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The Way to See the Best of Boston Is on a Stroll

February 07, 1988|ED ALLAN | Allan is a free-lance writer living in Boston

BOSTON — Often the fastest and easiest way to get around this city is on foot. It's almost impossible by car.

In a few hours, you can take in the highlights of the historic Freedom Trail and get a look at two of the city's downtown neighborhoods.

Literally and figuratively, the best place to get an overview of the city is at the observatory atop the new 60-story John Hancock Building, some 740 feet above Clarendon Street in the Back Bay.

On a clear day, you can see all the way up to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, but on even an average day you get a splendid view of Cambridge, the Charles River, and "the home of the bean and the cod."

Linked with film graphic presentations, and commentary on Boston's past and present, the observatory features sight-tubes already focused on the sites you'll be visiting.

Outdoor Cafes

From Hancock Tower, stroll past Newbury Street's art galleries and outdoor cafes to the Public Garden, just three blocks away.

Until 1982, the Public Garden was best known for its century-old Swan Boats and as the setting for the children's classic story "Make Way for Ducklings."

But then "Cheers" broke open its first keg on TV. Now visitors cozy inside its prototype, the Bull & Finch Pub, on Beacon Street beside the Public Garden.

Look for it in the basement of the Hampshire House, itself quite a fine restaurant, on Beacon Street, facing the Public Garden. ( Not the same as Boston Garden.)

Walk along Beacon Street a block or so to Charles Street. You're now standing right where the British launched their boats in 1775, destined to start the Revolution at Lexington and Concord. In front of you is America's oldest park, the Common, where in principle Bostonians can still bring their cattle to graze; to your left is Beacon Hill.

With small shops and gas lights lining its brick sidewalks, Charles Street, the main thoroughfare at the foot of Beacon Hill, may remind you of an English "high street."

As you zigzag up almost any of the streets that cross Charles Street, you'll see the city as it was 150 years ago: Most of Beacon Hill is a historic preservation district, with changes visible from the street strictly regulated.

Bricks and Bay Widows

As you walk around, look for the window boxes and for the windows that time and the sun have changed from clear to purple. You may also note that Bostonians love bay windows and much prefer to leave brick its natural red, uncamouflaged.

With its private park and cobbled streets, Louisburg Square is of special interest, and as you walk up Mount Vernon Street, turn around and look back. You'll get a splendid view of the Charles, framed by the 19th-Century residences and the overhanging trees.

By the way, not just the rich and famous call Beacon Hill home. Until recent yuppification, the Hill has always been popular with white-collar workers as well. Before the Civil War, there was a significant black presence too, centered on the African Meeting House (Smith Cour off Joy Street), the oldest black church still standing in the United States.

A right from Mount Vernon onto Walnut or Joy Streets brings you back to Beacon Street, and a left on Beacon takes you to the new Statehouse ( new is relative--this building was the model for the Capitol in Washington).

Walk down the steps facing the Statehouse, past the monument honoring blacks who served in the Civil War, along the path leading through the Common to the Park Street Church, where "America" ("My Country 'Tis of Thee") was first sung.

Big Department Stores

Then follow the crowds down Winter Street to Jordan Marsh and Filene's, the city's two major department stores. With its automatic markdown plan and ever-changing stock of last season's wares from top-name stores around the country, Filene's Basement is notorious for eager bargain hunters.

Downtown Crossing, the marketers' name for this intersection, is the hub of the Hub. Winter Street becomes Summer and continues down to the Fort Point Channel, with the Tea Party Ship, the Children's Museum and the Computer Museum.

Washington Street to the left of Jordan's, brings you to the Theater District, more commonly called the Combat Zone, and a left then down Beach Street takes you to Chinatown.

To the right of Filene's, Washington Street takes you to the Old Statehouse, past the Old South Meeting House, where Sam Adams and his friends got dressed for the Tea Party.

Walk to the right of the Old Statehouse, cross to the little traffic island in the middle of State Street, and look up. To either side of the sundial you'll see the Lion and the Unicorn, the emblems of British rule.

Now look down. The cobblestones you're standing on mark the site of the Boston Massacre, caused when British sentries tried to defend themselves against a hostile crowd tossing taunts, snowballs and rocks.

Revitalized Neighborhood

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