AOL PICK from our Editors
Before you get here, decide what Boston attractions are most worth your time: Exploring our nation’s history? Seeing great art from the classical to the contemporary? Or enjoying family time with the kids? If you wait until you get here to determine what the best things to do in Boston are, the options can seem overwhelming. Bostonians have always taken their culture seriously, and the offerings in food and entertainment have grown exponentially in recent years. Certain things—Fenway Park, a stroll through the North End—fit almost any agenda. The city is filled with historic landmarks, beautiful scenery and fun activities—all of the best things to do in Boston are right at your fingertips. And much of what we’d recommend can be built into a walkable plan.
Recent renovations have shaken some of the dust off this once groundbreaking venue that opened in 1969. The New England Aquarium functions as a major player in bettering New England’s environment, by studying fisheries and rescuing stranded sea creatures around the region. The giant 200,000-gallon ocean tank, surrounded by a spiraling ramp, allows you to watch staffers feeding everything from sharks to Myrtle the Turtle around a 20-foot-high artificial coral reef. Outdoor areas host environments for playful harbor seals and sea lions. If you are a fan of cute marine mammals, or fascinated by the eating habits of sharks, the New England Aquarium is one of the top things to do while visiting Boston.
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New artistic director Diane Paulus has utterly reinvigorated this Cambridge institution with productions on the main stage at Loeb Drama Center and with immersive, edgy events at the nearby night-clubby venue called Oberon. The American Repertory Theater, or A.R.T., had a reputation for brilliant, but sometimes off-puttingly highbrow and obscure work. Paulus has put the fun back into live theater, making catching a show one of the best things to do in Boston. Shows like the Red Sox-themed musical Johnny Baseball and Gatz have kept the Loeb full, while the disco-Shakespeare extravaganza called The Donkey Show was extended for months at Oberon. Paulus even took over an abandoned school to host a British company’s spooky take on Macbeth, called Sleep No More. Whatever she’s got going on is probably worth working into your schedule.
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Isabella Stewart Gardner was a daring, eccentric art lover who opened a museum in 1903 to showcase her collection in just the way she wanted. By her decree, not much has changed since her death in 1924. A controversial addition now under construction will expand the ISabella Stewart Gardner museum’s footprint and its facilities. But the original building with its galleries surrounding a flower-filled Italianate courtyard remains. The one big change since then? The 1990 theft of Vermeer’s The Concert and several other masterworks, which is noted by conspicuously empty spaces on the walls to mark the missing works. Also worth looking out for here are various music series and artist-in-residence programs.
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Neighborhood: Back Bay
Once a sleepy temple of art catering to Brahmins of conservative tastes, the Museum of Fine Art is about to complete a huge expansion that will transform it into one of the top things to do in Boston. A new Art of the Americas wing will vastly increase the amount of the collection on display. Must-sees include Gilbert Stuart’s iconic portraits of George and Martha Washington, John Singer Sargent's masterpiece The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, and Childe Hassam’s Boston Common at Twilight. Several Monets and Van Gogh’s Postman Joseph Roulin crown the European collection. A new special exhibits gallery means the previous space devoted to that function will be turned over to modern and contemporary art, long underrepresented on the museum’s walls. The MFA also has an excellent repertory film program.
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Neighborhood: Beacon Hill/Back Bay
Boston Common was created in 1634, and has been everything from a place to graze cattle to a stage for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope John Paul II. It slopes down the south face of Beacon Hill below the State House, offering acres of tree-lined paths, broad lawns, ball fields and tennis courts. It’s also utilitarian, crisscrossed by many people with somewhere to go, and there’s a large parking garage underneath its green lawns.
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Neighborhood: North End
The Paul Revere House, the site of the Boston Massacre and the Old North Church (famous for its lanterns: "one if by land, two if by sea")—these are just three of the 16 historic attractions on the 2.5-mile red-brick walking trail that snakes through downtown, Beacon Hill and the North End and consistently named one of the best things to do in Boston. The fact that these are real places, still trod by real people, makes our country’s past seem much closer. Everything starts at the visitor center on the Tremont Street side of the Boston Common. Plan ahead and you can join a tour led by a colonial-costumed guide. If you're the self-guided type, be sure to slip into the 1826 Union Oyster House for a dozen on the half-shell and a pint of Sam Adams at the horseshoe bar where Daniel Webster ate and drank. It’s not technically a part of the Freedom Trail, but since you walk right by the front door, it may be hard to resist.
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The recent death of Ted Kennedy closed out an era in American history when John, Bobby and Ted were central figures in the life of the nation. But their legacy lives on here. A dramatic building on a waterfront site, the John F. Kennedy Library & Museum hosts both permanent and rotating exhibits on the life and leadership of President Kennedy and of his family. Everything from important documents to personal mementos appear here. There are also frequent seminars and ceremonies to debate current events of interest and honor those whose courage reflects Kennedy’s legacy. A shuttle bus will take you to the museum from the UMass/JFK stop on the Red Line subway.
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For many years after its 1936 founding, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art was hampered by cramped and inappropriate spaces. But in 2006, the ICA opened a spectacular new home on the waterfront, designed by New York architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro. It was the first entirely new museum built in Boston in a century, and its dramatic cantilevered shape made it one of the city’s most instantly recognizable buildings. The ICA’s permanent collection has yet to catch up, but special exhibits have kept the museum’s profile high. Keep an eye out for drama, dance and music events in the glass-walled theater and outside on the harbor-walk. Oh, and the giant glass elevator is a must-ride.
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The Public Garden was created in 1837, and is an ornate botanical oasis designed by George Meacham. The Garden is one of the top things to do in Boston if you are looking for relaxation in a serene setting. Gorgeous plantings, benches and the lagoon invite contemplation. Statuary includes such only-in-Boston attractions as the Ether Monument
and the Make Way For Ducklings sculpture
. And everyone wants to ride the Swan Boats
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Neighborhood: Fenway Park
Fenway Park is to Boston as the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, both a world-famous landmark and a busy public facility. The Red Sox play here—you may have heard. Babe Ruth pitched here and was then sold to the Yankees, beginning the legendary curse erased by the Red Sox World Series victory in 2004. Cy Young, Ted Williams and Carlton Fisk are just a few of the other greats who’ve graced the field of what John Updike famously called a “lyric little bandbox.” In the last decade, new owners have not only led the team to two World Series championships and raised fandom to the status of “Red Sox Nation.” They’ve also been good stewards of the 1912 park, retaining its unique dimensions and intimate character while adding capacity and modern amenities. Fenway, with its famous left-field wall, the Green Monster, is perhaps the city’s single most popular attraction—and, in most locals humble opinion, the best thing to do in Boston. Tours are given up to three hours before game time. Red Sox tickets are hard to come by, but the owners save a small block to be sold to fans who line up on Lansdowne Street beginning around dawn on game day—or the night before for a Yankees series. Despite law enforcement promises, scalping remains a thriving business on the street around the park, so don’t be afraid to haggle.
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Odds are good that either the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Boston Pops will be in residence when you visit town. Maestro James Levine has the BSO winning critical acclaim for their best performances in decades; it’s worth dressing up a little for this. There are several performances each week when they’re playing, and those on a budget can attend an open rehearsal. Charismatic conductor Keith Lockhart has a tricky job keeping the Pops relevant to today’s audiences, which he sometimes does by bringing in rock and pop performers. Stylish casual attire works for Pops shows. In any case, the beauty of Symphony Hall (opened in 1900) and its acoustic quality are marvels; tours are offered on Wednesday afternoons and some Saturdays.
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