Explore Boston

5 Boston Highlights You Probably Won't Find in Guidebooks

Things get really interesting when you wander away from the herd

“What to do in Boston,” a phrase oft searched online or posed to strangers on the street, comes with a dependably routine answer: the swan boats need riding and the brass ducks sitting, the Top of the Hub needs seeing and the Freedom Trail following. In a city like Boston, where every other block is the sight of some historic happening or a street that demands walking, it can be difficult for visitors to break out of the routine of standard issue must-sees and must-dos. Worthwhile as those staples are, life becomes much more interesting when routine is broken, so here are five things to do in Boston that few guidebooks, websites or busy passersby on the street will tell you about.

Freighter Dry Docked
The USNS Dahl, dry docked for repairs in the Seaport. (©Alex Oliveira)

Boston Marine Park Dry-Docks

Beyond the Seaport’s glass residential high-rises, convention centers and pavilions, the buildings begin to grow longer rather than taller. The smell of fish and seawater wafts in with the breeze and the clangs, shouts and growls of construction begin to fill the air: you’ve arrived at the Boston Marine Industrial Park, a holdout of a bygone way of Boston life. The sights are few down here, warehouses tend to follow more warehouses, but if you follow the road down to the end of the pier you’ll arrive at the dry docks, where container ships as long as buildings are tall come in for repairs and maintenance. Boston, once a marine powerhouse, now conducts the last of its maritime maintenance in these slips, around which the public is free to walk and watch as the last keepers of Boston’s industrial maritime flame work away on steel behemoths. Cranes creak and sparks fly, saws shriek and hammers clang endlessly away; it’s no Make Way For Ducklings, but Boston’s dry-docks are the only sight of their kind in the city.

When the tide goes out, the narrow Gurnet stretch doubles in size. (©The Newenglander)

Duxbury’s Gurnet Point

When one thinks of the beach and Boston, their minds quickly run to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. While these strips of sand streaking into the Atlantic are the city’s primary destination for summertime isolation, the trip is long, the traffic is bad, and rest assured, the secret is out. As everybody else tears down the highway to the Bourne Bridge, hop off 93 and take route 3 until you see signs for Exit 11, Duxbury, Pembroke. Take the exit and follow the road into Duxbury, a quiet seaside South Shore town with an arm of sand reaching out into Plymouth Bay. Known locally as The Gurnet, this wisp of sand stretches for four miles at no more than two hundred feet in width. Drive along the hard packed sand road or go by way of the beach (with the right car), until the point culminates in a grass hill spilling with shingled shacks and a sagging Victorian mansion or two. The best time to go is by winter when the houses are shuttered up, and The Gurnet sits still, quiet and empty, like an empty museum of New England summer life. At just thirty miles south of the city, the weaving sand and shell roads of Gurnet Point are a perfect way to experience the city’s island life without ever cross the Cape Cod Canal.

Brownstone Facade
Handsome on the outside, beautiful on the inside. (©bradhoc, Flikr)

Townhouse Estate Sales

If Boston has a face, its fair to say that it resembles a brownstone townhouse. Neatly arranged up Beacon Hill, down Commonwealth Ave and across Back Bay, these facades are as synonymous with Boston as the golden dome of the Statehouse and the red B of the Sox. Unfortunately for the wandering public, most of these buildings are private homes, and therefore closed off to those who want to see the architectural beauty hidden behind the façades. However, if you have luck with your timing, there is a way to explore the high ceilinged rooms of these city landmarks. Resolute as the townhouses seem, many are frequently on the market; when one sells, there are often estate sales. Typically taking place on the weekends, estate sales open up the houses for anyone to peruse the rooms and shop for furniture, art, rugs, anything at all, until all the contents of the house have been sold off. Not only is this an opportunity to buy great furniture at a cut-rate price, it’s a chance to take your time and explore all the character and history of a classic Boston townhouse. Buy something, or don’t, just make sure you soak in the beauty of these rare opportunities.

Seaport View
The Seaport, as seem from Independance Wharf. (©Alex Oliveira)

Independence Wharf Observation Deck

The Prudential Center, rising out of Back Bay, towering over the city and tipped with Top of The Hub and The Skywalk Observatory, gives a perspective of the city that can only be bested by what the newsmen see from their helicopters. However, Top of the Hub is expensive, and The Skywalk is often taken by private parties or filled with kids and their shepherding parents. If you want a private viewing of the city from above, take a walk through the financial district and cross the greenway towards the Seaport Boulevard Bridge (next to the rusting old train bridge). On the corner of the Boulevard is glass and brick building that fits into the downtown skyline without remark. Walk in through the doors that read “Independence Wharf”, sign in at the front desk and the concierge will direct you to the fourteenth floor. Take the elevator up, follow the signs in the hall, open the glass door and step out onto your own personal balcony fourteen floors above the streets of Boston. Stretching from the street to the seaport side of the building, the Independence Wharf provides a unique open-air look at the valley carved through downtown by the greenway, and the best view of the seaport open to the public in Boston. Little known and therefore often empty, the Independence Wharf Observation Deck provides and intimate and unique look at Boston from above.

A Little Free Library in Jamaica Plain. There are maps online that pinopoint them all, but stumbling across is much more fun. (Courtesy ©Sacred Harbor Photography)

Little Free Libraries

From the Public Library and the Athenaeum, to independent bookstores like Brattle and Booksmith, Boston is a distinctly literary city. Books are so accessible in fact that one need not have cash or a library card to get their hands on reading material. Spread throughout the city and the greater Boston area are Little Free Libraries, which are precisely as they sound: small shelves of books stashed in public places throughout the city, completely free for the passerby to peruse and borrow from. Operating on a take one leave one basis, or take now and leave eventually, these literary public services are a unique touch of Boston’s literary flair.