Yen's Blog

Lens, Wheels, Skates, Keyboard

Boston

Home of the Bruins

Boston is one of the historical, financial, cultural, political — you name it — hubs of the US. It has everything that a big city has to offer, such as a youthful and dynamic population, a diverse ethnic makeup, all major league sports teams, a rich perfoming arts heritage and a vibrant night life. Yet small-city charms live on and prosper in many of its diverse towns and neighborhoods.

Boston is a city filled with history — just a short walk in downtown Boston will touch on enough materials to fill a textbook on the American Revolution. It is a city full of green, indicative of the abundant urban parks and gardens, some of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneer landscape architect. Instead of the concrete jungle of Manhattan or the suburban sprawls of Los Angeles, the Boston is surrounded by relatively undeveloped open space. Just minutes’ drive from the city, one can enjoy many nature reserves, ponds, lakes, wooded parks, and forests. In the winter, the famous ski resorts of New England are just a few hours’ drive away, the closest being just minutes from downtown Boston. And of course, autumn in New England is unequaled anywhere.

I’ve lived in Cambridge, just across the Charles River from Boston, since 1995. Boston, or rather urban Boston, is my favorite American city (my favorite city, anywhere, is not in the US :) I’m an avid biker and rollerblader and has explored many nooks and crannies of the city on wheels. The best time to visit is the Spring and Autumn, but beauty can be discovered at any time of year.

Boston’s nationally televised Fourth of July celebration features a performance by the Boston Pops and culminates in a fireworks extravaganza. It usually attracts a few hundred thousands spectators to the Esplanade along the Charles.

The Esplanade

The Hatch Shell. Best when there’s something going on. This is the place where most of Boston’s outdoor musical events are held. The Boston Pops gives a concert here every July 4th

Arthur Fiedler’s Head Arthur Fiedler is the longest-serving maestro of the Boston Pops and a nationally renowned figure. His likeless is commemorated in a remarkable statue shaped from thin aluminum plates. The statue is across from the Hatch Memorial Shell, the place to which Fiedler was most closely associated.

This strip of parkland along both sides of the Charles is very popular with the locals. First of all, it is probably home to the highest concentration of fit people anywhere, probably because it sits between 3 major universities. In the summer, the park is packed with joggers, bikers, rollerbladers, while sailboats, rowboats and windsurfers crisscross the water. On a warm, sunny spring day, sun-worshippers who suffer through the long winter practically cover grassy areas. Spring flowers bloom in many places; cherry blossoms are particularly beautiful. In the winter, after a heavy storm crosscountry skiiers are usually spotted, along with an occasional nut who jogs in shorts! In the fall, the leaves all along the Esplanade turn orange and yellow, transforming it into an autumn retreat in the middle of the city.

Most people only stay in the area between the Museum of Science and Harvard. However, further upriver the Esplanade is even more scenic. Past Harvard, the park goes by tree-shaded river banks. Continue into Watertown, the Charles river becomes so narrow that it can be waded across. Here is the Charles River Reservation, a marshy area home to many waterfowls.

Fondest memory: Living on the corner of Mem Dr and Mass Ave. All I needed to do was go downstairs, cross the street and I was on the Esplanade. Needless to say, I was there a lot :)

Boston Harbor in summertime

Boston is a great city for walking. You can explore most of the downtown area on foot. Summer is a popular season with tourists, most of whom take the Freedom trail, which is a great idea. You can do the trail in its entirety, or you can take a short detour and explore Boston Harbor.

One of the oldest in North America, Boston Harbor hasn’t yet experienced the transformation/renewal seen at other harbor city (like San Francisco’s Pier 39). This is a blessing, as you can catch the winds and a view of the ocean on the wharf without being pestered by a tacky souvenir shop.

The mainstay of the Harbor is the New England Aquarium. Though not the biggest or the best in the world, it’s charming and has many interesting exhibits. It’s even the setting for a movie (“Next Stop: Wonderland”). On Long Wharf, there are many cruise ship operators that can take you for a tour of Boston Harbor, around the Harbor islands, or to Stellwagen Banks in the Atlantic for whale-watching. Once you’re done, head to the North End for a sumptuous supper and dessert.

Boston Common in wintertime

When the last yellow leaves fall to the ground, the Frog Pond in Boston Common turns into a giant outdoor ice rink. It’s best experienced on a crisp Sunday afternoon when the slanting rays of the sun warm your cheeks and the back of your neck. Many visitors here take a detour from their shopping spree in nearby Downtown Crossing, from a gastronomic excursion to Chinatown, or from an afternoon in the Theater District. Of course, many come here just for the skating. Granted, the ice isn’t the best, but few things are more pleasurable than gliding in the open air surrounded by a winter wonderland.

After a large snow storm, the Common turns into a giant snowpark. Sledders, young and old and all young at heart , line up at the top of the hill for a exhilarating ride down.

The Arnold Arboretum in autumntime

Autumn evokes conflicting emotions. On the one hand, you’re looking forward to the fantastic display of colors. On the other hand, you feel a lingering sadness, perhaps in contemplating the unstoppable passage of time, or perhaps in mourning for the end of beach season?

Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain is the best place to experience the autumn in Boston. It’s almost as if you’ve entered into a different world. Tranquility pervades here, the only sounds being the cracks of falling leaves.

Arnold Arboretum is the terminus of the Emerald Necklace, a chain of parkland which begins at the Public Garden. The Emerald Necklace is best experienced on a bicycle. Begin at the Public Garden, ride along the Mall on Commonwealth Ave. Cross into the the Fens before you get to Kenmore Square. Ride along the Fens, passing the Museum of Fine Arts and many stately buildings. At the end of the Fens, cross over Rte 9 to Leverett Pond. Ride through Olmsted park, there are many hiking trails here. Cross into Jamaica Ponds, one of the nicest body of water in Boston. From Jamaica Pond, it’s only a short ride to the Arnold Arboretum. You can ride in the Arboretum, or if you’re in the mood, Franklin Park is another 15 minute away. Directions: Orange line, Forest Hills stop, or bike there. You can either bike along the Emerald Necklace or along the Pierre Lallement Bikepath, which runs parallel to the subway Orange Line.

The Public Garden in springtime

Boston doesn’t aspire to be a garden city like Victoria or Portland. Yet its many parks and green spaces explode with colors with the arrival of Spring. You don’t have to look far. On the banks of the Charles, along the streets of Back Bay, indeed throughout the city you can see the whirling kaleidoscope of colors. The dreariness of winter is completely replaced by the exuberance of Spring. It’s almost as if the city and its soul experience a rebirth.

The showpiece of the springtime metamorphosis is the Public Garden. The stars of the show are the carpets of multicolored tulips, but others are no less lively. Pink and white cherry blossoms adorn one side of the park, while weeping willows festooned with yellow blossoms dip their droopy branches into the lake. Colorful mallards create crisscrossing trails on the water. The elegant statues and monuments of the garden become winsome ornaments for this colorful display.

The graceful necks of the swanboats have been a fixture of the Public Garden for ages. For $1 you too can glide across “Swan Lake”. Don’t expect anything too exciting, however. If anyone asks, you can always say you did it for the experience.

The Freedom Trail

Trace the path of history by walking the freedom trail. It’s marked by a strip of red brick in the middle of the pavement and runs from the Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Memorial in Charlestown. This trail leads through Boston’s most important historical sites at the time of the American Revolution. You will be amazed at the number of things that popped out of the history book and materialize right in front of you. I was and still am amazed. American history lives and breathes right here.

I personally haven’t done the trail in its entirety (keep getting sidetracked). Besides, one’s interests are different as a resident :)

Boston Public Library

Boston is home to many “first”s in America, and the Boston Public Library is no exception. The first public library in America, the BPL occupies an elegant building in the heart of Boston. The main building facing Copley Plaza was designed by Charles McKim and is noted for its perfect proportions and classical elegance. The facade boasts graceful arched windows, magnificent carvings, and a row of graceful wrought-iron lanterns. The two statues on both sides of the entrance, sculpted by Boston artist Bela Pratt, represent Art and Science.

Enter, and you’re in the main entrance hall, of Roman motif. The vaulted ceiling, covered in marble mosaic, is inscribed with the names of 30 famous Bostonians. The white marble floor leads to the magnificent main staircase. Most sriking is its surface. The walls are made of “richly variegated yellow Siena marble” and the steps are made from “ivory gray Echaillon mottled with fossil shells”. Two great lions, reclined on pedestals, are the work of Louis St. Gaudens and dedicated to the Massachusetts 2nd and 20th Volunteer Infantry Regiments which fought in the Civil War.

But the best is yet to come. The BPL is known for its decorated galleries and lobbies. The most spectacular is the Sargent Gallery, named after the famous American painter John Singer Sargent, who spent years decorating it. The splendid mural sequence depicts “Judaism and Christianity”.

The McKim building contains an unexpected delight. At the top of the Main Staircase, visitors can look down upon the wide, airy inner courtyard. The other 3 sides of the courtyard are enclosed by an arcade which is a copy of the arcade of the Cancelleria Palace in Rome. In the center of the courtyard is a clear pool with waterfountains surrounding a bronze statue, “Bacchante and Infant Faun”, by Frederick MacMonnies.

The reclining lion statues are dedicated to the 2nd and 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiments.

Museum of Fine Arts

The MFA is an outstanding museum, among the best when compared to those of similar size. I was baffled when I saw the MFA listed as a “Tourist Trap” on another page. Of course, it is not as impressive as the Louvre or the Rijksmuseum — no surprise here given Boston’s smaller size, shorter history and the museum’s local status. But having visited the famed European museums, I am still impressed by the richness and diversity of the MFA’s collections.

The MFA has a veritable collection of antiquities, of which the Egyptian collection is most impressive, probably a result of its association with Harvard. The American Art collection are also fascinating. It includes many paintings by famous American painters like Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Also in the collection are furniture pieces and metal craftworks made by early American artists and craftsmen. Since the majority of these lived in the New England area, the MFA’s American Art collection may be unmatched elsewhere.

Special exhibits year-round bring further diversity. A recent one was the “Monet in the 20th Century” exhibit.

Longfellow Bridge

This bridge is named for, you guessed it, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a prominent Bostonian. Its brick towers resemble salt and pepper shakers, which impart the bridge its local moniker. The subway’s Red Line runs over the bridge, unarguably its most scenic stretch. As the train cross the bridge, most passengers usually crane their neck to look out at the scene spreading out before them.

Back Bay

: Back Bay occupies the area roughly between the south bank of the Charles and Beacon Hill in the north-south axis, and the Public Garden and Massachusetts Avenue east and west. This area used to be swampy wetlands. In the 1850s it was decided to expand the area of Boston Proper, and so Back Bay was filled. Today it’s an exciting mix of architectural jewels, exclusive shops, fine art galleries, centers of higher learning, and tidy expanses of green space. It’s also Boston’s most beautiful and most expensive neighborhood.

The stretch of Commonwealth Avenue in Back Bay (“Comm Ave” as it is known locally) is perhaps the most picturesque stretch of road in Boston. It’s part of the Emerald Necklace of parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Both sides of the Avenue are lined with venerable brick buildings and stately mansions, each worth milions of dollars. The pedestrian mall in the middle is shaded with trees and punctuated by sculptures. A stroll from Kenmore Square or Massachusetts Avenue to the Public Garden where Commonwealth Ave terminates is particularly pleasant.

Newbury Street is the place where affluent, trendy, and beautiful people go to see and be seen. Your chance of running into a Ferrari or Porsche, or a Euro-wannabe, is higher here than anywhere else in Boston. The place is an eclectic mix of posh designer outlets, chic boutiques, sidewalk cafes, ice cream parlors, and ethnic restaurants. Most shopfronts are housed in the tidy townhouses typical of Back Bay, giving them a charming Euro feel. Even if you’re not into people watching, it can be fun to walk around here, day or night.. Newbury street ends at the Public Garden while Copley Plaza is just a block away to the south and the Esplanade a few blocks to the north, so it’s really the hub of things.

Beacon Hill

This venerable neighborhood is right in the heart of Boston, yet it seems light years removed from the bustling city surrounding it. Beacon Hill is known for stately mansions and row houses, brick sidewalks, gas lamps, fine decorative ironwork, colorful doors with brass knockers, windowsill flower boxes, and neat little gardens. The architectural style here is predominant Federal, Victorian and Greek Revival, with early 20th-century Colonial Revival thrown in for good measure. History is preserved by regulations prohibiting owners from making change to any visible structure without the approval of an architectural commission. The atmosphere here harkens back to a time long gone. This place is almost a living time capsule, preserving the splendor and elegance of Boston in the mid-19th century.

Beacon Hill is surrounded by Beacon St, Bowdoin St, Cambridge St, and Storrow Drive. Of note is Louisburg Square, known for its elegant Federal-style buildings. The Museum of Afro-American History is a stop on the Black Heritage Trail. The first Harrison Gray Otis House on Cambridge Street was designed by none other than Charles Bulfinch, who was responsible for the design of the U.S. Capitol. Of course State House, another Bulfinch creation, is a required stop. The Bull & Finch Pub, a popular stop for tourist, is on Beacon Street across from the Public Garden. Nestled between Willow and Cedar Street is a narrow cobblestoned lane lined with brickhouses — Acorn Street claims to be the most photographed street in America.

This picturesque neighborhood is worthy of a detour from your itinerary.

Living here is a little above my budget! So I did the next best thing and took a lot of pictures. The colorful painted doors, often with a solid brass knocker, are just adorable. I compiled several of them into a single poster. I’ll have to admit this isn’t my idea. Years ago I saw a poster entitled “Doors of Beacon Hill” or something similar. That was such a neat idea that I felt I had to duplicate it. I felt a little odd lugging around a camera, and sometimes a tripod, and take pictures of people’s houses. But everyone was very friendly; one even offered to turn on the porch light so I can see better. I left with a good impression.

Charles Street Beginning at the Boston Common and ringing the bottom of Beacon Hill, Charles Street is one of the more commercialized and trendy streets in Boston. Its brick sidewalks are lined with tidy shops, boutiques, small grocery stores, restaurants, cafe. A walk here can be both pleasant and romantic. The quaint shops here will bring to mind the days of old. Charles Street is a block away from the Esplanade and the historic neighborhood of Beacon hill is just steps away.

Acorn Street This narrow cobblestoned lane lays claim to being the most photographed street in America. I’m not sure who keeps count, but here i am adding to the tallies. Directions: Beacon Hill between Willow and Cedar. Best to start at corner of Charles and Beacon, head up Charles, turn right at Chestnut, turn left at either Cedar or Willow.

View from Cambridge

The most beautiful view of Boston is from the Cambridge side of the Charles, especially at sunset and at night. Here many tree-shaded bench give an expansive and unobstructed view of the Boston skyline across the river. At night the soft, colorful reflections on the water impart a romantic feel to the scene (but you didn’t hear that from me :)

Chinatown

Favorite thing: This strategic area near Boston Common and south of downtown was once known as the “Combat Zone”. It has been cleaned up significantly and is now much cleaner and safer. As always, it’s a bustling commercial area and a haven for those seeking Asian food and products.

Architecture

Boston is a great for visual exploration. A veritable diversity of building styles can be found here, from skyscrapers to venerable churches. Architects from Charles Bullfinch to Eero Saarinen to I.M. Pei have all left their marks here. So while you’re walking around, look ahead and look up!

View from Boston University Bridge

This iron bridge is so named because one of its terminus is the campus of Boston University. This vantage point gives you an unobstructed view down the Charles River basin. The west is to your back, so at sunset you can catch the Boston skyline gleaming in the distance. In warm seasons, sail boats and rowboats crisscross the water below.

Fenway Park

Fenway Park should be high on your list, even if you’re not a baseball enthusiast. It’s the oldest major league baseball stadium in the country, being built in 1912, and unarguably the most venerable. Not so surprisingly, it’s small, the facilities are primitive, the seats are uncomfortable, not to mention some sections are blocked by support columns. But ask any Red Sox fan and they’d swear that it’s the best stadium in the world. Ask any baseball fan and they’d know what the ‘Green Monster’ is. You often see on TV rows and rows of empty bleachers at baseball games. Not here, this place is always rocking regardless of whom the Sox is playing; the atmosphere here is oftentimes rowdy and rarely matched anywhere else. This is it, the Mecca of the national pastime where every true fan should pay homage at least once in their lifetime.

Symphony Hall

Symphony Hall is the home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Hall is also where maestro Seiji Ozawa left his indelible marks for 4 decades. Sadly in 2002 he decided to move on become musical director for the Viennese State Opera.

Symphony Hall is at the center of one of Boston’s main intellectual and cultural concentrations. It’s in the vicinity of several colleges (Northeastern, Berklee, BU, Wentworth, Mass College of Arts, to name a few), just across the street from the Christian Science Plaza, while the Museum of Fine Arts is just a few blocks down on Huntington Ave.

Christian Science Plaza

One of the most visually stunning buildings in Boston is The Mother Church located at Christian Science Plaza. The church is the world headquarter of the First Church of Christ, Scientist, a Christian movement which believes in spiritual healing. The Church, founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy, publishes the the well-known Christian Science Monitor.

The Mother Church’s impressive appearance is a combination of the Romanesque original edifice and a Renaissance- and Byzantine-influenced extension. A large reflecting pool extends the length the church. The wide-open, airy plaza is a stark contrast to the crowded skyline nearby. The church complex is almost a piece of Europe in the heart of Boston.

You can go inside and stroll on a glass walkway that takes you inside a stained-glass globe. Entrance is gratis.

At the Christian Science Plaza and adjacent to The Mother Church, the Christian Science Center building was designed by I.M. Pei. Incidentally, the famed architect leaves many marks in Boston, including the John Hancock Tower and the JFK Library. In neighboring Cambridge there are 4 I.M. Pei-designed buildings on MIT’s campus.

Churches

Old South Church This venerable church is across from the Boston Public Library and right next to the Copley T-stop.

Trinity Church Trinity Church in Copley Plaza has been heralded as a masterpiece of ecclesiastical architecture. Like many churches, its Romanesque style is heavily influenced by European design. Yet the church, designed by H.R. Richardson and consecrated in 1877, is uniquely American, down to the stained glass window.

The church’s ancient look and ornate carvings are an interesting juxtaposition to the blue-green glass panels of the ultra-modern John Hancock tower.

John Hancock Tower

The John Hancock Tower is the center piece of Copley Plaza. In fact, along with the Prudential Tower, it has become a centerpiece for Boston as well. At 60 stories high, it’s the tallest building in New England. The observatory at the top gives visitors a 360 degree view of a vast landscape. In fact, on a clear day, it’s said that the mountains of New Hampshire are visible from the observatory.

Designed by I.M. Pei, the building is distinguished by its sheer glass sides. On a sunny day the it looks almost transparent. As stunning as it is beautiful, and visible almost anywhere in Boston, this architectural jewel lives up to, indeed revels in, its status as the Boston landmark.

Run the British blockade

The title would have been accurate about 230 years earlier. Now you can take a sailing class at the community boathouse, or rent a canoe/kayak to paddle along the Charles. Past Harvard, the scenic wooded banks of the river give no trace that you’re in the middle of the city! If you’re feeling competitive, you can try your hands at racing the collegiate scullers who are flying up and down the river.

The public sailing pavilion is on Storrow Drive near the foot of Longfellow Bridge. The canoe rental pavilion is in a park on Storrow/Soldier’s Field Road a little past Harvard stadium.

Off the beaten paths

On Walden Pond

Technically Walden Pond isn’t in Boston but in Concord, MA. But it’s only a short hop away and I think you would want to see it, if only because it was associated with Thoreau (I assume you’ve heard of him :) Walden Pond is also a scenic and peaceful area perfect for contemplation and inspiration.

Thanks to Thoreau’s writings, Walden Pond became packed with tourists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Thankfully the throngs of people are no longer there. Though the pond is still popular for recreation, efforts have been made to limit development and keep it as close to its natural state as possible. A hiking trail circumnavigates the pond and offers nice views of its crystal clear water.

Birthplace of the telephone

It’s not out of the way, but few people know about it. Tucked in front of the JFK Federal Building at Government Center and a few steps away from Tremont Street is a plaque commemorating the birthplace of the telephone. Here’s the text of the inscription:

“Here, on June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson first transmitted sound over wires.

The successful experiment was completed in a fifth floor garret at what was then 109 Court Street and marked the beginning of world-wide telephone service.”

Hah, and you didn’t think you were gonna learn something on this trip :)

DeCordova Outdoor Sculpture Park

DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA has many beautiful and intriguing modern art sculptures and many that are simply puzzling. I guess the same can be said about modern arts in general :) It’s just 10 minutes from Walden Pond so it can be included on the same itinerary. The drive around Lincoln is also a pretty, particularly in the Autumn.

To get there, take the Walden Pond exit from Rte 2. Drive past Walden Pond and take the first left. Go for a few miles until you see the signs.

Transportation

Planes, trains, automobiles The Mass Bay Transportation Authority, known affectionately or otherwise as the T, operates underground, street, and water transports through out Boston and vicinity. Subway stops are distinguishable by a circular white sign with a black “T” in the middle. There a 4 subway “lines” distinguished by their colors — red, green, orange and blue, and a silver line is in the works. Most tourists would use the red and green line, as most attractions are along them, while the airport is on the blue line. Fare is $1 and includes unlimited transfers; this is quite a deal compared to other cities. Buses are 75c and you can also ask for a transfer ticket.

Boston public transportation ceases at 1am. This is a source of a lot of complaints because bars and nightclubs open till 2am, and you wouldn’t want people to drive while intoxicated. Also, it’s practically impossible to hail a cab afterhours. So in 2001 the Night Owl service was started. Night Owl buses run parallel to subway lines after regular service stops until 2:30am. A main transfer station is Government Center (the only place where I’ve been able to catch Red-line buses, for some reason). Definitely an improvement over the ole hail-a-cab-or-leg-it routine.

“She drives like crazy, like no one else”

Boston is based on a system of squares or plazas, such as Kenmore Square or Harvard Square (pronounced squay-ah). Streets connect square to square, public transportation stops at squares, directions are given in relation to the squares, you name it. The streets here follow no logical layout. There are many one-way streets. Many streets are not clearly marked. Even when they’re marked, some of them change names at town borders, or at seemingly random places, just to keep you on your toes. For instance, one of the streets near where I live changes name 3 times in a mere 3 block stretch. The streets are narrow and not very good because they keep getting dug up. There are very few parking places; garage parking costs a small fortune and it’s practically impossible to find meter parking in a busy area. Traffic snarls are usually horrendous around any area worth visiting. Massachusetts is the rotary capital of America. I happen to love rotaries, but those who haven’t encountered it before may not. Now that was just the infrastructure. Don’t get me started on the humans. Boston drivers have a pretty nasty reputation, which I would have to say is fully deserved. I can say this from the perspective of an impartial pedestrian, cyclist, and driver. So what does this mean in a nutshell? Avoid driving at all costs. The public transportation system will get you to most places you want to go. Chances are, many places that you want to see are within walking distances, as Boston is a relatively small city. Don’t take any chance and leave your car at home. Thanks for doing your part to keep our lives sane.

Last visit: I live here Pros: Youthful population; abundance of historic and cultural attractions; charming neighborhoods; diverse activities year-round; the Bruins Cons: Small & confusing streets; bad traffic; high real-estate prices; the Bruins In a nutshell: Not your typical American city