The Villages of Boston
Written by Ayesha Khan
Ayesha Khan takes us on a tour through the past and present of four distinct quarters of Boston, the town she’s lovingly called her second home for over 20 years.
The USA’s most historic city, Boston has seen armies rise and fall and immigrants come and go. But the tale of this burgeoning city is far from over – as one massive development wave ends, several more are lapping onto its azure Atlantic shores.
The North End, Waterfront, and Seaport
Paul Revere had instructed Robert Newman, the sexton at Old North Church, to keep the evening watch for the British. They were to hang one lantern from the belfry if they spotted troops advancing by land, and two if they were approaching by way of the Charles River. On the night of April 18, 1775, he saw two glimmering lanterns and immediately sprang into action, making his now-legendary midnight ride to Lexington to warn his compatriots of the impending approach of the ‘Redcoats’.
Today Boston’s North End still houses Old North Church and Paul Revere’s house, and is also home to the city’s immigrant population. The most numerous among these are the Italians who fled Naples, Sicily, and Genoa in droves during the late 1800s to establish a new life in America. This is where one will find the best Italian food – at legendary institutions like Giacomo’s and Galleria Umberto and the more upscale Tresca (regularly frequented by sport and Hollywood celebrities). Just steps away, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market, historic landmarks in themselves, play host to shops, dining, and regularly scheduled special events. A short walk down the verdant Rose F. Kennedy Greenway and across the Northern Avenue Bridge is the city’s most up-and-coming hotspot, aptly named the Seaport district for its promontories along the Boston harbour. Restaurants with captivating views (most of them can be enjoyed on rooftop terraces) line the ‘harborwalk’, and landmarks such as the Boston Children’s Museum and the John F Kennedy Library are but a short walk away. Every year on December 16, the famed Boston Tea Party is also re-enacted here.
The South End
After acres of marshland were filled in to make more space for the growing number of settlers, rows of Victorian brick bow-front townhouses were erected in the South End. However, after a mass exodus of the well-to-do in the 1870s, these immaculate homes fell into disrepair and were turned into tenements to house Boston’s working-class immigrants. Among those who flocked to the South End were Boston’s African-American jazz musicians who, in the 1940s, created a network of jazz clubs that played the sweet notes of this beloved music style (which, ironically, was not very well liked among the high-brow Bostonians). The likes of Duke Ellington and Jason Palmer have all played Boston’s intimate jazz houses.
Although these jazz hubs have all but disappeared, Wally’s Café, one of the first of its kind in the nation, and the first to be owned by an African-American, still stands and offers live music 365 days a year. The South End is also a hive of ethnic restaurants and an ever-burgeoning art scene. The vibrant SoWa (South of Washington) district boasts contemporary furniture, antique and vintage shops.
Charlestown, Cambridge, and Somerville
On June 13, 1775, Boston was under siege. After learning that the British troops had planned to occupy Boston’s hills, the colonial forces stealthily fortified Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. These young men were commanded by Colonel William Prescott to hold their fire until they saw the whites of their enemies’ eyes. Defeated, and outnumbered, the colonial forces retreated to Cambridge over Bunker Hill.
Back Bay and Beacon Hill
When the Puritans established the Massachusetts Bay Company, the Boston Common, the USA’s oldest public park, was a meeting ground, grazing pasture, and venue for the infamous hangings of Quakers (the Boston Martyrs) who were banned from the Colony. When trees were removed from the centre of the park to form cow pastures, they were stacked atop one of Boston’s highest hills, overlooking the Charles River. At night this massive timber pile would be set on fire, creating a beacon to warn the city of impending invasions.
Today Boston’s 23k-gold-domed State House presides over Beacon Hill. The quaint, gas-lit, brick-lined streets play host to some of the ritziest restaurants and the most expensive Victorian- and Federal-style row houses in the city. At the bottom of the hill, the Boston Common still stands, complemented by a more manicured Public Garden. Together the two adjacent parks offer rides on iconic Swan Boats in warmer months and cold-weather festivities such as an ice rink. A walk through the parks leads to Boston’s shopping haven of Newbury Street, lined with luxe boutiques and tiny cafés. Boston’s luxury hotels are also located in Back Bay; the most iconic, the Fairmont Copley Plaza, forms a trilogy of architectural landmarks with Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library, all of which overlook Copley Square, named after the city’s most celebrated painter.
The Boston Red Sox
Boston takes its title-winning sports teams just as seriously as the USA takes its two most beloved sports – football and baseball. Dedicated to the love of the latter, Fenway Park, the oldest ballpark in the USA’s Major League, was built for the Red Sox in 1912. In 1918, the owner of the wildly successful team sold US baseball legend Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees to fund a Broadway musical, launching the ‘curse of the Bambino’, where, for 86 years, Boston’s most beloved team was on a losing streak. On one night in October, during a lunar eclipse where the moon turned Red Sox red, the curse was finally broken and the ‘Sox’ (as they are simply known by Bostonians) won their sixth World Series title. The Sox are so popular that they even have their own hotel located just steps from Fenway Park in vibrant Kenmore Square. Not only does the Hotel Commonwealth offer a signature Baseball Suite, complete with memorabilia from ‘America’s favourite pastime’, it also features a Fenway Spirit package, complete with a tour of the iconic ballpark, and two of the hottest restaurants on Boston’s culinary scene.
The Boston Pops
Established in 1885, The Pops is the most iconic orchestra in the USA, bringing everything from light classical and jazz to indie rock, pop, and film music to the masses. It is the bestselling recording orchestra in the country, and is renowned for its annual performance at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Charles River Esplanade. This month The Pops performs its famed holiday series under the tutelage of Keith Lockhart, who celebrates his 20th year as conductor at Symphony Hall, a purpose-built structure on Boston’s Massachusetts Avenue that is acoustically one of the top three concert halls in the world. The season culminates in a special New Year’s Eve event on December 31.
301 Massachusetts Avenue
The Fairmont Copley Plaza
Since its opening in 1912 this member of the Historic Hotels of America and sister hotel to New York’s iconic Plaza Hotel has been at the centre of Boston society, hosting galas (most notably the Harvard–Yale Dance), artists and dignitaries (famed painter John Singer Sargent among them), and intriguing historical anecdotes. Today much of the original Empire-style décor still stands as it was intended by architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh. The hotel’s OAK Long Bar + Kitchen is Boston’s hottest brunch venue (the hazelnut chocolate French toast is exceptional) and the hotel plays host to an elite by-invitation-only 140 Supper Club. Rooms and suites are among the most luxurious in Boston; those overlooking historic Copley Square (rooms ending in ‘33’) are especially coveted.
138 St. James Avenue
Top of the Hub and Skywalk Observatory
Whether it’s blanketed in winter snow or blooming in spring, the best views of Boston are to be had at these two venues perched atop the iconic Prudential Building, once the second-tallest building in the world outside of New York. Teeming with engaging interactive history lessons and video presentations, the observatory is ideal for families. Meanwhile, on the 52nd floor, Top of the Hub, Boston’s most-loved signature fine-dining restaurant, features live jazz performances, a stellar menu and, of course, breathtaking views – especially at sunset.
800 Boylston Street