and experience things that go beyond the norm, that we've never quite seen before.
While visiting Boston, devote a day to exploring places and things that may not be listed in a guidebook or on a tourist map. To get you started, we've got 20 of this city's strangest attractions. We hope you love them as much as we do.
1.) The Skin Book
Boston Athenaeum, Boston’s oldest independent library, is an absolutely stunning place to visit, with its architecture, fine art and ornate galleries. But what will stun your more perverse sense is the 1837 memoir “A Narrative of the Life of James Allen: Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman: Being his Death-Bed Confession, to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison.” The titular highwayman and thief was a real local person. He had his life story recorded and then bound in his own skin post-mortem before gifting the whole package to one of his victims. Today, visitors can make an appointment to see the rare book.
10 ½ Beacon St., Boston, MA, 617.227.0270
A tucked-away spot on the fourth floor of Mass General Hospital may seem like an odd place for a tourist attraction, but that's where The Ether Dome holds court. The National Historic Landmark was the site of the first public demonstration of the use of ether during a surgical procedure, a staggering innovation in 1842. In the quiet of this diminutive “operating theater” where you’ll likely be sightseeing alone, check out the Dome’s other claim to fame: Padihershef, an authentic Egyptian mummy that has been on-site since 1823.
Massachusetts General Hospital, 55 Fruit St., Boston, MA
3.) All Saints Way
This fascinating hidden alley off of Battery Street in the North End is curated and cared for by Peter Baldassari. He has affixed hundreds of images, figurines and tokens of saints in this impromptu shrine-like space. It's is private property, but when the door to the alley is open, do venture in and look up to the heavens.
North End, Boston, MA
4.) Scarlett O'Hara House
This is one of those situations where you shouldn't believe your eyes, even though you'll really, really want to. A two-story Greek Revival-style home opens onto Rollins Place, a private way off Revere Street in Beacon Hill. With its gleaming white facade and stacked ionic columns, it stands out starkly from surrounding brick structures and looks like something straight out of "Gone With The Wind" (hence, its name). But here's the catch: this place doesn't really exist. The building is actually an optical illusion, a three dimensional painting created to cover an eyesore of a wall in one of Boston's poshest neighborhoods.
Rollins Place, Boston, MA
5.) Museum of Modern Renaissance
Over the last decade, Russian artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Ekaterina Sorokina have transformed their Somerville home—a former Masonic lodge—into one kaleidoscopic piece of art. Vibrant murals and individual works featuring Russian cupolas, celestial objects, mystical beings, birds and flowers cover nearly every inch of the place. The artists are currently petitioning to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can tour the museum by appointment set in advance, or attend one of the frequent events.
115 College Ave., Somerville, MA
6.) Skinny House
Copp's Hill Burying Ground affords a great view of the North End's notorious Skinny House, the passion project of Joseph Euestus after he learned his brother had built a mansion on more than half of the land they had jointly inherited from their father while Joseph was away fighting in the Civil War. Euestus' revenge stands four stories tall and a mere 10 feet wide, just large enough to block the adjacent mansion's sightlines of Boston Harbor. Today, visitors can rent it out for the night.
44 Hull St., Boston, MA
7.) "Neighbors" at Forest Hills Cemetery
Christopher Frost's decade-old mini village of houses at Forest Hills Cemetery is one example of the many works of contemporary art sprinkled throughout this historic green space. According to the artist, each elfin dwelling in this permanent display represents the former home of a well-known person buried nearby. From the entrance, head toward Lake Hibiscus and stop along White Oak Avenue to seek out the abodes of architect John A. Fox and temperance leader Mary Hunt, among others.
95 Forest Hills Ave., Boston, MA, 617.524.0128
8.) Chunk of the Berlin Wall
Catch sight of a Communist Era relic in front of EF Education headquarters the next time you're in Cambridge's North Point neighborhood (it's pretty close to the Museum of Science). This particular piece of Deutsche barrier rock was donated by the German government to the international company's founder and now sits out front for curious passersby to examine.
2 Education Circle, Cambridge, MA
9.) Hood Milk Bottle
In spring and summer, you can order an ice cream or a sandwich from the landmark Hood Milk Bottle that has stood for nearly four decades on the wharf outside the Boston Children's Museum, although the 40-foot-tall structure is actually 80-plus years old. Thirsty? It would take more than 58,000 gallons of milk to top off this popular photo opp.
308 Congress St., Boston, MA, 617.426.6500
10.) The Mapparium
This three-story, stained glass spherical map of the Earth is frozen in time—1936, specifically—the year Chester Lindsay Churchill built it. Newcomers to Boston often don’t know it's at The Mary Baker Eddy Library, 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 and experiment with its quirky acoustics.
200 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, MA, 617.450.7000
11.) The Steaming Kettle
What was first brewed up in 1873 as a marketing ploy by Oriental Tea Company has become a beloved, albeit quirky, local landmark in a city well-known for tea-related exploits. Look for the giant copper kettle hanging above a Starbucks in Goverment Center. It was handcrafted in Boston by local coppersmiths Hicks & Badger, originally hung in Scollay Square, and yeah, it actually steams. Can you estimate how much Darjeeling it could hold? Wager a guess and then squint up—its volume is etched on its side.
63 Court St., Boston, MA
12.) Boston Stone
Wander around behind The Bell in Hand and The Point, and you'll literally trip over the Boston Stone, inscribed with the date 1737. If the date carved into its front tells a true tale, this relic of colonial Boston predates America's independence. The known origins of the stone are, at best, shaky. A rumor persists that it was used as a surveying instrument to denote the "center" of Boston; this is probably not true. Another that it was used to grind paint pigments, and yet another that it was a tactic created by a local shop owner to generate a curiousity in front of his store. Clearly, we're still curious.
1 Marshall St., Boston, MA
13.) The Sacred Cod
From one Massachusetts state house to the next (literally, the old to the 'new'), this five-foot wooden reminder of early America's success in the native fishing industry hangs in the House chambers and has since 1784.
24 Beacon St., Boston, MA, 617.727.3676
14.) Museum of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts
Chartered in 1638 as the New World’s first organized military, the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company’s headquarters has been in situ at Faneuil Hall since 1746. Today, the space is a museum that remembers every war of which America has been a part, through uniforms, firearms and swords, photographs, medals and memorabilia. Visitors can explore weekdays until about 3 pm. Also includes an armory, the Captain’s Quarters and Stairway of the Constitution, and an extensive library.
1 Faneuil Hall Square, Boston, MA, 617.227.1638
15.) King's Chapel Crypt
King’s Chapel plays host to a little-known gem of an experience called The Bells and Bones Tour. This is the only way to explore the church’s dank 200-year-old cellar crypt where 21 tombs contain the remains of wealthy Revolutionary-era Tories. Dim light and creaking of floorboards overhead gives the experience an eerie flourish.
58 Tremont St., Boston, MA, 617.523.1749
16.) Golden Grasshopper Weather Vane
Did you know there's a time capsule hiding in plain sight atop one of Boston's most popular attractions? Not to be confused with a cricket, Faneuil Hall's golden grasshopper weather vane has been observing the goings-on of orators, rabble-rousers and ordinary citizens for upwards of 275 years, and its belly contains veritable artifacts from these times—coins, newspapers, notes.
Faneuil Hall, 1 Faneuil Hall Square, Boston, MA, 617.242.5642
17.) John Harvard Statue
This memorial statue by Daniel Chester French makes this list because of its nickname—The Statue of Three Lies. Indeed, the seemingly normal memorial offers three untruths: that the man depicted is John Harvard, that he is founder of Harvard University, and that the school was founded in 1638. In reality, no one knows what Harvard looked like (he died in 1638, and French made the statue almost 250 years later using a model). He bequeathed his library to the university, at the time called New College, which was established by the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1636.
Harvard Yard, Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA
18.) Smoots Bridge
Also known as Mass Ave Bridge and/or Harvard Bridge. An MIT fraternity caper in 1958 led to the development of a new unit of measure called "the Smoot" after the 5-foot, 7-inch body of freshman pledge Oliver R. Smoot was used to record the distance of this Charles River bridge. Fifty-eight years and a few construction projects later, the entire city continues to mark the bridge in Smoots—364.4 of them, plus one ear—and Google has officially added it to its Google Calculator function.
Massachusetts Avenue at Storrow Drive, Boston, MA
19.) Warren Anatomical Museum
This compact Harvard Medical School museum displays rare and historic artifacts related to the medical field. One of the more peculiar sights is the skull of construction foreman Phineas Gage, who had a tamping iron blow through his head and destroy the left side of his frontal lobe, an accident he miraculously survived. Others include a Morton-type ether inhaler, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim's phrenological collection and papier-mâché anatomical models.
Countway Library, 10 Shattuck St., 5th Floor, Boston, MA, 617.432.6196
20.) Leif Erikson Statue
A few things are amiss with this 1887 representation of the Viking explorer by Anne Whitney. He's got a breastplate that rivals Madonna's iconic cone bra. He's got a little too much sass in his hip jut. And his upraised arm is meant to shield the sun as he gazes out at the horizon, but he's actually gazing quite intently at the exit ramp of Storrow Drive.
Commonwealth Avenue Mall, Charlesgate East, Boston, MA