Boston's Beacon Hill and Popular Attractions
Beacon Hill is a 19th-century downtown Boston residential neighborhood situated directly north of the Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden. Most people think of city living as anonymous and isolating. But this cozy enclave, filled with nearly 10,000 people, is more like a village than an anonymous city. It has a rich community life, with neighbors knowing neighbors and everyone meeting on the Hill's commercial streets and at its myriad activities.
Approximately one-half mile square, Beacon Hill is bounded by Beacon Street, Bowdoin Street, Cambridge Street and Storrow Drive. It is known for its beautiful doors and door surrounds, brass door knockers, decorative iron work, brick sidewalks, perpetually-burning gas lights, flowering pear trees, window boxes, and hidden gardens. Its architecture, mostly brick row houses, includes the Federal, Greek Revival and Victorian periods, as well as early 20th-century colonial revival homes and tenements. The architecture is protected by restrictive regulations that allow no changes to any visible part of a structure without the approval of an architectural commission.
Beacon Hill contains a South Slope, a North Slope and a Flat of the Hill. Charles Street is the neighborhood's main street and is filled with antique shops and neighborhood services. The Massachusetts State House is at the top of the Hill overlooking Boston Common.
History of Beacon Hill
Before the Revolution, Beacon Hill was pasture land with a few notable exceptions, including John Hancock's country estate, which was demolished to make room for the western addition to the Massachusetts State House.
The South Slope was developed in the 1790's by the Mt. Vernon Proprietors for Boston's richest families, who by the late 1800's were being called Brahmins. South Slope streets were spacious and carefully laid out.
One of the proprietors, who also designed several Beacon Hill houses, was Charles Bulfinch. For a time, he was immortalized at 84 Beacon Street in the Bull & Finch Pub, which was the prototype for the television show, Cheers. The bar is now just called Cheers.
The North Slope developed more organically than the South Slope did. It grew up and down alleys and into nooks and crannies. Its residents were former slaves, sailors, poets -- people who were, as one wag put it, the morally emancipated. In the late 19th century, the North Slope became home to immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and many of the homes were remade into tenements.
The Flat of the Hill originally was part of the Charles River. After it was filled, it became home to blacksmiths, shoemakers, stables and later, garages of the homes on the South Slope. Now almost all these buildings have been renovated into living quarters.
All one needs within walking distance.
Charles and Cambridge Streets are Beacon Hill's commercial streets. Charles Street is known for 40 antique shops, home decorating shops, delectable food shops and several good restaurants. Cambridge Street offers good restaurants, as well as two gas stations and a supermarket, now undergoing construction in Charles River Plaza. Both streets offer many unique neighborhood service shops, including one of the few independent pharmacies - Gary Drug - left in America. Cambridge Street is also the home of the venerable Massachusetts General Hospital.
Today Beacon Hill is one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. But it also has affordable (or free) pleasures. Here are a few.
Massachusetts State House
One Ashburton Place
The Massachusetts State House sits at the top of Beacon Hill on land that was once John Hancock’s cow pasture. Designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798, the main dome of the state house was gilded in copper by Paul Revere and later redone in 23-karat gold. Tours are offered weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The Boston Common is the oldest public park in the country. It began as 50 acres of grazing land for cattle. Today, it’s a lovely green park, lined with benches, and the site of numerous cultural attractions. During the summer months, there’s an old-fashioned carousel (rides are $3), and visitors can cool off by dipping their feet in the adjacent Frog Pond, which in winter is transformed into a popular ice skating area.
The 2.5-mile Freedom Trail begins at the common and leads visitors to 16 historic sites, among them the King’s Chapel, Faneuil Hall, and the Bunker Hill Monument. The trail, marked with a wide red line, winds its way through several neighborhoods, including the North End, the waterfront, and Charlestown. Despite construction outside of Park Street Station, guided Freedom Trail tours still meet in front of the Visitor Information Center on the common. More information about tour options, times, and costs is here.
10½ Beacon St.
Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum has approximately 600,000 volumes; its holdings include vast collections in areas such as New England, state, Boston, and local history, and English and American literature. The athenaeum is furnished with oriental rugs, oil paintings, sculptures, and fresh flower arrangements, making you feel as if you’ve stepped into someone’s stately home. The building’s large Palladian windows overlook the Old Granary Burying Ground, where some of Boston’s most prominent early citizens are interred. The athenaeum is a members-only library, so visitors are allowed only on the first floor, but you can take a guidedart and architecture tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m. Tours are limited, so it’s best to book early. For reservations, call 617-720-7638.
150 Bowdoin St.
This pub, located in the shadow of the State House, was originally built in 1899 as a luxury hotel featuring a rooftop garden and Boston’s first “passenger lift.” The hotel had a men-only club before becoming a neighborhood pub. A favorite of Boston state legislators, 21st Amendment is rumored to have been a favorite haunt of President John F. Kennedy, who allegedly wrote speeches by the fireplace. The restaurant is still popular with politicos, lobbyists, and local media, but it also attracts tourists, serving burgers, sandwiches, and soups, as well as less traditional pub food. The pub’s name refers to the constitutional amendment that repealed Prohibition.
44 Charles St.
The Paramount is an affordable eatery known mainly for its breakfasts: a line forms almost immediately on weekend mornings. Grab a tray and wait in line for the restaurant’s Spanish omelet or famous pancakes. By night it is transformed into a more elegant venue, with white tablecloths and table service. Popular dinner items include chicken marsala and teriyaki glazed salmon.
Twentieth Century Limited
73 Charles St.
Twentieth Century Limited has everything you need to look fabulous if you’re having tea with royalty. The shop’s sparkling tiaras, necklaces, rings, and brooches make a great addition to any costume jewelry collection. The store also sells vintage bags, gloves, and hats, and antique black-and-white photos from bygone weddings and parties.
81 Charles St.
Isabelle’s Curlycakes is Beacon Hill’s first and only self-described “cupcake bar.” With a menu that changes daily, customers are sure to find something to suit any craving. There are six regular flavors, and specials include peppermint and Boston cream. Large orders and special orders are also available.
88 Charles St.
Billing itself as a “jewelry, accessories, and home design” store, Good offers a painstakingly curated collection of products. You won’t find any novelty items or brand names here, but you may find beautiful hand-woven silk scarfs, handmade brass earrings, or vintage cuff links and pottery. Things are on the pricey side, but definitely worth it if you value attention to detail and craftsmanship.
101 Charles St.
When owners Susan and Timothy Corcoran first founded Black Ink, it was a stationery store. Over the past 17 years it has evolved into an eclectic gift shop, selling “unexpected necessities.” But don’t expect knickknacks—everything in the store has a purpose, albeit not always readily apparent (needle threader, anyone?). You can pick up a doorstop shaped like Swiss cheese or an authentic plastic cafeteria tray with matching cup. Make sure to budget a lot of time for this place, as it’s impossible to see everything at first glance.
144 Charles St.
Known for its weekend brunch, Panificio’s offers a range of breakfast items, from French toast made with homemade apple cinnamon raisin bread to frittatas, open-faced omelets with sautéed vegetables and mozzarella. It’s the perfect place for an affordable lunch—the Cubano sandwich with roasted pork, smoked ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, and horseradish Dijon is delicious—or dinner—the gnocchi Bolognese is excellent. At any time of the day, the square pizza is a great snack, as are the numerous pastries.
Nichols House Museum
55 Mt. Vernon St.
To see what a Beacon Hill home looked like more than a century ago, visit the Nichols House Museum. The home was built in 1804, making it one of the earliest structures on Beacon Hill. It was designed by Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch, who also designed many Beacon Hill mansions. The museum’s hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from April 1 to October 31, and Thursday through Saturday from November 1 to March 31. The first tour is at noon, then every half hour thereafter. Admission is $7.
97 Mt. Vernon St.
The Persian restaurant Lala Rokh takes its name from the romance novel by the 19th-century writer Thomas Moore. The restaurant is decorated with the owners’ personal collection of antique Persian miniatures, tapestries, and 16th-century European maps, which line the walls. The owners are originally from Northwest Iran, but the restaurant offers Persian dishes from numerous regions, each accented with different spices. Try the morgh pollo, saffron-seared chicken in a tomato broth served with basmati rice and flavored with cumin, cinnamon, rose petals, and barberries (a sour yellow berry).
Museum of African American History
46 Joy St.
In the decades before the Civil War, the largest population of African Americans in Boston was located on Beacon Hill’s north slope. The Museum of African American History commemorates the men and women who fought for the abolition of slavery, while establishing schools, churches, and businesses on the hill. In 1783, Massachusetts banned slavery, and the free black population continued to spread throughout the city. The MAAH is New England’s largest museum dedicated to preserving the contributions of the region’s African Americans. It is located in the Abiel Smith School, the nation’s first building constructed specifically to house a black public school. The museum also operates the adjacent African Meeting House, the country’s oldest surviving black church built by African Americans. The Black Heritage Trail walking tour is led by U.S. Park Service rangers and takes visitors to eight sites on Beacon Hill, starting with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Memorial in front of the State House, which honors one of the first official black units in the United States during the Civil War. More information on the MAAH and the Black Heritage Trail can be found here.
40 West Cedar St.
This enchanting florist on the corner of West Cedar and Pinckney Streets is impossible to resist. The displays of garden ornaments and fresh flowers change weekly, and the rustic aesthetic is comfortably at home among Beacon Hill’s cobblestone streets. The original 1897 store was a butcher shop and still retains all of the original interior elements, including a meat refrigerator that now serves as a cooler for flowers. You can find the perfect gift for any gardener or interior design enthusiast, but be sure to pick up a bouquet for yourself as well.
75 Chestnut St.
Tucked away off the beaten path of Charles St., 75 Chestnut offers upscale pub and seafood fare. The interior is a comfortable but stately mélange of mahogany and low lamps, with a fully stocked bar and a midsize dining area. It’s not cheap, but this is where to go for the most authentic New England cooking—try the classic herbed clam chowder or the Nantucket Seafood Stew, which includes gulf shrimp, scallops, hand-cut salmon, halibut, sea bass, vegetables, and potatoes.
This historic square, with its gas streetlamps and cobblestone streets, is actually a small private park surrounded by the most elegant townhouses in Boston. Look for 19 Louisburg, once an Episcopal convent, now home to Senator John Kerry, and 10 Louisburg, where Louisa May Alcott resided until her death from mercury poisoning in 1888.
Gardens of Beacon Hill
In the 1920s, the Beacon Hill Civic Association encouraged the greening of the neighborhood and residents began to transform their service yards into gardens. Once a year in the spring, usually in May, visitors can tour several of these hidden gardens. Visit the Beacon Hill Garden Club for more details.