x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Boston: Heart in history

There has never been a better time to visit Boston, that most European of American cities, says resident Scott MacMillan.

A view over Boston with Fenway Park in the foreground – visit in the next month or two to catch the Red Sox in action.
A view over Boston with Fenway Park in the foreground – visit in the next month or two to catch the Red Sox in action.

Why Boston?

Settled by pioneers and pilgrims, the birthplace of the American Revolution sits at the inner edge of the American continent: Boston is the closest US city to Europe in terms of culture. Parts of the historic centre, with its churchyards, cemeteries and public houses, sometimes feel more like an old English town than a North American metropolis. If the crowds get to be too much in Quincy Market, an old waterfront warehouse remade into rows of ice-cream shops, food stalls and chocolatiers, it's a short walk down quieter streets to 18th-century landmarks such as the Old North Church, where Paul Revere gave his fabled command to hang lanterns, "one if by land, two if by sea", to warn of approaching British troops.

Here in the centre, a jumbled warren of streets built long before the age of the motor car has long perplexed town planners. For most of my parents' lives - I was born in the suburbs outside the city in 1974 - an elevated highway cleaved central Boston in two. Until recently, most of my relatives rarely ventured into the city since walking between neighbourhoods less than a kilometre apart, such as the Haymarket area at the heart of the old city and the Mediterranean-flavoured enclave of Little Italy in the North End, entailed ducking beneath a traffic-choked underpass and, as my sister describes it, "basically taking your life into your own hands".

But Boston is on its feet again in more ways than one. The long overdue completion of the "Big Dig", the popular name for a US$15 billion (Dh55 bn) road construction project that finished at the end of 2007, turned the downtown area into a pedestrian zone, with gardens rather than highways connecting stops on the "Freedom Trail", a self-guided historical tour that takes visitors back to the days of the American Revolution.

A comfortable bed

Life's improved for inmates at the former Charles Street Jail since the 19th century. Now the Liberty Hotel (www.libertyhotel.com, 001 617 224 4000), the building's pampered visitors are constantly reminded of the fact that it housed notorious ne'er-do-wells from its construction in 1851 until 1990, when authorities finally transferred its population elsewhere amid charges of overcrowding. A grand edifice built in 1851 out of locally hewn granite, the hotel is one of Boston's architectural landmarks. Though parts of the original jailhouse atmosphere are preserved in the stone floors and even some of the original bars of the cells, expect plush bathrobes rather than striped suits. A king-sized double room costs $229 (Dh840) per night.

Find your feet

Get the lay of the land by walking the Rose Kennedy Greenway, now a string of parks over which once ran the elevated John F Fitzgerald Expressway, named after the Kennedy matriarch and her father, respectively. The Greenway starts on the edge of Little Italy, with its restaurants and pastry shops, and cuts through central Boston like the highway once did. It runs all the way to Chinatown in the southern part of the centre, by way of the waterfront with its schooners, restaurants and skateboarders. Or follow the Freedom Trail from Boston Common past Quincy Market over to the North End through Little Italy - be sure to stop at Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church - and across the river to Charlestown. The trail winds past the USS Constitution (see below) to Bunker Hill, the site of a bloody clash between British redcoats and local patriots in the first major battle of the revolution.

Meet the locals

Fenway Park, of course. If you're visiting between April and September, there's a good chance that the Boston Red Sox will be playing in their storied old ballpark, perhaps even battling it out with their arch rivals, the New York Yankees. Bostonians are still on a high from winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007; before then, the team hadn't won the championship since 1918. Try to find seats beside older fans; the citizens of Red Sox Nation, as they call themselves, will regale you with tales of blown leads and mischances during 86 years of heartbreak.

Book a table

You can't go too wrong in the North End. This part of town, previously cut off from the rest of the city by the highway, is not only home to major historical sites such as the Old North Church, Copp's Hill Burying Ground - from which British soldiers bombarded Breed's Hill in 1775 - and Paul Revere's house, but it also has the highest concentration of good restaurants in the city. This is the centre of Boston's Italian-American community, so you can take your pick from any number of different Italian eateries. Prezza's (24 Fleet St, 001 617 227 1577), ranked one of the best restaurants in the city by Boston Magazine, impresses critics with its home-made meatballs and fresh pastas. No visit to Little Italy is complete without a stop at Mike's Pastry (300 Hanover St, 001 617 742 3050), a city institution where crowds spill out onto the pavement with boxes of éclairs, pistachio macaroons and cannoli.

Shopper's paradise

Westward from the Public Garden, famous for its swan boats, runs Newbury Street, where high-street stores and boutique shops sit side by side. Spend an afternoon wandering the eight blocks or, for something quirkier, you could head straight for Goorin Hats, packed with fedoras, panamas and good old American ballcaps. If you'd rather stick your head in a book, Newbury Street Comics (332 Newbury St, 001 617 236 4930) is known for its graphic novels and huge music section.

What to avoid

Taxis. Boston is a walking city, so don't bother paying for a cab. The sites outside the strolling circuit - Fenway Park, for instance - can easily be accessed via the efficient public transport system, called "the T" by residents.

Don't miss

The restored warship USS Constitution, whose triple masts tower over the mouth of the Charles River in Charlestown. Launched in 1797, the world's oldest commissioned warship fought Barbary corsairs in its early years, inflicted notable defeats on the British navy in the War of 1812 and was never defeated in battle. Active duty US navy personnel offer tours on board the oak-hulled vessel. The sailors' stories are entertaining for anybody but especially suitable for children.