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Boston: Destination of independence

Today's Fourth of July celebrations will be particularly resonant in Boston, a city where revolution meets the Red Sox
  • @vinerbrian

Many British visitors to the United States have a habit of sneering at the manifest pride Americans take in their own history, and in particular the reverence they show to constructions a couple of centuries old that, compared with the Tower of London, let alone Stonehenge, are practically new-builds. Yet in Boston it is hard not to be impressed by this respect for the past – more than in any other American city, including Philadelphia, where independence was declared 236 years ago today.

Although the Continental Congress was convened in Pennsylvania, the Massachusetts state capital looms large in the story of independence. The American Revolution's most enduringly romantic hero is surely Paul Revere, the Bostonian silversmith whose gallop through the night to alert colonial militia that the redcoats were coming was later immortalised, stirringly if hyperbolically, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1861 poem Paul Revere's Ride. Nor was there a more eloquent statement of resistance to the British than the Boston Tea Party, an oddly genteel name for the unceremonious dumping, in November 1773, of 342 chests of tea into Boston harbour, a protest against a parliamentary tax enshrined earlier that year by the Tea Act.

With a sufficiently charismatic guide, these stories and many more are brought to life along the Freedom Trail, Boston's much-vaunted red-brick path, two and a half miles long, which connects most of the city's most venerated historic sites. It is the sine qua non of any visit to Boston, even if you've gone there only for the shopping. And a guide not too bogged down by revolutionary history might also point out the house in Beacon Hill where Ally McBeal lived, in the 1990s television series.

For most television enthusiasts, however, Ally McBeal's house is trumped by a nearby bar that in its original incarnation, as the Bull & Finch Pub, was, in the early 1980s, chosen by NBC executives for the exterior shots of a new sitcom, Cheers. Astutely, the Bull & Finch's owner, Tom Kershaw, charged NBC just a dollar a year for the privilege, in return for the licence to sell Cheers souvenirs. It was a stroke of entrepreneurial genius, if not quite on a par with that of Mark Zuckerberg and his friends across the Charles river at Harvard University, who in 2004 created a social-networking website for students and called it Facebook.

That's the thing about Boston: its place in American popular culture is as assured as its place in the nation's history. To appreciate this, the best vantage point is the Skywalk Observatory atop the Prudential Tower. When it was finished in 1964, this was the tallest building in the world outside New York City; now, it doesn't even rank among the 50 tallest buildings in the US. It still offers a cracking view, though, all the way to New Hampshire and in the foreground taking in Fenway Park – the 100-year-old home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team and probably America's most iconic sporting arena.

Many Bostonians will tell you that high summer is the perfect time to visit their city, simply because, with many Red Sox fans out of town, tickets are easier to obtain. You don't even have to understand baseball – a ball game at Fenway Park is more than anything a warm immersion in Americana.

There isn't much that is more fundamental to America's identity than baseball, but nothing at all is more fundamental than immigration, and a permanent exhibition all the way around the 360-degree Skywalk highlights the part it has played in Boston's evolution, from the sublime to the Starship Enterprise. The celebrated Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius arrived from Nazi Germany in 1934, some years after the Russian parents of Leonard Nimoy, who grew up in a shabby tenement and became Mr Spock in Star Trek. Other foreigners were drawn by Boston's extraordinary abundance of seats of learning – it has no fewer than 57 colleges and universities, unparalleled anywhere else in America and surely the world. Alexander Graham Bell once taught at Boston University; Elie Wiesel still does.

It was, though, hardship in Ireland and Italy that provided the main impetus for immigration to Boston; had it not been for the Irish potato famine, the Fitzgeralds from County Limerick and the Kennedys from County Wexford might have stayed put, and Boston would have been denied its most famous son, instantly identifiable simply by his initials: JFK.

If the Skywalk Observatory kills an engrossing hour or two, and the Freedom Trail an entire morning, it's best to put a whole day aside for a visit to the spectacular John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. For a start it's dramatically located by the Atlantic, well out of the city centre, though easily enough reached on Boston's excellent subway system, "the T". More than that, though, it's a treasure house for anyone interested in the Kennedy presidency. And this year is a poignant time to visit: October marks the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, chronicled by the museum in minute and terrifying detail.

The Irish influx may have given the US its first Catholic president, but it was the Italians who gave it spaghetti and meatballs. In my three-day visit to Boston I also took a fascinating food tour of the South End, the district in which, by 1920, nine out of 10 residents were either Italian immigrants or their children. I learnt that much of what we now think of as Italian food is actually Italian-American, with meat added to pasta, which in the old country would have been unthinkable.

I also stopped, and stuffed myself, at Maria's Pastry Shop on Cross Street, my guide's favourite South End bakery, and infinitely superior, so he kept saying, to the much-better-known, super-touristy Mike's Pastry Shop. Apparently, Maria changes her recipes every day according to the weather, convinced that weather conditions affect the flour. It was my kind of tour, and never mind Chicago, Boston is my kind of town, the sort of place to make even a visiting Englishman raise a glass on the Fourth of July.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Brian Viner was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental, Boston (001 617 535 8888; mandarinoriental.com/boston). British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/boston) offers a three-night stay at the hotel from £1,059 per person, based on two people sharing, for travel between 5 September and 12 October and including BA flights from Heathrow. Bookings must be made by 10 July.

Other flight options include American Airlines, Delta and Virgin Atlantic, all from Heathrow.

Getting around

Walking tours of Boston's historic sites include Boston by Foot (001 617 367 2345; bostonbyfoot.org), which offers 90-minute tours from $12 (£7.70), and the Freedom Trail (001 617 357 8300; thefreedomtrail.org), where hour-long tours with costumed guides start at $13 (£8.30). The three-hour food tour of the North End costs $50 (£32) through Yummy Walks (001 212 209 3370; foodtoursboston.com).

The Skywalk Observatory, 800 Boylston St (001 617 859 0648; prudentialcenter.com). Admission $14 (£9).

John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum (001 617 514 1600; jfklibrary.org). Admission $12 (£7.70).

Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox (bostonredsox.com).

More information

Tourism Boston: bostonusa.com