One if by land, two if by sea is Boston's most famous phrase, and this summer families should choose the latter for a fun, new way to see the city and its well-known landmarks, as well as learn about hidden gems and fascinating history.
Operating out of the city's legendary Long Wharf, Boston Harbor Cruises' Historic Sightseeing Cruise takes passengers on a 90-minute journey through Boston's inner and outer harbors. Sure, you've probably seen the city's sights on land, but viewing them from the water and hearing about their rich history yields a whole new perspective.
When you board the ship, head up to the top deck and grab a chair along either the port (left) or starboard (right) sides. This guarantees the best views (they're equally good) and easy access to the cruise guide, if you have questions.
Make sure everyone is wearing sturdy shoes with a good sole, as you're climbing two flights of somewhat narrow metal stairs. Another must: hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Even if it's cloudy, sunglasses will reduce glare off the water, and hats and sunscreen will protect you from the sun given there's no cover on the top deck. (If you opt for the lower or middle decks, which sport seats, tables, a snack bar, and bathrooms, you won't need sunscreen.) Also: Bring a sweatshirt. You'll find it cooler by the water, and it can get windy and chilly out in the harbor, even in the summer.
The cruise is led by a guide who narrates the trip, sharing historical, interesting, or downright funny tales about the city, its landmarks, and its inhabitants. Fascinating to tourists, the trip may be even more interesting for locals, who may not know much of the trivia and tales imparted. You'll hear stories of Revolution, pirates, and seafaring adventures, as well as background and fun facts about the Boston skyline, and buildings and neighborhoods ringing the harbor. As you pass Castle Island, look up: Chances are a plane will be flying low overhead heading for a landing at Logan Airport, a unique vantage point.
Leaving the inner harbor, the cruise heads out to the city's hidden jewel, The Boston Harbor Islands, a collection of 30+ islands that dot the area. Many are open to the public and sport a myriad of fun possibilities, including camping, a Civil War-era military fort, beaches, hikes, concerts, special events, and much more.
You'll learn where Bostonians hanged and buried pirates; which island is home to the nation's oldest lighthouse; which one was featured in a major motion picture; which one is overrun by rabbits; which islands are haunted; and which island, heaped with the city's trash, was set ablaze and burned for a decade.
The Historic Sightseeing Cruise sails by these treasures and shares just enough information to make you want to take your own trip and visit one with the kids at a later date. The islands, just a 45-minute cruise from the wharf, are part of the U.S. National Park Service, and a visitor center just outside Long Wharf on the Rose Kennedy Greenway offers maps, ferry schedules, and information from park rangers. Boston Harbor Cruises also offers direct sailings to several of the islands May through October.
Once the sightseeing cruise reaches the edges of the outer harbor, it turns around and heads back to the inner harbor, where you'll pass the U.S.S. Constitution, and get a whole new look at the TD Garden, Zakim Bridge, Old North Church, and the North End, before returning to Long Wharf. The Historic Sightseeing Cruise costs $28.95 per adult, $26.95 for ages 65+, and $25.95 for children 3-11. BHC also offers whale watch excursions, sunset and brunch cruises, and other sailings centered around special events.
Another benefit to this cruise is its location: Long Wharf is in the heart of the city's tourist offerings, so there's a lot more to do if you've got the energy and time. Right next door is the venerable New England Aquarium. BHC offers a cruise/aquarium combo ticket package, or if you want to catch some free fun, head to the 42,000-gallon Atlantic Harbor Seals Exhibit, located outside the aquarium on the front plaza. Open 24-7 and free, you can visit the seals anytime, watching them swim and play.
Parallel to the wharf is the 1.5-mile Rose Kennedy Greenway, which replaced the expressway that once cut straight through the city, the land converted into parks and public spaces in conjunction with the Big Dig. On weekends, there's usually a special event, fair, and food trucks along the route, and there's always the Carousel ($3 per ride) and fountains where the kids can cool down.
And just a 5-minute stroll from Long Wharf is the hub of Boston tourism, Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market. It's a convenient place for a plethora of food and shopping options, as well as its famed street performers, who offer free, one-of-a-kind, outdoor shows. This year's lineup includes contortionists, jugglers, unicyclists, magicians, acrobats, comedians, pogo stick and yo-yo masters, and more.