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Things to do in Boston, the hub of the universe

Ben Gibson / 12 July 2015

Founded by the English nearly 400 years ago and renowned for its key role in the American Revolution, Boston stands as the undisputed ‘culture capital’ of America, writes Ben Gibson…

Downtown Boston, viewed from across the Charles River
Downtown Boston, viewed from across the Charles River

The Hub of the Universe

New England’s unofficial capital has many nicknames, many of them misnomers such as ‘Athens of America’ or the ‘Puritan City’. 

My favourite is the writer Oliver Wendell Holmes’ definition ‘the Hub of the Universe’, which has come to symbolise Boston’s position as the centre of American culture and learning (Harvard and 55 other institutions have their campuses here).

Founded by English settlers in 1630 and named after their hometown of Boston in Lincolnshire, the city sprang from rather humble beginnings. It went on to witness many events of the American Revolution, including the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Bunker Hill.

The Freedom Trail

The best way to appreciate the city’s history is to walk the Freedom Trail, a three-mile painted path which links 16 of the most important sites. 

It took me almost the entire day to follow, although I did stop fairly frequently for refreshments – there are a number of cafes and food stands dotted along the route. 

Among the many places it passes are the magnificent gold-domed State House, the Globe Corner Bookstore (a former hang-out of Dickens), and the charming shops of Quincy Market. 

I also crossed over to the waterfront to admire ‘Old Ironsides’, the USS Constitution, which is the oldest ship in the US Navy. 

Other great places on the route include the obelisk-like Bunker Hill Monument and Paul Revere’s House, said to be the oldest house in downtown Boston. 

The trail is very easy to follow, especially if you pick up a free map from one of the city’s Visitors’ Centres – they’re clearly marked and really easy to find.

One of the most intellectually best-endowed places in America

Boston has been called ‘one of the intellectually best-endowed places in America’, and the sheer number of universities and colleges here are proof. 

Arguably the most famous of all, Harvard, is something of a town in its own right, located over the Charles River in elegant Cambridge. This red-brick campus is full of open spaces and grand buildings including the impressive Widener Library with its elongated steps. 

Just around the corner you can see the larger than life-sized bronze statue of John Harvard himself, sometimes called the ‘statue of three lies’. (Despite the inscription on the pedestal, John Harvard was not the founder, nor is this his likeness, nor was the college founded in 1638). 

You may like to join the throngs in rubbing his left foot for luck, worn down over the years by superstitious students with pre-exam nerves.

Shopping malls, theatres and nightlife...Cheers!

If history isn’t your thing, Boston still has plenty of interest. Glitzy shopping malls can be found on nearly every corner, whale-watching trips depart on the hour from the waterfront, the Theatre District is a blur of neon-lit billboards offering fabulous shows.

Boston Common is always abuzz with festivities, and there is an array of themed pubs and bars to experience. 

Food lovers are also in for a treat – just about every taste is catered for, from hearty burgers in the Cheers bar (made famous in the sitcom of the same name) to succulent lobster, scrod fillets, brick-oven baked beans and cranberries used in a thousand guises, both sweet and savoury. 

A word of warning to those with small appetites: as with most places in America, gargantuan portions are the norm. Even a big eater like me was defeated. Several times.

On my final Boston afternoon I ignored my innate fear of heights and braved the Prudential Skywalk, the highest observation deck in New England – some 750 feet up. 

As I stood there, the hustle of the city faded to a hush, and I looked out at hundreds of skyscrapers towering above the older spires and steeples, with the gentle ebb of the Charles just beyond. 

And while I didn’t exactly feel at the centre of the universe like Wendell Holmes suggested, I certainly felt that this was, without doubt, the heart of cultural America.

The best restaurants chains to visit in the USA

The top 5 things to do in Boston

1. Go shopping in Quincy Market

2. Stop for a drink in the famed Cheers bar

3. Browse the New England classics in the Globe Corner Bookstore

4. Head off for a guided ‘duck tour’ by land and sea

5. Walk around charming, gas-lit Beacon Hill

Discover Boston for yourself on Saga's 'Contrasts of New England' holiday

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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