What’s not to love about Boston (if you can handle the winters)? America’s colonial roots come alive in this historic city, where you can walk the Freedom Trail, visit the graves of Revolutionaries, and step onboard the 210-year-old USS Constitution.
Cross the Charles River into Cambridge, and you’ll find yourself lost among quirky little bookshops and trendy coffee houses surrounding Harvard University. The city is a cultural wonderland, with notable stops like the Museum of Science, chic shops on Newbury Street and the elegant Boston Public Library, while on the outskirts are down-to-earth industrial wharfs and beach towns.
Here are a few of our favorite lesser-known institutions in Greater Boston… side of baked beans not included.
One of Boston’s increasingly popular offbeat (but not necessarily “off the brochure”) tours, is the Boston Duck Tour, where you travel the city and the river via amphibious vehicles. It’s an adorable concept, for sure, but an even better way to get a feel for the city is to stay on dry land…and on two wheels. Every Friday through Sunday, Boston Bike Tours offers specialized rides through various sections of the city and surrounding areas. A “Boston Neighborhood Tour” covers the Back Bay, Fenway and Beacon Hill, as well as stops at Boston University and MIT, and along the Charles River. An “Emerald Necklace” tour takes you through the city’s plentiful green spaces, including Boston Common. Rides range from six to 20 miles and are designed for varying fitness levels. Each tour is $25-$30 and starts off at 11 a.m. from Boston Common. 617-308-5902, <https://www.bostonbiketours.com/>
What happens when you grow up with 10 kids in a family? Some serious sibling rivalry, of course. Bob and Dave Kinkead, brothers and co-owners of Sibling Rivalry restaurant, have each earned culinary distinction in their own right–but the two go head to head every night. The dinner menu features dishes prepared by each chef using the same key ingredient (i.e. tuna tartar versus tuna Milanese, and asparagus served with salmon battling an asparagus salad). The heated combat reaches a fever pitch (okay, it’s a little less dramatic than that) every Monday at Fight Night. In what’s essentially an elegant way to attract curious foodies on a slow restaurant night, the dueling chefs use the same basic ingredients to make two separate, three-course, $35 prix-fixe menus…and you get to be the judge. 525 Tremont St., Boston; 617-338-5338, <https://www.siblingrivalryboston.com>
Once you’ve navigated your way through the mass of Au Bon Pains and Starbucks that have overtaken the city, you’ll be happy to know that cute little coffee shops are thriving. One of the originals, Algiers Coffee House, sits in the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge. Once a dim, dark local institution filled with angsty college kids talking philosophy over curiously strong coffee, Algiers is now a two-story restaurant inside Brattle Hall. The coffee is still just as potent, and international types frequent the place for its authentic Middle Eastern cuisine. 40 Brattle St., Cambridge; 617-492-1557
Last December, the working-class neighborhood of South Boston garnered national attention when the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston; opened its doors on the waterfront. Word on the street is that this intensely blue-collar, Irish neighborhood is…well, yuppifying. But even though you’ll find an increasing number of art galleries and vegetarian cafes in Southie, this is still the spot for the best St. Paddy’s Parade in the country, and of course, a good old neighborhood pub. Skip the Cheers photo op and take a trip to L Street Tavern–though it was made famous by the film Good Will Hunting, the authentic Irish pub is the spot for cheap drinks and a laid-back, unpretentious atmosphere. 658A E 8th St., Boston; 617-268-4335
But don’t discount the Institute of Contemporary Art as a stodgy intruder brought in to “revitalize” the neighborhood. The 65,000-square-foot building is a dramatic architectural addition to the waterfront, and you’ll find a dizzying collection of art and cultural programming. Starting in July, You Dance Fridays lets guests learn a new style of dance each week, taught by local pros (coming up: hip hop on July 13 and the tango on July 20). This summer, the museum is exhibiting the works of renowned American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, and on Thursday evenings you can catch outdoor harbor concerts in conjunction with Berklee College of Music (John Mayer’s alma mater). 100 Northern Ave., Boston; 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org
Every major city has a Christian Science Reading Room, but you may not know that Boston is home to the “Mother Church.” Even if you don’t follow the religion, the 14-acre grounds of the Christian Science Center are open to the public. In the summertime, locals flock to the 670-foot reflecting pool, which is surrounded by a complex of imposing architecture. Inside is the Mary Baker Eddy Library, named after the founder of Christian Science, where you can step inside the grand Mapparium. The three-story stained-glass globe offers a unique journey into the center of the Earth–where you’re surrounded by a 1935 map of the world that is hand painted onto the glass panels. A light and sound show gives the historic center a modern twist. 175 Huntington Ave., Boston; 617-450-2000, www.tfccs.com
The Isabella Gardner Museum may not be as recognizable as the Museum of Fine Art, but this cultural center is a Boston gem. Founded by the famous philanthropist and art collector in 1903, the three-story museum houses more than 2,500 pieces, from ancient Rome to Asia to 19th-century America. This September marks the 80th season of the Gardner concert series, the longest-running museum music program in the country, which features chamber music and solo performances. 280 The Fenway, Boston; 617-278-5150, https://www.gardnermuseum.org
You can see a bit of the old world still at work at Allandale Farm in the town of Brookline. Considered to be Boston’s “last working farm,” you can select the freshest local fruits and vegetables, pick up a mouthwatering “Ever So Humble” pie, and even learn how to make your own scarecrow when fall draws near. In the summertime, kids ages four to 10 can participate in two or three weeks of day camp where they get hands-on farming and naturalist lessons. 259 Allandale Rd., Brookline; 617-524-1531, https://www.allandalefarm.com
If a weekend trip to Cape Cod seems too intense, stick a little closer to home and visit the Boston Harbor Islands. The Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area includes 34 islands and peninsulas, 17 of which are managed by the state. Though only a 45-minute ferry ride from downtown Boston, you’ll feel as if you’re a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city. You can depart from Boston at Long Wharf, the Hull at Pemberton Point, or Quincy at Fore River Shipyard, and catch an inter-island ferry from the main transportation point of George’s Island (it’s recommended that you visit only two islands a day). Each island that is open to the public has its own personality and amenities, and guests are welcome for picnics, hiking, fishing, kayaking, and camping (overnight stays are allowed on Grape, Bumpkin, and Lovells Islands). 617-223-8666, https://www.bostonislands.com
For more offbeat takes on major world cities, check out our Off the Brochure Travel Guides series.
By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com