Beyond Beantown: Family Travel in Boston

Boston Duckboat Tours“Cover your ears,” the man advised. “This is going to be loud.”

He wasn’t joking. Thunder boomed across the room as three single beams of light stretched toward the ceiling and zapped three huge balls of foil. The air filled with the strange smell of ozone, and the crowd seemed stunned. Then they began to cheer, and several young viewers jumped up and down with delight, my children included.

It was just the kind of response that the innovative Museum of Science was hoping for. The simulated lightning demonstration had brought science to life.

It’s not often that a destination delights both youngsters and their parents, but Boston fits the bill. This city of 600,000, located on America’s east coast, some 245 miles (368 km) north of New York City, is rich in history and cultural attractions. The Museum of Science is just one of the dozens of places here that entertain as well as educate young and old alike.

There is one thing you should know, however, before you start planning your family trek to Beantown, as Boston is often called: Traffic in Boston is horrible. The town is in the midst of The Big Dig, a massive transportation project, and trying to navigate your way through the already congested streets with arguing kids in the backseat is not fun. Trust me on this.

My advice? Ditch the rental car (or don’t rent one except on the days you want to see sites outside of town) and take the public transportation system. The “T” (subway system) and buses are clean, efficient and easy to use.

Your best bet is to get a MBTA Visitor Pass. This pass, bought in 1-day or 3-day segments, entitles you to unlimited travel on the public transit system, including buses, harbor ferries and subways. You can purchase the pass at the airport subway station or at the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau office. An unlimited 7-day pass costs US$ 18. Be sure to pick up a good walking map while you’re there, because most of the town’s most famous sites are best viewed on foot.

If you’re going to do some sightseeing, consider buying either the Boston CityPass or the Go Boston Card. The CityPass allows you to choose six of the city’s most popular attractions for $34 (kids 17 and under are $19.50), and is good for 9 days. Since regular admissions would cost around twice that amount, the pass is a good value.

The Go Boston Card is an unlimited sightseeing pass which can be purchased in 1, 2, 3 or 5-day durations. It gives you access to 50 of the city’s popular attractions (over $350.00 in admissions value) for one price. A 1-day pass is $45 for adults and $25 for children ages 3-12.

Now that you’re armed with these easy-to-use passes, the question is where to go first.

Many American children know Boston from the beloved children’s book, Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey. The tale is about a family of ducks who live in Boston’s Public Garden, so the Garden was the very first thing our kids wanted to see.

Established in 1837, the Public Garden is the oldest public botanical garden in the country. But our kids weren’t impressed by that, or even by the gorgeous flowers and lush green trees. They were there for a ride on the Swan Boats and to see the famous duckling statues.

For $2.50 each, we boarded a swan paddleboat and were treated to a delightful tour of the lake. The Paget family has been operating the boats for more than a century, and they aren’t about to change anything now. And why should they? From the line we saw, it’s obviously a favorite Boston pastime, along with the line of duckling statues at the very front of the park.

Speaking of winged fowl, Boston Duck Tours offers one of the best ways for kids and their parents to tour Beantown. In what other tour can you drive a huge military vehicle through town and then turn into the Charles River for a tour from the water?

The tour company uses refurbished WWII amphibious landing vehicles, and they are a huge hit with kids. Sure, the boats make look a little silly, but the Duck Tour drivers are knowledgeable and funny—a good combination if you’re 10 and being driven around to see historical sites that will, no doubt, show up on one of your history tests one day.

Guests under 12 are often allowed to “drive” while the boat is in the river, and our 6-year-old proudly steered the “duck” down the Charles River in a ride we will never forget.

Yet the Duck Boat Tour still didn’t answer the one burning question we had been mulling over all week: Why exactly was Boston nicknamed “Beantown?”

We finally learned the answer at Durgin-Park, a historic restaurant which claims that it was established “long before you were born.”

This local establishment serves up affordable, hearty portions (kids can get half-portions) of classic New England favorites such as clam chowder and fish cakes, but they are most famous for their Boston Baked Beans.

This, we were told by a weathered waitress with a thick Boston accent, was the dish that put Boston—er, rather its cuisine—on the map. Once a regular Saturday night supper in many local homes, Boston Baked Beans are still a favorite dish. Folks around here get mighty picky as to what constitutes “true” Boston Baked Beans, a dish comprised of navy beans, salt pork and molasses, and Durgin-Park claims to have the real thing.

While legumes are nice, we preferred another Boston favorite—seafood.

You can’t walk five minutes in downtown Boston without running into some kind of good restaurant. And while every kind of cuisine is represented here in Beantown (large numbers of Irish, Portuguese and Italians immigrants settled in Boston), our land-locked family was on a quest for seafood. In fact, discovering excellent seafood restaurants soon became one of our favorite Boston activities.

We found several places that catered both to children and parents (see our restaurant listing below), but our favorite find was the Union Oyster House, which specializes in Yankee-style seafood and lobster.

Established back in 1826, the Union Oyster House claims to be America’s oldest continually-operating restaurant. It certainly looks authentic, with dark, hand-hewn rafters and an English-style pub atmosphere. The place is filled with the happy sounds of conversation and the rich smell of lobster cooked a half a dozen ways.

With its central location near Faneuil Hall (more on that later), the restaurant is popular with tourists, but locals like it just as much. The restaurant was a favorite hangout for former President John F. Kennedy before he took up residence in the White House.

We were lucky enough to sit in booth #18, the former president’s favorite spot. I couldn’t help but run my hand over the table, worn and dinged-up over the years, and wonder about this man who died before I was even born, yet whose legacy is still treasured here in New England.

Boston also treasures its seafaring tradition, so it’s only natural that they should have one of the country’s top aquariums. We chose to visit the New England Aquarium on the one rainy day we had during our visit, and it was the perfect salve to gray weather. (There’s no easy way to say this: Boston can be really COLD in the winter, but it’s gorgeous in the spring, summer and fall.)

While the rain pounded outside, we held horseshoe crabs and starfish and ogled over sharks and turtles and hundreds of other creatures in the huge ocean tank.

But the best part of Boston is its history: this is one of the places where America—the idea of it, anyway—was conceived and created.

Settled by British colonists well over two centuries ago, the local mood soon turned to independence. Bostonians had minds of their own (some things haven’t changed), and decided that Britain should leave them alone.

When the British government taxed the colonists and their tea, Bostonians dumped that tea during the infamous Boston Tea Party. That was only the beginning, though. The Rebels envisioned a land of their own, a dream that ultimately paid off. They planned their fight with the British from right here in Boston.

To share this exciting period of American history with our kids, we spent a day following the Freedom Trail. This 2.5 mile red brick trail weaves through Boston past 16 important historic sites, including the Granary Burying Ground, where Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock are buried, the Old South Meeting House and Bunker Hill.

Our favorite stop was the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read from the balcony. Built in 1713, it’s now a museum that offers several films and interactive exhibits. (Strangely enough, there is also a train station in the lowest level of the building, and every so often, the walls rumble.)

Another point along the path is Faneuil Hall. Built as a market in 1742, the Rebels often met here to plan their war. Today, the hall is overflowing with food stalls, restaurants and little shops. The square out front seems to be a favorite place for impromptu street performers.

But as much as there is to do in downtown Boston, you’d be missing out if you didn’t take your family on a side trip to Plymouth, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston.

This is the town Americans remember from third-grade history class. It was here that the Pilgrims first stepped foot on Plymouth Rock, and where they fought to survive those first cold winters and then later celebrated the harvest with the Native Americans in a feast we now know as Thanksgiving.

Visiting Plymouth feels like stepping into the past. While Boston has grown up into an ever-pulsing metropolitan city, Plymouth still remains a slow-paced village, with small-town streets and a small-town feel. Classic New England homes with wood-shingled sides and angular roofs line the unhurried streets, and fishing boats are anchored in the coves.

Located 45 miles (72 km) from Boston on the shores of Cape Cod, the main attractions in this town are Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II. These well-run living history museums (part of the same organization) immerse visitors into the past. We visited a full working pilgrim settlement, where we chatted with a “pilgrim” who was working in his field, and met several others who were cooking or gardening in their homes. At the Native American village, we watched a young man fish and learned all about their daily lives.

From there, we went to the Mayflower II, a replica of the tiny ship that brought the Pilgrims from England to America. We spent over an hour talking with the “crew and passengers.” It made for an educational and entertaining day.

And yes, you can still view the famous Plymouth Rock here in Plymouth, where the pilgrims allegedly first stepped foot on North America—but don’t expect much.

“Is that it?” my oldest queried as we stared at the small boulder encased under a protective monument. Sure enough, the rock isn’t very impressive, but it’s the idea that counts. After all, this nation didn’t look like much back during those times, either.

But there is more to Plymouth than historical sites. Our two youngest took up piracy on the Pirate Adventure offered in Cape Cod. Young guests are given proper pirate ware and then go out on a quest for the treasure. My favorite stop, though, was for ice cream and a live demonstration at the historical Jenny Grist Mill. I guess we all have our vices.

By the time we had finished enjoying Plymouth, our vacation time had run out. Fortunately, there is more to do in the Boston area than a family could ever do in one visit. That leaves us a reason to go back, which I’m sure we will.

If You Go

Boston Tourism

www.bostonusa.com

Plymouth County

www.seeplymouth.com

Where to Stay

Right across from Boston’s Public Garden, the Four Seasons Hotel Boston is both a classy establishment and a place where kids can feel at home (often a rare combination). Children receive a warm welcome and their needs are taken into consideration—the Four Seasons even offers children’s movies, board games and plush robes just their size. The hotel has a brochure listing their offerings for kids (from oreo cookies and milk to strollers), as well as some of their favorite kid-friendly Boston attractions. There are ongoing family travel packages available, as well as a few romantic getaway options for weary parents who need a break.

200 Boylston Street
617-338-4400
www.fourseasons.com

The Royal Sonesta has a gorgeous location right on the Charles River, with views of the Boston Skyline and Historic Beacon Hill. It’s also right across from the Museum of Science.

This lovely hotel celebrates the 20th Annual Summerfest by offering complimentary bike rentals, free scenic boat rides down the Charles River and courtesy van service to shopping districts.

5 Cambridge Parkway
Cambridge
617-806-4200
800-SONESTA
www.sonesta.com/boston

If you have a car and want to stay a bit outside of all the hubbub downtown, check out the Hotel Tria. This affordable small hotel has newly renovated boutique-style plush rooms, an indoor pool and offers free breakfast. Located 4.5 miles from downtown near Harvard Square.

200 Alewife Brook Parkway
cambridge, MA
617-491-8000
866-333-TRIA
www.hoteltria.com

The only hotel located right on the sandy beaches of Cape Cod in Plymouth, the Plymouth Sands motel is a nice base to explore the town of the American Pilgrim heritage. Although it’s not fancy, the motel is comfortable, the views are excellent and the staff is friendly. Kids will love the two pools and exploring the beach.

150 Warren Ave.
Plymouth, MA
800-729-SANDS
www.pilgrimsands.com

Things to See

Museum of Science
617-723-2500
www.mos.org

Boston Duck Tours
Call 617-723-DUCK for locations
www.bostonducktours.com

New England Aquarium
On Central Wharf
617-973-5200
www.neaq.org

Plimoth Plantation (and the Mayflower)
Plymouth, MA.
508 746-1622
www.plimoth.org

 

Where to Eat

Union Oyster House

Even though the Union Oyster House is a tourist draw due to its location near Faneuil Hall, it’s a “must visit.” A favorite with JFK, it is America’s oldest continuously running restaurant, established in 1826. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.

41 Union Street
617-227-2750
www.unionoysterhouse.com

Upstairs on the Square

Probably one of the quirkiest and most unique kid-family friendly restaurants in the region is Upstairs on the Square, which is actually across the river in Cambridge on Harvard Square (named for the famous school, of course.) The restaurant makes the best Shirley Temples in town, with licorice, candied fruits and a sugar-dipped glass. The chic designs are a throwback to 1940s glamour, with bright purple and pink walls.

81 Winthrop Street
617-864-1933
www.upstairsonthesquare.com

Durgin-Park

This classic New England seafood restaurant boasts that it was established long before you were born. Owned and run by the Kelley family, the restaurant prides itself on offering affordable, hearty portions of classic New England favorites, including Boston Baked Beans and lobster.

340 North Market St
Faneuil Hall
617-766-6528
www.durgin-park.com

Skipjacks

This funky seafood establishment has a 3-D menu for kids. What could make seafood more fun than that? It also has plenty of tasty cuisine for mom and dad at affordable prices.

199 Clarendon Street
617-536-3500

Les Zygomates Wine Bar & Bistro

Sometimes even parents need some time on their own. Find a local babysitter, order in some pizza for the kids and head to Les Zygomates, a jazz club and restaurant. You can enjoy a romantic dinner in the dining room and then enjoy a cocktail on the jazz side.

129 South Street
617-542-5108
www.winebar.com

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