We celebrate the past to awaken the future. ~ John F. Kennedy, 1960
Boston is a walking city – it’s easy to lose yourself in its narrow cobblestone streets, so embedded in their past.
On a daytime stroll, you’ll pause to admire beautiful brownstones, original storefronts dating back to the 1800’s, and monuments of centuries ago. At night, the streetscapes take on the feel of an old-world Europe – the darkness embraced by the elm trees that line them; made all the more romantic by the gas lamps that illuminate them. There’s no doubt that this city is steeped in a rich history and as proud as Boston is of its roots, it doesn’t wallow in the nostalgia. After all, a creative revival is taking place in its south.
Located in proximity to Boston’s downtown and fringed by Fort Point Channel and Inner Harbour, the neighbourhoods of Seaport District and South Boston are just a quick ride across the Summer Street Bridge. The Big Dig – an infrastructure project that was designed to improve traffic flow and better join the city’s neighbourhoods, underground – has helped make this part of Boston more accessible from the city’s outskirts as well.
Formerly a hub of maritime activity, the area has been revitalized through the influence of modern architecture and industrial design, with its waterfront now lined with dining, convention and art venues. Proof in point: The Institute of Contemporary Art, the Boston Society of Architects, Fort Point artists’ community, and the Boston Design Centre are all based here – some housed in buildings reflective of imaginative 21st Century design; others, in conserved and revitalised industrial buildings and lofts of the past.
The urban landscape of Boston is undergoing a progressive transformation. For a city that may have been known more for a skyline punctuated by conservatively designed skyscrapers, and a core marked by a concrete Government Center, it makes for a refreshing and welcome transition.
With all the elements of a cosmopolitan city, it’s the rich history coupled with a fresh dose of culture and design that gives Boston an edge.
Here’s how to spend (just over) 24-hours in Boston on a short break from NY. NB: Cambridge – home to Harvard and MIT – is a city unto itself; I’ll cover it in a separate post.
3.30pm: A Presidential Approach
Boston is located about a five hours drive from NY. You know you’re close when you see signs for Providence and Cape Cod – the summer vacation spot of the Kennedy’s, and where JFK used to sail. Just before reaching Boston’s downtown, veer off of the I-93 and head to Columbia Point, home to the impressive John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
A treasure trove of information, the building contains an archive of 8.4 million pages of the former president’s papers – personal ones, included. Meander through its many pictorial, audio visual and 3D exhibits showcasing moments in JFK’s life: from the Campaign Trail, to his inauguration as 35th President of the US, to life told from the First Lady’s point of view. Highlight: the grand finale to the museum’s trail is in the building’s floor to ceiling windowed pavilion. Overlooking Boston Harbour, the space is intended for reflection and inspiration.
The modern design of the museum-library is a testament to its architect, I.M. Pei – even though the memorial was constructed in 1979, it stands the test of time.
The tour of Boston’s architectural beauty continues as you enter The Liberty Hotel, located in Beacon Hill. Formerly the Charles Street Jail, the 1851-built building incorporates features of its past life, without the kitsch. Deemed unfit for prisoners and closed in 1970; by 2007, the preserved Landmark building was opened as The Liberty Hotel – its exterior restored, its interiors tastefully transformed. Three levels of balconies embrace the inner circumference of the building and look onto the expansive lobby. Doubled up as a lounge and bar area, this is where the guards used to watch the prisoners. Check-in whilst you sip a glass of champagne, offered upon arrival. As you stand in the midst of its 90-foot rotunda, look up and around – it’s hard not to wonder what went on in this one-time penitentiary. If only the walls could talk.
6.30 pm: City of Light
Check into your Tower room (in an adjoining modern building), and enjoy the view of the city’s lights from skyscraper heights. Evening turndown service equals chocolate-on-the-pillow; savour the sweet as you take the last sips of champagne before heading out.
The Museum of Fine Arts requires a few days to view, as is expected of such an art institution.
Make use of the late closing time (Wednesday through Friday: 9.45pm) – visit the Modernist Photography exhibition 1910-1950 (through April 1 2012); explore the mummies and other Egyptian artifacts; marvel at Dave Chihuly’s 40-foot-high 10,000-pound Lime Green Icicle Sculpture in the Shapiro Family Courtyard.
A must try – the Juniper Blossom cocktail, served in the hotel lobby’s Liberty Bar. Tanqueray Gin, St Germaine and grapefruit juice – shaken, this is set to be the new Cosmopolitan.
Stave off a morning hangover and order a couple of items from the late night menu. Highly recommended – the dumplings, served in a bamboo steam box, are so delectable and fresh. Also, the sashimi – generous slices of meaty yellowtail, topped with pomegranate seeds and sea salt. The food service and quality couldn’t be further from prison standards ~ modern, flavourful and beautifully presented.
The trip ‘home’ is simply an elevator ascent away. Go on, order another cocktail.
9am: Coffee after Bubbles
Begin the day with a soak in the deep tub – if you’re a fan of bubbles, the divine scent of Molton Brown’s Toko-Yuzu bath gel will linger with you long afterwards.
Order a take-away coffee from the hotel’s CLINK restaurant, admire the vestiges of the jail’s original cells while-you-wait, and spend some time exploring the hotel’s design details on your way back to your room. There’s plenty to appreciate: from the huge circular windows that bathe the interior in a soft light, to the exposed brick walls with original cell detailing, to the interior perspective of a reconstructed cupola that sits atop the building.
10am: Charming Charles Street
A little further along Charles Street, walking south of The Liberty Hotel, you’ll encounter its cobblestone pathways and 19th Century architecture. Lined with boutiques and restaurants, you’ll also have the chance to view the beautiful brownstones of Beacon Hill’s side streets. Pay a visit to the bar that inspired the one in Cheer’s.
The Freedom Trail is the best way to become acquainted with sites of historical significance during the Revolution. Leave the car with the hotel valet for the day, and begin the walk from Boston Common, the nation’s oldest park.
The self-guided tour follows a 2.5-mile trail that snakes all the way through the city’s downtown – past gold-domed Massachusetts State House and nearby Granary Burial Ground, where patriot Paul Revere is buried…
Mid-Morning Snack Stop:
Late Morning Snack at ‘Sweet’: try the Boston Cream Pie cupcake, served in the sugar-pink surrounds of a 1920’s inspired sweet-shop.
New England Holocaust Memorial (Stanley Saitowitz): a site dedicated to the memory and reflection of one of the world’s tragedies; its six glass columns recall the 6 main death camps, the six million Jews who died, the menorah of memorial candles.
Six million numbers are etched in glass in an orderly pattern, suggesting the infamous tattooed numbers and ghostly ledgers of the Nazi bureaucracy. nehm.org
Take time to pause and read the quotes of those who survived.
Views of the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge from the Charlestown Bridge: Swiss bridge designer Christian Menn conceived the bridge to reflect, with its inverted Y-shaped towers, the shape of the Bunker Hill Monument in neighboring Charlestown. The bridge’s cables are suggestive of a ship in full sail linking it to East Boston as a center of shipbuilding.*
The 294 step climb up the Bunker Hill Monument: the city views from the top are panoramic. Warning: Your hamstrings will be screaming at you for days afterwards.
Ferry it from Charlestown to Long Wharf, located by the city’s Financial District. Quincy Market is a short walk away – grab a lobster roll and take a leisurely stroll past the concrete blocks of the Government Centre that surround the City Plaza, past the side streets of Beacon Hill, and back to the Liberty Hotel. You’ve come full circle.
This is the kind of architecture that is progressively changing the look of Boston – the Institute of Contemporary Art’s design received the Harleston Parker Medal for the “most beautiful building” in Greater Boston.
Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro designed the building both “from the sky down,” as a contemplative space for visitors to enjoy art, and “from the ground up,” to provide dynamic public areas. (ICA Visitor Guide)
Visit the institution and view its exhibits. Mental note: it was the ICA that hosted the early shows of such visionaries as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Edvard Munch. Check out the views of the harbor and Charlestown from the second and third floors of the building’s front facing windows. At sunset they are really spectacular.
7.30pm: Bamboo and Chopsticks
Back over Fort Point Channel, stroll through the small enclave that is Chinatown. You’ll notice the bamboo plantations and tufts that feature in the Chinatown Park as part of the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway – a walkway punctuated with public art and greenery over a mile-long stretch of Atlantic Avenue.
Have dinner at China Pearl 9 – they serve hard-to-come-by Singapore Noodles, and you’ll appreciate the authentically decorated interior. Think: red lanterns and white tableclothed banquet-size round tables.
Boston is difficult to become acquainted with from a first-time driver’s perspective. A maze of one way streets that intersect ‘Do Not Enter’ signs with extreme regularity; you’ll save a lot of time when armed with a driving map of the city.