As one of America’s oldest and most famous cities, Boston is ripe with almost 400 years of history. From the city’s pre-revolutionary colony days through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and to the present day, the city’s landscape offers visitors an abundance of must-see destinations.
The Freedom Trail is a 2.5-mile trail, marked by a red stripe or red bricks, that will guide you through some of the oldest, most historic sections of the city. Following it you will visit 16 sites having to do with the Revolutionary War and why it began in Boston. The trail starts at the Boston Common Visitors Center and ends in the Charlestown Navy Yard and Bunker Hill. The visitor center sells maps, books and MP3 audios for following the trail on your own. The costumed guides of the Freedom Trail Foundation lead daily tours from here year-round, giving you the history of the first 11 sites.
Downtown Boston: The Common to Faneuil Hall
In pre-Revolution times British soldiers were encamped on Boston Common. The soldiers and the Colonial militia practiced shooting and marching here. Paved walkways with slight inclines crisscross the Common. At the top of the Common is the gold-domed Massachusetts State House, built between 1795 and 1797. Free tours are given Monday – Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Across the street is the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial/54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, which honors the first African Americans allowed to fight in the Civil War. The 54th Regimental flag is in the free museum inside the State House.
To reach the State House and the Shaw Memorial, go off the red stripe and head up Park Street at the far end of the Common. Cross Beacon Street, turn right, then left onto Bowdoin Street for the accessible entrance. The building is equipped with elevators to all floors.
Going back down Park Street will take you to Park Street Church. Founded in 1809, it was a granary in the 1700s. It is open for tours Tuesday – Saturday for July and August. There are steep stairs in the front. Go around to the church office on Park Street. Adjacent to the church are the Granary Burial Grounds, which dates back to 1660. Buried here are three signers of the Declaration of Independence — John Hancock, John Adams and Thomas Paine — and also patriots Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. Benjamin Franklin’s parents rest here along with the five victims of the Boston Massacre. There is no accessible way to enter the cemetery. Several of the graves can be viewed from the sidewalk.
Head due north to King’s Chapel, opened in 1749, where English Puritan settlers of Boston spent hours listening to ministers preach hellfire and damnation for their souls if they did not lead a life devoted to God. Many of them are buried in another adjacent burial ground. There is a low sill at the entrance to the chapel. The burying ground has a 7-inch lip at the entrance. The paths in the burying ground are manageable but uneven.
When you come out of King’s Chapel Burial Ground, turn left (many people turn right and get off the trail) following the red paint down School Street. Set into the sidewalk in front of Old City Hall, a mosaic (City Carpet) marks the site of the first public school in America, established in 1635. The school itself, Boston Latin, exists today in another part of the city. In front of Old City Hall is a bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin, erected in 1856.
Continue down School Street and jog right on Washington and you’ll come to the Old South Meeting House, built in 1729. There is an accessible entrance on the right around the corner. The main entrance has a low step, exhibits are on the first level, and there is no elevator to the balcony. Here Samuel Adams and John Hancock moderated meetings of mobs of Colonists discussing the future of the country in the days leading up to the Revolution. On Dec. 16, 1773, 5,000 people met here to protest King George’s tax on tea (The Boston Tea Party). The mob marched to the harbor, boarded three British ships and dumped millions of dollars’ worth of tea into the sea.
Further north on Washington Street you will find the Old State House, built in 1713. The building has many stairs, narrow doorways and no elevators to any of the floors containing comprehensive exhibits of Revolutionary War artifacts. However, you can enjoy the building itself, an architectural jewel decorated with balconies and large lintel windows.
Directly in front of the Old State House is the memorial to the Boston Massacre. What started as a minor scuffle between four British soldiers and a few colonists on the night of March 5, 1770 turned into a deadly battle. Five colonists were killed. Ironically, patriots John Adams and his cousin Josiah Quincy defended the British soldiers. Three were freed, but their punishment was branding of their thumbs.
Just north of here is Faneuil Hall, which opened in 1747 and was the venue for speeches from Samuel Adams and John Hancock to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Faneuil Hall now comes under the auspices of the National Park Service. The NPS gives free historic talks in the Great Hall on the second floor. The third floor is where you will find the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts. Founded in 1638, this is the oldest chartered military organization in the world.
Behind the building is Faneuil Hall Marketplace with kiosks, shops and restaurants in the North and South Market Buildings. There is a food court inside the Quincy Market Building. The entrance to Faneuil Hall is via a hydraulic lift (noted by a blue and white sign on the front of the building). All the buildings have ramps and elevators.
North End and Across the Charles River
The Freedom Trail also takes you to the Paul Revere House, purchased in 1770 when it was nearly 90 years old. Seeing the inside you might find it hard to believe that Revere and his wife Rachel raised eight children in this space. This is where his famous ride to Lexington and Concord began.
Entrance to the first floor is possible with assistance by staff. The stairs to the second floor are steep.
The Paul Revere Mall is a great place for a rest break. There are benches, trees, flowers and a bronze statue of Paul Revere on horseback sculpted by Cyrus Dallin in 1940.
Turning from the statue you will see the back of Old North Church, founded in 1722. Go to the end of the brick paved mall, turn left on Unity Street, then right on Tileston Street (narrow sidewalks). Another right on to Salem Street brings you to the front of the church. There is a low step at the entrance where staff will set up a ramp. Inside everything is on one level.
On the night of April 18, 1775, Sexton Robert Newman climbed the stairs to the church’s belfry and hung two lanterns signaling to the waiting Revere that the British would start for Lexington on the Charles River. Seeing this, Revere started his ride to Lexington and Concord warning the countryside that the “regulars were out.”
Just north of the church is
, founded in 1659. Buried here are Puritan minister and Salem witch trial judge Cotton Mather, his brother Increase, and Sexton Robert Newman. Many of the headstones are pockmarked from British soldiers using them for target practice.
There are steep stairs at all the gates. Little of it can be seen from the sidewalk but the view of Boston Harbor is beautiful.
Across the harbor is the Charlestown Navy Yard and the National Park Service. Wheeling the bridge over the harbor is long but doable. The bridge is flat with a sidewalk and curb cuts.
In the Navy Yard you will find the USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned battleship in the world. The Paul Revere silversmith company laid her copper keel (it’s still in place) and George Washington named her when she was commissioned into the United States Navy in 1797. Navy personnel in period uniforms give tours of her upper and lower decks and will assist you with boarding.
Another ship, the USS Cassin Young, sits nearby in dry dock. The main deck of this WWII destroyer is approximately two-thirds accessible, with assistance from retired Navy veterans.
Just north of the Navy Yard is the Constitution Museum, which houses exhibits detailing what Navy life was like at sea in the 18th century. Everything is on one level.
The Freedom Trail ends at Bunker Hill Monument, which was dedicated in 1843 on the site of the first major conflict of the Revolutionary War. The visitors center has a huge diorama with a timeline detailing the battle of June 17, 1775 between the British and the colonists. There are curb cuts in the northeast corner of the grounds. A ramp with handrails leads to the top of the hill. The monument itself has 294 steps and no elevator.
The handsome statue is of Col. William Prescott, commander of the militia. Legend has it that it was Col. Prescott who gave the order to his militia units: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes.”
Most of Boston’s streets were laid out in the early 18th century to be five cows wide. Parked vehicles on both sides make driving in the city difficult. The best way to get around is on public transportation (MBTA) — the “T” as locals call it. Stations are equipped with elevators and escalators. The T runs an accessible water shuttle daily (every 20 minutes) from Pier 4 in the Charleston Navy Yard to the New England Aquarium in Boston. Tip: It’s possible to take the shuttle up to the navy yard. When you’re at Faneuil Hall, follow the signs to the aquarium and board it there. After visiting the ships, museum and Bunker Hill, go over the bridge to see Copps Hill, Old North and the Paul Revere House.
• Public transportation (the “T”): www.mbta.com, 617/222-3200
• Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau: www.bostonusa.com, 888/SEE-BOSTON (888/733-2678)
• The Freedom Trail Foundation: www.thefreedomtrail.org, 617/357-8300
• Mass. State House: www.cityofboston.gov/freedomtrail/massachusettshouse.asp, 617/727-3676.
• Park Street Church: www.parkstreet.org, 617/523-3383
• Granary Burial Ground: www.cityofboston.gov/freedomtrail/granary.asp
• King’s Chapel and Burial Ground: www.kings-chapel.org, 617/523-1749.
• Old South Meeting House: www.oldsouthmeetinghouse.org, 617/482-6439.
• Old State House: www.bostonhistory.org, 617/720-1713
• Faneuil Hall: www.cityofboston.gov/freedomtrail/faneuilhall.asp, 617/635-3105
• Faneuil Hall Marketplace: www.faneuilhallmarketplace.com, 617/523-1300
• Paul Revere House: www.paulreverehouse.org, 617/523-2338
• Old North Church: oldnorth.com, 617/523-6676
• Copps Hill Burial Ground: www.cityofboston.gov/freedomtrail/coppshill.asp
• Charlestown Navy Yard, National Park Service, USS Constitution and museum and Bunker Hill Monument and museum: www.nps.gov/boston, 617/242-5601