Perhaps winter in Boston isn't the first thing to spring into your mind as an obvious choice for a dream vacation, but the truth is that any change of season in New England brings its own distinct charms. Sure, come the end of November, the scenic cruises around our harbor, the hip outdoor music festivals, and the deafening cheers coming out of Fenway Park, are all just distant memories (yes, some years, more distant than others). The leaf peepers and the Canadian geese have all flocked to warmer climates—but the football and holiday seasons have just kicked into high gear. Temperatures start to dip, but the air now has a certain crispness--and an aroma of perhaps too much pumpkin-spice. And how could we ever leave out that delightful snow? That frosted, festive blanket that provides a delightful backdrop for an idyllic stroll through the Public Gardens, or a family ice-skating outing at the Frog Pond in the Boston Commons...or as we locals see it, a splendid time to stock up on canned goods and bottled water for this year’s edition of the Snowpocalypse--a time of school closures, shoveling-related back injuries, and infamous neighborhood battles over parking spots, involving traffic cones, household furniture and everything but (and maybe including) the kitchen sink. Okay, so we Bostonians have some mixed emotions about snow, let’s just say.
But here's a little secret we'll let you in on: winter in Boston is also one of the best times of the year to visit. There's a special feeling in the air around town, from that quintessentially “New England” holiday, Thanksgiving, all the way through to the First Night festivities of New Year's Eve. After that, the city is a little quieter, serving as an ideal first stop for snow bunnies in search of New England’s famed ski slopes, only a few hours to the north--but gone are most of the crowds, long lines, sky-rocketing room rates and full occupancies. Being so rich in history and culture, and so compact, Boston is one of the easier and more fulfilling cities to explore, even in the midst of winter--it just requires a little bit of planning. And please, since you have the Beantown Trolley as well as the MBTA subways and buses at your service, you can leave the “authentic experience” of driving in this city, to the professionals.
Part 1: BACK BAY
A neighborhood filled with stunning museums, cafes, shopping districts, and some of the cities finest architectural treasures, Back Bay is a great place to explore at any time of year.
History, Art, and a few Hidden Surprises
When temperatures fall to freezing and the snow starts to pile up, some of Back Bay's top tourist attractions—The John Hancock Tower (aka 300 Clarendon), the Boston Marathon Finish Line, and the iconic Trinity Church—are perhaps better seen from the inside of a Beantown Trolley. Luckily, there are still plenty of fascinating places to spend your time in the area—indoors. Winter is a perfect excuse to explore one of Boston's overlooked gems, the Boston Public Library in Copley Square. The newer wing of the library (accessed via Boylston Street) is home to--yes--lots and lots of books. But venturing into the old historic sections of the library is simply an opportunity not to be missed--and of course, it’s warm and totally free of charge. If you enter the Boylston Street side, make your way through to the majestic courtyard atrium, and into the original wing, which houses a magnificent, stately reading room, some truly epic murals done by famed artist John Singer Sargent, and a virtual labyrinth of scattered mini-museums and fascinating exhibits, spanning several floors, including collections of various curio such as creepy marionettes, 19th century dioramas, and collections of antique instruments. Oh--and yes, even more books.
If you are out and about in the elements, trying to get a closer look at architect I.M. Pei's stunning glass tower at 300 Clarendon or the Trinity Church, you might need a little refueling, perhaps a good cup of coffee and a pastry...or seven. Lucky for you, brave soul, because you are a stone's throw from a branch of one of the city's best bakeries: Flour Bakery + Cafe, owned and operated by local chef Joanne Chang. But go early and go hungry, because options are many: heavenly bread puddings, gargantuan sticky buns, ganache tarts, and pastries like the impossibly crispy, layered, buttery Breton roll (based on the classic French “kouign amann”). And their delectable lunch offerings include everything from gourmet salads to roasted lamb and arugula sandwiches on freshly baked bread. If you can't tell, my research has been pretty thorough, and Flour gets my seal of approval.Across the neighborhood, past the shopping malls and the Sheraton Hotel, we have another one of architect I.M Pei's masterpieces: the Mother Church of Christ, Scientist, which houses another “hidden” attraction, the Mary Baker Eddy Library. Inside the library, you'll find the fascinating Mapparium, the world's largest glass globe and a work of art in its own right. At 3 stories tall, and big enough for a 30 ft walkway to pass through, this impressive work of stained glass dates back to the 1930's, and features some very unique acoustics; let's just say it’s not a place you go to tell any burning secrets... And it’s free of charge with your Beantown Trolley ticket!
Not far from this section of Back Bay, you can access two of Boston's most fascinating museums. A short walk, or a 3 minute journey on the MBTA's Green Line, will bring you to the front door of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which houses incredibly diverse collections from around the world. The MFA boasts especially renowned collections of Impressionist paintings (most notably those by the French master, Claude Monet) and an amazing collection of art and artifacts from the ancient worlds of Egypt, Rome, Greece, etc. You could spend hours in the MFA alone, of course, but whatever you do—whether it’s raining, sleeting, snowing cats and dogs, or the temperatures have hit rock bottom—you should not miss the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Make your way around the Fens, where it is said Isabella Stewart Gardner herself used to walk her pet lion (or tiger, by some accounts), to this painstakingly arranged ode to the fine arts. While the MFA may house more masterpieces, you could say that the eccentric heiress' lovingly curated home is in itself a masterpiece. Some rooms in the home were even designed to house specific paintings, and each room is jam-packed—well, tastefully jam-packed, with different aesthetic themes and the finest eclectic pieces of art, furniture, and decorations that she and her husband could find in their world travels. It’s the sum of the parts that transform this home itself into one of the most unique and rewarding museums in the world—not a museum, but an enormous, lived-in shrine to art. At the center of the home/museum is a beautiful courtyard, where Isabella and her husband Jack would entertain guests with classical concerts—which have been a regular activity at the museum since 1903, though they've since been moved to the new wing, built in 1999.
Shop Until You Drop, Without Freezing
Copley Square and Newbury Street are especially abuzz during the holiday season, decked out with Christmas lights, bell-ringing Santas, and a frenetic mix of urban hustle-and-bustle and holiday cheer. Newbury Street is one of Boston’s most atmospheric shopping and people-watching destinations, often referred to as our own “Rodeo Drive”. A gauntlet of high-end designer shops and trendy fashion boutiques runs almost the entire length of this attractive, tree-lined street—but you need not be residents of a Beacon Street townhouse (like a certain legendary NFL quarterback or a certain Brazilian fashion model) to enjoy its many charms. You are simply spoiled for choices for things to do, eat, and buy, regardless of your budget or interests. When the weather gets too chilly for window shopping, or you need a break from scanning the aisles of H&M, you can relax and warm up with a book and a coffee at Trident Books, browse the staggering music and magazine selection at Newbury Comics, or tuck into some elegant, seasonal New England bistro fare at Sonsie Boston, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
A few blocks across the Back Bay grid is Copley Square, site of the Trinity Church, Copley Library and the John Hancock Tower (or, the building-formerly-known-as The John Hancock Tower). In the winter, you can avoid Back Bay’s sometimes blustery wind-tunnel effect, and duck into the shops at Copley Place, where you'll find countless name brand designer shops like Neiman Marcus, an assortment of kiosks selling everything from jewelry to lattes and fudge, a cinema, and a host of world-class eateries including a branch of Boston’s beloved Legal Seafoods, where you can get your fix for award-winning clam chowder and lobster, among other seafood specialties.
And just when you think you’re done, don’t forget to take the (heated!) glass bridge over Huntington Avenue, where you’ll find the shops at the Prudential Center. A large Barnes and Noble Bookstore, Saks 5th Avenue, and the Prudential Skywalk observation deck (and its famed restaurant, Top of the Hub) are some of the main draws of this shopping center. While some denizens of “the Pru” are temporarily mourning the loss of its no-frills food court, I for one am happy to announce that spot has been taken over by NYC celebrity chef Mario Battali, who will open a branch of his acclaimed Eataly, a food-dedicated emporium consisting of all things Italian.
As of 2016, you'll be able to stop in for a platter of Italy's finest cured meats, imported cheeses, fresh pastas, vegetable dishes, pastries, and gelato, while sipping on some great wines by the glass or carafe...or the bottle. But please folks, drink and shop responsibly!