I can't remember the first time I was quacked at, but I remember how I felt: You've got to be kidding.
I'd be walking somewhere in the city, and suddenly a giant amphibious bus full of people would materialize, quack loudly at me and my fellow Bostonians, and vanish.
Soon enough I would learn that these were Duck Tours, shuttling tourists from one Boston landmark to another. And just as quickly, I'd learn to avoid going anywhere they went.
Like a New Yorker who never sets foot in Times Square, I have long made a fetish of keeping clear of the stereotypical Boston—the Revolutionary War monuments, the walking trails, the souvenir-strewn streets around Fenway Park. Let the out-of-towners move through their Boston, I figure, and I'll stick to mine. After 15 years of living here, I still look at the tourists and wonder: What are they seeing—and what am I missing? And what are they missing? I decided there was only one way to find out.
Paul Revere: closet Frenchman?
If I'm going to play tourist in my hometown, I know where to start: The Paul Revere House. If you live in Boston, you would never, ever go there. It's in the middle of the Freedom Trail, the more than two-mile-long path that guides people through the most important Revolutionary War monuments while letting them skip everything else. Somehow it precisely evokes my fifth grade conception of creaky old Boston.
The house today sits incongruously in its neighborhood, its three floors of spooky brown clapboard dwarfed by apartment buildings. Revere's house isn't crowded the day I visit, which is a good thing because it's absolutely tiny. It's also wildly off-square in every way, as though someone squeezed a normal house into a lozenge and set it down on tilted ground.
I push the wooden door open and promptly find myself in a kitchen—a stone hearth with a bewildering array of iron implements for everything from toasting bread to ironing frilled cuffs. Unless you're a history buff, you won't care exactly which turned-wood chairs belonged to the Revere family and which are here just for show. The house is an imperfect museum of Paul Revere himself, whose wartime heroism was exaggerated and whose major role in the city was as an entrepreneur who made a fortune in metals after the revolution. (Also, surprise: He was half French! His father was Apollos Rivoire, who anglicized the name.)
Yet as a little diorama of Boston's colonial history, the house is unparalleled. In the years after Paul Revere, it sheltered the waves of immigrants who transformed the city, and today it sits in the middle of an Italian neighborhood abutted by gleaming new condos—the setting itself a little diorama of Boston.
The North End my way
A block from Paul Revere's house is Hanover Street, the lively main drag running through the North End, a neighborhood full of Italian restaurants and pastry shops. Stop in for a cappuccino at the longtime fixture Caffé Vittoria and admire the collection of vintage espresso machines. Survey the assortment of cheese, artisanal salami and prosciutto, and aged balsamic vinegar at Salumeria Italiana on Richmond Street. If you want to eat where Bostonians eat, make your way to Carmen, a trattoria made cozy by brick walls lined with wine bottles and an embossed-tin ceiling. Alternately, cross Hanover Street, turn left toward Salem Street, and head to Neptune Oyster: Its white tiles and dark wood evoke an old-school seafood bar, and the menu merges the classic (shrimp cocktail) and the creative (shrimp gazpacho with baby fennel moustarda).
America's oldest ballpark
Not all of Boston's tourist attractions have centuries of history behind them. The baseball stadium is a relative newcomer, a wee 97 years old.
What still amazes me every time I approach Fenway Park is how intimately it's tucked into the city: You're strolling through a Boston neighborhood and hey, whaddya know, one of the buildings just happens to be the oldest major-league ballpark in America. As easy as it is to stumble upon Fenway, it's not nearly as simple to gain entry. Every single game since 2003 has sold out. But there is another way to see the park: Fenway runs tours for $12.
I buy a ticket and squeeze into a luxury suite on an off-season Saturday morning. A video tells the history of the stadium in photographs and newspaper headlines. We watch footage of Ted Williams's last at-bat here, in 1960; the ball sails over center field and into the bullpen and fixes him in baseball legend. I am pleased to notice that the video's narrator really is from Boston; beneath his polished voice are the city's lost-and-found r's—"pahk," and "ah-chi-tect."
Afterward, we walk out into the seats and take pictures of each other in front of the Green Monster, Fenway's famously high left-field wall. The tour visits different spots in the park depending on when you go; the only truly off-limits area is the field's sacred grass. "I've been working here a year," says our tour guide, "and I've never even stepped on it." That might seem extreme, but then again, Fenway is such a shrine that fans build small models of it and wear them as hats. Seriously.
Fenway my way
If you have managed to score a pair of tickets to a game, the next challenge is food. My advice: Pick up an Italian sausage with peppers and onions from the sidewalk cart of the famed Sausage King, parked outside Gate E for many games. But if you haven't gotten tickets, all is not lost: Walk along the Lansdowne Street wall of the ballpark and look for The Bleacher Bar. It's a hopping sports pub actually built into the left-center-field wall—its ceiling is the underside of the stadium seats, and a garage-door-size window looks straight onto the field. A few blocks away, Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks offers a more stylish setting; the airy restaurant and lounge is best known for its craft cocktails like the whiskey smash and the Sazerac, served at a long marble-topped bar.
Boston's first shopping mall
I have been a tourist in Boston for a week before I steel myself for Faneuil Hall Marketplace, the Revolutionary-era mall at the heart of downtown. On some level I think of Faneuil Hall as the most bogus thing in Boston—a kind of colonial-brick flypaper that attracts school groups and visiting uncles so the rest of us can have the city to ourselves.
The actual Historic Faneuil Hall is a real colonial meeting house, but if you see only the first-floor shops, it's easy to imagine that you've been sent to some kind of tourist hell of postcards, candy-by-weight, and a Ben Franklin impersonator with fake colonial buckles strapped to his shoes. I head outside, pull open the building's middle door, and ascend to an entirely different realm: a quiet, balconied meeting hall with portrait busts and a billboard-size painting of Daniel Webster. The hall was used by fist-pounding revolutionaries in the 1700s and still draws audiences—how many rooms in the world have hosted both George Washington and the Dalai Lama?
Back outside, I plunge into the center of the beehive: Quincy Market, a long indoor passageway framed by classical columns and holding dozens of food stalls—a food court in fancy clothing. I buy a cup of surprisingly good clam chowder, climb the stairs in the building's rotunda, and just sit. Above me is a magnificent oval dome of cream and robin's egg blue; sunlight streams through the oculus in the middle. Why have I never noticed this before?
The area is ringed by chain stores, but there are some local curiosities as well. Across the street, the large outdoor food bazaar known as the Haymarket puts on its chaotic show every Friday and Saturday. And then, of course, there is Durgin-Park. The restaurant, established in 1826, is famous for its rude waitresses, but I feel like I can detect real warmth in the way mine clangs the silverware down on the red-and-white-checked tablecloth. The food is thick and old-fashioned—the baked beans are sweet enough to be dessert, and the actual dessert is Indian pudding, an oddball dish of warm, molasses-flavored cornmeal with a scoop of ice cream. I wouldn't want to eat here every day, or even every month, but it's fun to be reminded of what "Boston" used to mean to cooks.
Shopping Boston my way
Though it has entertainment value, I would never send relatives to do any shopping in or around Faneuil Hall. To shop where Boston shops, head to the city's commercial center: Copley Square, flanked by Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library. Then walk up Newbury Street to see local landmarks like Newbury Comics, art galleries selling portraits of Boston's founding families, and designer boutiques alongside consignment shops. Or cross Boston Public Garden to Charles Street for an eclectic mix of shops like Good, which stocks home accessories and handmade jewelry and glassware, and Period Furniture Hardware, where you can dress up your old colonial with hard-to-find antique-style trimmings.
The world's oldest warship
Toward the far end of the Freedom Trail—and I do mean far; it takes me 20 minutes to walk across the bridge to Charlestown—the 211-year-old black hulk of the USS Constitution rises out of the water. This is the world's oldest warship still afloat, a three-masted frigate that has survived wars and Barbary pirates. When I get there, though, the first thing I think is: Old Ironsides is broken. The deck is covered with a temporary roof, and the ship's towering masts, normally 200 feet high, look like they've been snapped off.
It turns out that the deck is being re-floored—a fact of life for any old ship. In normal times, the Constitution can still sail, and it's staffed with an active-duty Navy crew.
I join a tour given by Tony Barnardo, a petty officer whose last deployment was on a carrier in the Persian Gulf. Tony clearly regards this ship as part of the same Navy he serves in—he speaks in the first person about its achievements. "We fired a broadside," he says of the Constitution's role in an 1812 battle. "We basically destroyed the HMS Guerriere in 35 minutes."
It takes nearly that long for our whole tour group to squeeze down the narrow, steep stairwell to the lower decks, where a strange world opens up. The life of a sailor, 200 years ago, was incredibly constrained: You lived amid ropes and iron and gunpowder, and slept four hours at a time in a hammock. You ate bread so hard that you needed to soak it in soup first. You could be as young as 8.
Boston is a port town but no longer a Navy one, so it's interesting to imagine a city whose marketplaces and theaters were flush with sailors. If you read the Boston papers, you know that history isn't just trivia here, either: News recently emerged that the bodies of British soldiers may have been located under the backyards of several family homes just a few hundred yards away from the ship.
Boston history my way
There are two worthwhile museums near the ship—a Navy exhibit on the Constitution's pier and a separate museum about the ship itself. Equally worthy is the rest of Charlestown, a charming, gaslit neighborhood of 19th-century town houses that's home to the Bunker Hill Monument. Stop for a burger at Warren Tavern, over 225 years old and one of the first buildings to go up in the rebuilding of Charlestown after the British burned it.
Learning to quack
My personal boycott of the Boston Duck Tours ends on a brisk, sunny Saturday morning when I climb into a huge red amphibious vehicle called the Tub of the Hub and surrender to the idea that I will ride noisily around my hometown yelling "quack!" at totally blameless pedestrians who will look at me and think, What a loser.
You've probably seen something like a duck tour—a land-and-water excursion where a bus loads up with about 30 people and, at some point in the itinerary, drives straight into the water and floats. The vehicle I'm on was built in the 1940s to carry freight for amphibious attacks like D-day. "You can't beat tootling around in a World War II military vehicle," says Lance Cheung, a visitor from Texas who has done this before. "You get more stares than if you were in a Lamborghini."
I notice a guy on the sidewalk wearing a motley assortment of sports jerseys—a Red Sox shirt over a Bruins jersey over green Celtics pants. Only in Boston, I think to myself, at which point he clambers up the steps and introduces himself as Mike, our tour guide.
It takes about 90 seconds for me to realize that Mike was born to do this job. Before the first traffic light has changed, he has trained the entire bus to quack loudly together on cue. (Yes, me too.) He shepherds traffic around the bus and brakes regularly so people onboard can get pictures—all while unleashing a tidal wave of history and sports lore. He flags the sites of America's oldest restaurant (the Union Oyster House, where in 1796, future French king Louis-Philippe lived in exile on the second floor) and oldest continually operating hotel (the Parker House, which has hosted nearly every U.S. president since Ulysses S. Grant).
By the time the thing circles beneath a highway ramp and finally plunges into the Charles River, I find myself mentally enumerating the people I would recommend this to. We float down the Charles between Boston and Cambridge, gazing at a panorama of the Back Bay that most visitors never see from the water.
As much as I hate to admit it, it takes a man dressed in full Boston sports team regalia to help me see the city in a way I've never seen it before. Anyone who spends an hour listening to Mike talk, or an afternoon walking the Freedom Trail, or just a moment taking in the architecture of Quincy Market, will actually get Boston in some important way. The city is a lot more than the campy, fake-shoe-buckles version of its past, but that part is inseparable from what it is now: a lively and idiosyncratic American city woven from the convoluted streets and dense neighborhoods of a little colonial outpost.
Boston Duck Tours
617/267-3825, bostonducktours.com, $30, kids 3–11 $20, under 3 $6
290-296 Hanover St., 617/227-7606, vittoriacafe.com
151 Richmond St., 617/523-8743, salumeriaitaliana.com
33 North Sq., 617/742-6421, carmenboston.com, entrées from $19
63 Salem St., 617/742-3474, neptuneoyster.com, entrées from $24
Outside Gate E on Lansdowne St.
340 Faneuil Hall Marketplace, 617/227-2038, durgin-park.com, entrées from $11
2 Pleasant St., Charlestown, 617/241-8142, warrentavern.com, burgers from $8
The Paul Revere House
19 North Sq., 617/523-2338, paulreverehouse.org, $3.50, kids $1
4 Yawkey Way, 877/733-7699, redsox.com, tickets from $12, tours $12, kids $10
Historic Faneuil Hall
Faneuil Hall Sq., 617/242-5690, cityofboston.gov, free
1 Constitution Rd., 617/242-5670, ussconstitution.navy.mil, free
Bunker Hill Monument
Monument Sq., Charlestown, 617/242-5641, nps.gov/bost, free
North, Blackstone, and Hanover Sts., Fridays and Saturdays dawn to dusk
332 Newbury St., 617/236-4930, newburycomics.com
88 Charles St., 866/426-4663, shopatgood.com
Period Furniture Hardware
123 Charles St., 617/227-0758, pfhco.com
The Bleacher Bar
82A Lansdowne St., 617/262-2424, bleacherbarboston.com
Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks
528 Commonwealth Ave., 617/532-9100, easternstandardboston.com