Boston's Mass. Appeal
Published: June 2009
By Jessica Dineen
Boston may be the cradle of old-time America, but there's a youthful side to the city that kids find irresistible
Our entourage of 14 included seven kids: Ella, 10; Ned, nine; Susannah, "almost eight"; Meghan, three; Jack, also three; Grace (a.k.a. Jellybean), eight months; and my son Aidan, six months. My husband and I, both ex-Bostonians, had enlisted them to help determine what was fun, and what was not, in the city these days. Memories of my own childhood favorites couldn't be trusted—riding the subway barefoot, for one, was not going to make the list.
We were all related, somehow or other. The question of exactly how was uttered by Ella in her soft voice: "Are we all cousins?" This was one of those simple questions that can lead to a lesson in life's complication: among us were nieces, sisters, in-laws, cousins, second cousins, husbands, wives, children, mothers, fathers, even a former baby-sitter. But before we could begin to explain, the kids were off to play.
We'd gathered across the Charles River in Cambridge, at the Full Moon—a restaurant whose dining room contains a train set, a dollhouse, a blackboard, a toy kitchen, and a plethora of other playthings. A sign offers suggestions for the children, among them REMEMBER, YOU ARE AT A RESTAURANT. This may sound patronizing, but in fact it is hard to remember: What restaurant has a bucket of toys, some rather large, on each table?
Although the Full Moon was conceived specifically for families, the entrées—monkfish and clams in ginger-citrus fish broth, for example—are delicious, and beautifully presented. The child-size dishes are just as good. Imagine this: Your kids play with abandon, the waitresses are happy about it, the room is cheerfully bright but nicely lit, the artwork not at all tacky. And while the kids amuse themselves, you can feel as if you're out on a date—in our case, a triple date with a chaperone and two sleeping infants. But still.
Of course, in Boston it's no surprise to find a restaurant—or a museum, or a shop, or a hotel—that's perfect for kids. After all, this is a city devoted to bringing dusty historical sites and 300-year-old tales to life. As anyone with children knows, that takes a lot of imagination.
Newbury Street Susannah's appraisal of the Boston fashion scene: "You can wear whatever you want, and the fancy people won't mind." This is probably because the fancy people don't have a choice; Boston is not known for style. The trendy boutiques and restaurants on Newbury Street are as fashionable as the city gets. But any kid will immediately surmise that Newbury Street is not about Chanel or Burberry. It's about ice cream shops and—for teenagers—cafés. These are the arbiters of style for Boston's under-21 set.
Do not settle for Vermont's Ben & Jerry's! You'll find three brands of Boston-made ice cream within four blocks on Newbury: Herrell's (at No. 224; try the malted vanilla); J. P. Licks (No. 352; try ginger or crème brûlée); Emack & Bolio's (No. 290; try peppermint patty). Herrell's is the one that best understands kids. Its fresh whipped cream comes in two flavors, regular and chocolate.
If you're between the ages of 16 and 20 and you're on Newbury Street, where you drink your coffee is who you are. The two extremes are the same here as they are universally: beauty (Armani Café , at No. 214) and brains (Trident Booksellers & Café , at No. 338).
There are no terrible restaurants on Newbury, but none that are great for lunch with kids, either. If you want to save money for shopping and eat like the locals (even here there are still a few), stop in at the 60-year-old Riccotti's Sub Shop (154A Newbury St.; 617/247-9533), where the perfect New England submarine sandwich is served with absolutely no fanfare. Order the steak-and-cheese, or an Italian with everything (don't forget the "hots"). This is also a good place to hear a Boston accent.
Charles Street This stretch of shops at the foot of Beacon Hill looks pretty much the way it did in the 1800's, with brick sidewalks, bay-windowed storefronts, and gas streetlamps. Charles is dominated by antiques and specialty shops (the kind that lead kids to ask, "Can we leave now?"), but a few places are fun for all ages.
Black Ink (101 Charles St.; 617/723-3883) sells its own intricate rubber stamps, as well as paper, cards, photo albums, silk maps, and beautiful objects of all sorts. There's a small collection of inventive toys, as well as Tintin knapsacks, a steel Convert-O Bike tricycle/bicycle, and the hard-to-find German Lumibears—glowing bear-shaped lamps that stand as tall as four feet. Ares Shoe Repair (84 Charles St.; 617/720-1583) is like a living museum display: Look through the windows and you'll see what could be an early-19th-century shop, with a cobbler in a drab apron who will pay you no attention whatsoever.
An inexpensive lunch spot is the cafeteria-style Paramount (44 Charles St.; 617/720-1152; $20 for four), in business since the thirties. The food is what you'd expect at a diner—omelettes, pancakes, grilled cheese—but of a high caliber. For Italian ices and sandwiches, go to Caffè Bella Vita (30 Charles St.; 617/720-4505).
An excellent, if expensive, picnic can be gathered at the upscale market Deluca's (11 Charles St.; 617/523-4343). Take your food to the Public Garden down the street, where the kids will be delighted to find a sculpture of Mrs. Mallard (from Robert McCloskey's 1941 children's book Make Way for Ducklings ) leading her flock toward Beacon Street.
Huron Avenue, Cambridge This is the shopping street of a classic New England neighborhood, where the president of Harvard lives in a pale yellow Georgian house among others that are similarly grand yet understated. The irony is that this subtle, buttoned-up area is titillating for kids.
Next to the Full Moon restaurant is Susi's Gallery for Children (348 Huron Ave.; 617/876-7874). It's stuffed with crafts to buy, such as sparkling beaded jewelry and mobiles of painted clay animals. Reversible dress-up clothing includes an outfit that's a princess on one side and a pauper on the other. But the reason the gallery is one of Ella's favorites is that she can make or paint her own masks, vases, and picture frames at the weekly art classes (Tuesday-Friday; call to reserve). Then there's Huron Drug (356 Huron Ave.; 617/547-6400), with the best Halloween costumes in the city—last year's scariest was Nail Head. For an Italian edge, there are real Venetian masks. This year's millennium-inspired collection features a futuristic netted tutu.
Across the street is Boston's finest toy store, Henry Bear's Park (361 Huron Ave.; 617/547-8424), recently expanded to include a large books section with beanbag chairs. This place is as much a play area as a store: kids try on costumes, draw at easels, and put on puppet shows while parents pick out wonderful playthings, such as woven mice from Ecuador or a push-toy from the German company Selecta.
These are not the restaurants tourists flock to for a bowl of New England clam chowder. We haven't mentioned Durgin-Park, Legal Sea Foods, or Faneuil Hall's food court—all excellent kid choices; rather, the spots listed here are favorites the locals keep to themselves.
Boston and Chestnut Hill Red Clay Atrium Mall, 300 Boylston St., Chestnut Hill; 617/965-7000; dinner for four $100. Michela Larson and Jody Adams—the team behind one of Boston's greatest restaurants, Rialto—have a new place, in the city's most upscale shopping mall. This time they're cooking for families, serving dinners in clay pots. Kids get an education as well as a meal: dishes represent a variety of cuisines, including French-Italian, Spanish, and Moroccan. The place resembles a Mediterranean café, with an open kitchen and beehive ovens. It's out of the way, but well worth the drive.
Oak Room Fairmont Copley Plaza, 138 St. James Ave., Boston; 617/267-5300; dinner for four $100. This famous hotel steak restaurant isn't the sort of place you'd expect to bring children, but the dining room's dark, old-world elegance is something they'll remember forever. Susannah was skeptical about the kids' menu, despite alluring dishes such as "Pirate Adventure Fish Swords"; her intelligent assessment was that this is a place where you have either the steak or the lobster. Aidan tested the service by dropping napkins on the floor. In every instance a waiter whisked the discarded linen away and presented the baby with a crisply folded replacement.
Vinny Testa's 867 Boylston St., Boston; 617/262-6699; dinner for four $50. Families in the know used to travel out to Brookline to eat at Vinny's—it was worth the hunt for a parking space, which is saying a lot. Now that Vinny's has opened in Back Bay, everyone can join in the fun. Portions are enormous, the food is hearty but not too heavy, and the dining rooms are classic Boston, with a glossy oak bar, booths, and red-and-white checked tablecloths.
Buzzy's Fabulous Roast Beef 327 Cambridge St., Boston; 617/242-7722; lunch for four $25. An insider's landmark, this street-side stand at the foot of Beacon Hill serves up the ultimate kid's lunch—a roast beef sandwich, fat fries, and a thick shake. Take it down to the Charles River Esplanade for a picnic lunch.
Cambridge and Somerville Full Moon 344 Huron Ave., Cambridge; 617/354-6699; dinner for four $50. Try the salt-cod-and-green-olive potato cakes with tossed watercress and aioli. As for the kids' side of the menu, the crisply grilled chicken, served with french fries, is always a hit.
Bertucci's 197 Elm St., Somerville; 617/776-9241; dinner for four $30. The flagship of the Bertucci's chain, in Davis Square near Tufts University, is the best for kids. The specialty is surprisingly good brick-oven pizza, but the real reason to go is the indoor bocce court, where kids can play while parents keep an eye out from the balcony. Other outposts (there are more than a dozen in the city) also have diversions for kids, such as extra-large chalkboards, and pizza dough that children can mold and have baked on request.
East Coast Grill & Raw Bar 1271 Cambridge St., Cambridge; 617/491-6568; dinner for four $100. For a look at a Cambridge neighborhood that's less touristy than most, head to Inman Square. It's not easy to reach by public transportation, but the food at the East Coast Grill certainly merits the cab fare. Owner Chris Schlesinger won a James Beard award in 1996. Chef Owen Tilley cooks big portions of Asian- and Southern-style food with subtle and unusual spice combinations. Best choice: white-pepper grilled tuna with wasabi and pickled ginger.
S&S Restaurant & Deli 1334 Cambridge St., Cambridge; 617/354-0777; brunch for four $30. Also in Inman Square, this large, old-style restaurant is renowned for its lovingly crabby service, perfect burgers, and thick fries. It's a sprawling space, and somewhat loud—a good thing for families who normally have trouble blending in. The weekend brunch, whether a simple bagel and lox or eggs Benedict, is flawless.
Fire + Ice 50 Church St., Cambridge; 617/547-9007; dinner for four $50. Harvard Square is of course inundated with students, so the large and busy restaurants that would be ideal for kids anywhere else have here become collegiate pickup scenes. One that hasn't yet is this fun barbecue spot. Children love to choose their own ingredients (pineapple, sliced beef, bamboo shoots) and have the cooks stir-fry them before their eyes.
Bartley's Burger Cottage 1246 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge; 617/354-6559; lunch for four $30. This Harvard Square fixture is beloved by everyone from neighborhood kids to university alumni. Big burgers and soul food sandwiches are served with heaps of vegetables or mashed potatoes and tall glasses of lemonade. At least three generations of initials are carved into the long wooden tables.
Museum of Science Science Park, Boston; 617/723-2500. Because nearly all the exhibits are hands-on, even the most jaded kids will want to spend hours here. At the Human Body Connection, Susannah measured her skin temperature with the biofeedback machine. Other highlights include a life-size Tyrannosaurus rex model; a beautiful planetarium; the five-story-high Mugar Omni Theater, with a domed screen and a digital surround-sound system; and the Virtual Fishtank, in which children use a computer program to create their own fish and send them swimming into one large simulated sea. (When your kid watches his fish get bumped by another kid's, it takes playground territory battles into a whole new dimension.)
Children's Museum 300 Congress St., Boston; 617/426-8855. Most of the displays are interactive, including a two-story climbing apparatus and a life-size pretend supermarket where kids can shop or run the register. Meghan enthusiastically clambered over a giant red sculpture of a telephone while Susannah hung around in a replica of a Japanese subway car. At the Grandparents' Attic dress-up chest, the kids paired size-10 pumps with frilly housedresses and mammoth handbags.
Museum of Fine Arts 465 Huntington Ave., Boston; 617/267-9300. Children of any age will be entranced by the Egyptian exhibits. Standing next to 20-foot-tall sculptures made Meghan giddy, and Susannah was amazed to see evidence of human life in 1570 b.c. Things will get even better on November 14, with the U.S. debut of the "Pharaohs of the Sun" collection: 250 artifacts from the reigns of Akhenaton, Nefertiti, and Tutankhamen.
USS Constitution Charlestown Navy Yard, Charlestown; 617/426-1812. The 200-year-old Constitution is the oldest warship still afloat (the Navy tows it around the harbor once a year). During the War of 1812, it earned the name "Old Ironsides" when British cannonballs seemed to literally bounce off the ship. The museum displays thousands of ships' artifacts, and has a row of sailors' hammocks to swing in.
New England Aquarium Central Wharf, Boston; 617/973-5200. Like a Guggenheim for fish, the aquarium has a spiral ramp that corkscrews around a three-story tank. The surreal lighting is ideal for viewing the sharks, turtles, and eels. On the ground floor, penguins reign over a large open-air tank; one level below is a simulated tide pool for a very unlucky group of starfish, mussels, and snails that kids are allowed to touch. Also check out the Aquarium Medical Center, where children can watch the staff operate on injured fish (perhaps the very creatures the kids just manhandled downstairs).
Boston Children's Theater 321 Columbus Ave., Boston; 617/424-6634. For more than a century the kids of the BCT have been performing elaborate, very professional plays for a mostly preteen audience. This season opens with The Little Prince (in December), and moves on to Heidi (in February) and a Huckleberry Finn musical (April).
Boston Boy Choir St. Paul Church, 29 Mount Auburn St., Cambridge; 617/868-8658. Even nonbelievers will spend an hour at mass to hear this angelic choir sing at St. Paul, located in a pretty section of Harvard Square.
KidPort Logan Airport, East Boston; 617/561-1212. While biding time at the airport, stop by this amusement area in Terminal C, where kids will find fun-house mirrors, touch-sensor maps showing what's going on throughout New England, a jungle gym of large geometric shapes, and toys, toys, toys.
The three-mile Freedom Trail starts on Boston Common and passes many of the city's best-known Revolutionary landmarks, including Paul Revere's House , with its 931-pound bell sitting in the yard. But the idea of a historical trek rarely excites kids, and keeping track of the painted line linking the sights will only occupy them for so long. One diversion is a cannoli at Mike's Pastry (300 Hanover St.; 617/742-3050), in the North End, Boston's Italian neighborhood of narrow streets and brick storefronts. If you're walking the Freedom Trail on a Friday or Saturday morning, stop by the Haymarket , near the north end of Faneuil Hall. Children love the frenetic bartering scene, not to mention the mess of crushed vegetables and boxes. (The Freedom Trail starts at the Boston Common Information Center on Tremont Street; 617/536-4100.)
Kids ages 6 to 12 might prefer the hour-long tour Boston by Little Feet , which takes in Faneuil Hall and nine other historic sights. (Tour starts by the statue of Samuel Adams on Congress Street in front of Faneuil Hall, May through October only; children must be accompanied by an adult; 617/367-2345.)
The 1.6-mile Black Heritage Trail begins at the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (Beacon Street Mall; 617/742-5415 for guided tours or self-guide booklets), and ends at Beacon Hill's 1806 African Meeting House , the oldest African-American church still standing in the United States. The trail passes 14 pre-Civil War sites, such as Hayden House , a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Boston Harbor Hotel 70 Rowes Wharf, Boston; 800/752-7077 or 617/439-7000, fax 617/345-6799; doubles $250. The guest rooms here are decidedly Old Boston, with gold-framed maritime maps and Colonial drawings, dark wood, and lots of leather—clearly designed for businessmen. But the view of the boats on Boston Harbor was endlessly fascinating to Susannah and Meghan. (From mid-May to October, harbor tours leave from Rowes Wharf right outside). And the kids got a sense of Boston's Anglophilia by indulging in Sunday tea. A seven-minute water shuttle runs between the airport and the hotel (617/439-3131 for information; $10, kids under 12 free). It's a cool way to avoid traffic and get a great first view of the city.
Charles Hotel 1 Bennett St., Cambridge; 800/882-1818 or 617/864-1200, fax 617/864-5715; doubles from $249. The upside to this hotel is the location—right near Harvard Square, which is full of enticements for kids. The drawback: the Charles shares its pool with a health club, and there are restricted hours for children—a very unpopular concept in our group. But the young ones were forgiving when they discovered the other amenities: board games, the reliable Nintendo, and a VCR with kids' videos. Best of all, each guest room has a great set-up for a cozy bedtime: down comforters and telephones programmed with "Children's Storyline," narrated tales that can be heard over the phone's speaker.
Hilton Boston Back Bay 40 Dalton St.; 800/874-0663 or 617/236-1100, fax 617/867-6104; doubles from $255. The name of the game here is Vacation Station, the hotel's offering to kids: they can check out computer, card, and board games, as well as toys (Legos, cars, dolls) from a lending library by the pool. Guests under 12 get a free backpack.
Westin Copley Place Boston 10 Huntington Ave.; 800/937-8461 or 617/262-9600, fax 617/424-7483. The family junior suite ($239 per night) has childproofed rooms and includes membership in the Kids Club for children ages one to nine. Their privileges?Coloring books and crayons, tub toys, plastic dinosaurs, and access to the Disney Channel. Nearby is the Prudential Center, with its 50th-floor observation deck.
Royal Sonesta Hotel Boston 5 Cambridge Pkwy., Cambridge; 800/766-3782 or 617/491-3600, fax 617/806-4232. The Sonesta's rooms and restaurants are pleasantly comfortable, if unremarkable. But there's a nice pool and great views of the sailboats and sculls on the Charles, and the Museum of Science is only a short walk away. A $189, Friday- or Saturday-night family package includes entry to the Museum of Science or the Aquarium.
SPLURGE Four Seasons 200 Boylston St., Boston; 800/332-3442 or 617/338-4400, fax 617/423-0154; doubles from $325. According to Susannah, the ideal hotel provides each guest with a pool the length of 14 bathtubs. Also, the beds should resemble clouds. Soon after we checked into our suite here, the staff wheeled in two plush cots that passed Susannah's inspection, thanks to a loophole: they at least felt like clouds. As for the private pool, she forgave its absence when she discovered the hotel's supply of board games, Nintendo, Legos, balloons, and stuffed animals, along with bread crumbs for feeding the ducks at the Public Garden, across from the hotel. There was also food for kids, including dishes of M&M's and chocolate-chip cookies. Besides, the staff had laid out miniature terry robes, which carried the promise of a visit to the hotel's indoor rooftop pool.
SPLURGE Ritz-Carlton 15 Arlington St., Boston; 800/241-3333 or 617/536-5700, fax 617/536-9340, doubles from $325. The Ritz's Junior Presidential Suite ($725, including breakfast for four) is the most over-the-top kids' getaway in town. They'll play with F.A.O. Schwarz toys and Nintendo games, get creative in the arts and crafts area, grab a snack out of their own fridge, then fall asleep under glow-in-the-dark stars in tot-size trundle beds. But first they'll brush their teeth at a two-foot-high sink (there's a taller one for older kids) and take a bath in a tub resembling a circus tent. Warning: After a taste of this luxury, your kids might expect their own car and driver.
The best collection of travel literature on Boston and New England can be found at the Globe Corner Bookstore , in Boston's Back Bay (500 Boylston St.; 617/859-8008) and in Harvard Square (28 Church St., Cambridge; 617/497-6277). Some titles to look out for:
Boston Handbook by Jeff Perk (Moon Publications)—The all-around guidebook of choice, with lots of detail.
TripBuilder Boston (TripBuilder)—The most convenient short guide available. Includes a handy foldout map, and a subway map on the back cover.
Kidding Around: Boston by Helen Byers (John Muir Publications)—A workbook/game book for children 10 and under who want to learn the history of the city.
A Kid's Guide to Boston's Freedom Trail by Jane and Gary Ferguson, Lita and Mike Ebersole (GCBA Publishing)—Coloring .
Kids Explore Boston by Susan D. Moffat (Bob Adams, Inc.)—Oversimplified but helpful summaries of Boston's many sights, along with photos, designed to help harried parents decide what to do and what to skip.
By Ella, age 10, and Ned, age 9
Peter Panic performs in Harvard Square most evenings when the weather is mild. He can balance a grocery cart on his chin while juggling and cycling.
Curious George Goes to Wordsworth (1 JFK St.; 617/498-0062) is our favorite bookstore. The people there know everything about chapter books, and make good suggestions.
Cardullo's Gourmet Shoppe (6 Brattle St.; 617/491-8888) has the most beautiful candies. Please beware that sometimes they are too beautiful to eat!
Billings & Stover (41A Brattle St.; 617/547-0502) is a nice little drugstore, and a very good place to buy fudge. We like the chocolate-mint and chocolate-orange flavors. They also sell great hairbrushes.
La Flamme (21 Dunster St.; 617/354-8377) is the place we recommend if you have to get a haircut. The barbers are quick and know how to do any kind of cut. As usual, you get a lollipop if you are a kid.
Harvard Museum of Natural History (26 Oxford St.; www.hmnh.harvard.edu 617/495-3045) has whale bones—we love to sketch them. There are a lot of real animals that were killed and stuffed, and it's cool to find the ones from the book series Redwall, like the stoat.
The Learningsmith (25 Brattle St.; 617/661-6008) has tons and tons of toys. They let kids try computer games while their parents read about them, so everybody is content.
This waterfront construction project—technically called the "depression of the Central Artery"—aims to move more than seven miles of highway underground and replace the existing surface roads with a network of parks, all by 2004. The Big Dig is a nightmare for anyone with adult concerns such as getting from one place to another, but for kids it's a cool sideshow. They're thrilled by the giant cranes, dump trucks, and unfinished overpasses that end in midair. There's an exhibition on the project at the Museum of Science, where a make-believe elevator ride leads to the "harbor tunnel" and a 3-D video of subterranean work sites.
On summer Sundays a tree-lined stretch of Memorial Drive , running along the Charles River between Harvard and Central Squares in Cambridge, is closed to traffic. Ned and Ella join the crowds to ride their bikes and skateboards here; they often rent in-line skates from vans parked along the river.
There's no need to choose "One if by land, two if by sea" on the Boston Duck Tours . Jack loves to do both—that is, take a ride in a World War II-era amphibious landing vehicle that drives straight into the Charles River. (Departs from the Prudential Center, Boylston St.; 617/723-3825; April-November.)
It's a little hokey to heave a make-believe bale of tea off the Boston Tea Party Ship (Congress St. Bridge; 617/338-1773; open March-November), only to hoist it back up by a chain. But it's a lot of fun, and the lesson on the 1773 tea-tax protest is one even children can understand. The museum store has a fabulous selection of children's toys, books, and games related to the history of Boston.
Meghan adores the Swan Boats (617/522-1966) as much as her parents, and their parents—and even their parents—did. Since 1877 the boats have been pedaled around the Public Garden's lagoon, under beautiful weeping willows and around small islands inhabited by ducks.
Susannah gets bleacher seats to watch the Red Sox play at Fenway Park . When the Sox aren't playing, kids can tour the dugout, locker rooms, and VIP suites, and run on the warning track at the playing field. (4 Yawkey Way; tours 617/236-6666; season runs April-September.)