It's a perfect autumn destination: the golden city where Harvard students ponder their glorious futures and whales splash in the bay. By Vincent Golding

WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Autumn is a season of frenetic activity in Boston, and the New England climate is now at its temperate best. Walk, rather than drive, around the golden-leaved streets of this compact American city and enjoy the genteel diversions it offers; the Boston Ballet season began two days ago, and the Charles River Regatta takes place on 23 and 24 October. To find out more about what's on in Boston, call the Massachusetts Port Authority office in London (0171-431 3434) or visit their website: www.bostonusa.com.

BEAM DOWN

There is healthy competition on flights to Boston: four airlines fly direct from London to Logan Airport (1) : American Airlines, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic. Continental also sells some space on the Virgin flight, and has a "direct" service from Manchester (though you have to change planes in Newark). There are also good deals on Icelandair via Rekjavik and KLM via Amsterdam; a base price is around £200 return, including tax. On arrival, take the free shuttle bus to Airport Station and then the MBTA blue line train (a three-day pass is $9 - around £5.50) into town.

CHECK IN

For a real Bostonian experience, book in at a Victorian "brown house" B&B (a small, discreet hotel), of which three good examples are: 82 Chandler Street (2) at South End (00 1 617 482 0408); the Beacon Townhouse Inn (3) at 1087 Beacon St, Back Bay (00 1 617 232 0292); and the Newbury Guest House (4) at 261 Newbury St, Back Bay (00 1 617 437 7666). You should expect to pay $100-$150 (£60-£90) per night for a standard double room at any of these. Alternatively, enjoy universal service with a smile and improbably big breakfast buffets at one of the many central chain hotels (to book, call Citywide Reservation Services: 00 1 617 267 7424). Try to book before you go; in testament to the city's autumnal popularity, hotels fill up quickly.

TAKE A RIDE

...up the John Hancock Tower (5) at 200 Clarendon Street (open from 9am-10pm, $5, £3), a striking glass monolith that reflects the sky it scrapes. After a stomach-raising, ear-popping ascent, all of Boston unfolds below the 740ft observatory: pick out the old docks of "Tea Party" fame, Italian-influenced North End, and Downtown, the financial district. A pride-filled recorded voice helps to explain the view as you gaze across Boston Common toward the wealthy residential area of Beacon Hill, the West End theatre district and Chinatown. To the north is the Charles River, Cambridge and its universities; to the west, the reclaimed land of the fens; and beyond, the suburbs of Jamaica Plain.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Grits, subs, burgers, bagels, doughnuts, ice-cream, smoothies: wherever you are in Boston, you'll find fast, inexpensive food. There is something for sale on every corner, so don't stop moving or eating. Try pizza in the North End (6) at Galleria Umberto, 289 Hanover Street, whatever takes your fancy at the Kam Lung Bakery and Restaurant (7) at 77 Harrison Street, Chinatown or take a seat beneath the golden dome of the State House at Curious Liquids, (8) 22B Beacon Street. One to avoid, unless commercial tack is your thing, is The Bull and Finch Bar (9) at 84 Beacon Street, which supposedly inspired the famed TV series, Cheers .

TAKE A HIKE

At the Tremont Street side of Boston Common, by the Visitors' Information Center (10) (00 1 617 536 4100), the Freedom Trail begins. Pick up a map or join one of the four daily tours that lead you, with the help of a red-brick line, through three centuries of Boston's colonial and revolutionary history that led to independence. Among the 16 sights are Faneuil Hall (11) and market, the Old North Church (12) in the heart of the North End. Other walks include the Black Heritage Trail and the Irish Immigrant Trail.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Filene's Basement (13) , at 426 Washington Street, is a 90-year-old Boston legend in bargain-basement shopping, and the place to go for Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein or Donna Karan. But hurry - the store is currently facing financial uncertainty, and these really could be the final reductions. Next door on Washington Street is Macey's (14) , another mecca of US consumption. If you're still not up to your credit limit, then pass through Copley Place Shopping Galleries (15) , at 100 Huntington Ave, on your way to the super-chic enclave of Newbury Street's designer boutiques.

AN APERITIF

The new term has begun at Harvard and the MIT, and Cambridge is alive with re-runs of Love Story and Animal House . Work off dinner - or up to it - with an evening stroll around Harvard Square, to watch the numerous musicians, mime artists and comedians. For a late-night tipple and live music try The House of Blues (16) at 96 Winthrop Street, or mosey up Quincey Street and over a ramp through the floodlit faculty of Visual Arts (17) , architect Le Corbusier's only building in the USA, then down Cambridge Street to the calm Inman Square (18) , with its restaurants and bars.

DEMURE DINNER

Make a reservation at Up Stairs at the Pudding (19) (10 Holyoke Street, Cambridge; 00 1 617 864 1933) for an amazing glimpse into the privileged past of the Ivy League. The restaurant continues a dining tradition that began with the Hasty Pudding Club, a secret thespian society dating back to 1795. Its traditional collegiate atmosphere contrasts with the relaxed welcome you'll get from the ever-present proprietor, Mary-Catherine Deibel. Try steamed Wellfleet Littleneck clams followed by lobster or cowboy steak, then bittersweet chocolate amaretti terrine - all for around $70 (£40) a head. For a more central alternative, try Sonsie (20) at 327 Newbury Street, Back Bay. It boasts a stylish, buzzing crowd and a menu that ranges deliciously from red snapper to brick-oven pizza.

SUNDAY MORNING...

...get some sea air with a whale-watching cruise out into Boston Harbour and the Atlantic Ocean. Whale sightings are virtually guaranteed at Stellwagen Bank - a natural playground for humpbacks, finbacks and minke whales - and, after three hours at sea, you'll feel like you're up to PhD level in marine biology. Some trips also stop off at a couple of harbour islands en route to Stellwagen: get spooked on haunted George's Island, or spot the gentle residents of Deer Island. Try Boston Harbor Cruises (21) at Long Wharf. Trips leave daily at 8.30am, 12.30pm and 2.30pm, and cost around $28 (£17).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Boston feels like one big museum, but if you need a specific target, head for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (22) at 280 The Fenway (open 11am-5pm Tue-Sun, $10 [£6]), home to eclectic artworks beloved by its late owner. Boston's Museum of Fine Arts (23) , at 465 Huntington Ave, has an exhibition, "Pharaohs of the Sun: Akhenaten, Nefertiti, Tutankhamun" which opens on 14 Nov, while the Museum of Science (24) , at Charles River Dam, is showing a New Omni film, Virtual Egypt . For something more contemporary, try the JFK Library and Museum (25) at Columbia Point. A Boston City Pass costs $27.50 (£16) and allows access to all of the above (call the Visitors' Bureau in advance on: 00 1 617 536 4100).

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

Sports fan or not, you will soon notice the Bostonian obsession with baseball, and particularly with the Boston Red Sox's performance (or lack of it). In season, visit Fenway Park (26) , the team's home ground (games most evenings at 6.30pm, $15 - around £9) to catch the fans in action. There's no aggression on these terraces; just family fun and Mexican waves. As the season's drawing to a close, Bostonians are transferring their energy to other sports. Next weekend, join 300,000 spectators at the world's largest two-day rowing event, the Charles River Regatta (from Boston University Boathouse to Herter Park; Sat 1.30-4pm, Sun 7.40am-4.45pm), and feast on upmarket "cookouts" and chardonnay.

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