Boston is a place that's near and dear to my heart. I spent a decade there, have lived in so many charming Beantown 'hoods (the Back Bay, the Fenway, Allston, and Jamaica Plain) and even managed to call the neighboring towns of Brookline and Somerville home. Since my daughter had never been, we took a mini-vacation to Beantown last month to to introduce her to our favorite spots and favorite peeps. The best part? We saw the city in a different way: as a kid-friendly, walkable outdoor playground that made for a memorable, Springtime family getaway.
Home base: Charlestown
We rented a small, one bedroom flat off the Bunker Hill Monument park in Charlestown that we found on Airbnb. This historic neighborhood is about as old as it gets in the United States—its city streets were laid out in 1629. The Irish famine brought a huge wave of immigrants to Charlestown in the middle of the 19th century, and in the 1990s, renovation projects transformed this neighborhood (known for a mob and gang presence in the Sixties) into the revitalized, family-friendly, and yes, gentrified place it is today. We chose this spot because of its proximity to downtown and to our friends north of the Charles River. Here's a few pics of the apartment we rented (as fancy as this looks, we only sprang for the garden-level flat)...
Situated at the corner of Lexington and Tremont, the view from this building is the stately Bunker Hill Monument, shown here in the early morning...
Staying in the heart of Charlestown is what made this feel like a real vacation. In the morning, we'd take a daily stroll through its narrow streets to take in the sights and historic architecture...
... and head to our breakfast spot, Sorelle Bakery & Cafe, at the bottom of Monument Avenue. Sophie liked to eat in at the coffee shop and on lazy days, she preferred take-away in the garden out back.
Day 1: The Public Garden, The Boston Common, and Beacon Hill
After a stroll through the Boston Commons, we cut through the gorgeous neighborhood of Beacon Hill to Anna's Taqueria (my husband's only must-see for the entire trip).
We ended our first day at a local playground with a few boxes of pizza and a lot of old friends, but if we were keeping it local in Charlestown, we would have definitely wandered over to Fig's for the good stuff.
Day 2: The Science Museum, North Point Park & the Charles River
Another great reason to stay in Charlestown: you can walk from Main Street to North Point Park, which runs under the Zakim bridge (look up for spectacular views), stop at a playground or two, and end up at the Museum of Science (about a 20 minute walk, total, without stops.) We took advantage of the almost-empty public space, early in the morning on a Sunday.
The museum is a hands-on educational center about everything science for kids of all ages. (The last time I was there? Circa 1999 for a midnight IMAX laser show of Dark Side of the Moon. Oh, college.) We spent the rest of the morning in awe of the monkeys and geckos, and even saw some baby chicks hatch.
After a few exhibits, we ate in at the museum cafeteria to keep it easy and inexpensive. Extra bonus: watching the Duck Tours chug down the Charles River over pizza, fries, and juice.
Evening, Day 2: Harvard Square
Harvard Yard is one of those special places that is straight from the pages of a history book; the university buildings and dormitories that circle the yard date back to 1766. Boston is of course filled with colonial architecture but there is something magnificent about a historic space that is all-encompassing—that surrounds you—and is void of a Dunkies on the corner. It's also a great spot to let a toddler run off a little steam.
Before catching dinner at Daedalus, we hung out for a bit by the amaaaazing playground at Cambridge Common Park. It's an interactive space with levers, pulleys and my daughter's favorites: sand and water features!
Day 3: The South End and an Art Museum
I can't pick a favorite Boston neighborhood, because they're all my children in some ways, but if hard-pressed, I'd have to admit that the South End is about as good as it gets. Picture rows of meticulously restored brownstones and sweeping staircases, main thoroughfares with the best restaurants in the city, and hidden little parks and community gardens that are tucked between charming row-houses.
My non-negotiable for the trip? A stop at the South End's Flour Bakery, a cafe that nails it every time—whether it's a fresh mozzarella & speck sandwich or a spicy ginger molasses cookie. You really can't miss-out on stopping by Flour; there are now four locations across the city.
Next stop: the Museum of Fine Arts, for a visit with our dear friend, Melissa, who is well on her way to running the place. I'll be honest, I was slightly concerned about taking a two-year old, but we managed to have a successful morning at the museum without any damage to priceless fine art. How cool is this 'painted shadow' installation?
...and this neon-installation full of good advice...
Another day, and another meal in a museum cafeteria. Except this one features a really good salad bar, wine, and outdoor seating meant for a civilized sort of folk who have spent the morning with Sargent's luscious canvases...
Evening, Day 3: Boat ride and Waterfront
After a European-style siesta, we headed out with the stroller to the Navy Yard (about a 15-minute walk from the apartment), and took the shortest boat ride known to man on the water taxi that connects Charlestown to downtown Boston. (Once off the boat, you can easily explore the waterfront, the Italian eateries in the North End, and the aquarium.)
It made for a memorable final evening of our mini-break, and while walking along the waterfront on the other side of the harbor, I couldn't help but think of the vacation my family took to Boston when I was a kid. I was five, and while I certainly didn't have the words for it, I remember the feeling I had on that trip, staying in a real hotel in a far-away city, looking up at the "grand" arches of the Marriott, and watching the boats come in at the Harbor: I was cosmopolitan and worldly. That was the trip that sparked my interest in travel, and, as silly as this sounds, cemented my college plans. I told everyone upon my return that I would go to Boston University one day, just like my grandma (an almost shocking fact for a woman in the 1930's). And I did. I don't believe in prophecies, or that things are meant to be, but I do believe in the power of travel and place, and I believe in pushing yourself to see and experience things that are unlike the commonplace of the everyday, back at home. I know that my daughter is only two, and will likely not remember most of this trip, but maybe, just maybe, somewhere in her dreams and memory and in the slivers of experience that we pocket and take with us, she will hold onto that feeling of the wind on her face on the front of that water taxi, heading into the harbor, towards the tall buildings of Boston.
If you're staying a bit longer, here's an expanded list of some of my favorite things to do and see in and around Boston, some of which we couldn't squeeze in this time around:
- Kid-friendly lunch spots: Flour, Anna's Taqueria, City Feed, and the South End Buttery
- Restaurants: Matt Murphy's, Carlo's Cucina, and Ten Tables
- Art museum: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
- Bookstore: Brookline Booksmith
- Playgrounds: Longwood Playground, North Point Park, and Cambridge Common Park
- Day trips outside of the city: the DeCordova, the Gropius house, and the Alcott family house in Lincoln and Concord; Long Beach in Gloucester and swimming in the quarries in Rockport
Photo of Flour Bakery via Time, Inc. All others by Rebecca Pitts.