Spring breaks: Boston glee party

To make the most of America's most accessible city, Simon Calder prescribes a 10-point plan
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The Independent Travel

"The real estate guys call us up in the Tower and ask which runways we're using today, so they don't take clients to homes which lie under the current flight approach." The air traffic controller at Boston was explaining one of the consequences of a city with an airport that is practically downtown. For people selling – or buying – property, noise from Logan International Airport can be a problem. But for travellers seeking a spring break, the proximity helps make Boston the best transatlantic option.

"The real estate guys call us up in the Tower and ask which runways we're using today, so they don't take clients to homes which lie under the current flight approach." The air traffic controller at Boston was explaining one of the consequences of a city with an airport that is practically downtown. For people selling – or buying – property, noise from Logan International Airport can be a problem. But for travellers seeking a spring break, the proximity helps make Boston the best transatlantic option.

Art and architecture; food and drink; company and intimacy – those are the essentials for a short break. Many would add culture and history, not always something for which you turn to America, as anyone who has been to Phoenix will testify. You might also be put off a transatlantic weekend by the sheer distance and time. But Boston is the first big US city that westbound planes reach; the proximity of the airport to downtown means that you are sitting at one of Boston's formidable array of bars before the New York-bound traveller has even landed at the singular form of purgatory known as Kennedy International Airport.

The Kennedy clan call Boston home – and for European visitors it feels comfortable, too. Like all the best cities, the Massachusetts state capital has emerged organically from a seed of human settlement (in this case, the oldest continuously operating port in the Americas), rather than being imposed geometrically upon the terrain. Consequently, anyone who concedes that roads can meander and change names at will is at an advantage over many US visitors to the most liveable US city.

Any trip is easier with a set of rules, so I shall issue 10 for first-time visitors to Boston. Rule one: wake up and smell the flowers. The initial meander that you should make – apart from the one returning from the pub on your evening of arrival – is through Boston's "emerald necklace" of parkland. The city is speckled with greenery. In size, none of them is up to Central Park dimensions – but the creator of New York's prime open space devised something even more special here.

Frederick Law Olmsted was the 19th-century father of landscape architecture in America. His greatest achievement was the green ribbon of parkland that wraps around Boston, a five-mile delight that is best viewed in the two months following St Patrick's Day. Boston is further south than other city-break favourites, such as Nice, Bilbao and Florence (not to mention Dublin), and by the second half of March spring is making a spirited attempt to flourish. You can pick up the trail at the Visitor Center on Boston Common – or spend just half an hour enjoying the flora and (you never know your luck) the sun in the Public Garden, the blooming western addition to Boston Common.

The second rule is never to overlook the screamingly obvious – which, in Boston, means the Freedom Trail. Millions of tourists' feet have taken this stroll through the jumble of history and geography that makes 21st-century Boston so special. For those in a jetlagged (and possibly hungover) trance, the additional benefit is that it is mostly easy to follow – a big red stripe on the sidewalk sees to that. Downtown streets meander erratically. Gleaming high-rises are tempered by doddery old terraces, frequently interrupted by neat redbrick relics of revolution – and also impeded by the biggest civil engineering project in America.

Which leads to rule three: you can't make a great city without digging holes. In the Sixties, someone suggested that some of Boston's bedraggled shoreline could be improved by the addition of an elevated freeway; the city's repentance takes the form of the "Big Dig", a $10bn project aiming to bury the road like so much bad news. The 30 acres of open space thus released will be filled with gardens circa 2004, but at present, chaos reigns.

Meanwhile, the fourth rule is all the more important to survive this urban jungle – find a National Park Ranger. Parts of the city are as much National Parks as Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the National Historical Park Visitor Center is staffed by a dozen rangers. Starting in April, they will lead guided tours of the best of Boston, for free. Highlights include Fanueil Hall (in Boston, the name rhymes with "annual"), the simple meeting house, where the first steps towards a constitution were taken; and Paul Revere's House, home to America's first Renaissance man, who could turn his hand to metalwork as dexterously as he could foment rebellion against the British.

Rule five: eat with the locals. At lunch, that probably means Al Capone. Not the well-known gangster, who was a Brooklyn boy turned Chicago heavy, but the pizzeria that bears his name at 102 Broad Street. Or try out the Mediterranean fare at Milk Street Cafe in Post Office Square. The best Sabbath option is Geoffrey's Cafe-Bar at 578 Tremont Street, where brunch lasts until 4pm on weekends. And, on the basis that if something is good enough for Bostonians to stand in line for then it must be special, don't miss dinner at the Daily Catch at 323 Hanover Street – a friendly place where the queue for some of the freshest seafood in town stretches into the street.

Six, seven and eight in the list of instructions are all "don'ts". Don't think, "Oh, we'll book somewhere to stay when we get there": there is a chronic shortage of accommodation in Boston, which means "walk-up" rates for hotels can be very high, especially if a convention is in town. Don't go to Cheers, the gruesomely touristic pub on which the TV series was allegedly based. And don't bother to taste the "Boston Tea Party" attraction; were it not such a sad spectacle, it would be treasonable.

Rule nine is that the best view of Boston is from outside the city: specifically from the Charles River embankment in Cambridge, the brainiest lobe of a frighteningly intelligent city. You need do nothing tougher than amble along the Cambridge Parkway, evading high-powered joggers and cyclists as you enjoy a superb view of Boston across the water.

Tenth and final rule: as you conduct your weekend shopping spree in the Cambridge Side Galleria shopping mall, don't spend more than $300 – or, if you do, tell customs at home about it. They understand weekenders' propensity to bust the £145 limit, and are queuing up at Heathrow and Gatwick gently to enquire about your shopping habits. Don't be tempted to lie – unless you can fib like a Boston real estate salesman.

American Airlines, British Airways United and Virgin Atlantic fly from Lodnon Heathrow to Boston. Expect to pay about £275 through discount agents for flights between now and the end of May (or more over Easter); fares rise steeply in July and August. A good agent will be sell a package deal with two nights' accommodation for around £350.

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