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Freedom Trail Travel Guide

Boston is a city best explored by walking the Freedom Trail, a three-mile (five kilometer) tour through paths laid out by the National Park Service. Meandering through the city and crossing the river into Charlestown, the path passes through about 16 major historic buildings and sites from the Revolutionary War era. It also runs past several different neighborhoods that give the city its personality: the “Old Boston” section of Beacon Hill, the Italian North End, and the Irish community in Charlestown. Signposts are everywhere and the sidewalks are painted red to point tourists in the right direction, so you don’t have to worry about getting lost. The trail takes about half a day to complete, but if you want to go at a leisurely pace, it’ll take an entire day.[1]

The best place to start the Freedom Trail tour is at the information kiosk, which is off Tremont Street on the Boston Common. You’ll find a number of vendors here hawking souvenirs and Boston memorabilia. There are also the typical ice-cream, hot-dogs, and candy food carts. You can grab a map of the Trail inside the kiosk as well as brochures and info about Boston’s other attractions.[2]

Boston Common
The Boston Common is along the red line of the Freedom Trail. It is a beautiful 45-acre (18-hectare) park purchased originally by the Puritan city fathers in 1634 for $150. It was initially used for feeding cattle and as a militia training field. Even now, the Common is still legally designated for these purposes.

The Common has long been a source of pride for the city despite being used originally for public punishments and hangings. The Puritans even built a pillory which they used to make an example out of transgressors. The first victim of the pillory was the very carpenter who built it; he was accused of overcharging for his work.[3]

In the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Boston Common was used by the British as an encampment before they embarked for Charlestown. Today, you’ll find statues, gurgling fountains, hilly knolls, and winding paths everywhere. The park is a popular place for office workers at noon. They stroll throught the open space and settle down to eat their lunch. There are also outdoor concerts in the summers.[4]

Unfortunately, much like most other urban parks in the U.S., the Common is considerably less appealing at night when drunkards and panhandlers are everywhere, although you’ll still see them in the daytime. Be careful with your wallets and valuables as there are a number of working pickpockets.[5]

State House
The State House is located along the Freedom Trail across Beacon Street. It was completed in 1795, based on the design of Charles Bulfinch. Originally, the State House belonged to John Hancock. The house sits atop a hill with its golden dome gleaming like a beacon, hence the neighborhood’s name “Beacon Hill”. Archives of valuable historic documents are found inside the house. Inside, you’ll find the original Charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[6]

Park Street Church
The lovely Park Street Church is located across the street from the Boston Common. Its tall 217-foot steeple has been a familiar landmark of Boston ever since it was completed in 1809. It was here where abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison gave his first anti-slavery speech[7] and where the hymn of America was first sung.[8]

Old Granary Burying Ground
The Old Granary Burying Ground is located next to the Park Street Church. It is named after the 17th century granary that once stood on the spot. It was established in 1660 and contains the graves of a number of famous Americans, including John Hancock, who signed the Declaration of Independence, Peter Faneuil, who gave the city Faneuil Hall, Revolutionary leader and orator Samuel Adams, and the revolutionary Paul Revere. Many victims of the Boston Massacre also rest in this cemetery. Mary “Mother” Goose, who composed nursery rhymes for her grandchildren is also interred here.[9]

King’s Chapel
The King’s Chapel, which was completed in 1754, is farther up the Trail at School and Tremont Streets and holds the title as the first Anglican church in New England. Prior to the revolution, the church was given gifts of vestments and silver from King George III and Queen Anne. Next to the church is the old cemetery where John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of the colony, is buried. The cemetery also contains the grave of Elizabeth Pain, the 17th century woman accused of adultery and purportedly the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s , The Scarlet Letter. On School Street, you’ll find Boston’s first portrait statue – that of Benjamin Franklin.[10]

Old Corner Bookstore
The Old Corner Bookstore, located at School and Washington Streets, is notable for being the center of literary Boston during the 19th century. This red brick building dates back to 1712. Famous authors such as Longfellow, Emerson, and Hawthorne met in this building, spending time discussing literature. Today, it is a museum that houses newspapers and historical diaries. It also hosts a bookstore run by the Boston Globe.[11]

Old South Meeting House
Back in colonial Boston, the Old South Meeting House was the city’s largest building. Constructed in 1729, this plain, brick building was used as a meeting place in the early years before the Revolution. Men such as John Hancock and Samuel Adams would rally the people here against the British. The December 16th, 1773 meeting protested the new British tea tax, which led directly to the Boston Tea Party.[12] The interior of the building, aside from the pews, remains in its original form. The original pews were burned by the British during their occupation. The building at the time was used as a riding school. Today, the museum features a permanent multimedia exhibit that describes the events that occurred here. Included are speech recordings, sound effects, and wall projections that combine to give visitors a sense of history.[13]

Old State House
The Old State House, located in central downtown at State, Washington, and Court Streets, is overshadowed by the gigantic glass and steel towered Government Center. It was constructed in 1713 and served as the seat of the colony’s government. It was here that James Otis protested against unfair British regulations in 1761, which prompted John Adams to write “then and there, the child Independence was born.” Sure enough, the Declaration of Independence was signed and proclaimed by Bostonians from the Old State House’s east balcony on July 18, 1776. Outside the building, there is a circle of cobblestones that mark the site of the Boston Massacre. Engraved by Paul Revere, it has helped turn the Massacre into a key event in the Revolution against British rule.[14]

The Old State House today remains decorated with symbols of the English Crown. The unicorn and lion, for example, serve as a lasting reminder that, at one time, the House was the seat of the English government in North America.[15]

Dock Square
Dock Square is along the red line past the Old State House. It hosts food-stands, boutiques, markets, and a brick plaza.[16]

Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market
Located at Dock square is the Faneuil Hall. It is ironic that this Hall is called the “Cradle of Liberty” because it was originally donated to Boston in 1742 by Peter Faneuil, who was a Dutch slave trader. Later, however, Faneuil Hall became the meeting house for a number of vociferous protests against the colonial rule of the British.[17]

The Hall’s first floor has been used for years as a market, the Quincy Market. The stalls were once used to sell vegetables, fresh meat, and dairy products during colonial times but have now been converted into food booths, restaurants, boutique stands, and shops that cater to tourists. Everything from sandwiches, fresh fruit, beer, and donuts to postcards, 1930s sheet music, and old photographs of historic Boston are sold. There are also benches by the cobblestone courtyards where the flowers and trees help provide a welcomed place to rest. At Quincy, there are always street entertainers. You can also buy theatre tickets or symphony tickets to the Boston Pops.[18]

The most notable feature about Faneuil is the grasshopper weather-vane that sits at the top of the hall’s dome. Built in 1742, it is an excellent example of colonial artistry and was inspired by the weather vane atop London’s Royal Exchange Building. It is the only unmodified aspect of the original Faneuil Hall.[19]

From the Quincy Market, it is within walking distance to the waterfront where new hotels and apartments have sprung up, replacing the warehouses that had been there in former years.[20]

Haymarket Square
The Haymarket Square is an open-air food market where fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables are sold in booths. To reach the north end of the square, you can take the pedestrian underpass, which crosses the Fitzgerald Expressway.[21]

North End
The North End is Boston’s famed Italian neighborhood, known for its narrow and twisting streets. It is the city’s oldest neighborhood. This section of Boston was, in fact, all there was to the city back in the 19th century. It was not until landfill and reclamation projects expanded the city that Boston’s wealthy families moved out of the North End and immigrants moved in.[22]

Today, the North End is a vibrant part of town, lined with street-side restaurants that serve pizzas, pastas, and sausages. It is also where you’ll find two revered historic shrines that are a part of the Freedom Trail tour.[23]

Paul Revere’s Home
Paul Revere’s home in North Square is still as it was when he was alive. He and his family lived there from 1770 to 1800. The building was erected by a rich merchant on the same site as the Puritan minister Increase Mather’s burnt down home. Back in the day, it was a fashionable town house. Today, it is Boston’s oldest wooden house.[24]

Revere accomplished many things while living in this home; he participated in the Boston Tea Party, produced the Boston Massacre engraving, conducted secret revolutionary dispatches to Philadelphia, and took part in many other radical causes.[25]

His most famous act came on April 18, 1775, when he left his home, escaped the city in a rowboat, jumped onto a horse in Charlestown, and rode his way to Lexington to alert revolutionaries that the British were marching their way from Boston to seize weapons and munitions hidden in Concord.[26]

The inside of the home has been restored and many of Revere’s artifacts, including his silversmith work, saddlebags, and old rocking chair, have been restored and are on display.[27]

Old North Church
Located along Hull Street near the endpoint of Paul Revere Mall, the Old North Church played an important role in the Revolutionary War. American schoolchildren at the church would give either a signal of “one if by land and two if by sea” to warn revolutionaries about British invasions headed for Concord and Lexington. In April 1775, two lanterns were hung from the church’s highest windows to warn of British troop movements.[28]

The church’s white steeple, which stands 190 feet (58 meters) tall, has been a landmark of Boston for a long time. Built in 1723, it is the city’s oldest church. Pew 54 inside was occupied by Revere many times and belonged to his son. The bells of the church were the first made for the colonies and was cast in Gloucester, England. They sound every Sunday before church service.[29]

Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, located on Hull Street, is a graveyard that dates back to 1660, the site where some of Boston’s important early figures were buried, including Samuel Mather, Increase, Cotton, and revolutionary Daniel Malcolm who asked that “he be buried 10 feet deep, safe from British Musket Balls.” He got his wish, albeit the British soldiers got the last laugh. Six years after he was buried, the British used his tombstone for target practice. The marks on the tombstone can still be seen today.[30]

You’ll also find a British cannon at Copp’s Hill, the same cannon that was used in battle on Bunker Hill across the Charles River. From the hill, you can see the view that British General Burgoyne had when he was firing cannons at the revolutionaries.[31]

You can cross the Charlestown Bridge from Copp’s Hill, walk up Monument Avenue, and reach Bunker Hill. Alternatively, you can take Constitution Avenue along the waterfront and check out the SS Constitution, which is the oldest fighting ship of the U.S. Navy.[32]

Bunker Hill Monument
Bunker Hill Monument is a white granite obelisk standing 221 feet (67 meters) tall, erected to commemorate the soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill. It is located on Breed’s Hill where the clash occurred on June 17, 1775. Some 3,000 British troops and 1,200 American soldiers battled it out. The first British attempt was rebuffed and they had to bring in reinforcements twice.[33]

Eventually, the revolutionaries withdrew and General Prescott had to order a retreat when all ammunition had run out. All told, 140 Americans were killed, 271 were wounded and 30 captured, while the British suffered 226 deaths and 828 casualties.[34]

Despite the defeat, the Battle of Bunker Hill proved that the revolutionaries measured up well against British soldiers. General Washington remarked, “I am content. The liberties of the country are safe.”[35]

The Bunker Hill monument has an observation tower that offers great views of Boston, the islands, harbor, and the SS Constitution. There is no elevator, so you have to take 294 steps to get to the top.[36]

Bunker Hill Pavilion
The Bunker Hill Pavilion is located off Constitution Avenue on the Hoosac Pier. At the pavilion, you can watch an excellent presentation depicting the Battle of Bunker Hill and all the events surrounding it.[37]

Charlestown Navy Yard
The Charlestown Navy Yard is one of the country’s first naval shipyards built. Located along the harbor front, it is the end point of the Freedom Trail.[38]

The yard’s exhibits encompass over 200 years of maritime history. The starting point of the tour should begin at the Visitor Information Center where you can watch a 10 minute slide show and receive information about guided walking tours.[39]

During the 19th century, the yard serviced, built, and supplied ships to the Navy. The shipways were cluttered with equipment and workers crowded the dry docks and rope walks. In WWII, the yard reached peak operations, employing over 50,000 men and women to build and repair an unprecedented number of vessels. One ship on display is the SS Cass in Young. This destroyer was built at the navy yard and saw extensive action during the war.[40]

Other attractions include the Maritime Society Museum, the Commandant’s House, the 1833 dry dock, which is one of the first of its kind in the U.S., and Pier 1, which is one of the original 11 wharves in the country that serviced ships. The highlight of the navy yard, however, is the SS Constitution. The warship is the oldest commission by the Navy. Congress authorized its construction in 1794 when it ordered the building of six new frigates. The SS Constitution was one of them. This 44-gun warship was actually not constructed at the Charlestown Navy Yard but at the nearby Hartt’s Shipyard. It launched in 1797.[41]

The SS Constitution accomplished many feats in its time. It sailed the ocean, policing Barbary pirates. It fought in the War of 1812, engaging in 40 battles without losing a single one. One British sailor shouted “Her sides are made of iron!” after watching cannon shots bounce off the ship’s planking, thus giving the ship its nickname “Old Ironsides”.[42]

Today, the SS Constitution remains a commissioned warship. It still has a crew, but their main duty is to take passengers on tours of the ship. Visitors can tour the spar deck where the huge cannons fire shells weighing 32 pounds (15 kg), the gun deck where there are thirty long guns weighing 24 pounds, the below decks where the captain’s quarters are, and the berthing deck where the hammocks provided make-shift beds for the crew. At the back end, you’ll find the ship’s wheel, which takes four men to control. The ropes take you to the “fighting tops” or masts where the sailors used to position themselves to fire at enemy ships.[43]

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, 31
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id. at 31-32
[5] Id. at 32
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Chase, 138
[9] Bond, 32
[10] Id. at 32-33
[11] Chase, 138
[12] Bond, 33
[13] Chase, 139
[14] Bond, 33
[15] Chase, 139
[16] Bond, 33
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Chase, 141-42
[21] Bond, 33
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id. at 33-34
[25] Id. at 34
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Id.
[29] Id.
[30] Id.
[31] Id.
[32] Id.
[33] Id.
[34] Id.
[35] Id.
[36] Id. at 34-35
[37] Id. at 35
[38] Id.
[39] Id.
[40] Id.
[41] Id.
[42] Id.
[43] Id.

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