I’ve been so behind on my travel posts I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll never catch up. But writing about my trip to Boston in April with my sister Amanda is a start for me!
The decision to vacation in Boston was actually one of elimination. Amanda was finishing up her training in Toronto, so we decided to book what would be a short-haul flight for her. We’d both been to New York before, she’d been to Detroit recently, and Chicago was a place Mack forbid me to visit without him. So Boston it was, and with the promise of the Bruins and the Celtics making it to the post-season, we were optimistic that we could include some playoff action during the trip.
View from the rooftop deck of our AirBnB rental
Although only one of two teams would end up qualifying for the first round, we ended up with plenty to do outside of the city’s athletic achievements.
Boston’s connection to the American Revolution seems to be one of the main tourism draws. We ended up on a Freedom Trail tour led by a costumed interpreter. “Isaiah Thomas” was in his fifth season with the company, and his enthusiasm for history showed.
With Isaiah Thomas
The tour was informative and entertaining, with corny jokes woven throughout (Beantown Pub, across from the Old Granary Burial Ground, is the “only place you can have a cold Sam Adams while looking at…a cold Sam Adams”). The Americans on the tour definitely had a better grasp of the characters involved, but it gave us a good foundation to better appreciate the sites.
Old Granary Burial Ground
One of those sites was Boston Common, a green space near the State House that reminded me of The Mall in Central Park. The Common was an area set aside by the Puritans for the shared use of all. The playground was overrun with children that day, and on a less chilly day, I’m sure the adjacent wading pond would be equally full. It was a great centrally-accessible, family-friendly space that we could definitely see more of in Edmonton.
On the other side of Boston Common lay the country’s oldest botanical gardens. We braved the spring chill to take a ride in the pedal-powered swan boats and snapped a picture with the famous Make Way for the Ducklings bronze sculpture.
With the Ducklings!
Faneuil Hall, a legacy building for a wealthy merchant, was a touristy disappointment, though I am glad we sought out the adjacent Haymarket.
Far from a farmers’ market, the vendors hawked discounted produce from wholesalers needing to make room for new shipments. There was also limited seafood to be had.
The low prices were likely the reason the set-up of the merchants was so poor; tent poles restricting right of way, narrow thoroughfares not meant for large crowds.
We couldn’t get enough of Boston’s wide sidewalks, blossoming trees and brick and stone buildings.
Bricks and blooms
Beacon Hill was Amanda’s favourite neighbourhood, with its quaint streets and boutiques (it was also the home of, in our opinion, the best location of Second Time Around, a well-curated consignment store with multiple branches in the Boston area). I will say Boston’s lack of a grid system of streets was confusing to navigate; our first night was full of wrong turns and frustrations. I will also note that Bostonians, although friendly, were not the best at giving directions – we were sent the wrong way three times.
Too quaint Beacon Hill
Outside of Boston, we explored Cambridge for the better part of a day.
Bustling Cambridge Square
Honour system book sales were scattered around the area
The student-led Harvard tour was the highlight, with historic facts of the storied school intertwined with the guide’s personal anecdotes.
Our tour guide, Bobby, in the red sweater
Among other things, we learned that The Social Network was, in fact, not filmed on campus (productions have been officially banned since the 1970s), and that most students receive an average of $42,000 in financial aid.
With “John Harvard”
The JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Columbia Point was also a destination for us.
JFK Presidential Library and Museum
The site itself was worth a visit, with a view of the Boston skyline, and a gorgeous atrium emblematic of hope and optimism.
But the exhibits were interesting too, outlining Kennedy’s Presidential campaign, his years in office (with a focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis) and Jacqueline Kennedy’s contributions to the preservation of White House history. A particularly intriguing annotated guest list by Ms. Kennedy for a dinner honouring the French Minister of Culture included the scratched out names of Mr. & Mrs. Irving Berlin, for not being “avant-garde enough”.
I loved the “If I were 21, I’d vote for Kennedy” pins
As mentioned, sports factored into our itinerary. Game 4 of the Cavaliers vs. the Celtics was the first live NBA playoff game for both Amanda and I, and though neither of us can claim to be big Celtics fans, we relished the opportunity to watch King James in person (his no-look pass in the first quarter was a sight to see). Unfortunately for the home fans, the Celtics were outmatched, and the Cavs completed the sweep.
The view from the nosebleeds
We both looked forward to joining our fellow Canadians at Fenway, to watch the Blue Jays take on the home team.
The Red Sox are a religion in Boston, and it was amazing to see the surrounding streets of America’s oldest ball park come alive on game day (parking, if you were wondering, runs up to $50). Streetside vendors, program hawkers, and bustling patios created an atmosphere other cities would envy.
The Jays ended up losing that night (6-5 on a 9th inning RBI), and the windchill was fierce, but we had a blast. I couldn’t wait for the eighth inning rendition of “Sweet Caroline”, and I wasn’t disappointed. I loved how the players just went about their business while the crowd was singing along.
What of the food, you ask? Amanda was sidelined with the stomach flu upon arrival to Boston, which somewhat limited our dining choices, at least initially. She was a trooper though, and we still managed to sample a variety of what Boston had to offer.
Food was a gateway into some of Boston’s neighbourhoods. Eater’s recommendation of Taiwan Café provided a reason to visit Chinatown, which, not unlike other Chinatowns in North America, had busy eateries but deserted streets after dark. Taiwan Café was packed mostly with college students, and offered cheap and tasty xiao long bao.
XLB from Taiwan Cafe
Our student Harvard guide had recommended a few North End establishments for us. Gennaro’s ended up being a let-down, with so-so food and no atmosphere to speak of (it was difficult to have any conversation while being watched by the host next to our table).
Passable carbonara from Gennaro’s
Café Vittoria, in operation since 1929, was a better recommendation, serving up delicious lattes and gelato in and amongst antique espresso machines and a soundtrack from the 50’s.
Sustenance at Café Vittoria
Mike’s Pastry was referred to us as a touristy destination worth skipping, but we’re glad we stopped by, even just to soak up the atmosphere of a North End institution.
Our lone brunch was had in Cambridge at the sister restaurant of a popular music venue. The Sinclair had a great vibe, and my favourite dining room of the trip, with large common tables and an industrial-chic aesthetic. The meat half of my chicken and waffle dish was great, but the waffle tasted a day-old.
Chicken and waffles
For lunch after our Harvard tour, we sought out a tourist favourite, Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage, with politically incorrect names for all of their creations (for example, “the MBTA – Mass Broken Transit Authority”, referencing the disastrous February full of delays for beleaguered commuters). It was a place I knew Mack would love, with burgers cooked to preference and a haphazard décor cobbling together years of random additions.
At Mr. Bartley’s Burger Cottage
It was also a restaurant that had been “grandfathered in” so it was permitted to operate without a customer restroom, something we had never encountered before.
Medium rare(!) burger
Mei Mei, a brick and mortar restaurant borne from a successful food truck, was a bit of a disappointment. Selling its fusion dishes, we found that the Asian influences were just too subtle.
Pierogi dumplings from Mei Mei
Amanda was strong enough to brave seafood towards the end of our trip, so we visited the local chain Legal Sea Foods in Copley Place. I really enjoyed the New England clam chowder, and their tempura take on fish and chips wasn’t bad either.
Great clam chowder from Legal Sea Foods
Our favourite meal was easily Sweet Cheeks Q, a barbecue joint opened up by Top Chef alum Tiffany Faison. The interior had the perfect worn-in feel, if staged, and the food spoke for itself. The biscuits, served with a compound butter, were the best thing I ate in Boston.
Still dreaming of these biscuits
The lunch tray, with Heritage pulled pork and mac ‘n’ cheese, was no slouch either. And though the service had been great in Boston as a whole, Sweet Cheeks topped the list with their genuine and attentive staff. I almost wished we had eaten here earlier on in the trip so we could double back.
Pulled pork lunch tray
I’m not sure I will revisit Boston again (Chicago is up next!), but we had a nice time there. Like any large metropolis, there’s something for everyone, though I’d recommend at least taking in a Red Sox game if you’re visiting during the season.