Explore Boston

A Book Lover's Guide to Boston

Follow this itinerary for an immersive adventure into this city's literary heritage.

One might make the association that Boston’s plethora of universities is cause for its bright literary history, and we've no doubt there’s truth in that. But, since John Winthrop landed on these shores back in 1630, this city has been fertile ground for startlingly good writers in every era. Benjamin Franklin, Phillis Wheatley, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry James, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Dennis Lehane; the list goes on. Whether your taste runs to history (seek out the Old Corner Book Store, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Athenaeum, for example) or the books themselves (try a bookstore crawl around Harvard Square) there’s much to see and do here in the Athens of America.

9 am: Old books, old books

Kick off this biblio-themed day with a stop at 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, 617.542.0210

10 am: Chick lit, Colonial-style

Recognized as the place where the Boston Tea Party was born, the Old South Meeting House has a long history associated with free speech. Today, its exhibits contain a first edition of "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," written by Phillis Wheatley, notably the first person of African descent to publish poetry in the English language—an incredible feat of the era considering she was both a woman and a slave. It's also fun to note that the bulk shipment of Wheatley's book was aboard the Dartmouth from London, the same ship carrying those fateful chests of tea that would end up floating in the waters of Boston Harbor. 310 Washington St., Boston, 617.482.6439

Old South Meeting House
Go to Old South Meeting House to see Phillis Wheatley's "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral" (©MOTT)

10:30 am: Quick stop on the Freedom Trail

Along the way of your walk from the Old South Meeting House to your next destination Boston Athenaeum, pause for a minute on the corner of Washington and School streets to admire Old Corner Book Store. The buildings literary roots are entwined with the mid-1800s book industry, when it served as publishing house Ticknor and Fields, producing the works of living writers Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Emerson, Whittier and the elder Holmes. Today, the building is leased commericially—but it is still a cool sight to take in. Washington Street at School Street, Boston 

10:40 am: Beyond the stacks, part 1

The Boston Athenaeum is one of the city’s largest and oldest membership libraries and its first museum of fine arts. Its collections include the personal library of George Washington and art by John Singer Sargent. Visitors can explore its galleries and peruse fine art, take a docent-led Art and Architecture Tour, or make an appointment to see some rare books from the permanent collection. Early American history is a strength; one fun but rather macabre treasure is “The Highwayman,” a first-person account of criminal James Allen, bound in the author’s own skin. 10 1/2 Beacon St., Boston, 617.720.7629

Shakespeare's First Folio at the Boston Public Library
One of the few extant perfect copies of Shakespeare's First Folio, owned by the Boston Public Library (Courtesy Boston Public Library)

11:30 pm: Beyond the stacks, part 2

An hour's exploration at the Boston Public Library isn't nearly enough time at this venerable institution, but visitors can get a handle on what the place offers and then book—pun intended—a return trip. The BPL is the world's first free municipal library and the country's only public library that is also a Presidential Library, holding the papers of John Adams. Cast your eyes on reads from the latest bestsellers to rare items like the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of the works of William Shakespeare. Check out the Leventhal Map Center or temporary exhibitions like “Purloined Letters,” which shows off stolen hand-scribed personal correspondences of revered literati like Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and Edwin Austin Abbey, as well as experimental epistolary works by Bram Stoker. If you're also into art, Sargent's "Triumph of Religion" mural series is a star among many spectacular works. 700 Boylston St., Boston, 617.536.5400

12:30 pm: Bites and books

Newbury Street's Trident Booksellers & Café serves up an eclectic menu of incredibly tasty food within the confines of an edgy, intelligent, contemporary book shop that attracts a clientele of students and Back Bay professionals. Trident is one of downtown Boston’s remaining independent literary retailers, with a varied selection that starts with fiction and runs to philosophy. The ‘café’—really a full-service restaurant on two levels—features dishes including the signature vegan cashew chili, handmade vegetarian Tibetan momos, hefty sandwiches and breakfast all day. Sip a pot of Mem tea or Downeast Cider from the tap and relax. 338 Newbury St., Boston, 617.267.8688

2 pm: Bookstore crawl!

Harvard Square in Cambridge is fertile ground for really smaht folks, thanks to its main attraction Harvard University. Consequently, bookstores have thrived in this 'hood for years, creating a Shangri-la of reading materials in every genre bibliophiles can conjure up. Spend the afternoon on the hunt for whatever tickles you: privately-owned Harvard Book Store carries new, used and remaindered books, has an on-site book-printing machine, and hosts well-attended author events that attract such writers as David Sedaris and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. The Coop, in the heart of the square, is, for all intents, the university's bookstore. Grolier Poetry Book Shop is a revered stop for writers and readers of verse. Schoenhof's Foreign Books has been around since 1856 stocking language learning guides and literature—your chance to read the classics in Greek or Latin. MBTA's Red Line to Harvard Square station, Cambridge

The Reading Suite at Hotel Commonwealth
The Reading Suite at Hotel Commonwealth, with reading nook, pictured (©Hotel Commonwealth)

7 pm: What would Hemingway drink?

Grab early evening tipples at The Hawthorne in Kenmore Square. The chic craft cocktail bar mixes up a potent Death in the Afternoon based on a recipe the American writer himself created and named after his 1932 nonfiction book. The Hawthorne's version: St. George Absinthe, chartreuse, Regan's Orange Bitters and a sugar cube. 500A Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617.532.9150

9 pm: Suite dreams

Head next door and retire to Hotel Commonwealth's Reading Suite for rest and relaxation. The exclusive, literature-themed, two-room suite dons a classic feel and one-of-kind amenities, including a hand-hewn wooden desk, comfy leather chairs and a window-seat reading nook. Purists can get lost in the curated selection of 50 author-signed volumes while readers who prefer the mobile platform can browse travel-inspired and top-selling titles loaded onto a Barnes & Noble Nook Color. 500 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617.933.5000