Boston is the undisputed hub of American independence. From the Mayflower to the famous Tea Party, the people of this area created the country we live in today. If you hated history like most people do in high school, you might be wondering if you should read any further. Yes, you should! As Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure proves, going to places and meeting the people that live there can change the way you feel about things you've only read about—and Boston makes it easy.
The minute you step off the plane, life-sized founding father cutouts are waiting to pose with you. Downtown Boston is just 10 minutes from the airport, s a mix of new buildings and 300-year-old halls that somehow manage to still look modern and cool. Look down at your feet and you might notice a red brick trail. Don't know where to start? Follow that trail; you'll stay busy for most of the day and learn a lot about American history.
The Freedom Trail, as it is known, connects most of Boston's important historical sites together into one giant two-and-a-half-mile hike. Like the yellow brick road leading to Oz, this six-inch wide line will take you on an exciting trip as well, though it's trip filled with churches, interesting buildings, a battleship, and a few cemeteries rather than lions, tigers, or bears.
We started the trail at the North End, which is the equivalent of a Little Italy for Boston. Here you'll find many Italian eateries, pizza joints and authentic family grocery stores, including Mike's Pastries, one of the most famous cannoli makers in the U.S. Mike's shelves are lined with all kinds of amazing confections you'll never find anywhere else, including its iconic cream-filled lobster tail. Pro tip: hit the North End early to avoid the giant line at Mike's and load up on sugar before you walk the trail.
The first significant stop on our trail walk was Paul Revere's house. Paul wasn't the original owner of this 17th-century house, but he lived there for 30 years, including the night he went on his epic ride to warn the colonists about the invading British. It also stands today as the oldest house in Boston. Outside is a 900-pound bell cast by Paul Revere himself in 1803. Inside doesn't offer much to see except a few donated historical pieces of furniture, but does provide an interesting look at how houses were built over 400 years ago.
Follow the trail north and you'll end up at the Old North Church. Built in 1773, it was the tallest building in Boston at the time, making it ideal for Revere's idea of lighting one lantern in the steeple if the British were advancing on land, or two if they were coming by sea. The colonists could see this from the other side of the city, while the British were none the wiser of the secret code. The church still has its original bells that still ring to this day and its original chandeliers to light the interior, most of which remains unchanged from its last remodel 250 years ago.
Copp's Hill Burying Ground was a short stop on our trail, filled with old gravestones that look like they props from a vampire movie. The most notable thing about the cemetery is that while the British were stationed in the area, they used the stones of the colonists they detested for target practice; look closely and you'll see bullet marks on a few of those remaining stones. Copp's is the second largest grave site in Boston and a short walk from the USS Constitution, which is not a document but rather the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world.
The Constitution is still a beauty of a ship, built in 1797 out of such strong oak that she received the nickname "Old Ironsides," after she was engaged in the War of 1812 against the British, whose cannonballs reportedly bounced off her sides like they were made of iron. The battleship only solidified her reputation from there: in over 40 maritime battles, the USS Constitution never lost a skirmish. Next door, a museum offers more information about the ship for almost no money; a donation fee is all that's asked.
The northernmost stop on the trail is the Bunker Hill Monument, a giant mound and obelisk commemorating the first major battle of the American Revolution. It was here that over 1,000 British soldiers died during the battle, as well as 442 colonists. While the Battle of Bunker Hill was a victory for the British, it was also a turning point for American morale. Climb the narrow steps of the monument you'll be rewarded with a scenic view of Boston (or just sit on the grass and watch the exhausted stair climbers above).
Most people do the trail from south to north or vice versa, but I started in the middle. Either way you do it, you end up somewhere different than where you started, which means you'll have to walk all the way back or hail a taxi. We opted to take a taxi to the beginning in Boston Commons, planning to wind up in the North End once we finished all the Freedom Trail sites. Why? Again—the area's famous Italian food, including some of the best pizza in the world. But enough about food; let's get back to the beginning of the trail.
The Boston Common is a quirky little public park that has the distinction of being the oldest in America. Over the year's it's also been a cow pasture, town gallows, a training field and a British army camp. Now, there are mostly just flocks of ducks ready to battle for a piece of bread. It's a relaxing spot for a walk, and for starting or ending your walk down the Freedom Trail. If you decide to end it here, good news: You're right next to the Cheers Bar, the famous bar from the TV show. Only the exterior was used for filming—and it's highly unlikely anyone here knows your name—but it remains a great little bar and a perfect place to stop for a pint.
There are two quick stops before you get to the Granary Burying Ground: the State House and the Park Street Church, two fine buildings, both over 200 years old. The graveyard, however, is one of the most interesting stops on the tour. It is here in Boston's third-oldest cemetery you can find the graves of founding fathers Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry and John Hancock. You might recognize some other famous graves there as well as a monument to Benjamin Franklin, who—though typically associated with Philadelphia—spent time in Boston.
The graveyard is adjacent to the Omni Parker hotel, which has nothing to do with our founding fathers but rather a foundational dessert: This historic building, once (and better) known as the Parker House Hotel, is where the Boston Cream pie was invented. Many famous people have visited the hotel throughout the years, though what's more interesting are the not-yet-famous folks who worked in its restaurant: Among others, Malcolm X, Emeril Lagasse and Ho Chi Minh (yes, that Ho Chi Minh; he was a baker) all held positions there over the years.
King's Chapel and King's Burying ground are side by side and across the street from the Omni Parker. The church is famous for being built by King George and Massachusetts's royal governor on seized lands that were taken because the Puritans refused to sell any of their holdings if an Anglican church would be built on them. The church still prospered in spite of anti-British sentiment and became America's first unitarian church. The graveyard is small but interesting, and the church is one of the most beautiful in New England.
The Old Corner Bookstore, the Old South Meeting House, and the Old State House have one thing in common: Like much of downtown Boston, and as their names would imply, they're all old, built in the early 1700s and existing today in the middle of modern skyscrapers just a short distance from each other. The most famous of the three, the Old South Meeting House, is where the colonists gathered on December 16, 1773 to discuss the unfairness of the British Tea Tax. Nearby is the site of the Boston Massacre, known by the British as the "Incident on King Street." Either way you spin it, five people were killed, and it was less of a massacre than a riot, incited to further hatred of the British and fan the flames of independence.
Faneuil Hall was the last stop on our walk and, to be honest, a bit anti-climactic after all the other famous buildings on the tour. Once used as a gathering place for town meetings and anti-slavery speeches in the 1800s, today it's the most accessible site on the Freedom Trail, right next to Quincy Market, the main shopping area in downtown Boston. Once here, you might think the tour is over but there's one last stop not on the official map. You have to pop in one of the oldest bars in the United States before you finish your tour.
The Bell in Hand Tavern is only a couple of blocks away, a picturesque pub founded by the town crier, Jimmy Wilson, who retired after shouting the news for 50 years and decided to open his own little place for the locals. Everyone knew Jimmy, so the Bell in Hand was successful from the very start and remains so: Over 200 years later, it still survives. And, naturally, it pours plenty of Sam Adams beer.