Bostonians are justifiably proud of their city. Founded in 1630, it’s one of the oldest permanently inhabited settlements in the U.S., and boasts an incredible stock of historical architecture to prove it. As the undisputed economic capital of New England, Boston is home to headquarters or satellite offices of major companies such as General Electric, Iron Mountain, New Balance, athenahealth, Liberty Mutual, and Boston Scientific. Along with surrounding communities, Boston also harbors top-tier research and education institutions, from Harvard and MIT, to the University of Massachusetts and Tufts.
Boston is a major tourist hub too. According to the Massachusetts Bureau of Travel & Tourism, the state of Massachusetts welcomed more than 22 million visitors in 2015, with well over half passing through Boston.
Thanks to a busy international airport and a nearly unmatched cultural and historic pedigree – in the U.S., at least – many of these visitors come from overseas. Upon arrival, they’re greeted by a smorgasbord of attractions and diversions to fit every imaginable taste and personality. And though Boston has a reputation as a crowded, expensive coastal city, visitors enjoy a surprisingly robust array of fun, free, or nearly free attractions within or just beyond the city limits.
Whether you’re in Boston for a quick weekend getaway, a leisurely week-long vacation, or a business trip that includes some personal time, be sure to check out the many available budget-friendly sights and activities.
Discounts, Deals, and Resources
Before you touch down in Boston, look into these time- and money-saving resources.
Boston CityPASS is a manageable discount pass that’s perfect for frugal families. It’s a bundle deal that includes discounted admission to four popular Boston attractions:
- New England Aquarium
- Museum of Science, Boston
- Skywalk Observatory
- Harvard Museum of Natural History or Boston Harbor Cruises (your choice)
Adult passes cost $56, a 45% discount to full price. Child passes (11 and under) cost $44. Passes are valid for nine consecutive days from first use, so they’re appropriate for longer trips and jam-packed weekends. Once you pay for your CityPASS, you don’t have to pay anything at the door – just wait in line, present your mobile or paper pass, and enjoy!
Go Card Boston
Go Card Boston, a Smart Destinations discount package, is much more comprehensive than Boston CityPASS. Many attractions (though not all) entitle cardholders to expedited (skip-the-line) entry.
Go Cards come in three basic configurations:
- All-Inclusive Passes: Choose from one, two, three, five, or seven-day passes. All entitle you to discounted entry at 41 participating attractions and points of interest, including top museums and tours, in Boston and its environs. Pass days are consecutive. Potential savings range up to 55% versus full-price admission on the seven-day pass. Pass costs start at $57 per adult for the one-day and range up to $175 for the seven-day.
- Explorer Passes: Choose from three, four, or five-day passes conferring discounted entry at 19 participating attractions and points of interest. Passes are valid for 30 days from your first visit, so Explorer is an ideal choice for people who live close enough to Boston to make multiple trips in a single month. Saving potential ranges up to 35% on the five-day pass. Costs start at $72 per adult for the three-day and range up to $109 per adult for the seven-day.
- Build Your Own Passes: Choose two or more of 36 participating attractions. Pass costs vary by attraction selection, but you’re guaranteed to save at least 20% off full price. Like the Explorer Pass, Build Your Own Passes are good for 30 days from first use.
Boston USA is the official website of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors’ Bureau. It’s a fantastic resource for first-time Boston visitors and frequent guests alike. Use it to find details about popular attractions, hotels, restaurants, sample itineraries, events and festivals, local road and transit maps, vendor and attraction discounts and passes (including CityPASS and Go Card Boston), and more.
Visiting Boston is a mobile-friendly website operated by Boston’s city government. There’s a lot of overlap with Boston USA, but the content is geared specifically toward city-proper visitors. Use it to plan your itinerary and scope out hot-ticket events in advance of your visit.
The Freedom Trail
If you walk around Boston long enough, you’re sure to stumble upon something of historic significance. If you’re looking to combine as many of the city’s historic high points as possible into a single morning or afternoon of adventuring, The Freedom Trail offers the best bang for your buck.
The 2.5-mile trail is an urban walking route marked by distinctive red-brick sidewalk pavers. It begins at Boston Common, the city’s answer to Central Park, and culminates at either Bunker Hill Monument or the USS Constitution, depending on how you walk it. Including the endpoints, it covers 16 sites of historic significance.
1. USS Constitution and Museum
- Adult admission: Free (donations encouraged)
- Hours: Museum open Monday through Sunday, 10am to 6pm; Ship open Wednesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm or 6pm, depending on season
The USS Constitution is a lovingly preserved and restored Navy vessel docked at the Charlestown Naval Yard. Built in 1794, the three-masted battleship saw extensive action in the War of 1812 and remained in service for nearly 90 years, earning the nickname “Old Ironsides” in the process.
It’s free to explore the ship’s decks, though security is tight and periodic restoration work may restrict access to certain areas. Free tours are given every 30 minutes, Tuesday through Sunday between 10am and 5:30pm from April 1st to September 30th, and from 10am to 3:30pm Tuesday through Sunday the rest of the year.
The nearby USS Constitution Museum, run by a private organization, features interpretive exhibits and detailed historical information about the ship. Its hours run a bit longer than the ship’s, so it’s worth checking out even if the boat itself is off-limits when you visit.
2. Bunker Hill Monument and Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm or 1pm to 5pm, depending on season; Monument climbing hours run daily, 9am to 4:30pm, conditions permitting
Bunker Hill Monument, a 221-foot stone obelisk perched on a knoll above Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, commemorates the first major battle of the Revolutionary War. Due to a mapping error, the monument actually sits atop Breed’s Hill, not nearby Bunker Hill.
Regardless, it’s free to walk about the grounds of the monument, and the spot offers panoramic views of Boston, Cambridge, and neighboring communities. Weather and surface conditions permitting, climbing is permitted on the monument itself – though it’s not for inexperienced scramblers.
Learn more about the battle at the free Battle of Bunker Hill Museum, just across the street from the monument. Exhibits here also cover the building of the monument and the history of the Charlestown area.
3. Paul Revere House
- Adult admission: $5
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 4:15pm or 5:15pm, depending on season
Amid the red-brick walk-ups of Boston’s densely packed North End, wood-sided Paul Revere House sticks out like a sore thumb. Built in 1680, it’s the oldest original house in central Boston and an ode to the man who, a century later, famously rode through the night to warn fellow colonists that the British army was on the march. If you’re not up for paying the $5 admission fee to check out the impeccably preserved interior, or the crowds are simply unbearable (as they were the last time I visited), you can get a good sense of the house’s scale and construction from the street outside.
4. Faneuil Hall
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Great Hall open daily, 9am to 5pm; Visitor center open daily, 9am to 6pm
Built in 1741, Faneuil Hall hosted some of the most consequential meetings of the colonial era and effectively became the political birthplace of the American Revolution. It’s still used as an event space to this day, with annual citizenship ceremonies for immigrants and political events like the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Admission is free.
5. Site of the Boston Massacre
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7 (use caution at night)
The Boston Massacre was one of the most consequential confrontations of the colonial era. In 1770, a dispute between a private citizen and British soldier turned violent, culminating in a firefight that killed several colonists – including Crispus Attucks, an escaped slave regarded as a hero of the early Revolutionary period.
The so-called massacre was effectively the point of no return for relations between the Brits and the colonists, and was a major justification for the full-blown war that would begin a few years later. Today, the site of the massacre is marked by a ring of stones and hosts annual reenactments of the fateful day.
6. Old South Meeting House
- Adult admission: $6
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 4pm (November through March) or 9:30am to 5pm (April through October)
Like Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House proved critical in laying the groundwork for the colonists’ revolt. Built in 1729, the old Puritan meeting house was for a time the largest structure in the entire city. Its biggest claim to fame is that in 1773, it hosted the angry citizens’ meeting that led directly to the infamous Boston Tea Party. Though admission costs $6 per adult and $5 per student, it’s worth entering to get a sense of the structure’s historic touches and scale – all the more impressive given its age.
7. King’s Chapel and Burying Ground
- Adult admission: Free (donations encouraged)
- Hours: Tours run Monday, Friday, and Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Sunday, 1:30pm to 4pm; Check ahead for unstructured hours
Built in the early 1750s, King’s Chapel is an imposing colonial house of worship that still puts on Anglican services today. It’s free to enter and explore, though it’s best to check the worship schedule before visiting. The adjacent burial ground is the final resting place of many colonial-era elites, including Mayflower voyager Mary Chilton and first Massachusetts governor John Winthrop.
8. Park Street Church
- Adult admission: Free (donations encouraged)
- Hours: Variable (check worship schedule)
Built in 1809, Park Street Church is new by the standards of Boston’s old churches. Its 217-foot steeple is eye-catching and nearly unmatched among structures of its era. The church is also famous for playing a key role in the 19th-century abolitionist movement, serving as the de facto spiritual home of famed anti-slavery campaigner William Lloyd Garrison. An active Congregationalist church today, it’s free to enter and explore – just be mindful of the worship schedule.
9. Massachusetts State House
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm or 6pm, depending on season
Completed in 1798, the gold-domed Massachusetts State House sits on a nearly seven-acre parcel in the heart of Boston, adjacent to the exclusive Beacon Hill neighborhood. Paul Revere, long removed from his messenger days, actually laid the first metal dome on the structure.
To get the full measure of the State House, view the front steps and entrance from across the street, then walk into the public rotunda. Admission to the public areas is free, as are guided or self-guided tours. Check ahead for up-to-date tour schedule. Arrive early – tours are popular, especially around the holidays and during the summer.
Oh, and don’t miss the Sacred Cod, a five-foot wooden cod statue that has kept watch over the Massachusetts halls of state government since the 18th century.
10. Old North Church
- Adult admission: Free (donations encouraged)
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 4pm (January and February); Daily, 9am to 5pm (March and April); Daily, 9am to 6pm (April through October); Daily, 10am to 5pm (November and December)
Erected in 1722, Old North Church is Boston’s oldest standing church, and one of its most famous. It seized notoriety in 1775, when – at the direction of Paul Revere – the church sexton and a Continental Army captain lit a torch atop the steeple to warn Boston townspeople that the British army was advancing. The daring act is widely regarded as the opening “shot” of the Revolutionary War. As they say, the rest is history.
Old North Church Historic Site also contains Clough House, a red-brick structure dating back to 1713. The house features an historic printing office and chocolate shop, both of which are worth checking out.
Parks and Natural Areas
Despite its crowded cityscape, Boston has plenty of grassy and wide-open spaces. It’s particularly proud of the Emerald Necklace, a string of parks beginning at Boston Common and winding through the city’s outer neighborhoods. Plus, there are miles of waterfront to explore, including several beautiful sand beaches.
Unless otherwise noted, these attractions are all open 24/7. Observe posted hours and regulations, and use caution at night.
11. Boston Common
Located in the heart of the city, Boston Common is Boston’s answer to Central Park, though it’s quite a bit smaller – about 50 acres total. First laid out in the 1630s, it’s the oldest city park in the United States. Its colorful history features public executions, cattle grazing, troop encampments, and civil unrest.
Today, Boston Common is much quieter – a leafy oasis in the middle of a bustling business district. It’s free to enter and use at any time of the day or night and hosts free music performances on many summer evenings. And if you find yourself getting hungry after walking around the expansive park, check out MAST’, a hidden gem with truly authentic Italian food. They also boast a genuine Neapolitan wood-fired pizza along with chefs and cooks trained in Italy.
12. Public Garden
Though the Public Garden is immediately adjacent to the Common, and the two are often conflated, they’re actually distinct entities with very different vibes. The Public Garden is the country’s first public botanical garden, its paved pathways designed to lead visitors on a journey through native and ornamental vegetation and landscape features that sparkle at any time of year.
Take refuge on one of the many benches beneath towering willows and oaks, or pause on a bridge and watch Boston’s famous mallards herd their chicks. Like the Common, the Public Garden is free to access.
13. Charles River Esplanade
The Charles River Esplanade runs just east and northeast of the Common and Public Garden. The Esplanade itself is a straight, grand riverfront pathway along a grassy, shady bank. This is a great area to take photos of the Boston skyline or try your luck at shore fishing, if you can procure the right equipment. The Hatch Memorial Shell, a centrally located bandstand here, puts on free summer evening shows. Be careful crossing Storrow Drive, the fast, narrow highway separating the Esplanade from the Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods.
14. Boston HarborWalk
The Boston HarborWalk is a series of mostly separated, paved pathways winding for miles along Boston Harbor and adjoining inlets. Much of it is rather industrial, but there are plenty of public beaches, waterfront parks, and historic districts too. Parts remain under development, so check back here whenever you’re in town – things are guaranteed to look different each time.
Many of the HarborWalk’s high points lie just south of central Boston, including the area around the mouth of the Neponset River, the sheltered M Street Beach along Old Harbor, and Dorchester Basin and the adjacent campus of UMass-Boston. If you prefer building-side murals, art galleries, cute cafes, and historic architecture, stick to the HarborWalk’s northern stretch.
Pro Tip: Want to take a cruise around the waterfront? Consider the Odyssey Boston Cruise, which will provide a nice meal and even better views. The cruise often offers specials and deals through its own site as well as through third-party companies like Groupon.
15. Pleasure Bay
Pleasure Bay, a circular, sheltered body of water surrounded by parks and beaches, is easily accessible from the HarborWalk. It’s definitely worth spending a couple of hours strolling around the bay – start at M Street Beach, head out along the Head Island Causeway, gaze in awe at Fort Independence on Castle Island (a 19th-century military installation that’s free to enter and explore), and head back to Marine Park and the mainland.
16. Franklin Park and Zoos
527-acre Franklin Park is the biggest jewel in Boston’s Emerald Necklace. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also created New York’s Central Park, it’s more woodsy and natural-feeling than the city’s other major parks.
Entry to Franklin Park is free, but its two zoos do charge admission: $19.95 for adults ($13.95 during the winter) at Franklin Park Zoo and $19.95 for adults ($11.95 during the winter) at nearby Stone Zoo. Both zoos are operated by Zoo New England, but they’re technically separate entities.
17. Harvard Yard
Few university campus quads are more famous than Harvard Yard. The historic heart of Harvard University, this shady, 22-acre expanse is bounded by several buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. During the school year, it’s a hub of activity for the university’s students and faculty. During the summer, sightseers and prospective students abound. It’s free to enter through one of the 27 gates leading out to surrounding streets or other parts of campus.
18. Fenway Park
- Adult admission: Tours start at $20
- Hours: Variable (tours generally run 11am to 5pm on non-game days)
The second oldest MLB stadium after Chicago‘s Wrigley Field, Fenway Park is not usually a cheap or free Boston attraction. Great seats at or near field level run $100 or more, even when the Red Sox are playing less popular teams. However, at $10 to $30, the upper bleachers and standing-room seats can fit into a budget-friendly Boston vacation without breaking the bank. That’s well worthwhile for even the most casual baseball fans, and certainly for baseball buffs looking to soak up some game history. If you can’t catch a game, opt for a Fenway Park tour instead. Tickets start at $20 for adults and $14 for kids.
19. Back Bay Fens and Riverway
Even if you don’t make it to a game, the area around Fenway Park is beautiful – and free. Check out the Back Bay Fens, a verdant park area lining a picturesque urban stream, and the Riverway, a continuation of the same green space on the other side of Fenway. If you’re taking a fitness vacation in this part of Boston, the trails along the creek here are excellent for jogging and biking, particularly around Leverett and Jamaica Ponds.
20. Revere Beach
As a four-season town, Boston’s beaches aren’t pleasant year-round. In summer, though, youthful Revere Beach is a great place to relax on the sand, dive into the waves, and people-watch. This being Boston, even Revere Beach has historic cred as America’s first public beach. Entry is free, and you can avoid parking fees by taking transit directly from central Boston.
Neighborhoods and Local Sights
Thanks to the city’s legendary compactness, travelers can hit multiple distinct neighborhoods in the course of a leisurely stroll around Boston. Once you’ve had your fill of the town’s history and natural beauty, get a feel for its eclectic present in these vibrant, unique neighborhoods.
21. North End
Located across Interstate 93 from Boston’s financial district, the North End is a densely populated cluster of red-brick walk-ups famous for its Italian immigrant influence. Check out Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, then wind your way through the confusing streetscape to any of the dozens of corner taverns and eateries that keep the neighborhood fueled.
22. Beacon Hill
With notable residents such as former Massachusetts Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry, Beacon Hill is the past and present home of Boston’s elite. (It’s also the temporary home of the duly elected governor of Massachusetts, whoever he or she might be.) As you walk up and down the neighborhood’s hills, passing handsome townhouses along the way, keep your eyes peeled for glimpses of the gold-domed State House. Rest your legs at Ashburton Park or Louisburg Square.
Boston’s Chinatown can’t rival San Francisco’s or New York’s in size, but it’s definitely worth a visit. Washington Street, Beach Street, Tyler Street, Hudson Street, and Harrison Avenue are particularly fruitful for those seeking affordable dim sum, small-plate Cantonese dumplings served in a dizzying variety of styles – typically at $3 to $6 per plate. Chinatown Park offers a nice respite as well.
Pro Tip: Right on the edge of Chinatown is the only 24 hour diner in Boston with some impressive history and famous clientele: South Street Diner. It may look and feel like a diner, but the food and service is top notch, including their homemade apple pie and lobster-based dishes.
Technically two neighborhoods, Allston-Brighton nestles into a broad bend of the Charles River, nearly cut off from the rest of Boston by Interstate 90 and the city of Brookline. Allston-Brighton’s housing stock – mostly built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – is new by Boston standards, but no less appealing to the eye.
Sometimes called “Allston Rock City,” the district is known for its live music venues and watering holes. Venues such as Brighton Music Hall offer affordable evening shows, sometimes with no cover.
25. Jamaica Plain
Located southwest of central Boston, Jamaica Plain is a working- and middle-class neighborhood nestled amid several Emerald Necklace parks. In addition to its ample green space, the neighborhood is renowned for repurposed industrial and warehouse properties, as well as a vibrant Latin American culture that supports dozens of affordable eateries and bodegas. Victorian houses built at the turn of the 20th century abound here, though most are privately owned and aren’t open for tours.
While in Jamaica Plain, don’t miss the Footlight Club, the country’s oldest community theater. Tickets typically range from $20 to $25 per performance, though some special performances may command a premium.
26. South Boston
Known locally as “Southie,” South Boston is an Irish-American stronghold with proud local traditions and deep-rooted neighborhood institutions. Though it’s safe to visit today, Southie has a sordid and grotesquely appealing past – most famously as the personal fiefdom of mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger, whose life and times loosely inspired Martin Scorsese’s 2006 film “The Departed” (and whose brother, ironically, was a Massachusetts state senator and one-time president of the University of Massachusetts). If you visit during March, don’t miss the legendary St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Wedged between the Mystic River and Boston Harbor, Charlestown is a picturesque neighborhood characterized by 19th-century red-brick rowhouses and rugged hillocks with great views of central Boston. After visiting Bunker Hill or the USS Constitution, take a stroll through Charlestown’s side streets and stop for a cheap bite to eat at historic Warren Tavern, a local hotspot since 1780.
Cambridge isn’t technically a Boston neighborhood – it’s a proudly independent city in its own right. However, it’s located just across the Charles River from the Back Bay, Allston-Brighton, and Beacon Hill, close enough to the city to function as a cohesive part of the whole, and well-served by the regional transit system. It’s also home to some of the Boston area’s top attractions, including the campuses of Harvard and MIT.
Cambridge’s power lies in its neighborhood squares, each of which functions as a local downtown for the surrounding area. Each square is slightly different – for instance, Lechmere Square is a popular shopping destination, Central Square is a miniature financial district, and Harvard Square is awash in history. In nice weather, Cambridge’s riverfront is a treat to walk along as well.
Located just north of Cambridge and northwest of Charlestown, Somerville is another independent city with a distinct identity. A former industrial settlement that suffered through a long period of economic stagnation in the 20th century, Somerville today is a vibrant, offbeat destination that’s increasingly popular with young professionals.
Davis Square has a dense concentration of nightclubs, bars, and restaurants, many of which have affordable happy hours. Assembly Square is a great place to find discounts on clothing and consumer staples.
Arts, Culture, and Entertainment
Boston’s historic heft is nearly matched by its cultural cachet. The city is home to dozens of world-class arts, culture, and entertainment institutions that appeal to people of all tastes and ages – and many are surprisingly affordable or outright free. Here’s a representative sample of what Boston has to offer in this department.
30. Museum of Fine Arts Boston
- Adult admission: $25
- Hours: Saturday through Tuesday, 10am to 5pm; Wednesday through Friday, 10am to 10pm
Museum of Fine Arts Boston – or, as it’s known locally, MFA – occupies an imposing classical structure near the Back Bay Fens. Founded in 1876, the museum holds more than 450,000 individual pieces of art spanning virtually every major period and culture. The recently expanded contemporary gallery is particularly noteworthy, as is the museum’s extensive evening programming. For an art museum, the Wednesday-Friday hours are unusually long, making MFA a great evening culture stop before or after a meal out on the town.
31. Institute of Contemporary Art Boston
- Adult admission: $15 (free on Thursday nights after 5pm)
- Hours: Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, 10am to 5pm; Thursday and Friday, 10am to 9pm
Pitched out over South Boston’s deep harbor, Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (ICAB) cuts an imposing figure. It boasts some of the edgiest and most mind-expanding pieces of modern art on display anywhere in the world – and, if you’re not keen on paying the $15 admission fee, you can swing by on Thursday nights after 5pm for a four-hour free session. ICAB anchors a bustling section of South Boston, so be sure to allocate some time for on-foot exploration before or after your visit.
32. Boston Art Commission and Public Art Boston
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: 24/7 (use caution at night)
If you want to take in some high culture but don’t want to venture indoors, check out the Boston Art Commission‘s interactive map of public art installations, murals, sculptures, and pop-up displays around the city. Some are permanent, including the city’s impressive collection of bronze sculptures dating back to the 19th century. Others are temporary, and there’s enough turnover that you quite literally never know what you’re going to find on any given visit.
33. Commonwealth Museum
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 4:45pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 3pm
The state-run Commonwealth Museum is a loving ode to the history and culture of Massachusetts. The signature exhibit features an in-depth look at the state’s pre- and post-independence history, with artifacts and interpretive displays to illustrate. Free admission is a rarity at such well-curated institutions, so take full advantage!
34. Boston Public Library
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Variable (check local branch websites for details)
If you want access to hard-to-find volumes on Boston’s history or architecture, visit one of the Boston Public Library‘s 24 branches. The library system also offers an impressive lineup of indoor and outdoor classes, seminars, talks, and performances throughout the week. If you’re looking for a break from sightseeing or a respite from inclement weather, check the schedule at your nearest branch.
35. Museum of African-American History
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 4:pm
The Museum of African-American History sits just two or three blocks from the Massachusetts State House. It features art, artifacts, and interpretive exhibits highlighting the history and contributions of Massachusetts’s African-American population. A satellite location in Nantucket, a popular summer island destination, commemorates Nantucket’s thriving colonial and post-independence population of free African-Americans.
36. Gibson House Museum
- Adult admission: $9
- Hours: Tours only, Wednesday through Sunday, 1pm to 3pm (tours leave on the hour)
The Gibson House Museum is an impeccably preserved 19th-century brownstone on Beacon Street, in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Home to successive generations of the Gibsons, a prominent merchant family, the four-story rowhouse is a relic to patrician Boston. In addition to 18th- and 19th-century furniture, the Gibson House features stunning sculptures, paintings, and other artifacts from the family’s travels around the world.
To minimize impact, visitors aren’t allowed to roam freely around the house – visits are by guided tour only. Arrive promptly for scheduled tours at 1pm, 2pm, and 3pm, Wednesday through Sunday. Be aware that there’s no air conditioning in this ancient house. Things can get pretty stuffy on the upper floors during the summer.
37. Massachusetts Historical Society
- Adult admission: Free
- Hours: Exhibition open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm; Library open Monday through Friday, 10am to 4:45pm; Saturday, 9am to 4pm
The Massachusetts Historical Society‘s Back Bay headquarters features a rotating slate of historical exhibits, most focused on the state’s colonial and early post-independence history, as well as lively event programming. The Society also sponsors on-location events around Boston, most of which are free and open to the public. If you’re in town for some primary-source research, check with the society about collection access and optional brown bag lunch service – they’re a friendly bunch.
38. Museum of Science, Boston
- Adult admission: $25 (regular exhibits only – IMAX and special exhibitions cost extra; see website for details)
- Hours: Saturday through Thursday, 9am to 5pm; Friday, 9am to 9pm
Museum of Science, Boston (or simply Museum of Science) is a world-class science museum whose permanent collection boasts more than 700 interactive exhibits appropriate for visitors of all ages. Dinosaurs, early humans, New England ecology, and modern science concepts like electricity and engineering all feature prominently here. If you have a whole day, catch an IMAX show with the family. And don’t miss the stunning tropical butterfly garden ($6 supplemental admission per adult) overlooking the Charles River.
39. Harvard Museum of Natural History
- Adult admission: $12
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 5pm
Harvard Museum of Natural History is one of the country’s finest university-run science museums – not exactly surprising, given Harvard’s vast endowment. When you buy a ticket, you also get admission to the adjacent Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology, whose vast store of cultural artifacts is a great complement to the (mostly) non-human collections at the Museum of Natural History. Don’t miss the Natural History Museum’s fascinating trove of gemstones, and be sure to spend a few minutes at the topical exhibit on climate change.
40. Skywalk Observatory
- Adult admission: $19
- Hours: Daily, 10am to 8pm (winter) and 10am to 10pm (summer)
Perched high atop the Prudential Center in downtown Boston, the Skywalk Observatory is the best view of Boston (weather permitting) you’ll get on the ground here. (If you’re sitting on the correct side of the plane, you’ll get an even better one landing at Logan International Airport.) Grab an Acoustiguide for a multilingual, bird’s-eye tour of the city’s top historic sites and geographical features. Don’t miss the historical exhibits spread throughout the observatory floor.
41. New England Aquarium
- Adult admission: $27.95
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 6pm
If you love aquatic life, New England Aquarium needs to be high on your list of things to do in Boston. (It’s a heck of a lot easier, and far more comfortable, than strapping on scuba gear and diving into Boston Harbor.) The collection features more than 2,000 individual animals, including some star attractions: sea lions, penguins, sharks, anacondas, and more. For a truly memorable family experience, spring for one of the aquarium’s famous Animal Encounters (seals are particularly popular) or hop on a whale watch cruise around the harbor (in partnership with Boston Harbor cruises, $53 per adult).
Pro Tip: Before you arrive in Boston, I’d recommend checking out two popular social coupon providers: Groupon and Living Social. Though I personally prefer Groupon, as it’s much more relevant and comprehensive in my experience, both are great for finding last-minute discounts and package deals on activities, services, and goods you’d purchase anyway. They both work with independent and smaller-time merchants, most of which aren’t specifically called out in this guide, so they’re great for travelers who care about supporting local businesses too.
There’s no cost to download either app, so there’s little downside (and plenty of financial upside) to doing so. If you plan to do some last-minute itinerary-building in your hotel room or short-term rental, bookmark Groupon’s Boston deals page for non-mobile access as well.
One more thing: If you haven’t done so already, I’d strongly recommend signing up for daily deal push notifications – at minimum, with Groupon. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars simply by taking advantage of “pushed” deals about which I’d have remained unaware. In an unfamiliar city, daily deal push notifications might just give you the extra push (no pun intended) needed to try that well-reviewed new restaurant or embark on a history tour that would otherwise remain out of budgetary reach.
When to Visit Boston and What to Bring
Visitors to Boston can reliably expect to encounter unpredictable weather, dense crowds, and lots of walking. With that in mind, the bag you pack for your trip to Boston should include the following items:
- Weather-Appropriate Clothing. Boston’s four-season climate features oppressive summers and cold, famously snowy winters. In summer, bring breathable cotton clothing – more than one change per day if you plan on walking extensively. In winter, pair a heavy, waterproof coat with under-layers that you can easily shed as you move indoors, plus a hat, gloves, scarf, and possibly face mask. In spring and fall, take the layers and leave the heavy coat at home.
- Rain Gear. Soaking rain is possible at any time of year in Boston, and torrential thunderstorms are common in summer. Snow is frequent and sometimes occurs without warning during the winter months. No matter when you visit, take an umbrella and raincoat. Consider a waterproof or water-resistant bag as well.
- Comfortable Footwear. Many of Boston’s historic and cultural sights are best seen on foot, so bring a sturdy pair of sneakers or running shoes. If you plan on going out on the town, make sure your evening footwear is comfortable too.
- Backpack or Shoulder Bag: You’ll need something sturdy to carry your gear as you explore Boston on foot. I’m partial to backpacks myself, but adjustable-strap messenger bags do just fine.
When to Visit Boston
Boston’s climate and tourist seasons are likely to influence when you visit the city, unless your employer’s schedule or other circumstances force you to travel at a particular time. Weather-wise, the best times to visit Boston are the shoulder seasons: late April through early June and mid-September through late October. Crowd-wise, the best times to visit are non-holiday parts of the cold season, roughly November through early April.
Keep in mind that spring and fall are unpredictable in coastal New England. The temperature can hit 80 as early as March and as late as November, but it can also snow for Easter and Halloween. It’s best to be prepared for anything during the spring and fall months.
Getting to Boston
Getting to Boston can be an adventure in itself. Here’s what you need to know about travel to and from New England’s capital:
Flying to Boston
Boston’s main commercial airport is Logan International Airport, conveniently located on a cramped slice of reclaimed land just across the harbor from downtown Boston.
Logan is a major point of international entry, especially for transatlantic travel, and boasts direct or one-stop connections to virtually every major U.S. airport. Expect to pay as little as $75 to $125 for round-trip shuttles from Boston to other northeastern cities via JetBlue and other discount airlines. Longer-haul flights run $100 and up, depending on the destination. I’ve flown direct from Minneapolis to Boston – halfway across the country – multiple times and never paid more than $250 for a round-trip.
Logan has good transit connections to downtown Boston via the MBTA’s Silver Line, a sort of express bus that runs in dedicated rights-of-way for much of its journey.
Pro Tip: Logan is congested and often chaotic during peak travel times. Arrive at least two hours before your flight to avoid terminal snafus and security bottlenecks. Allow at least two and a half hours before international departures. If you’re arriving from an international destination, expect long waits at Customs.
Driving to Boston
If you live in New England or plan to visit Boston as part of a longer road trip around the northeastern United States, it might make more sense for you to drive into the city. Like all major U.S. cities, Boston is well-served by the Interstate highway system:
- I-95 runs from southwest to northeast, forming a beltway through Boston’s inner suburbs. Suburban transit stations along I-95 are the cheapest places to leave cars you don’t want to be saddled with in the heart of the city.
- I-93 runs from south to north, connecting Boston’s southern and northern suburbs. It travels underground through much of central Boston and indirectly serves Logan International Airport.
- I-495 forms an outer beltway around the Boston metro region. It’s the best city bypass for drivers traveling to and from other parts of New England, though it’s notoriously crowded during rush hours.
Regional Bus Service
You don’t have to drive your own car to get to Boston by road. In fact, if you’re planning to spend time in the city proper or close-in satellite cities like Cambridge and Somerville, you’ll have an easier (and cheaper) time without a car.
Boston is served by multiple regional bus lines. For years, the cheapest options were the infamous “Chinatown buses” that connected New York City’s Chinatown with its Boston counterpart. Perennial overcrowding and safety issues forced some lines out of business and compelled others to up their games (and raise their prices), but they’re still viable choices for travelers planning a one-two New York-Boston punch.
Lucky Star is representative of the Chinatown bus selection. Expect to pay $30 to $60 per round-trip ticket, depending on your travel dates and times.
Megabus is another, slightly more comfortable option. It offers a much wider range of origin and destination cities: about two dozen direct connections in all for Boston. Expect to pay $20 to $30 per round-trip from New York City, and anywhere from $10 to $50 or more from other regional origins.
Taking the Train to Boston
Boston is well-served by Amtrak, the United States’ perennially overlooked national railway. Depending on origin and configuration, Amtrak trains stop at one or all of three stations in town: North, South, and Back Bay. Expect to pay anywhere from $50 to $80 round-trip for regional “slow” trains (about four and a half hours) from New York City’s Penn Station. Faster Acela service (about three and a half hours) typically starts at $120 or so. Costs for other origins or destinations may vary.
If you’re not coming from a major city like New York or Washington, D.C., you may have to make one or more transfers along the way. Before you purchase your train tickets, crunch the numbers and make sure you’re getting good value for the time investment – it doesn’t necessarily make sense to take the train when flying costs the same and takes less time.
Getting Around Boston
As its myriad attractions from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries attest, Boston is an old city. Much of central Boston was built out prior to the invention of the automobile. Ditto for dense, close-in satellite towns like Cambridge and Somerville. Though some Boston residents do use private cars to get around on a daily basis, the city is one of the least car-friendly (but most walker-friendly) communities in the United States.
Driving and Parking in Boston
For visitors, parking is a serious hassle, with a strict permitting system that all but closes off some neighborhoods to nonresident drivers looking to park their cars on the street.
If you drive a car into Boston, you can expect to pay hefty parking fees, ranging from $0.50 per hour in long-term or commuter garages to more than $3 per hour in street spaces or centrally located garages. And, if you’re playing the street parking game, budget for parking tickets ($15 to $120, depending on the violation) and possibly towing fees ($100 or more).
Pro Tip: Sick of dealing with the hidden costs and out-in-the-open hassles of car ownership? Check out our list of the best cities to live without a car, then review our post on what it takes to actually go car-free.
MBTA (The “T”)
Boston has an excellent public transit system overseen by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Between the cost of gas for stop-and-go city driving, street or garage parking rates, and the ever-present threat of tickets, riding public transit is likely to be cheaper and more predictable than driving.
The MBTA system is extremely comprehensive, consisting of the following:
- Five subway or at-grade intracity rail lines, commonly referred to as the “T”
- A dozen commuter rail lines
- More than 100 bus routes
- Several commuter ferries
The MBTA’s mobile-friendly website has interactive schedules and trip-planning features that can help you get from point A to point B on the fly.
If you’re not going to be in Boston for very long, or are planning on walking most places and only occasionally using transit, purchase a single-use, paper CharlieTicket at a station payment kiosk prior to each bus or train trip. CharlieTickets are good for one bus or train fare, with a $0.50 to $0.60 surcharge added at the point of sale (confirm with MBTA – fares change frequently).
If you’re planning on using transit more often, purchase a reloadable CharlieCard at the station instead. These plastic, RFID-enabled cards are free to purchase and never come with a surcharge when loading funds onto them. You can also load your CharlieCard online, meaning you don’t have to venture out to a payment kiosk.
CharlieCard holders get the added perk of an annually updated MBTA discount coupon book, good for discounts at restaurants, stores, and points of interest around Boston. You can download a PDF version of the book online or pick up a physical copy at most MBTA stations.
Pro Tip: If you’re driving to Boston from elsewhere in New England, consider parking at the last station on the most convenient T line. Most terminal stations function as suburban commuter hubs, with ample garage parking at reasonable daily rates. For instance, Alewife Station, the western terminus of the Red Line, has more than 2,700 parking spaces – more than enough for visitors and commuters, even on a typical weekday. Overnight parking is $8 per day.
Biking and Bikesharing
Despite its crowded streets, aggressive drivers, and unpredictable weather, Boston is an increasingly bike-friendly city. Dozens of miles of separated paths and protected lanes follow many of the city’s main arteries, creating a fun, healthy, cheap transportation network for locals and visitors alike.
If you don’t have access to a friend’s bike, consider using Hubway, Boston’s popular bikesharing program. Hubway is membership-based, meaning you have to sign up for a membership plan (which you can do online or at one of Hubway’s 140-plus stations scattered around the Boston area) to check out a bike. Hubway offers one-day ($8), three-day ($15), monthly ($20), and annual ($85) plans, making it easy to choose the option that best balances cost and time horizon.
Rides also have a per-30-minute cost. Rides shorter than 30 minutes are free, but subsequent half-hour segments rapidly become costly – $3 per additional 30 minutes. If you’re taking a long ride around the city, it definitely pays to plan your route in advance and make sure you hit a station at least every 30 minutes.
Ridesharing and Carsharing
As a major city, Boston is a hub for ridesharing and carsharing. In fact, nearby Cambridge hosts carsharing giant Zipcar’s world headquarters. Ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft both operate in Boston as well. Zipcar is great for trips to destinations that aren’t served by reliable transit, including far-flung beaches and most inland nature preserves, while Uber and Lyft are all reliable (and often cheaper) alternatives to taxi service.
Ridesharing and carsharing operating procedures and costs vary by company. If you anticipate needing a ridesharing service in Boston, prepare by downloading all three companies’ free apps – you only have to pay if you hail a ride. In addition to its hourly rates, which top out near $80 per day, Zipcar’s “occasional driving” plan assesses a $25 one-time application fee and $70 annual membership fee, so it’s not advisable to sign up unless you plan to use it in your hometown, as well.
Though I grew up in New England, just a few hours from Boston by car, I can count on one hand the number of times I visited the city before I turned 18. When I did, it was mainly to see its most popular tourist attractions, some of which are mentioned here, and then retreat to more familiar territory.
It was only after I got older and began visiting friends who’d moved to Boston that I started to appreciate the city’s unique heritage and eclectic culture, the way it deftly blends the old, the new, the foreign, and the wholly unexpected into something transcendent and unmistakably American. It’s impossible to put a price tag on Boston’s role in shaping American history, its contemporary meaning and cultural relevance, or the promise it offers to an uncertain world. That makes its budget-friendly cityscape all the more remarkable – and definitely worth seeing for yourself.
What’s your favorite budget-friendly Boston attraction?