For a city of 645,000 residents, Boston has a remarkably rich collection of cultural institutions, many of which you’ll want to visit. I remember when I first started coming to Boston to do research, I’d go to one or two museums during my summer, but I’d go several times to get a strong feeling for the place. But that’s me – I like to sink into places. To give some highlights, I’ve gathered a short list in no particular order. Of course, it’s incomplete – there’s so much to see and do here, but here are some ideas to get you started.
- The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), located on the Fenway, is not to be missed. Right now there’s a wonderful show open through August about the great Japanese master, Hokusai. The MFA has the largest collection of Japanese art anywhere outside of Japan, collected by a small group of enterprising Bostonians besotted with that country’s art and culture just as it was opening to the West. Check out the MFA also for its collection of ancient art (I love the room on Homeric art) and its dazzling collection of American art.
- Next door to the MFA is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an Italian palazzo first opened in 1903 by its eponymous founder. All the art you see was collected by Mrs. Gardner on her many travels around the world. She also stipulated in her will that no part of the collection could be moved, so visitors now see the art in the arrangements she intended. Spending time in the inner courtyard, lush and cool in the summers, is worth the price of admission, and the restaurant lunches at Café G are very tasty.
- The three main museums at Harvard University (the Sackler, Fogg, and Busch-Reisinger) are now called the Harvard Art Museums, newly reopened after a six-year redesign by the brilliant Italian architect, Renzo Piano. The museums are right near Harvard Square and the Harvard T stop, in case you want a bit of museum-going to go with your lunch and shopping.
- The Boston Athenaeum, which is located at the top of the Common near the State House, is not so much a museum as a library with a fascinating history. Opened in 1807, it is one of the oldest extant membership libraries in the country, but its first floor and galleries are open to the public.
- Right next door to the Athenaeum is the Boston-campus of the Museum of African American History, which provides a free walking tour of a large collection of historic sites relating to African American life in the city prior Emancipation. Not to be missed.
- There’s more remarkable art to see in the Boston Public Library (open to all visitors), especially John Singer Sargent’s sumptuous murals on the third floor.
- On Copley Square facing the BPL is the masterwork of American architect, H.H. Richardson: Trinity Church. It was recently voted one of the top ten most important buildings in America. Enough said.
- Finally, Boston has a rich political history, going back to the Revolution and through the Civil War. In the 20th century, the Kennedy name was dominant, and there are now two fascinating Kennedy museums to explore: the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum and the newly opened Edward M. Kennedy Institute next door on Columbia Point, near to the UMASS Boston campus. You can’t go wrong going to both on a beautiful Saturday afternoon with a wind off the bay. They also host fascinating speakers/special events, so check out their calendars for June.
Other places/things to do: stroll through the Boston Public Garden and Boston Common, where Emerson and Thoreau could be seen walking; take a swim in Walden Pond near Concord, a short train trip away; go see the Boston Red Sox play in Fenway Park; and, of course, there’s much, much more.