Boston matches hipness and history
Story by Jacqueline Swartz
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — For generations, Canadians have ventured to Boston annually for a taste of its New England lifestyle. The Massachusetts’ capital is constantly changing, making explorations on return visits just as enthralling as the first time in town.
On my most recent visit, a water taxi provided a dreamy ride from a waterfront hotel to Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and gave me a screenshot of what Boston is about these days. The historic 17th-century waterfront is marked with Massachusetts’ seafaring history.
There’s the picturesque harbour, where yachts anchor, sailboats dot the water, and shabby neighbourhoods are reborn in what the Boston Globe calls “the newest, coolest, and most vibrating part of the city.” (Check out the arts and music festivals and other activities at summeronthewaterfront.org.)
The 10-minute water taxi drops visitors off at the Institute of Contemporary Art, the first new museum building to be built in Boston in a century. In its old location downtown, the museum was the first to introduce US audiences to Georges Braque, Edvard Munch, and Roy Lichtenstein. The striking new building, which seems to hover above the water, has become a career booster for contemporary artists as well as a venue for exhibits and concerts.
Outside is a great place for lingering and boat watching. Near the ICA, in what was a rundown area called Fort Point, low-rise, wide-windowed industrial buildings — some with ungentrified artists’ lofts — are sprouting one new restaurant after another. Menton Boston, an upscale French eatery, was a pioneer, and it opened only in 2010. This spring, the 5,500-square-foot Bees Knees Supply Company gave the neighbourhood a much-needed market, which includes a cheese shop, charcuterie, chocolate maker, and two cafes. There’s buzz celebrity chef Mario Batali is signing leases.
Next door, at 12 Farnsworth Street, is Flour Bakery, which draws lunch crowds as much for its sandwiches and salads as for the pastries. You order at the desk, your name is called, and you sit at one of the long tables. Of course the quickest lunch would be at one of Boston’s growing number of food trucks. There are now over 50, serving everything from vegan Asian (Momogoose), Middle Eastern (Chubby Chickpea), seafood (Lobsta Love) to cookies (Cookie Monstah). To find the food trucks, go to www.cityofboston.gov.
Care for a cup of tea?
Near Flour is Fort Point Channel. It’s part of the regeneration of Fort Point. And in typical Boston fashion, hipness is combined with history. In front of the Boston Children’s Museum, a delightful place of interactive play, is an intriguingly twisted coil of thick rope. It’s one of the 17 winners of a city design contest called “Street Seats – Re-imagining the Public Bench.” Sitting on the rope seat, with the water below, what you see ahead is the Tea Party Ships and Museum, which is on the Congress Street Bridge. It has live actors, interactive exhibits, and offers tours that end on a vintage ship docked at the museum where you can throw over bales of tea as the Bostonians did in 1773 to protest British taxation (the bales are attached to ropes so they don’t sink).
The Boston Tea Party Museum is one historical site among many in this centre of the American Revolution that nevertheless remains the most British city in the US — just look at the buildings, the names, and a certain sense of decorum, delightfully leavened with Irish wit. The Freedom Trail covers 250 years of history in four kilometres (2.5 miles) and is marked by red lines on the sidewalk. It takes you to Paul Revere’s house, the 1798 gold-domed Statehouse, the stone marking the grave of John Hancock, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
You can join a group with a costumed guide at the Boston Common Visitor’s Center (148 Tremont Street). There are plenty of other tours, many, like the Irish Heritage Trail, are self-guided. Others include the Kennedy Tour, the Historic Pub Crawl, and numerous culinary tours.
If you’d like to see the sights sitting down, you can get an overview of Boston by taking the Upper Deck Trolley Tours. It’ a hop-off-and-hop-on tour, good for three consecutive days, that covers most of Boston’s must-see places. You can also opt for the Duck Tours, and splash into the River Charles on a bus turned boat. On land, one stop to hop off is the Museum of Fine Arts, which has opened its Art of the Americas wing, covering four floors and ranging from pre-Columbian and Mayan art through 1920’s artists like Edward Hopper and ending in the 1970s, with paintings by Frank Stella and Robert Motherwell. The museum also has the largest collection of Monet paintings outside of Paris.
Wander back in time on Boston’s brick streets
Beacon Hill is on the tour, but I preferred to wander the brick streets at leisure. This perennially chic district, designated an historical landmark in 1962, has one of the best “collections” of intact Victorian buildings in America. Some of them house small shops, cafes and restaurants.
One classic is the Beacon Hill Bistro, which serves creative farm-to-table cuisine. I had a roasted beet terrine with farmer’s cheese and mesculin leaves, local halibut in kombu broth with leeks, accompanied by a minerally Austrian Gruner Veltliner wine. It’s just a walk from here to Back Bay and Copley Square, marked by the Fairmont Copley Plaza, a century-old grand hotel where the Kennedys and other noted families hold their celebrations. Today the hotel draws people to its Oak Long Bar and Kitchen, which is opulent yet casual and features hand-crafted cocktails and an extensive seafood menu.
Down the street are shops and pedestrians, and if you didn’t know it you’d never guess that a certain corner on Boylston Street was the scene of the horrific Boston bombing. Until late June, there was a homemade shrine on there, with running shoes and flowers, but the city has removed them to make way for something more permanent. Walking along Boylston Street from my hotel, the large, cool moderne Revere, I was lured by a surprise: Nordstrom’s off-price store, the Rack. It had just opened, taking the place of the much-mourned Boston classic Filene’s Basement. So little time, so much to buy – yet it was well-organized (unlike other Racks I have seen) and there were plenty of fitting rooms.
I bought a long, casual summer dress that was perfect for that night’s restaurant, Toro. Like my new dress it’s not expensive, super casual, yet extraordinary. It’s in the trendy South End, about a 25-minute walk from my hotel. Along the way, we strolled along Boston Common, the first public park in the US, which dates from 1634. Today it’s verdant and planted with brilliant flowers, with fountains here and swan pedal-boats there, a real centre in this ultra-walkable city. And if that weren’t enough, the Public Garden borders the other side of Charles Street.
As we approached the South End, the neighbourhood became more residential. There was a schoolyard, with people dancing salsa, a perfect prelude to the Barcelona-inspired tapas restaurant. Toro served up the best food I had in Boston. Almost all of the small plates cost less than $20 each and are delicious. From the marinated oysters with grains of lovage and citrus, the tomato salad with fiddleheads, to the cauliflower with pine nuts and the Catalan stew of lobster, crab, cockles, and romesco … I could see why the chef has been nominated for a James Beard award. And why Boston, with its hipness and history, is truly uncommon.