Boston: Take to the Streets

February 18, 2011 by

North America

Boston seems an eminently respectable city. The neatly arranged brownstones of Back Bay boast high-end shopping and café culture. The Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill represents all that is good and fair about America. Across the Charles River, the alumni of MIT and Harvard include US presidents and Nobel prize-winners.

Revere Rides Out

Revere Rides Out

Ah, but this respectability was hard-earned, you know. Back in the 18th Century, Boston was the recalcitrant teenager of the British colonies. It was the home of freedom fighters and the ‘Cradle of Independence’.

Post-Independence, 19th Century Boston participated in the Civil War and the emancipation movement. Immigration also made its mark – whether it was refugees from the Irish Potato Famine or Italian immigrants seeking a better life.

In the 20th Century, Boston’s focus shifted towards politics, with a certain Kennedy family playing their role. And who hasn’t heard of Facebook? Boston’s 21st Century revolution was fought in the quads and classrooms of Harvard University.

So, how to discover this revolutionary history? Do what rebels have always done: take to the streets!

The Freedom Trail – In the Frame

Being a Brit, my knowledge of American History is sadly lacking (the 4th of July is important, right?). So a trip to Boston seemed like a good opportunity to put this right. Ever keen to kill two birds with one stone, we took the Freedom Trail Photography tour, where Saba (our knowledgeable and patient guide) provided photography tips alongside the historical insights.

The Freedom Trail starts on Boston Common and ends at the Bunker Hill Monument. Follow as much, or little, of the trail as you please.  We walked from Boston Common to the North End, which is a manageable 1½ – 2hrs depending on speed and lingering.

Massachusetts State House

Massachusetts State House

Beacon Hill & Boston Common

The Massachusetts State House epitomises the ‘shining city on a hill’ founded by the Pilgrim Fathers. This red brick building with its gold dome shines down over Boston Common – photos are great at any time but particularly striking during the foliage season.

Park Street Church

Park Street Church

The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial is right across the road from the State House. This bronze carving depicts the 54th Massachusetts, an African-American Civil War regiment. Do take a moment to observe the fine details – and don’t be afraid to take some close-up photos.

At the lower end of the Common, the Park Street Church has played its revolutionary part. During the 1812 ‘second revolution’, gunpowder was hidden in a crypt here. In 1829, William Lloyd Garrison gave one of his first anti-slavery speeches here.

The Granary Burial Ground is next door to the church. Here lie some heroes of the revolution: Revere, Adams, Hancock and Otis. (Ben Franklin is in Philadelphia). It is everything a revolutionary cemetery should be: dark, gothic and just a little bit scary. And perfect for photographs.

Young Guns

Even revolutionaries go to school: Boston Latin was the alma mater of no less than 5 signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Founded in 1635 on School Street, Boston Latin is the oldest school in America (it is now on Avenue Louis Pasteur). Latin is still compulsory. Whether it will ever have a more famous drop-out than Ben Franklin is open to speculation.

Also on School Street is the Omni Parker House Hotel. Not officially on the Freedom Trail, the hotel has nonetheless played host to its fair share of revolutionaries: Ho Chi Minh worked in the bakery here and Malcolm X worked as a busboy.

The Omni Parker also featured heavily in JFK’s life. He announced his candidacy for Congress in the Press Room in 1946. In the 50s, he proposed marriage to Jackie here and held his bachelor party here too.

Words & Weapons

Washington Street can lay claim to being at both the beginning and the end of the American Revolution. In 1770, it was the site of the Boston Massacre when guards fired into a riot outside the (Old) State House and killed 5 people. Anti-British sentiment built from here on.

In 1776, it was a different story. The British were gone and Bostonians came to the State House to hear the Declaration of Independence being read from the balcony. A lot can happen in 6 years.

If the State House saw guns being fired, Faneuil Hall saw the talking. In 1764, a public meeting was held here to protest the Sugar Act and the phrase ‘Taxation without Representation’ was coined. Faneuil Hall earned itself the nickname ‘The Cradle of Liberty’.

Faneuil Hall

Faneuil Hall

These days, Faneuil Hall is more famous to tourists for Quincy Market, a Mecca for shopping, street entertainment and refreshments. Browse the craft stalls, fill up at the food hall and then quench your thirst at one of the many bars and laugh at the street entertainers.

The North End – Immigration

From Faneuil Hall, cross over the Rose Kennedy Greenway (site of Boston’s infamous ‘Big Dig’ construction project) and you’ll find yourself in the North End.

Generations of immigrants have called the North End ‘home’. Jewish and Irish immigrants left their mark, but the Italians have stayed and still serve pizza, pasta and cannoli to hungry Bostonians.

In the 1770s, Paul Revere lived and worked (as a silversmith) in the North End. In April 1775, he rode to Lexington to warn Samuel Adams & John Hancock that soldiers were marching to arrest them. His bravery was immortalised is Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride. His house (Boston’s oldest) remains and is open to visitors.

This was the end of our walk, and a snack was in order: enormous slices of pizza at Il Panino Express, followed by cupcakes and coffee from Lyndell’s Bakery.

(If you’re interested in Boston’s immigrant history, check out the short films at the Prudential Tower viewing deck. Tickets included in the Boston CityPASS).

Harvard – (Face) Books & Bicycles

The revolutionary story of Facebook began at Harvard University. To get here from Boston, cross the Charles River at Harvard Bridge, go past MIT and stop before you hit Cambridge. If you really want to channel the student vibe, hire a bicycle and do it on 2 wheels.

Then find inspiration by strolling through the leafy Quads and soaking up the legacy of 350 years, 7 US presidents and quite a few Nobel prizes. Check out the posters advertising chamber orchestras, poetry readings and philosophy lectures.

(Or spot locations from The Social Network and reflect upon the achievements of Harvard drop-out Mark Zuckerberg).

Students have bought books and college merchandise at The Harvard Coop since 1882. If it has a Harvard or MIT logo on it, you can buy it here. Then browse your purchases at J.P. Licks @ Harvard Square. This café caters to both early morning caffeine fixes and late night sugar rushes. It serves a winning combination of coffee, cookies and home-made ice cream and is open all day.

And while you’re there, keep an eye on passing students. After all, you could be looking at a future president, billionaire or Nobel laureate…or a revolutionary.

Louise Heal

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Boston tours & things to do, Boston attractions, and Boston travel recommendations.

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