America:start here

In the city where it all began: Boston, Birthplace of the Revolution. With the US celebrating its independence this week, Simon Calder took a trip around a city often overlooked by travellers
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The Independent Travel
American cities get the televisual image they deserve. Miami is indeed steeped in vice, Dallas is all glamour and no heart, while on a bad day (of which there are many) New York is a gridlock of seething tension. Meanwhile Boston, the "Birthplace of the Revolution", serves as a homely venue for a genial bunch of drinkers. Switching from TV images to the real thing is easy; the short flight means you could visit the Massachusetts state capital for a weekend without becoming as grumpy as an American werewolf on your return.

As an introduction to America, Boston is warm, welcoming and thoroughly misleading. Downtown streets meander as recklessly as those in European cities; gleaming high-rises are tempered by doddery old terraces and interrupted by neat redbrick relics of revolution.

Get your bearings on the Freedom Trail, a thin red line on the "sidewalk", linking 16 historical sites. Unlike most US cities, Boston boasts truckloads of history.

Rebellion took root in Boston. The first real city in the United States, it was the venue for the 1773 Tea Party when the revolutionary stirrings were brewed into the treasonable act of casting 342 chests of tea into the harbour, in protest against the imposition of tax by the British. This grievance was symbolic of the colonists' resentment of Britain's imperial stranglehold on power. The first steps towards independence are celebrated at the Tea Party Ship on Museum Wharf.

A replica of one of the British ships is the venue for an unimaginative plod through early American history; the most entertaining feature is one of those seaside tableaux into which tourists place their heads and pretend to be 18th-century dignitaries. The locals seem to have lost their tea-making abilities. At the end of the tour you are given a plastic cup of a distressingly insipid liquid.

Step across to the museum next door and you jump from the Revolution to the Depression. Yet this transition is edifying, not depressing, as it immerses you in the electrifying circuitry of the Computer Museum. The first electronic processors, you learn, were devised to deal with the administrative nightmare of social security payments facing the US government in the Thirties. At one time during the development of digital technology, it was thought that only a dozen people in the planet were intelligent enough to operate a computer. These days, children clamber over the giant keys of a mega-sized microcomputer and demonstrate a worrying degree of aptitude.

To meet some more truly brainy people, hop on the "T". No pun is intended by the Tea Party city for the name of its Transit system, a creaky underground that is almost as old as London's. The flat fare of 85 cents (50p) whisks you beneath the Charles River to the intellectual hub of America: Cambridge, home to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Harvard Square feels like a European plaza, fringed by cafes and populated every warm summer's evening by promenaders, poseurs and professors.

The chefs of the world have beaten a path to the elaborately decorated doors of the academic population. If you can pick it or catch it, you can order it in Cambridge. Many carnivores settle for the churrasqueria, a Brazilian frenzy of succulent pork, beef and chicken. Endlessly circulating waiters bring salvers or spits filled with creatures (or parts thereof), dripping with fat, juice and temptation. As a form of shock treatment, this overdose could turn you into a vegetarian.

The remainder of Boston's 100,000 students reside across the city at the University of Massachusetts, a mostly drab modern campus that contains a moving monument to one man. The Kennedy Library is a dazzling white wedge on the shoreline, its acres of glass reflecting the sombre Atlantic. The life of the former governor of Massachusetts and US president is traced in tender detail; JFK's weaknesses and tangled psyche are exposed as vividly as his immense strengths.

The most telling image is of the president and his brother, Robert, lost in conversation on the White House lawn. Before the decade was out, both would be dead - along with Martin Luther King and many American dreams.

The compatriots of the Kennedy clan are in evidence all over Boston, and the city's many excellent Irish bars have the considerable selling point of not serving tea. The true weekend tourist, though, will head for the Bull and Finch on Beacon Street. This is the model used for the pub in Cheers, and the connection is milked as assiduously as the pints are pulled.

One thing you never see on television is the check on the door. For the first time in many years, I got "carded". So paranoid are American victuallers about selling to under-age drinkers that even those who evidently bade farewell to adolescence some time ago are sometimes challenged. If you cannot produce an ID card, you do not get in. I could, and did, and supped a dark, malty brew that had little to do with the average American fizz and cost about the same as a decent pint in Britain. "In Massachusetts," explained a man in a liquor store, "alcohol isn't taxed because it's considered a necessity." So is a passport.

The heart of the city is perched on a thumb of land protruding into the harbour, so the waterside is never far away. From the quayside, Boston seems compact, manageable and handsome - adjectives scarce in most American cities. Boston feels sufficiently like home to convince the first-time visitor that muggers, mafiosi and millionaires do not lurk around every dark and threatening corner. Why so few people begin their American excursions in the city is as much of a mystery as why you cannot get a decent cup of tea. Cheers.

How to get there

Simon Calder paid pounds 330 for a return ticket on Northwest Airlines from Gatwick through Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322). The same agency is selling charters on American TransAir to Boston for pounds 307, departing 4 July.

Where to stay

Simon Calder paid $89 (about pounds 55) per night for a room at the Park Plaza in the centre of Boston, a special late-booking rate obtained through the airport accommodation bureau.

Who to ask

Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, 0171-978 5233.

What to read

Boston Access Guide by Richard Saul Wurman (HarperCollins, 1995 edition pounds 9.99).


Boston Common, where the Freedom Trail starts, is the oldest public park in the United States. Pick up the trail, and the Trail Guide at the Visitor Information Booth close to Park Street "T" station - the first underground railway station in the US, aged 98 on 1 September.

Granary Burial Ground, where three independence fighters commemorated elsewhere in the city are buried: Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, in whose name a beer and brewery rejoice. Also here are the victims of the "Boston Massacre", when five protesting colonists were killed by British troops in 1770.

Fanueil Hall, the stout, simple meeting house, built in 1742, is where the first steps towards a constitution were taken.

Paul Revere's House, home to America's first Renaissance man, who turned his hand to metalwork as dextrously as he fomented revolution. His tiny home is dwarfed by its neighbouring buildings and is often swamped by tourists.

National Historical Park Visitor Center, staffed by outsized boy- and girl-scouts, National Park Rangers who explain the whole revolutionary process to befuddled Brits and lead tours of the Freedom Trail.

Old State House, from where the Declaration of Independence will be read out on Tuesday 4 July.