Few cities juxtapose old and new like this city on the Charles River does, with modern skyscrapers soaring amid street after brick-sidewalked street of 18th- and 19th-century townhouses and historic sites.
Another plus: In a city where driving is a contact sport and public transportation takes you everywhere worth visiting, a cah (sorry, car) isn't really necessary. The best way to see this beautiful town is on foot, so bring comfortable shoes and - since Boston's streets are notoriously confusing - a good map or GPS device. Herewith, an itinerary for a three-day weekend that will show you the best of what Boston has to offer.
If you arrive at Boston's Logan Airport, take the "T" (the region's public transit system) to your hotel (cabs are quite expensive, especially after you pay tolls and airport fees, even though the airport is very close to the city proper). Long known for only having a few grand dame hotels worth mentioning (e.g., The Ritz Carlton, now a Taj property, and the recently renovated Fairmont Copley Plaza), the city has seen a lodging boom in recent years. One of my favorites is Fifteen Beacon, the city's first luxury boutique hotel, but several budget choices have popped up, including several new Kimpton properties, such as Nine Zero and the Onyx. (Beware that hotel rates skyrocket during convention, college homecoming, graduation and leaf-peeping periods, so try to avoid visiting then).
Once settled, I suggest a walk. Indeed, if all you do is stroll Boston's historic neighborhoods, that is reason enough to visit, but, of course, there's much more to do and see. Start at the corner of Beacon and Charles streets, at the foot of Beacon Hill. Feel free to pop into the many unusual shops along this gas-lit thoroughfare, but our first official stop is cobblestoned Louisburg Square, perhaps Boston's most beautiful street, "the cynosure of historic Boston's plain-spoken, cold roast elite, the Hub of the Hub of the Universe!" in the words of poet Robert Lowell, so take a right on Mt. Vernon Street and climb the hill. Among the notable residents of this beautiful square, past and present, are U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Louisa May Alcott, who put pen to paper at No. 10.
Continue on to 55 Mt. Vernon Street, and tour the Nichols house Museum (that rarity of rarities, a Beacon Hill townhouse open to the public), former home of Rose Nichols - writer, landscape architect, and niece of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose moving Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, made famous by Lowell in his poem "For the Union Dead" (http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/for-the-union-dead/), is cast in bronze nearby at the corner of Beacon and Park streets.
But Mt. Vernon Street's real architectural stars are the Charles Bullfinch-designed Second Harrison Gray Otis House (1802) at No. 85 and the Stephen Higginson House next door at No. 87, both now in private hands. Taking a right on Walnut and another down Chestnut, stop to admire Nos. 13, 15, and 17, all Bullfinch designs. Turn right again onto Willow, then left onto much-photographed, impossibly charming Acorn Street with its heel-wrenching cobblestones. Back at Charles Street, stroll through the serene Public Garden (stopping, perhaps, for a ride on the iconic Swan Boats if they're in operation during your visit), and in a southwesterly direction head toward Arlington Street and the Back Bay.
Next, climb to the 50th floor of the unlovely Prudential Tower for a sweeping, 360-degree view of Greater Boston and beyond (a similar observatory at the top of the John Hancock Tower was closed after the 9/11 attacks, with the owners citing security concerns).
Nearby, in Copley Square, peek inside the Boston Public Library (1895), the United States' seventh largest. Upstairs on the third floor of the McKim Building you'll find the Sargent Gallery. John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), celebrated for his society portraits, considered these seldom-visited murals his masterpiece, and today they remain one of urban America's true hidden treasures.
Lunch awaits at Legal Sea Foods in the Copley Square mall. The first outpost of this now-famous empire was established across the river in Cambridge in 1968, and although there are now locations along the Eastern Seaboard, management hasn't lost its focus on freshness and continues to win "best clam chowder" and other awards. (When I'm feeling naughty, I go for the whole-bellied New England fried clams slathered in tartar sauce; but more sensibly, I stick with the baked Boston scrod).
Walk off any calories you've accumulated by strolling toward the river to Beacon Street to visit another of Boston's hidden gems, The Gibson House museum. Scion of a distinguished Boston Brahmin family, Charles Gibson belonged to the city's most exclusive clubs, and indeed the six-story Victorian house that bears his family's name looks so lived-in that one can't help thinking the old boy has just popped out for a bite of scrod and Boston baked beans at some members-only enclave. This unique setting is the closest any of us will ever get to experiencing life in a Back Bay mansion in the days when the Lodges spoke only to the Cabots - or was it the other way around?
Complete your walking tour of the Back Bay by heading west along Commonwealth Avenue. Winston Churchill thought this 240-foot-wide boulevard, with its leafy center mall, to be one of the world's most beautiful. Modeled after Baron Haussmann's Parisian thoroughfares, no wonder the French Consulate feels at home here at No. 3. Then head east along gas-lit Marlborough Street through one of America's loveliest urban neighborhoods, admiring the multi-million-dollar townhouses dating from the 19th century.
You've earned the calories you'll be savoring at Mistral, tonight's dinner venue. Boston's culinary scene has come a long way since the days of the bean and the cod, and this buzzing, high-energy restaurant, under the supervision of chef/ owner Jamie Mammano, is one of the reasons.
With dozens of great museums, Boston is a culture maven's delight. The best best-known and most worthwhile are the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Take the "T" E train for a ride on America's first (1897) subway and alight at the MFA. Particularly strong here is the collection of French impressionists - including the largest trove of Monets outside of France - and the American masterpieces by Copley, Homer, Cassat and Whistler. After a morning of wandering through the galleries, have brunch at Bravo, the museum's fine-dining restaurant (the crab cakes are delicious, and the wine list outstanding if a bit pricey).
Then it's on to the much smaller, but no less impressive, Gardner, a short walk along the Fenway, dating from 1899 and built in the style of a 15th-century Venetian palace. Once the home of Boston socialite Isabella Stewart Gardner, today it houses more than 2,500 works of art spanning 30 centuries, including masterpieces by Raphael, Manet, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Sargent. Step into the peaceful courtyard, take afternoon tea in the café.
You've done enough walking today, so take a cab to dinner at Menton, local culinary star Barbara Lynch's latest effort. Along with fellow native Lydia Shire, Lynch has revolutionized Boston dining (her other local hot spots are No. 9 Park in Beacon Hill and the more casual B&G Oysters in the South End). But Menton, located in the once-desolate Fort Point Channel neighborhood, is perhaps her best yet. The menus (a four-course prix fixe and a seven-course chef's tasting) change frequently.