Ten tips for Boston tourists


When you’re in Boston, it’s tempting to test out the local-speak. But Bostonians strongly advise against it. Here are some other insider tips for making your visit as enjoyable as possible:

1. Take the T. You don’t need a car in Boston. The city’s traffic is atrocious, meter spots are nearly impossible to come by, parking garages are crazy-expensive, plus the city is a messy maze of streets that even locals find frustratingly easy to get lost on.

You’re better off skipping the rental car and sticking with public transportation instead. The subway is known as the T (short for MBTA or Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority), and it is by far the easiest way to get around. The T will take you to just about any tourist attraction inside Boston and beyond, plus there’s a new Silver Line that will get you to Logan International Airport without much fuss. The rides are usually quick, clean and safe.

The T sells Charlie cards that allow you to buy as many trips as you’ll need, or if you’re planning to hit several tourist sights, get a visitor’s pass that allows for unlimited travel on the subways, local buses and inner harbor ferries. The T sells one-day, week long or monthly passes at vending machines at the subway stations or online at www.mbta.com.

2. Drive (and park) with care. If you do decide to drive, be aware that you’re in for an adventure. Plenty of streets in Boston have no visible signs, many of the roads run only one way, and local drivers can be aggressive and impatient. If you try to avoid pricey parking garages in an effort to hunt down metered spots, you should know that even spots with parking meters often turn into resident-only spots at night – and in Boston, meter maids are quick to hand out tickets. If you happen to get on Interstate 90, don’t forget your pocket change; it’s the Massachusetts Turnpike, which is a toll road. Many of the I-90 signs don’t warn you that you’ll have to pay along the way.

3. Talking tips. Bostonians are not amused by visitors who attempt to mimic the local dialect, says local actor and comedian Steve Sweeney. “Don’t butcher the Boston accent like they do in the movies,” Sweeney advises. “It’s one of my pet peeves. Just try to be as rude as Bostonians and you’ll get along fine. Actually, we’re not really rude. We’re just unfriendly.”

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Here are a few translation tips for getting by on Boston speak:

• “Wicked” doesn’t mean evil. It’s an intensifier that means “very,” as in “It’s wicked cold today.”
• Going for a “packie run” means heading to a liquor store for booze.
• A “bubbler” is a water fountain
• A “carriage” is the cart you use to wheel around groceries.
• Massachusetts Avenue is called “Mass. Ave.” and Commonwealth Avenue is “Comm. Ave.”
• Don’t call Boston “Beantown.” It irks the locals.

4. See you next fall. Winters in Boston are often uncomfortably cold and snowy, and summers are brutally hot and sticky. Clearly, if you had your choice of seasons, spring and fall would be the best times of year to visit. The fall brings great walking weather with its cool, crisp temperatures. And New England is one of the best places in the country to check out the changing fall foliage, with leaves ranging from bright yellow to deep red. The spring also gives the city a fresh, energetic spark, when people are thrilled to shed their winter coats and are ready to head outdoors for long stretches. The spring is also by far the best time to visit Boston’s Public Garden, where the flower trees are in full bloom and an endless collection of tulips planted along the walking paths bring bright splashes of color to the park. In general, even on super-hot days, it’s smart to bring a jacket along if you’re going to stay out past dark; temperatures often cool off considerably at night. And if you’re already in Boston and you’re wondering whether to bring along an umbrella while you sightsee, check out the weather beacon on top of the John Hancock building. Here’s the rhyme for deciphering the lights:

• Steady blue, clear view
• Flashing blue, clouds due
• Steady red, rain ahead
• Flashing red, snow instead

5. Museums at a discount — or free. If you know you’re going to hit a bunch of Boston’s museums, think about investing in a Boston City Pass, which provides admission to six major attractions at a price that is much cheaper than paying separate admissions at each place. The pass, which is valid for nine days, includes admission to the New England Aquarium, the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science and the Skywalk Observatory, plus discounts at the Union Oyster House restaurant. For more information, go to www.citypass.com/city/boston.html. Or you can always try to check out free passes to local museums at the public library. Each library carries passes that are available on a first-come-first-served basis.

6. Hit the Freedom Trail solo. The guided tours of Boston are excellent, but if you don’t care for tooling around the city with groups of strangers, don’t bother paying for a tour and instead check out the highlights on your own. Just about any map of Boston will indicate where you can pick up the 2 1/2-mile Freedom Trail, which takes you to 16 historic spots, including museums, churches, meeting houses and burial grounds. Plus a line of red bricks on the city’s streets and sidewalks will keep you on track. You can find out about each site ahead of time at www.thefreedomtrail.org, and also get a map of the entire trail.

7. Check out the chowder. All bowls of New England clam chowder are not equal – not by a long shot. You’ll find plenty of establishments in Boston that claim to provide the best bowls of clam chowder, but the quality and consistency varies greatly from restaurant to restaurant, with some serving chowder as thick as oatmeal and others serving a greasy bowl of milk with only a smattering of clams. Among the restaurants that consistently receive accolades from locals and tourists alike for their clam chowder are Legal Seafoods; Summer Shack; and Atlantic Fish.

8. Fun for the kids. You’ll find plenty of places to keep your little ones busy in Boston. Check out the New England Aquarium, the Franklin Park Zoo and the Museum of Science. And if you’re on a tight budget, there are plenty of child-friendly activities that don’t cost big bucks. If you head to the Children’s Museum on a Friday after 5 p.m., admission is only a dollar. A Swan Boat ride inside the Public Garden is a relaxing and inexpensive crowd-pleaser. And there are plenty of pretty public parks and open spaces where you can let children run around, including the Boston Common and the Esplanade.

9. Stay safe. Visit well-traveled tourist spots, such as Faneuil Hall, the North End, Harvard Square and the Public Garden, and you are likely to remain safe. Most downtown sections of Boston are clean and bustling with activity and most people feel safe riding the T alone – even at night – especially since the MBTA uses its own police force to keep order on the train lines. Yet while violent crime is uncommon in Boston, you should still use your big-city radar and always lock car and hotel-room doors and keep a close eye on your belongings.

10. Get out of the city. All the historical sights and attractions in Boston will keep you busy for days, but if you’re looking to stretch your legs outside the city, there are plenty of quaint New England towns you can get to easily. Plymouth, 40 miles south of Boston, is a pretty seaside town where you can take a gander at the historic Plymouth Rock, plus enjoy a stroll along the water, grab some tasty seafood and check out the kitschy tourist shops. If you’re visiting in the fall, head to Salem, which is 16 miles north of Boston, and get in a spooky mood by visiting a few witch museums. Or if you could use a day on the sand, head down to Cape Cod. Provincetown, which is 115 miles south of Boston, is at the southernmost tip of the Cape and has beautiful beaches with dunes, plus a fun downtown area with plenty of shops and restaurants (but for traffic’s sake, don’t try this trip on a summer weekend).