Ironically for the birthplace of the American Revolution, Boston is the most British US city — a liberal mind is married to a certain primness of heart, heritage is meticulously maintained and things are to be tackled in a certain way. Headlong rushing into new trends is not the city’s style — there always seems to be a deliberate thoughtfulness even when experimenting. But within this framework, compelling personalities are allowed to emerge.
The city’s big convention centre-serving hotels cluster here, alongside steakhouses. But there’s dreamy architecture too — churches bulging with ornate features dot the corners.
Back Bay is an area that rewards the nosy. The Bukowski Tavern is a classic dive bar, where locals line up on stools and demolish burgers. The peanut butter and bacon one is, erm, a bold choice.
Then there’s Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar, which offers a slightly out-of-the-ordinary Mexican menu featuring the likes of blackened halibut tacos with radish and scallions, plus a bewildering list of variations on the classic margarita. But head downstairs and it’s considerably more out of the ordinary. There’s a red-lit bordello vibe with heavily tattooed cartoon women painted on the walls, OTT gothic chandeliers and enormous black leather couches.
Back Bay is also home to what is surely Boston’s most likeable street. Newbury Street is regarded as Boston’s prime shopping strip, but it feels like this is a happy accident rather than a deliberate ploy. The street is lined with handsome brownstone buildings with bulging bays. Many have carefully tended tiny gardens at the front, and most have steps leading down to a lower level. But it’s the fact that everything is shoehorned in that makes Newbury Street so lovable. Those lower-level stores include world-renowned shoemaker John Fluevog, smoothie bars and hip secondhand fashion boutiques. There’s a similar variance up top, with the likes of the Trident Booksellers and Cafe, serving up seemingly a zillion different egg dishes and juice combos among the groaning shelves. But there are also outdoor gear stores, local designers and Newbury Comics — geek heaven, with racks of vinyl, pop culture knick-knackery and action figures from every fantasy and sci-fi show imaginable.
The Harvard Yard — surrounded by handsome, red-brick Georgian buildings and full of the pick of America’s young academics milling about — is what Cambridge is ostensibly all about. Technically a separate city — just across the Charles River from Boston — it’s essentially a suburb, and one that’s quite happy to pile on the mythology.
Every shop, restaurant and bar around Harvard Square seems keen to play up its own heritage and piece of the legend. The Harvard Book Store boasts of being locally owned and independently run since 1932. The neighbouring Grolier Poetry Book Shop was founded in 1927 and is the ‘oldest all-poetry bookshop in America’. And next door, there’s Mr Bartley’s Gourmet Burgers, ‘a Harvard landmark since 1960’ with a near-permanent queue outside.
But Harvard is just one end of Cambridge. At the other is another of the world’s top universities — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT campus is studded with arresting public art from big names such as Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa. English-inspired gentility in the architecture is replaced by a willingness to let all ideas burst free — as typified by Frank Gehry’s dazzlingly chaotic Stata Center. Even nearby restaurants, such as the Area Four pizza and craft beer joint, play up the science in their dishes and plump for industrial-looking decor.
Once dubbed ‘Slummerville’, the area (also, technically, an independent city) has one of the youngest populations in the States and seems to be hogging all the big new restaurant openings in the Boston area.
The renaissance started when the Red Line of ‘The T’ subway system extended to Davis Square in 1984. Now the square has thoroughly gentrified, but with an impish twist. The Davis Square Theatre advertises ‘shit-faced Shakespeare’ and ‘dirty Disney’, while the speakeasy-style Saloon bar next to it is drowning in sumptuous wood-panelling, old-style gentlemanly class and inventive cocktails.
Slightly further down Elm Street, amid a sea of globe-spanning eateries, there’s Rosebud american kitchen & bar. It has a vintage rail car out front that’s been converted into a tongue-in-cheek upscale diner where jambalaya (Cajun rice and meat dish) happily shares a menu with Korean barbecue sliders and Thai sticky ribs.
But Davis Square is no longer an island. Clusters of top eating and drinking spots are now found all over Somerville, with Union Square the uppity young challenger for the crown.
Here, on a Saturday afternoon, a farmers’ market sets up out front and restaurant-bar Bronwyn serves up hefty doses of pork, to be washed down with an extensive list of Central European beers. In the beer garden, there doesn’t appear to be a single person over the age of 35. But no one’s here because they want to be part of a scene — it’s just an enjoyable place to hang out. And that’s Somerville through and through.
It was a sad state of affairs for what should have been, and now is, one of Boston’s most attractive ’hoods. It has the highest concentration of Victorian buildings in the city, with several small parks dotted between them. But the gay community stayed during the bad times and helped shape the good ones that followed.
Nowadays, the South End is regarded as Boston’s arts hub, with the giant former warehouses flanking the pedestrianised Thayer Street home to scores of studios and galleries. Mohr & McPherson does big statement homewares, Goosefish Press uses antique presses to do letterpress printing, Bobby from Boston sells vintage menswear.
The creative process is by no means confined to Thayer Street, though. Tremont is home to Jim Anderson Stained Glass, where decorative windows are made for hotels and restaurants in the city. Across the road is the Cyclorama Building, originally constructed to house a huge circular painting of the Battle of Gettysburg and is now the main exhibition hall for the Boston Center for the Arts. The beehive, a bohemian bar inside, gleefully throws everything into the mix — a quick look at the upcoming events poster shows fiery Latin jazz, a Bastille Day soiree and a Monday night Dub Club with reggae, dub and soul.
It’s a fine example of how the South End’s most enjoyable spots don’t limit themselves to one thing. Tremont Street is regarded as a restaurant strip, but the likes of Butcher Shop defy easy categorisation. Chopping boards and cleavers hang from the walls, fridges full of wrapped-up cured meats and cuts of beef line the back, as people gather round the bar on stools to work their way through the wine list.
Nearby, recently opened Wine Riot turns the idea of a booze shop on its head too. The walls are covered in maps of wine regions, explaining the different characteristics of everywhere from Austria’s Wachau Valley to Central Otago District in New Zealand. It’s as much an educational resource as a place to buy a bottle, something backed up by the bar offering free tastings at the rear.
Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau: bostonusa.com
When in Boston…
Other sports lag way behind the ball game in Boston’s affections. Baseball diamonds can be found all over the city, but Fenway Park — the home of the Boston Red Sox — is the high temple. It’s open for tours and, if you’re lucky, match tickets.
With plenty of coastline nearby, it’s no surprise that cod, clam chowder, and anything else fishy that Bostonians can get their hands on, feature heavily on restaurant menus.
The 35th president was born and raised in Boston, with his birthplace and presidential library open to visitors. Several other spots — from restaurants he frequented to Harvard, where he studied — gleefully lay claim to their slice of the Kennedy legend too. nps.gov/jofi
The Boston Tea Party kicked off the American War of Independence, and the Greater Boston area is full of key sites. Many are along the Freedom Trail, a 2.5-mile walking route weaving through the more historic parts of the city.
Boston has embraced the food truck phenomenon. Key spots include the Rose F Kennedy Greenway, Boston Common and just outside the Harvard Science Center in Cambridge.
British Airways Holidays offers seven nights at the Royal Sonesta Boston, in Cambridge, including return flights from London, from £754 per person.
Published in the November 2016 guide issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)