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GREAT URBAN WEEKEND ESCAPES: BOSTON, MA
GREAT URBAN WEEKEND ESCAPES: BOSTON, MA
Larry Olmsted Contributor
Welcome back to “Great Urban Weekend Escapes.” Today we visit Beantown, rich in American history, colonial charm, family friendliness, cuisine and most of all, luxury hotels. Oddly, Boston has more Forbes 5-Star hotels per capita than any major city in the world – deluxe accommodations are something it excels at. To put this in perspective, Boston is just the 21st largest city in the country, but only six of the twenty bigger cities have even a single 5-star – while Boston has three. Only New York, Vegas and LA have more, while many big cities, including Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans, Minneapolis and St. Louis don’t have a 5-star between them. Texas has six cities bigger than Boston, including San Antonio, Houston and Dallas, but none have a 5-star hotel. Atlanta and DC each manage one, while the entire state of Hawaii has two, and large states like Ohio, Connecticut and New Jersey are 5-starless. To put it another way, Boston has many charms and you certainly won’t rough it while enjoying them.
For new readers, I’ll very briefly recap the logic behind this recurring feature, Great Urban Weekend Escapes. In my very first column on Indianapolis, I explain the particulars in much greater detail, so if you want to learn more about my criteria, read that one.
HarborWalk is Boston’s newest major attraction, with nearly 40 miles of waterfront promenades, public art and attractions completed. Photo: Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau
The concept is simple: As someone who travels a great deal and is always short on time, I’ve become a big fan of more manageable cities, those perfect for weekend or long weekend escapes. My rules for what makes a city a great weekend choice include at least one standout attraction, something people travel to see, like the Alamo. It must also have unique or diverse cuisine. Natural attractions, great lodging, notable cultural offerings and/or museums, and interesting shopping are all big pluses.
I’ve said this before: If you live in Boston, please take your selection as a compliment. I’m not suggesting your hometown is only “worth” a couple of days – I happily live in a town of less than 5,000 souls with two restaurants and no major attractions. I’m saying your city is user-friendly enough to be enjoyed in a weekend – hopefully the first of many weekend visits.
Boston’s Freedom Trail is the city’s premier attraction, spanning 2.5 miles and linking 16 historic sites. Guided tours are available by costumed tour guides. Photo: Freedom Trail Foundation
The standout attraction that sets Boston apart from every other city (well, Philly is similar) is the Freedom Trail, a 2 ½ mile well-marked walking path connecting 16 historical highlights. The most famous stops are Boston Common, America’s oldest public park (1634); the Old South Meeting House where the Sons of Liberty met and planned many acts including the famous Boston Tea Party; Faneuil Hall, “The Cradle of Liberty,” a center of commerce in 1741 and today the spot where twice each month hundreds of new citizens swear the Oath of Allegiance (and just behind it sits the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, a center of commerce today and the most visited attraction in the city); Old North Church, where Paul Revere had two warning lanterns lit, as in “One if By Land, Two if By Sea”; the Bunker Hill Monument commemorating the first major battle of the American Revolution; and the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides (right next to the ship is the USS Constitution museum). Besides the 16 official stops, there are myriad historical sites just off the Trail. Maps, online downloadable MP3 audio walking tours and tours led by live guides – in 18th century period costume – are all offered by the nonprofit Freedom Trail Foundation.
The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides” is one of the main attractions along Boston’s Freedom Trail, as is the Bunker Hill Monument seen behind it. Photo:Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau
In addition to the Trail, other popular cultural highlights in Boston include several standout museums, especially the big three: the city’s world famous Museum of Science, arguably the best of its kind in the country, hands on and very family friendly; the Museum of Fine Arts; and the JFK Museum. The Harvard University Campus and Harvard Square in Cambridge are both popular spots for visitors, and Harvard also has some notable museums, especially its natural history museum and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, one of the world’s oldest anthropology institutions (both are family friendly). It’s not all museums – while many other cities now boast similar amphibious tours, Boston is the original with its long popular Duck Tours, using a combination bus and boat to show the best of the city by land and sea.
Speaking of the sea, few US cities are more waterfront focused than Boston, bounded by water on three sides – you can even take a fast and easy water shuttle boat from the airport to downtown in lieu of a cab. The newest addition to the scene is HarborWalk, a massive redesign of the city’s coastline, with 39 out of a planned 47 miles completed, including the sections at FanPier, Liberty Wharf and the New England Aquarium. Much of the HarborWalk project includes public art, new shops, restaurants and museums. The city’s most popular shopping and dining area is also on the waterfront, the Faneuil Hall Marketplace and nearby Quincy Market. The other two notable shopping areas that are inland include Newbury Street in the heart of the Back Bay neighborhood and the upscale mall in the Prudential Center.
The Forbes 5-Star Boston Harbor Hotel is the top luxury choice in the city for leisure travelers thanks to its unrivaled waterfront location and amenities. Photo: Boston Harbor Hotel
There are more than 20 hotel projects in construction or planning now with nearly 3,000 rooms to be added in the next three years or so. As I mentioned, Boston is awash in luxury hotels including the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Taj, two Fairmonts and XV Beacon, but my favorite is the Forbes 5-Star Boston Harbor Hotel. It has the best tourism location, right on the waterfront within walking distance of most major attractions (Faneuil Hall, HarborWalk, Aquarium, Old North Church) and Boston’s charming Italian neighborhood, the North End. It is close to the ferry point for the city’s very unique National Park, Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, and has its own dock with sunset cruises and direct boat service to Logan Airport. The hotel is home to the nation’s oldest annual Wine Festival for three months each winter (26 years), has one of the most wine-centric fine dining restaurants in the nation, the superlative Meritage. In summer, the hotel offers outdoor seating on the water at the Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, a Boston rarity – despite ample waterfront there are few places to eat or drink outside. The hotel also has seasonal special entertainment, from outdoor films screened on the water in summer to an ice skating rink in winter. The Boston Harbor Hotel made the select list of “Hotels I Love” here at Forbes.com and there is much more detail about it in that piece.
Boston’s famous Duck Tours use amphibious vehicles to show the best of the city from the land and sea. Photo: Boston Duck Tours
On the food front, Boston offers both a wealth of traditional New England fare and much more varied contemporary cuisine. For the former, don’t miss the Union Oyster House, which claims to be the longest running eatery in the nation – everyone from Daniel Webster to JFK was a regular. Another classic is the dining room at the Omni Parker House, responsible for the invention of both Parker House rolls and Boston Cream Pie (and the place where chef Emeril Lagasse got his start). For the latter, try three of city’s superstar chefs: Ken Oringer, whose fine dining French inspired flagship is Clio but has recently become perhaps better known for his Toro tapas bar, which opened a branch in New York City to great acclaim; Barbara Lynch, a very early adaptor of farm to table cuisine, with a focus on cheese and artisanal charcuterie, best sampled at her Number 9 Park; and Emmy and James Beard award winning chef, author and TV personality Ming Tsai, who until very recently had just one restaurant, his flagship Blue Ginger in suburban Wellesley. Last year Tsai opened Blue Dragon, a novel gastro-pub where classics such as shepherd’s pie are reinterpreted deliciously with Asian touches. Blue Dragon is inexpensive, homey and excellent, and helps anchor the suddenly hot Fort Point neighborhood, part of the redeveloping waterfront along the HarborWalk. Two other local eateries that are personal favorites of mine are Sweet Cheeks, a Texas-influenced barbecue joint that features quality natural meats but really shines for its unbelievable biscuits, the best I’ve ever tried and worth going to just to sample (read more about the biscuits here) and Island Creek Oysters, owned by the actual local (Duxbury, MA) oyster farmers who supply French Laundry and other top restaurants across the nation. Their home base is a fun simple spot that has arguably the best raw bar in the United States (and good cooked food too) and has been at the forefront of the recent surge in oyster bar popularity.
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