Exploring the Shopping Districts of Boston
Shopping in Boston is as vast and varied an endeavor as any. Big town, small city and lots of different personalities. Check out these six store-dense neighborhoods, each with its own unique vibe.
District: Back Bay
Vibe: Chic, fashion-forward, designer
Starting point: Newbury Street
Get a designer experience in posh Back Bay. Newbury Street is home to loads of luxury brands, including Chanel, Valentino and Giorgio Armani, European imports like Sermoneta, Zara and such quirky local upstarts as Johnny Cupcakes and Ball & Buck.
Nearby, Copley Place boasts Neiman Marcus and Barneys, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, David Yurmanand more, while Saks Fifth Avenue takes up residence at The Shops at Prudential Center along with the likes of Kate Spade, Gucci, Vineyard Vines and 75 other stores.
District: Harvard Square
Vibe: Collegiate, bookishly hip
Starting point: Intersection of Massachusetts Avenue at JFK and Brattle streets
It's no surprise that Harvard Square in Cambridge is so named for the venerable Ivy League university that sits at its heart. Fittingly, specialty book stores thrive in this 'hood, catering to local smarter-than-mosts with outposts like Schoenhof's with its extensive array of foreign language reading materials, historic Grolier's with its stacks of poetry, local favorite Harvard Book Store with its far-reaching general interest selection, and the legendary Harvard Coop.
The fashion-aware can dress the part of bookish at The Andover Shop and student-run The Harvard Shop, or bookishly hip in menswear from J. Press and caps from Goorin Bros. Hat Shop. Those who dare to wear hard-to-find labels can head to The Tannery, Forty Winks and Mint Julep.
Lovely independent stores still outnumber national retailers in Harvard Square (Urban Outfitters, ahem), and delightful finds range from children's toys at The Curious George Store, to notebooks, pens and leather binders at Bob Slate Stationers, to specialty honeys from all over the world at Follow the Honey.
District: Beacon Hill
Vibe: Boutique shopping
Starting point: 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. J.McLaughlin features preppy styles popular on the Vineyard or in the Hamptons. North River Outfitter has slightly edgier versions of the preppy-chic look.
A few spots cater to ladies who like contemporary party frocks, including Holiday, Wish, Crush and Dress Boston. NOA features all styles of jewelry made by Massachusetts artisans and designers. You can’t go wrong on gear and get-ups at NRO Kids, which boasts lovely, upscale children’s clothing, hair bows and toys from brands that are off mainstream, or at longstanding favorite Red Wagon.
Gift shops on Chas Street run the gamut: Quirky finds populate Black Ink; Blackstones of Beacon Hill has a well-edited selection of niche books, women’s bags and upmarket souvenirs and trinkets; and candles, creams, soap, frames, bags, fashion jewelry and faux rustic chic wooden signage is packed into tiny Flat of the Hill.
Also, Eugene Galleries sells lithographs taken from old books, atlases and maps that look great framed, and there’s a strong selection of Boston-related imagery, as well as things from sea shells to flora. Check out the “treasure box” filled with $1 prints. Hungry? Snag a snack at Fastachi—handmade chocolate and nut mixes.
District: North End
Vibe: Homegrown, with old-school 'tude
Starting point: Hanover Street
The atmosphere in Boston’s North End is a mix of Italian immigrants, travelers and young professionals and this is reflected in the businesses that thrive here.
Old-world markets like Salumeria Italiana for olive oils, canned Italian specialty foods, artisan pasta and fresh baked bread, and Polcari’s for spices, herbs coffee and imported groceries, are frequented by residents. Wine Bottega, with its well-edited selection of imported wine and handwritten displays, is very cool.
The 1900s-era William Carlton Hat Shop on Salem Street is as tiny as it is adorable. Pick up all styles of hats from newsboys to Ivy caps, as well as workwear and, randomly, Dutch gents bicycles. is Fairly new to the neighborhood, Officina 189 offers a varying range of exclusively Italian, modern, high-end niche products.
District: South End
Vibe: Eclectic, design-centric, one of a kind
Starting point: Shawmut Ave and Union Park
Head to the South End for an adventure exploring more than four dozen exclusively independent shops that collectively contribute to the Victorian-era enclave’s creative vibe. Big themes for the widespread neighborhood are gifts, gourmet food, and both apparel and home decor that emphasize design.
Off the trodden path sits quiet Shawmut Avenue, and those travelers who don’t make a habit of stalking locals may not, unfortunately, stumble across its charms. Check out vintage cookbooks and kitchen-y gift items at Farm & Fable, snag some homemade chicken jerky for the pooch at Polka Dog Bakery, and sample some utterly amazing cheese at South End Formaggio.
On Washington Street, check out Lekker Home and Viola Lovely, while great stops on Tremont Street are Niche, Olives & Grace and Uniform. Quiet side streets worth a venture for the occasional boutique or two: Union Park (home decor at Hudson and Michelle Willey), Waltham Street (M. Flynn and Patch NYC Shop) and Dartmouth Street (natural skin care at Follain, gifts and crafts at Gifted).
Artist studios and galleries are the SoWa sector's biggest draw, but there are forward-thinking upstarts here too, like Lana Barakat's December Thieves and longtime local home furnishing haven Mohr & McPherson.
District: Coolidge Corner
Vibe: Urban casual
Starting point: Intersection of Beacon and Harvard streets
Brookline oﬀers urbanites neighborhood shopping at its best. Brookline Booksmith is a delightful depot of literature, with bonuses like the Globe Corner Travel Annex, the interior ‘Giftsmith’ boutique (selling paper jewelry and Scrabble-inspired mugs), and the used book cellar.
Find puzzles and games at Eureka, kids toys at Magic Beans and conceptual clothing (like a paper jacket from Mau) at Fire Opal. Wild Goose Chase has women’s clothing and jewelry for more mature women as well as clocks and a lot of handiwork by local artists, like American raku sculpture by Barbara Harnack. Best of all it’s a quick 15 minute ride from downtown Boston via the Green Line’s C train.
For more specific information on these and additional stores in each neighborhood, peruse Where Boston's shopping listings, here.