AAA Walking Tours
The Freedom TrailBrush up on your knowledge of history by following Boston's Freedom Trail. The national recreation trail passes many of the city's historic sites. Each stop represents a chapter in American history, with vivid reminders of events that led to American independence. Nowhere else in the city does the shout of “The British are coming! The British are coming!” resonate louder than along the Freedom Trail.
The trail, which begins at Boston Common and ends at Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown, is simple to follow. Red bricks or granite stones embedded into the sidewalk form a line that guides you from place to place; in some places the red line is painted onto the sidewalk or street.
Here, we divide the trail into two sections, which can be explored in one outing or divided over 2 days. Plan to spend most of the day walking the Boston portion (especially if you tour the attractions)—from Boston Common to Copp's Hill in the North End. The Charlestown section may take as long as a half-day if you decide to tour the USS Constitution and take in the many sights in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
Begin the tour at the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau information center on Boston Common at Tremont Street. The 44-acre park, bounded by Beacon, Charles, Boylston, Tremont and Park streets, once belonged to Boston's first white settler, William Blackstone, who arrived in 1622. When the Puritans disembarked in 1630, they settled in Charlestown but later moved their hamlet across the river due to the presence of a natural spring that provided much-needed drinking water. Originally called Shawmut, or “Living Waters,” by the Native Americans, Puritans renamed the area Boston after a town in England of the same name. The grassy area became common land—“the common”—occupied by grazing cattle and eventually used as a training field for the military.
And now, onward! Follow the red stripe through this pentagon-shaped green oasis that has the reputation of being the country's first public park. Note the absence of bovines. Cows were banished in 1830 after Beacon Hill (north of the park) became a well-to-do neighborhood; affluent residents opposed having farm animals inhabit their front yards.
Continue toward the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House. Once at Beacon Street, you'll approach an Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze relief sculpture known as the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial . Honoring the Civil War's first African American military unit recruited in the North and the regiment's commanding officer, Boston Brahmin Robert Gould Shaw, the memorial appears in the credits of the 1989 film “Glory.” The movie earned three Academy Awards for its depiction of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which led the July 18, 1863, assault on the Confederate stronghold Fort Wagner. Sgt. William Harvey Carney, who bravely protected the American flag during the bloody battle in which more than half of his compatriots were lost, often is regarded as the first African American Medal of Honor recipient.
The Massachusetts State House sits across Beacon Street opposite the memorial. Designed by Charles Bulfinch, a Boston native who studied architecture in England, the building's central (original) section features an arched brick portico supporting Corinthian columns. A cornice, balustrade, pediment, stunning golden dome and cupola finish the building, adding an imperial feel. The dome, originally covered in wooden shingles, was adorned with copper from Paul Revere's company in 1802 and was gilded following the Civil War. The State House holds prominence as a city landmark and is often referred to as the New State House to distinguish it from the Old State House on State Street.
The building sits on Beacon Hill (the tallest of Boston's three hills), land once owned by John Hancock, the colony's richest merchant. Beacon Hill earned its name from a primitive alarm signal that sat atop the hill. In the event the city was attacked, the “beacon” would be lighted as a signal for help. The area remains one of Boston's most well-heeled neighborhoods. Elegant Federal-style row houses line Beacon Street and Park Street, once known as Bulfinch Row.
Follow the trail back along Park Street to Tremont Street. Overlooking the Common's northeast corner, also known as “Brimstone Corner,” is the stately Park Street Church . The sobriquet was allegedly assigned as a result of fiery sermons dispensed by street preachers and soapbox orators; a more likely explanation is that brimstone (an ingredient in gunpowder) was stored in the church's crypt during the War of 1812.
The church was built in 1809 on the site of the town granary, which was removed after the State House was completed. Praised by Henry James as “the most interesting mass of brick and mortar in America,” this graceful, white-steepled church also is rich in history. William Lloyd Garrison launched his passionate crusade against slavery from the pulpit in 1829, and Samuel Smith's hymn “America” was first sung publicly during the church's 1832 Fourth of July celebration.
Next door, on land that was once part of Boston Common, is the Granary Burying Ground , where the first body was interred in 1660. This tree-shaded sanctuary is the final resting place for Revolutionary War heroes, nine Massachusetts governors, soldiers and residents of early Boston, some honored with curious epitaphs. Samuel Adams, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine—all signers of the Declaration of Independence—lie here, as do Paul Revere, Peter Faneuil, Ben Franklin's parents and the five victims of the Boston Massacre.
Extraordinary engravings on some of the headstones attract return visitors. Carvings of skeletons, urns, winged skulls and otherworldly cherubs add a bit of eerie aura to the grounds. Three types of grave markers exist: headstones, most of which have been moved so many times over the years that they no longer correspond to the actual graves; table tombs (appropriately shaped); and vaults, owned by families and usually containing several bodies.
As you wander around the cemetery, note the epitaph on the Franklin obelisk; it was written by their youngest son, Ben. Another interesting stone sits next to the tomb of John Hancock and marks the grave of “Frank, servant to John Hancock, Esqr.” The fact that the stone lacks a last name has led some to believe that Frank was Hancock's slave.
Turn left when exiting the graveyard and continue north. Follow Tremont Street to School Street. King's Chapel is the gray building on the corner. In the late 1600s, King James II ordered that there be an Anglican church built in the colony. Puritans were irate and refused to sell land for its construction; the governor provided an easy remedy in 1687 by seizing a portion of the adjacent burial ground, the city's oldest. Construction of the present granite church began shortly thereafter. Church of England services were held here for British officers and the governor, and, on his visit in 1789, President Washington sat in the Governor's Pew. The simple exterior hides an elaborate interior. Take note of the columns on the portico—they are actually wood painted to resemble stone.
Sharing space with the church is the King's Chapel Burying Ground . The first burial is said to have taken place just months after the area was settled, in 1630. This being said, most of those interred are Puritans, who we surmise might not be pleased to have their eternal resting place next door to an Anglican church.
This burial ground is akin to a museum featuring the works of 17th- and 18th-century craftsmen. Gravestones here are notable for their artistry rather than for the names they feature. One such epitaph, arguably the most striking in Boston, marks the grave of Joseph Tapping; etched into the stone is an elaborate depiction of Father Time surrounded by Latin expressions of fatality.
Other headstones to note belong to Mary Chilton, the first Pilgrim to touch Plymouth Rock; William Dawes, who accompanied Paul Revere on his daring midnight ride; and John Winthrop, the first Massachusetts governor. William Paddy's stone is said to be the oldest existing grave marker in Boston. (By the way, the large cage on the front right side of the graveyard is not a tomb but a ventilator shaft for the subway.)
As you walk down School Street, look down (if you haven't been doing so already, following the red stripe) and note the hopscotch-patterned mosaic marking the site of the country's first public school. The Boston Latin School opened its doors in 1635 and was honored by the subsequent naming of this street, which was laid out in 1640. Cotton Mather, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin were educated there. A few steps farther is Old City Hall , constructed in 1864 in the French Empire style. Gracing the courtyard is sculptor Richard Greenough's bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin, the first commemorative statue erected in the city. Bronze tablets depict his many achievements: printer, scientist, inventor, military officer, politician, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence. Across the courtyard is a statue of Josiah Quincy, Boston's second mayor.
At the corner of School and Washington streets is the site of the Old Corner Bookstore . The small brick house is a former residence and apothecary shop on land previously owned by William Hutchinson, whose wife, Anne, was banished from Boston in the 1630s by Puritans incensed at her divergent religious teachings. It later served as the headquarters of the estimable publishing firm Ticknor and Fields, becoming Boston's mid-19th-century literary center in the process. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Harriet Beecher Stowe all gathered here; both “The Scarlet Letter” and the words to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were printed by this publishing house. When the bookstore moved to larger quarters, the house began a slow decline that lasted until the early 1960s, when it was restored. Chipotle Mexican Grill currently occupies the space.
Diagonally across the street at 310 Washington St. is the Old South Meeting House . Built in 1729, this Georgian-style congregational church was the largest building in Colonial Boston and thus was frequently used as a town meeting site when crowds were too big for Faneuil Hall. Its principal associations are with the heated gatherings of political protestors in the years prior to the Revolution. Enraged citizens met here following the Boston Massacre and also on Dec. 16, 1773, when Bostonians met to consider the new British tax on tea; the Boston Tea Party immediately followed. The church was abused by British troops who occupied the town during the siege on Boston—livestock roamed the church, and its pews and pulpit were used for firewood and building stables. After 1776 the pulpit was re-created and the pews were rebuilt. The Old South Meeting House remained a church until the 1870s and now contains historical exhibits.
Follow the trail north on Washington Street to the Old State House at the head of State Street. Now surrounded by skyscrapers, the building once was the town's grandest edifice. Located in close proximity to markets and wharves, the building's lower floor originally functioned as a busy merchant's exchange. The Old State House gained its real measure of importance as the setting for stirring speeches and debates between royal officials and American patriots. The center of Colonial government, it was the meeting place of the Massachusetts Assembly, the Court of Suffolk County (later to become the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court) and the Boston town government.
Representatives of the Massachusetts Assembly originally met in the second floor rotunda. A visitor's gallery was installed in 1766 in Representatives Hall—the colonists took the opportunity to jeer at those who voted for the royalists.
The trail resumes on the north side of the Old State House. On the building's east gable beneath the clock is a balcony from which royalists made their official decrees to the colonists. On July 18, 1776, however, the tables were turned when the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly in Boston from the same balcony. The Boston Massacre occurred below the balcony in 1770. What began as a dispute over a barber bill led to a riot and left five dead. Patriots used the incident as propaganda to stir up anti-royalist feelings. A circle of stones marks the site. Looking up, you'll note the gilded lion and unicorn—symbols of Great Britain—atop the building. These are replicas, installed in 1882; the originals were torn down and burned in 1776.
The Old State House was eventually outgrown, and government business relocated to the newer Bulfinch-designed Massachusetts State House on Beacon Hill. After being rented to various merchants until the 1830s, the Old State House briefly became Boston's City Hall. When the building was threatened with demolition in 1880, the city of Chicago attempted to purchase it for use as a tourist attraction. A group of citizens were insulted; forming the Bostonian Society in 1881, they determined to preserve the Old State House.
A statue of Samuel Adams, the “organizer of the Revolution,” stands in front of the next stop, Faneuil Hall . Prosperous merchant Peter Faneuil donated the original building to the city in 1742, when it dominated the Boston waterfront.
Like the Old South Meeting House, it was the scene of tumultuous gatherings held to protest England's tightening control over the Colonies. Here, patriots protested the Sugar Act and set forth the principle of “no taxation without representation.” It also was the site of the first of the “Tea Meetings” on Nov. 5, 1773. After being fired up by oratory, angry crowds frequently emerged from the “Cradle of Liberty” and engaged in reckless action; the governor's mansion was virtually destroyed by one mob after the 1765 passage of the Stamp Act.
Atop the hall, the gilt grasshopper weather vane is a Boston landmark. In place since 1742, it was a symbol used to screen out spies, for every true Bostonian could surely identify the figure crowning Faneuil Hall. The sturdy weather vane has survived an earthquake, a fire and a grasshopper-napping in 1974 (it was thankfully found unharmed). Green glass doorknobs serve as the insect's eyes; inside the stomach are coins and other mementos.
Opposite Faneuil Hall between Clinton and Chatham streets is Quincy Market . Constructed in 1825, the huge building features a domed central pavilion and Greek porticoes. For nearly 150 years this area served as a retail and wholesale distribution center for meat and produce. Renovated in the 1970s, Quincy Market today is the hub of Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which also encompasses two additional long buildings (North Market and South Market). Food stalls, shops, restaurants, pushcart vendors, and a gaggle of street entertainers and musicians all add up to a shopping and eating extravaganza. A cigar-smoking likeness of former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach rests on one of the South Market benches.
From the marketplace, follow the trail along Union Street. Between Union and Congress streets is a small island known as Carmen Park, the home of The New England Holocaust Memorial, an ethereal monument comprising six etched glass towers dedicated to the Jews who lost their lives in Nazi death camps.
To the right of Union Street is the city's old business district, known as the Blackstone Block, where pigs and chickens as well as people walked the tiny, winding dirt alleys in the 17th and 18th centuries. This part of Boston grew up along the narrow “neck” that once separated the Shawmut Peninsula from the North End. Street names echo previous landscapes and residents: Marsh Lane, Creek Square, Salt Lane and Scott Alley.
Items easily pictured on a sign were often chosen for tavern names (for example, Bell in Hand or Boston Stone). Some names have been reincarnated and can be seen marking the entrances of newer establishments—one such watering hole is The Green Dragon Tavern, which takes its name from one of Boston's most famous pubs where secret meetings took place during the Revolution. The Union Oyster House , built around 1713, is one of the oldest restaurants in the country; it is rumored that Daniel Webster was a regular patron.
Bearing right onto Marshall Street, just past The Green Dragon Tavern, you'll see the Ebenezer Hancock House , a three-story brick house situated at an angle to the street. Built around 1760, it was occupied by John Hancock's brother, the deputy-paymaster-general of the Continental Army.
Continue to Blackstone Street. On Fridays and Saturdays The Haymarket takes place along Blackstone between North and Hanover streets. Vendors no longer sell hay, but the open-air gathering continues—the Boston institution is a swirl of sights, sounds and smells. Savvy shoppers and no-nonsense North End vendors banter over displays of fruits and vegetables. Saturday is busier, and by the end of the day the area is usually strewn with garbage and leftover produce. First-timers should heed these two pieces of advice: Do not touch the displays, and watch for a “heavy thumb” on the scale.
After passing over Blackstone Street, walk through a portion of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway—several acres of linear urban green space traversing the path of the old elevated Central Artery—toward Cross Street. You're now entering North End, Boston's Italian district. The heart of Boston's first neighborhood, Hanover Street is lined with Italian groceries and little cafés.
Following the Revolution, the North End succumbed to poverty and vice; visiting sailors populated brothels and gambling dens. Richmond Street was known as the “murder district,” and North Street was called Ann Street after not-so-ladylike ladies. After 1851, North Street was widened, its name changed, and the brothels were demolished. The district now attracts tourists and is a respectable community.
At the corner of North and Richmond streets, look to the right to see the cupola atop Faneuil Hall. Then proceed on North Street to the Paul Revere House , the two-story clapboard structure on the left overlooking North Square. Revere was a silversmith by trade but also dabbled in engraving, copper plating and working as express rider delivering messages for the patriots. His most famous jaunt took place April 18, 1775; thanks to poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, nearly every school-aged child is familiar with his midnight ride.
Built in 1680, the house is a rare example of early Colonial urban architecture and is said to be Boston's oldest building. Puritan ministers Increase Mather and his son Cotton also lived on this site. Behind the house are pretty gardens planted with medicinal herbs and flowers used during Colonial days. Next to the Paul Revere House is the Pierce/Hichborn House. Built about 1711, it is one of the city's earliest surviving brick structures and is an excellent example of early Georgian architecture.
Also on North Square is the brick Mariners' House, which served as a refuge for sailors. Note the anchor on front; it still offers accommodations to seamen. Across the square is the church where Father Edward Taylor once preached to Boston's seamen; it now is an Italian Catholic church.
Following the trail, the next point of interest is St. Stephen's Church , which is situated at the curve of Hanover Street. This red brick church with a white cupola and golden dome was originally called the “New North Church” to distinguish from the Old North Church. Built in 1804, it is the only Bulfinch-designed church still standing in Boston. Revere's firm, Revere Copper and Brass, cast the bell that was hung in the belfry in 1805; a display inside shows pieces of the Revere copper that originally covered the dome.
Across Hanover Street from St. Stephen's Church are the brick walls of Paul Revere Mall (also called the Prado) , which lies between Hanover and Unity streets. Laid out in the early 1930s, this restful, tree-shaded enclave features bronze plaques saluting the achievements of various North Enders. Near the Hanover Street boundary is Cyrus Dallin's dashing equestrian statue of Revere.
A gate at the opposite side of the mall leads to a courtyard behind the Old North Church . Ascend the stairs to the church—perhaps Boston's most “revered” landmark. Built in 1723 and officially called Christ Church, it's the oldest church building in Boston (hence the nickname). The Old North Church played a key role in Paul Revere's celebrated midnight ride, the subject of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's much-recited lyrical poem. The poet described how church sexton Robert Newman hung lanterns in the belfry arch of the Old North Church—“one if by land, two if by sea”—as a signal from Revere that the British were about to march. The lanterns flickered for a short moment, then Newman fled the church (supposedly by climbing out a window), while Revere mounted his horse “And so through the night went his cry of alarm, To every Middlesex village and farm.”
The church's exterior, inspired by the London churches designed by British architect Christopher Wren, was constructed using locally-made bricks. Inside, numerous historical treasures can be seen, including brass nameplates that designate family pews—the Reveres occupied No. 54. Along the church's right aisle is the window through which Newman fled the church; bricked over in 1815, it was rediscovered in 1989 during restoration work. Newman also is remembered with a plaque in the small garden on the church's north side. Looking up, you'll see the 191-foot-tall steeple, which was blown over twice by hurricanes but was rebuilt according to original plans; the eight belfry bells were cast in 1744 and range in weight from 620 to 1,545 pounds each. They bear the inscription: “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America.”
Heading uphill on Hull Street, turn around to catch a great view of the Old North Church. Copp's Hill Burying Ground (sometimes called “Corpse Hill”) is on the right, on a promontory overlooking Boston Harbor. Atop North End's highest point, the graveyard is named for a shoemaker who originally owned the land; it was established as a cemetery in 1660 when the King's Chapel Burying Ground became overcrowded.
Copp's Hill holds the graves of Old North Church sexton Robert Newman; Increase Mather, his son Cotton and Cotton's son Samuel, all three Puritan clergymen and educators; and Prince Hall, who led Boston's early free African American community. During the Revolution, British soldiers camped here. Notice the headstone for Capt. Daniel Malcolm; it is said that damage to this grave marker was incurred when redcoat troops used it for target practice.
There is a pleasant view of the harbor and of Charlestown Navy Yard from this location—look for the distinctive rigging of the USS Constitution.
Continue past the cemetery to Commercial Street. At this point, the Freedom Trail travels across the Charlestown Bridge and visits the USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument. We recommend stopping here and embarking on the Charlestown portion another day. From this point, it's best to take the “T” back to Boston Common (Park Street stop) or Faneuil Hall (State Street stop). The closest station is North Station just a few hundred yards away on Causeway Street; to get there from the corner of Commercial and Hull streets, continue south on Commercial Street, which turns into Causeway Street.
Begin the Charlestown portion of the tour by crossing the Charlestown Bridge, following the red stripe.
At the foot of the bridge in Charlestown is City Square, the Puritans' point of settlement in 1629. They named the area after King Charles, who issued the colony's charter. Due to the lack of fresh water, most of the original settlers moved to what is now Boston Common, and until the Revolution, Charlestown remained mostly unpopulated grassland.
Once across the bridge, the trail comes to a fork (it circles Charlestown). So that you don't miss the informative guided tour of the USS Constitution, we recommend visiting the ship first. To do so, turn right at the first traffic light onto Chelsea Street. Proceed for one block, then turn right onto Warren Street. At the end of Warren, turn left onto Constitution Road, following the path to the USS Constitution .
Built at Edmund Hartt's shipyard in the North End—a short distance from its present berth at Pier One—the ship was launched in 1797. Constructed from live oak, red cedar, white oak, pitch pine and locust wood, the 54-gun warship was designed to defeat equal opponents and out-sail stronger ones. Paul Revere provided the original copper sheathing. The Constitution gained undying fame and the nickname “Old Ironsides” (a reaction to the resiliency of the ship's wooden sides) as a result of engagements with the British during the War of 1812.
After exploring the Charlestown Navy Yard site, which also encompasses the USS Cassin Young and the USS Constitution Museum, continue along the trail to the Bunker Hill Monument . You'll pass charming 19th-century Victorian homes and a delightful park called Winthrop Square, once a military training field. Facing the square on Adams Street are decorative Greek Revival and Italianate town houses.
The Battle of Bunker Hill is misnamed; the battle actually took place on neighboring Breed's Hill. Critical to the British occupation of Boston was control of the hills on the Charlestown peninsula; patriots under Col. William Prescott fortified the peninsula by hastily constructing fence-rail shelters and taking up sniper positions at Breed's Hill, which was smaller and closer to the city.
The British advanced. In order to save ammunition and keep a steady barrage capable of breaking the enemy's charge, the American strategy was to withhold fire and use their weapons carefully—a tactic that gave rise to the legendary order not to shoot until they saw “the whites of their eyes.” After the command, the patriots fired with first-rate accuracy.
Prescott and his men finally retreated north toward Cambridge, while British forces entrenched themselves as far as Bunker Hill. They had captured the hill and won the battle, but at great cost: Nearly half of the 2,200 redcoats who fought were either killed or wounded. Of an estimated 2,500 to 4,000 colonists engaged, 400 to 600 were casualties. Although a technical victory for the British, the battle provided an important psychological boost to American patriots: They proved they could face the British in traditional field combat.
In 1823 the Bunker Hill Monument Association was formed to purchase the battleground and erect a permanent monument. Solomon Willard's 221-foot-tall obelisk was dedicated June 17, 1843, with a speech by Daniel Webster. A statue of Colonel Prescott stands in front of the granite tower. Inside, a flight of 294 steps leads to the top—the climb is taxing, but the views are impressive.
The monument is the last stop on the tour. To return to downtown Boston, follow the red-striped trail back through Charlestown, cross the bridge and take the “T,” following the above directions. A more scenic option is to retrace your steps to the Navy Yard and catch the water shuttle operated by MBTA. The boat, which departs from Pier 4 at the Navy Yard, will take you to Long Wharf on the downtown waterfront, which is a few blocks east of Faneuil Hall. Ferries depart the Navy Yard Mon.-Fri. every 30 minutes 6:45 a.m.-8:15 p.m., Sat.-Sun. every 30 minutes 10:15-6:15. Adult one-way fare is $3.70-$9.75. Phone (617) 222-5000 or (800) 392-6100 for more information.
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