Introduction to Boston’s Beacon Hill Neighborhood
No neighborhood in Boston gets more press than Beacon Hill. As home to the Massachusetts State House, the term Beacon Hill is synonymous with the governor’s office and the state legislature. But politics aside, Beacon Hill is one of Boston’s most beautiful and sought-after neighborhoods. Not only is it centrally located and within a few minute’s walk to Boston Common, but the narrow, gas-lit streets with their Federal style row houses give off a charm reminiscent of the early US. It’s like taking a time machine back to the 1790s.
Beacon Hill was originally one of the three hills of Trimount, the original name for Boston. The other two were Mount Vernon and Pemberton Hill. The land along the slopes of the hill was used as pasture land throughout the 17th and most of the 18th centuries. The land was known as Beacon Hill due to the large signaling beacon that was established at the crest. The beacon consisted of a tall, wooden pole with a tar bucket suspended from the top that would be ignited in the event of an attack or other disaster. Shortly after the American Revolution, the established neighborhoods in the city were unable to handle the growing population and the area was slated for development. A group called the Mount Vernon Proprietors was hired to make the improvements and one of their members, Charles Bulfinch, laid out the initial street plan for what was to become the neighborhood. Bulfinch would later go on to design the new Massachusetts State House, which was completed in 1798.
Along with all of this development, the original tar-bucket beacon pole became obsolete and was dismantled. However, Bostonians wanted to keep the memory of the beacon alive. In 1790, Bulfinch designed and erected a monument at the top of Beacon Hill to commemorate the original signaling pole. Unfortunately, shortly after the monument was erected, Beacon Hill began to get cut down from its original height of 138 feet to its current 80-foot peak. The earth was moved by horse and buggy down the hill and used to fill in the old Mill Pond, which had become stagnant. As a result, the monument was taken down and re-built behind the statehouse. Only the slate panels at the base of the monument are original pieces from the monument that Bulfinch erected.
Throughout the 19th century, Beacon Hill attracted the more established and wealthier residents who were leaving the older neighborhoods such as the North End. In particular, the southern slope of the hill that faces Boston Common featured large residential homes and mansions that were built for the Boston elite. Notable residents included Walden author Henry David Thoreau, statesman Daniel Webster, and Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women.
Meanwhile, at the same time, the north side of Beacon Hill housed working-class Bostonians including a growing population of free African Americans. This particular section of the hill became an important part of the Underground Railroad, the network of clandestine safe houses and travel routes used by slaves and abolitionist accomplices to escape to the northern free states. The neighborhood even had an organized group called the Vigilance Committee that would know in advance of an escapee’s arrival and arrange for food, shelter, and employment. White folks were also united in their abolitionist views and Beacon Hill became an important catalyst for the anti-slavery sentiment that preceded the Civil War.
Major development throughout Boston at the beginning of the 20th century was a threat to the historic nature of Beacon Hill, and the Beacon Hill Association was organized in 1922 to ensure that any new development was in keeping with the character of the neighborhood. Brick walkways and gas-lit streetlights remain to this day due to preservation efforts.
Boston Common has the honor of being the nation’s oldest public park. Consisting of 50 acres of green space, the Common features monuments, a gazebo/bandstand, ball fields, a children’s playground, and Frog Pond that is used for cooling off in the summer and ice skating in the winter. Although relatively small by city park standards (for comparison, Central Park in New York is 843 acres, while Piedmont Park in Atlanta is 189 acres), Boston Common is a must-see feature of your visit. You won’t need to plan out your arrival, though. With the park being so centrally located between Beacon Hill, Downtown Crossing/Chinatown, and the Back Bay, you are likely to bump into it in the course of your walk. And although you certainly do not need to visit the sites in order, Boston Common is the first stop on Boston’s Freedom Trail. Near the visitor center and in the northeast section of the park, you may find tour groups led by guides in period costumes discussing the historic sites and history within the park.
Boston Common was established in 1634 when it was purchased by the city and designated as common land where residents could graze their livestock. The space evolved into a common gathering area and soon featured such Puritan entertainment such as a whipping post, stocks and pillory, and a hanging tree for taking the lives of pirates, murderers, Quakers, and accused witches. In later years, the park was used as a British training field during the military occupation of Boston prior to the American Revolution. British troops assembled on the Common prior to their departure for the Battles of Lexington and Concord on April 18, 1775.
Today, you can emerge from the Park Street T stop (the oldest subway station in the nation), grab a hot dog or pretzel from the food carts, and walk through the park or kick off your shoes and rest for a while.
There is a public bathroom located at the Boston Common Visitor Center (click for map) on the Tremont Street side of the Common. Some of the more prominent features of Boston Common are listed below.
Robert Gould Shaw & 54th Volunteer Infantry Monument
The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry was a fighting regiment during the American Civil War and was the second African-American unit in military service. Although the enlisted men were free men of color, the unit was commanded and led by white officers. The 54th deployed in 1863 and saw action in South Carolina and Florida.
Their story is most famously told in the 1989 film, Glory, starring Matthew Broderick as commanding officer Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington also star in the film as volunteer Soldiers.
If you would like to learn more about the 54th Regiment and the features of Boston Common, you may purchase the Knockabout Boston Audio Tour by clicking below.
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Soldiers and Sailors Monument
Located centrally in Boston Common, this monument commemorates all of the service members who perished during the American Civil War.
Frog Pond is not really a pond, but a shallow, man-made wading pool where kids can splash around in the summer months. But it is mostly known for hosting ice skating sessions during the winter. Skate rentals are available on-site.
Earl of Sandwich
There are plenty of amazing restaurants within throwing distance of Boston Common, but if you just want to hang out here and grab a sandwich and bag of chips, then this is the place. Located on the grounds of Boston Common, this sandwich franchise serves up hot and cold subs, wraps, soups, salads, and a small kids menu.
Boston Public Garden
Swan boats have been. a popular activity in the Public Garden since 1877. Photo courtesy of MA Office of Travel & Tourism, CC BY-ND 2.0
Often lumped together with Boston Common, the Public Garden sits directly across Charles Street and comprises 24 acres of more formally landscaped green space. It can be considered the gateway to the Back Bay neighborhood, but given its close association with Boston Common, we will consider it part of Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
The Public Garden was established in 1837 after the mudflats on which the garden now sits was filled. One of the prominent features of the Public Garden is the 4-acre pond that is home to many ducks and swans. In the summer months, Swan Boat Rides are offered for a fee.
Other often photographed features are the grand statue of George Washington mounted on his horse, and in stark contrast, the bronze row of ducklings from the classic children’s picture book Make Way For Ducklings. If you have small children, this book makes a great bedtime story in anticipation of or following your visit to the Public Garden.
Massachusetts State House
The gold-domed statehouse serves as the hub of state government in Massachusetts. It is home to the Governor’s office as well as the state legislature. The actual goings-on within the statehouse may not be something that you wish to concern yourself with, especially if you are an out-of-state visitor; however, the building itself has some architectural and historical significance that you may wish to check out while you are in the neighborhood.
Boston is often referred to as “the Hub”, but the origin of that expression actually refers to a single building – the Massachusetts State House. Originally used in an article for The Atlantic magazine in 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes describes the structure:
“The Boston State House is the Hub of the solar system. You couldn’t pry that out of a Boston man, even if you had the tire of all creation straightened out for a crowbar.”
The statehouse was designed in 1798 by Charles Bulfinch, the architect that also laid out the streets of the Beacon Hill neighborhood. The dome of the statehouse was originally made of exposed wood, but covered in copper in 1802 by Paul Revere’s copper company. In 1874, the dome was gilded with gold, giving the building a more stately appearance. This lasted until World War II when it was painted black to disguise it as a target during any potential German aerial bombardment. Then in 1997, the dome was again gilded in 23k gold, giving the structure its current appearance.
Tours of the statehouse are approximately 30-45 minutes in length and are given Monday-Friday. Tours may be guided or self-guided. Should you wish to take the guided tour, advance reservations are necessary.
Park Street Church
Another site on the Freedom Trail, Park Street Church is an active Congregational house of worship. The church was built upon the city’s grain storage facility, or granary, and was completed in 1809. The church was once known as “Brimstone Corner” and that was not because of the sermons warning of eternal damnation. No, it was the mass storage of gunpowder that earned the church that moniker. During the War of 1812, the state militia stored a large quantity of the explosive powder under the church to protect it from British bombardment.
Several years later, the church again was involved in another defining moment in national history – the abolitionist movement. Historically, Boston was an early adopter of the anti-slavery movement, and it was here in 1829 that William Lloyd Garrison, one of the more renowned publishers and abolitionist thinkers of the day, gave his speech stating that there was no legal or religious justification for the preservation of slavery. Possibly more compelling was his proposition that non-slaveholding states were “constitutionally involved in the guilt of slavery” as a national problem and were obligated to “assist in its overthrow.”
It was also at this church in 1831 that church Sunday school children first performed the Patriotic tune America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee).
The church building itself is an impressive work of architecture. The steeple stands at 217 feet tall and was the tallest building in the nation from 1810 to 1828. Park Street Church is located adjacent to Boston Common. Although Park Street Church is a stop on the Freedom Trail, it is still an active church and is best appreciated from the exterior.
Granary Burying Ground
Being one of the oldest cities in America, Boston has some old cemeteries, for sure. But the Granary Burying Ground may be the most significant. Named after the grain storage facility that once stood next door, this location serves as the final resting place for many notable early Americans. The burying ground was established in 1660, making it Boston’s fifth oldest cemetery, and is estimated to hold approximately 5,000 bodies. However, there are only 2,300 grave markers. The burying ground, you see, was originally part of Boston Common, and the grazing cattle that initially occupied the park doubled as the groundskeeping crew. In the mid 19th century, the tombstones were rearranged into neat rows to facilitate the use of new technology – the lawnmower. In the process of reorganization, the names of more than half of the cemetery’s residents have been lost to history.
There are many names that you will recognize in the Granary Burying Ground. Notables include Patriots Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere. There is also a tomb that houses the remains of Benjamin Franklin’s family members, although Franklin himself is buried in Philadelphia. Crispus Attucks and the other four victims of the Boston Massacre are buried here as well.
This is a very popular site for visitors and some of the grave markers make excellent photographs. This site is part of the Walk Into History tours that are offered by the official Freedom Trail Foundation.
This short street is one of the last places in America to feature actual cobblestones lining the road. Sure, you’ve been down a cobblestone street before, but that was likely made of quarried granite, flattened to make it easier for driving or walking. Acorn Street is the original product, small boulders called “cobs” that were dug up and removed in colonial days in order to farm the land. The rocks were then laid out to form streets. But be warned, it gets a bit bumpy here, and as you are walking, it’s not hard to imagine even horses twisting ankles here back in the day.
Acorn Street is for strolling and taking pictures. It is the most photographed street in Boston and you will find yourself wanting to take a few snaps of your own as you wander. The row houses on Acorn Street are some of the most prestigious addresses in town, with one of the three-bedroom homes recently listed for $3.4 million. Don’t have that kind of cash? No problem. Maybe you would like to rent, instead. The home next door hit the rental market for a mere $13,000 per month back in 2016.
Another much photographed and wealthy section of Boston’s Beacon Hill is Louisburg Square, home to former Secretary of State, US Senator, and Presidential candidate John Kerry. In 1997, when Kerry’s wife Teresa Heinz, heiress to the Heinz ketchup fortune, was photographed with her car parked in front of a fire hydrant on the square, Kerry paid to have the irksome utility removed for a deeded parking space. Problem solved.
Other famous residents from history include Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Jenny Lind, the “Swedish Nightingale”, who was featured in the 2018 film The Greatest Showman, got married in one of the homes in Louisburg Square.
Museum of African American History
In the early 1800s, the north slope of Beacon Hill was home to a sizable and growing community of free African Americans. In 1806, the African Meeting House was established, giving the African community a place to worship without the discriminatory practices encountered within the white churches such as balcony-only seating or inability to vote on church matters. The African Meeting House quickly became a hotbed of abolitionist activity during the pre-Civil War years. It was here that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and Frederick Douglass gave an impassioned speech against slavery in 1860. The meeting house was sold in the late 19th century to a Jewish congregation and functioned as a synagogue until 1972, when it was purchased by the Museum of African American History.
The museum features rotating exhibits on black history and culture, hourly talks given by National Park Service Rangers, and a museum store that has books, reprinted speeches, posters, and commemorative items.
The site also offers free walking tours of the 1.5 mile Black Heritage Trail, a collection of historical sites throughout Beacon Hill that includes private residences of historical significance to the African American community that are not open to the public. The trail is mostly a street tour led by National Park Service Rangers and is available (generally) Memorial Day through Labor Day. You may also take the self-guided tour anytime by downloading the National Park Service mobile app. Physical maps can also be obtained at the museum store or at the Faneuil Hall Visitor Center. The trail begins at the Black Heritage Trail on Beacon Street/Boston Common.
Boston Museum of Science
The Boston Museum of Science is an extremely well-visited location in Boston, popular with adults and children alike. It offers a wide range of permanent and rotating exhibits, a planetarium, and the Mugar Omni Theatre, an IMAX theatre that features educational and immersive films. The Boston Museum of Science is not technically located in Beacon Hill. It’s in a section called the Old West End, but that part of town doesn’t warrant its own article, so it’s described here.
Permanent exhibits for children include a live animal care center, huge dinosaur fossil of a triceratops, Science in the Park, and a live butterfly garden. Science buffs will enjoy Mathematica, an exhibit on how math and science is used for modern design, and the nanotechnology exhibit.
The museum also has rotating exhibits that vary by season and year, making it a bit different with each visit. For 2022, the following temporary exhibits are on display:
- Emotions at Play with Pixar’s Inside Out: Find out the role of your emotions and how they affect you in everyday life.
- New England Climate Stories: Meet live animals and find out how climate change impacts our region’s plants and wildlife.
- Resilient Venice: Adapting to Climate Change: What can we do to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Researchers use this iconic Italian city as an example.
Mugar Omni Theater
The Mugar Omni Theatre IMAX screen is one of only about 60 on the planet and is dome-shaped, which allows the film to take up a film-goer’s entire field of vision. This experience is a highlight of any visitor’s museum experience and although it is an extra cost in addition to the exhibit hall admission, it is well worth the price. It is recommended that you purchase your Omni Theatre tickets ahead of arrival. It is common for shows to sell out.
Charles Hayden Planetarium
The Charles Hayden Planetarium is another immersive experience in which visitors sit in reclined seats and view astronomical exhibits. However, these shows go beyond mere projections of the night sky. They feature some amazing film and digital artwork along with narration to tell a story and bring the viewer along on a journey. On Friday and Saturday Evenings, the planetarium also offers Music Under the Dome – immersive planetarium experiences set to classic and eclectic music such as Pink Floyd, Radiohead, David Bowie, and Bjork.
A new addition to the Museum of Science is the 4-D Theater. Guests will view a family-friendly 3-D film and the theater environment provides the 4th dimension such as wind, snow, seaspray, and the like. This is a great way to truly feel like you are a part of the movie – kids will love it.
Food & Drink in Boston’s Beacon Hill Neighborhood
You can find almost anything to eat and drink in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. The north side of the hill on Cambridge Street has plenty of quick-serve and affordable lunch locations frequented by the staff at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital. Pizza, Burritos, sandwiches are all easy to come by. Charles Street has some of the more fashionable and cozy restaurants, while the north slope of the hill by Boston Common and the Public Garden is mostly residential but does usually have a hot dog cart on the Common, and Cheers (from the famed television show) on Beacon Street by the Public Garden.
Anna’s Taqueria is a local Mexican chain with several counter-service locations in Boston. You can find the typical fare including burritos, tacos, and quesadillas. Anna’s gets a good crowd during the lunch hour at Massachusetts General Hospital, but the restaurant has two lines and is quick with their service. Burritos are excellent.
Anna’s is also open for breakfast, serving breakfast burritos, tacos, and bowls.
Great pizza is not limited to the North End. Felcaro has the typical pizza joint feel but serves up quality Neapolitan pies at a reasonable price. Also on the menu are subs, fries, wings, and salads. This is a solid choice for a quick bite when not everyone wants pizza. Several styles of pizza are on hand for quick slices. Online ordering is offered through their website, but probably not necessary. Service is pretty quick.
Boston is not well known for its French cuisine, but Ma Maison is one of those spots that will satisfy your urge for haute cuisine, complete with white tablecloths and eclectic French delicacies like Escargots, Frog Legs Provencale and Duck a l’Orange. The menu promises something different for those who want to try something new, or you can play it safe with the NY Strip Steak or Short Ribs.
Tip Tap Room
What do you get when you cross an upscale savory chef with a beer connoisseur? The answer is on Cambridge Street. The Tip Tap Room is an upscale bar that serves some pretty inventive pub food. Try splitting a plate of the baked brie with bacon jam, followed by the braised wild boar and gnocchi. The menu also offers several other items like steak, lamb, and swordfish tips that put the “tip” in Tip Tap.
On the “tap” side, the pub has an extensive draught beer list with over 35 craft beers. They usually have a cider on tap as well. There is an equal number of bottled beers and cider, although with so many on tap you probably won’t have to dive that far into the menu. A full wine list, specialty cocktails, and an impressive selection of whiskeys are also offered.
Aptly named, the Grotto is cave-like in its outward appearance, occupying a subterranean space near the State House. But on the inside, the atmosphere is cozy and intimate with a menu that serves authentic Italian cuisine. If you won’t be making it to the North End, then the Grotto is a fine choice to satisfy your Italian food cravings. One of the highlights of this location is their pre-fixe menu, which offers an appetizer, entrée, and dessert for a set price, which makes splitting the bill on large groups a bit easier. A smaller, two-course menu is available for lunch.
The Grotto makes a great date night while in the city, and reservations are recommended for dinner. Call or reserve online.
Looking for a proper alehouse with cold beer and traditional pub food such as burgers, wraps, and bar-style pizzas? This place is it – dark wood, low light, and a friendly atmosphere. 21st Ammendment isn’t the place where everybody knows your name, but you might wish that it were.
For special occasion dining on Beacon Hill, Mooo delivers. As you might suspect from the name, steak is the specialty of the house. From a la carte NY sirloin to filet mignon, there are plenty of options. The Tenderloin of Beef Wellington is a house favorite. They also serve a few seafood dishes and one chicken option, but those on a vegan diet probably will not find what they are seeking.
Mooo tends to fill up quickly on all nights, so be sure to make your reservation in advance, which can be done through their website, the Open Table app, or phone.
The familiar pub from the legendary TV show is across the street from Boston Public Garden. Photo by Alonso Torres, CC BY 2.0
Yes, this is the place where everybody knows your name. The iconic television show aired for 11 seasons from 1982 – 1993 and was based on this location across the street from the Boston Public Garden. Originally established in 1969 as the Bull and Finch pub, it was used only for exterior shots during the television series, mainly the recognizable staircase leading to the bar below ground level. The interior of the original pub has no resemblance to the Cheers bar seen on the TV show, but due to its fame, Cheers now has space upstairs at street level, which has a replica bar from the show. In 2002, the location was renamed Cheers in order to capitalize on its brand.
Cheers is great for lunch and is within short walking distance of Boston Common. It can get crowded, especially in the upstairs “set bar”. Just understand ahead of time that it may not be a great place to relax and escape the crowds. Fare is typical American pub food classics – burgers, wings, chowder, fish & chips, etc. Despite its celebrity status as a pub, it’s still a good location to bring the kids.
Do you have any favorite spots or memories while visiting Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood? If so, drop them in the comments section below. And if you are planning a future trip here, feel free to ask any questions?
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