A Stroll Through History in Boston
Growing up in southern New Hampshire, I always felt drawn to Boston. A scant hour’s drive south of us, it was the nearest big city, and since I knew that I wanted to live in a big city at some point, it felt like my “home city.” Over the years, as a teenager and later as an adult, the city always held a special place in my heart. Though I never actually lived there, any trip to Boston felt like a homecoming; it was just as comfy and nostalgic as my real home in New Hampshire. As I grew older, one thing in particular that endears me to this quintessentially all-American city is how historic, patriotic, and pivotal it is in the lexicon of red, white, and blue lore. Sure, I trekked the Freedom Trail a few times as a kid, and gawked at renowned buildings like Trinity Church and the Paul Revere House, but the city’s iconic stature within the National Park Service didn’t occur to me until much later, which only endeared me further. Allow me to take a stroll down cobblestone-lined memory lane, through Boston National Historical Park and some of the most significant sites that make this city so historically rich.
Historic meeting reenactment at Faneuil Hall/Courtesy of NPS
You know a city has deep roots when the city itself is literally a national park site. It’s the rare place where simply wandering around downtown is an immersive journey through centuries of patriotic pastimes. Boston National Historical Park serves to remind everyone that the city is the “Cradle of Liberty,” and the site of the first major battle in the American Revolution, paving the way for freedom and independence. Technically, the park contains 43 acres of land in downtown Boston, South Boston, and Charlestown, with visitor centers at Faneuil Hall and the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Start your journey at one of my most cherished destinations in town, Faneuil Hall, to explore the national park’s visitor center on the first floor, and the Great Hall on the second floor. While you’re here, be sure and stroll through bustling Quincy Market for lunch. Lined with restaurants, bakeries, and cafes, it’s basically the O.G. food hall before food halls were really a “thing.” Fun fact: I lost my first tooth at Quincy Market by biting into a hot dog!
Faneuil Hall is also a great place to pick up brochures, visitor guides, and maps to aid your urban exploration. You’ll find information on numerous other historic sites included within the park, such as Old South Meeting House, a building built in 1729 where Benjamin Franklin was baptized and where some 5,000 perturbed colonists protested a pesky tea tax, leading to the infamous Boston Tea Party.
Old State House/Photo by C Tom Kates Photography/Courtesy of NPS
Smack dab in the middle of downtown, and a stone’s throw from Faneuil Hall, the Old State House (constructed way back in 1713) is where the royal governor initially held court, orating from his balcony to deliver messages from England. Years later, this is also the location where the Declaration of Independence was delivered to locals, signifying a bold new era for the city, and far beyond.
The Paul Revere House is notably different from its surroundings, as the rickety-looking structure dates back to the 1600s. Situated in the city’s charming North End, an area I love for its abundance of red sauce Italian restaurants, the house is most famed for the Revere residents who called it home until 1800.
Also in the North End is Old North Church, and considering it was built in 1723, “old” is not an understatement. It was originally an Anglican church, outfitted with gorgeous stained glass, Georgian-style architecture, and ornate, regal pews, all of which were in stark contrast to the far more modest houses of worship in the area. The church would go on to cement its place in American history as the site where Paul Revere asked his pal John Pulling to signal with lanterns about British troops marching out of the city on land, or by boat.
Bunker Hill, across the Charles River in Charlestown, is one of the most significant sites in Boston, and all of the northeast. It’s the location of the first major battle in the Revolutionary War on June 17, 1775, and the soaring 221-foot obelisk is the apt pinnacle of the Freedom Trail. In fact, visitors can climb a series of stairs to the very top of the granite monument, for sweeping panoramas of the city. Across the street, the Bunker Hill Museum contains enlightening exhibits about the battle that ignited the war and carved a path for independence.
USS Constitution/Photo by MC3 Victoria Kinney/Courtesy of NPS
While in Charlestown, the Navy Yard is another important stop. This gorgeous harbor was established in 1800, making it one of six navy yards designed to support and maintain the burgeoning U.S. Navy. The star attractions here are its ironclad warships, the USS Constitution and the USS Cassin Young, two ships from two entirely different eras, with the former built from timber and the latter a modern innovation made of steel.
The USS Constitution has a particularly illustrious backstory, as the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy, built in 1794 at a shipyard in the North End. The ship would go on to participate in combat with pirates off the Barbary Coast before famously fending off British invasion in the War of 1812. During this time, the nickname “Old Ironsides” emerged, since cannons seemed to bounce off the ship’s resilient oak siding. While it’s not engaging in any nautical battles anymore, it’s still in operation to this day, and naval officers work aboard the ship, manning the historic site in conjunction with the National Park Service. Learn more at the USS Constitution Museum, perched across the pier from the ship.
Dorchester Heights Monument/Photo courtesy of NPS
Wrap up your Boston tour de force at Dorchester Heights in South Boston, where Henry Knox and his crew of colonists brought cannons up from New York to help defend against British invasion in 1775-76. Then in 1812, Dorchester Heights was once again a stronghold for U.S. forces. In 1898, a monument was commissioned to commemorate the importance of this area, marked by a striking white marble Georgian revival tower.
Header photo: By C Tom Kates Photography/Courtesy of NPS
Matt Kirouac has been writing about food and travel since 2008, for outlets like Travel + Leisure, TripSavvy, DiningOut magazines, Plate Magazine, KOA, Culture Trip, Zagat, and Food Fanatics magazine. He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago. He fell in love with national parks while on a trip to South Dakota, where Badlands National Park stole his heart…and has been holding it ransom ever since.