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Beacon Hill Travel Guide

Boston in the Spring

The Beacon Hill neighborhood is characterized by its elegant townhouses, narrow streets, tall shade trees, and gas lights, all of which give the city a graceful, turn-of-the-century look. In the late 17th century, however, Beacon Hill was known as a wild no-man’s land. Back then, the neighborhood was called Trimount and was referred to as Mount Whoredom by Bostonians. All that changed, however, in 1798 when the State House was built in Beacon Hill. Wealthy families rushed to build Federal mansions and elegant Greek Revival houses. Today, the neighborhood remains one of the most sought-after districts in which to live.[1]

Visitors who walk down the bumpy sidewalks of Beacon Hill are reminded of a more peaceful, bygone era. They are surrounded by an oasis of fine period architecture that are within a stone’s throw of the hustle and bustle of Boston.[2] The Greek Revival townhouses, the gas-lit lamps, the cobblestone streets, narrow brick sidewalks, and the brick Federal-style buildings with their wooden shutters and wrought iron balconies all appear as they did in the 19th century. Many of the houses have graceful bay windows classic Adam fireplaces, which passer-bys can glimpse if not blocked by the tall trees.[3]

Christmas is the perfect time to see Beacon Hill. Carolers stroll the neighborhood, a continuing holiday tradition for years. The ambience is very much 19th century that you’d almost expect to bump into Longfellow or Whittier. Charles Street and Acorn Street are two narrow and cobblestoned passageways you don’t want to miss. Both are lined with galleries, coffee houses, and chic shops.[4]

Beacon Street
Beacon Street at the Boston Common is the best place to start any tour of the Beacon Hill neighborhood. The Bulfinch-designed twin mansions at numbers 39 and 40 play host to Boston’s Women’s City Club. On some guided tours, visitors can enter some of the Greek Revival homes to explore the interiors, but only by appointment. Another interesting feature about Beacon Hill are the “purple glass” windows of the homes. The impurities found in the imported English glass would react with the sunlight and form a distinctive purple color.[5]

Public Garden
The Public Garden was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed New York City’s Central Park. It is located southeast of the corner of Beacon Street and Arlington near the Boston Common.[6] The current lake in the Public Garden used to be surrounded by salt marshes, but was gradually transformed with the help of Olmsted who helped plant flower gardens, shrubs, neat lawns, and trees and paved pedestrian paths to link all the elements together. The renowned Swan Boats were added in 1877 and have become the most popular feature of the Gardens, offering trips on the lake during the summer. The Swan Boats has become Boston’s special rite of spring – when they arrive in Spring after repairs and repainting during the winter.[7]

Cheers Tavern
Walking up Beacon Street past Arlington Street and Brimmer Street is the Bull & Finch Pub to one’s left. This is located in the Hampshire House and is known as the “Cheers” tavern featured on the TV show. The pub downstairs remains a huge tourist attraction in Boston, despite the show having ended more than a decade ago.[8]

The Athenaeum is the jewel of Boston’s library system. It is located on Beacon Street close to the State House and contains numerous historical documents of value on display. The Athenaeum building is also an architectural treasure.[9]

Mount Vernon Street
Mount Vernon street is located north of Beacon Street on Spruce, past old servants’ houses. It is the most beautiful street in Beacon Hill[10] and contains some of the finest houses in Boston.[11]

Nichols House Museum
The Nichols House Museum is an 1804 building designed by architect Bulfinch. It sports the typical Beacon Hill architecture from its heyday and is lavished on the inside with period furniture and period décor. Besides the Nichols House, there are very few other private homes in the neighborhood that are open to visitors.[12]

Louisburg Square
The Louisburg Square is located off Mount Vernon Street and exudes the traditional Boston-style charm. This square features private ornate homes that Bostonians dream they can one day buy. The author of Little Women, Louisa May Alcott, and novelist William Dean Howells both lived here. Howells’ book, The Rise of Silas Lapham, touches on the lifestyle of Boston’s wealthy during the mid-20th century.[13] Only residents with homes facing the square are allowed to use it. The private park is enclosed by a wrought iron fence and surrounded by beautiful Greek Revival townhouses.

On Christmas Eve, this secluded park plays host to a longstanding tradition of Christmas caroling. Also of note is the free-standing mansion at #85. This house was only the second mansion designed by Harrison Gray Otis and Charles Bulfinch and is the street’s only free-standing mansion. It is also worth visiting Chestnut Street, located parallel to Mount Vernon. It is a charming street, although less grand.[14]

African Meeting House
The African Meeting House located at 8 Smith Court is America’s oldest black church.[15]

Museum of Afro-American History
The Museum of Afro-American History located at 46 Joy Street is where the Black Heritage Trail begins. This walking tour traces the historical contributions of Boston’s African Americans.[16]

Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities is located across from the North slope of Beacon Hill at 141 Cambridge Street. It is worth visiting solely for its house, which was the first one built by Charles Bulfinch; he was commissioned by Harrison Gray Otis. This elegant mansion is open to the public and is decorated to appear as it did in the early years of the republic. It is both a museum and the headquarters for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.[17]

Bond, Richard. The Insider’s Guide to New England. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc., 1992. ISBN: 1556504551.

Chase, Suzi Forbes, and Ann Lee. New England. New York: Macmillan General Reference, 1994. ISBN: 0671878999.

[1] Bond, 35
[2] Id. at 36
[3] Chase, 133-34
[4] Bond, 37
[5] Id. at 36
[6] Chase, 134
[7] Id. at 143
[8] Id. at 134
[9] Id.
[10] Bond, 36
[11] Chase, 134
[12] Bond, 36
[13] Id.
[14] Chase, 135
[15] Id. at 137
[16] Id.
[17] Id. at 137-38

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