Boston: Little town with a big heart
US City Breaks
Published 02/11/2015 | 02:30
Crossing the harbour on a water taxi from Logan Airport as the late afternoon sun silhouetted the city skyline, it was hard not to be immediately taken by what was stretched out before me.
Okay, so Boston was pushing an open door on this one, but I was still sold before I set foot again on dry land. It had long been on my bucket list of cities to visit, so as I stepped on to Long Wharf for the first time I was ready to be enthralled. And Boston didn't disappoint.
By good fortune - certainly not by design - my hotel was only a short walk from Long Wharf. As I was to discover, that's not uncommon. It is a great city to explore on foot, condensed as it is into a small area, an area which in fact was once hemmed in on three sides.
But then, America doesn't see problems, it sees only solutions. Over one hundred years ago, when the Chicago River was threatening the city's public water supply because it was depositing so much pollution and sewage into Lake Michigan, it was decided that the flow of the river had to be reversed and the pollution and sewage was sent in the opposite direction. Problem solved, even if Canada wasn't happy!
And when early settlers decided that Boston's location offered a huge trade and commercial advantage despite being on a small hilly peninsula, those that followed in their pioneering footsteps decided that rather than move and start again when the burgeoning city quickly ran out of space, they would simply make room. So, in the early part of the 19th Century, the city began cutting down its hills, starting with Mount Vernon, and using the soil to reclaim land from the sea. It took the best part of eight decades, but when the city was finished, the new land almost doubled the size of the Boston peninsula.
Then there is Gasson Hall, the eye-catching building at the heart of the Boston College campus in Chestnut Hill, another great example of the can-do spirit at the heart of the American story. A complete refurbishment of this building was completed four years ago, a few years shy of its centenary. As part of the work, the cast stones which had taken such a battering from the elements had to be replaced and this was done by carefully dismantling each one and replacing them with exact replicas.
I took a tour of the Boston College campus with Reid Oslin, a bit of a legend in those parts having worked for many years in the college's sports department. It's a few miles from the city but well worth a visit. It is typical of a top-rated US college in that it is not just blessed with marvellous facilities - for education, sport and research - but huge care and attention has gone into the development of the campus too. And as a Jesuit college it's not surprising that its Irish connections run deep. Of course, those connections have been enhanced by its Irish programme, and its Dublin base, and will be further enhanced when the college decamps to the Aviva Stadium for a football game against Georgia Tech next September. The college has an interesting history in that it was actually founded just over 150 years ago for the primary purpose of looking after the educational needs of the children of Irish immigrants.
Indeed, the thing that struck me about Boston is that it there is a strong sense of history everywhere, which initially becomes apparent through its spectacular and distinctive streetscape of old buildings. But as you soak up the city's atmosphere over a few days, its rich and vibrant past comes through in so many ways. It's certainly not hidden away. Perhaps because my antenna is finely tuned for sport, that was what resonated most with me. I have yet to visit any city as sport-crazed as this one, and whose identity is so heavily invested in its different teams.
Boston is one of the oldest cities in the United States, one which has always punched above its weight. In contrast to other great American cities it feels much more accessible - probably because it is, at least in terms of area - but that doesn't really tell the Boston story. In terms of size and population Boston is not even in the top 20 in America, but there is no sense of that if you spend any time in the city, or with Bostonians. Because you come away thinking here is a place that thinks of itself as competing with New York to be top dog. Of course there is no comparison. But when it comes to things that matter - politics, business, culture and sport - they like to think they can go toe-to-toe with New York.
As writer Leigh Montville once put it in Sports Illustrated: "Location, location, location. Boston has been this funky overachiever, this little backstreet restaurant in the South End or this Newbury Street boutique that has succeeded with guile and chutzpah and hard work and energy."
There's no denying it's a city which has made its mark: it is where the revolution began; it is the birthplace of several American presidents, including Kennedy, George Bush Snr and John Adams; it is home to Fenway Park and the Red Sox; it is a learning hub, home to an impressive array of world famous universities, like Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern University, Emerson College and MIT; it is the birthplace of other great icons of American life, the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Syliva Plath, Bette Davis, Leonard Bernstein, Mike Bloomberg, Robert Frost . . . oh, as well as Aerosmith and Steve Carell.
On my first night, I spent several hours walking around the city to get to know it, from the waterfront up to Boston Common, across to Faneuil Hall and through the alleys and streets off Washington St, one of the main shopping areas, which, even on a Monday night in late September, were alive with people. This part of the city is a treasure trove of historic old buildings and churches and two worth a visit are the Old South Meeting House, with its connection to the beginnings of the Boston Tea Party, and, nearby, the Old State House, built 300 ago. Faneuil Hall, too, is a curious spot and I found myself repeatedly drawn back to it. It has served as a meeting place and marketplace since the 1740s, and still does to this day, although it is dominated now by food stalls of all shapes and sizes and the blend of aromas as you walk through the ground floor is quite intoxicating.
The next morning, I ventured further, up to the Back Bay area and the historic Victorian brownstones on Beacon St, along the Charles River and around by the picturesque Copley Square, home to the Boston Public Library.
My original plan was to take in as many visitor attractions as I could in the time that I had but this was hastily revised after only a few hours in the city. Such were my first impressions that my preference instead became soaking up as much of it as I could. So, for several days, I walked a lot more than I would ever care to consider when at home, nipped into bars (and yes, cliche or not, I did pop into the Cheers bar on Beacon St), watched a lot of sport, did some shopping (and with Christmas approaching it's worth taking that into account if you are thinking of a shopping holiday), took in a handful of places of interest - three of the more interesting of which are highlighted below - and generally fell in love with a city that just about has it all.
It's a great shopping town, it's a great tourists' town, it's a great sports town and, yes, it's a great Irish town. I have one simple rule when I go away: No Irish bars. It's a rule I never break. I broke it on this trip. And I wasn't sorry either. When I later said this to a friend, he helpfully pointed out: But it's Boston so it doesn't count. Too right.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operate three flights daily between Ireland and Boston; two from Dublin and the other from Shannon. Each-way fares start from €249, including taxes and charges. Business class fares are from €1099 each way.
Aer Lingus launched its new business class service earlier this year, featuring full lie-flat beds, new menus and an extensive in-flight entertainment selection. As part of the re-launch, a new arrivals lounge known as the ‘revival lounge’ was opened, with shower and clothes press facilities at Dublin Airport.
How do you pick just one place of interest in a city which doesn’t just have a rich history, but a well-preserved one. I settled on Boston Public Library, largely because my visit coincided with an exhibition of maps and prints charting the American story from the French and Indian War to independence. (The exhibition runs until November 29.) The library itself is housed in a spectacular building, wonderfully grand, which was built in 1895.
Just a short stroll from Boston Common, in the city’s famous Back Bay area, is the Gibson House Museum, a quaint tourist attraction which is well worth a visit. The house was built in the mid-19th Century and remains pretty much as it was when inhabited by the wealthy Gibson family, including the original furniture, wallpaper, paintings, etc. The house has been a museum since 1957, and tours are conducted in small, intimate groups.
No visit to Boston is complete without a visit to the John F Kennedy Library on Columbia Point, a short train ride from Boston Common. It’s located in a 10-acre park, overlooking the sea. The library is home to a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Kennedy. You need to allow time to absorb the amount of information on display on Kennedy, and indeed the Kennedy family, but you certainly won’t be disappointed.
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