Travel: It's technicolour time in Boston

There's no better time to visit Massachusetts' historic capital than during autumn. Anna Melville-James jaywalks through the neighbourhoods - and the centuries

Smaller than Manhattan, Boston is a dense cosmopolitan jumble of neighbourhoods, and a single walk can take you through several centuries: wander from the tree-lined Back Bay and Beacon Hill areas under the autumn- leaf confetti to the glass forest of Downtown or the colourful village of North End. A short T-line journey can even carry you across the Charles River to Cambridge and Harvard - one of 60 colleges and universities within the Greater Boston boundary.

It may be the "cradle of America", but a youthful population definitely spices up Boston's elder-statesman atmosphere.

When to go

Boston, like the rest of New England, is at its most beautiful and most expensive in the fall, September to November. The technicolour leaf- changes draw people to Massachusetts, and many of the city's major events are scheduled to coincide with this. Accommodation is at a premium and you are advised to check on availability before arriving in Boston at this time of year. Winter and spring can be extremely cold with heavy snow and freezing winds; conversely, summers are hot and humid.

Getting there

Direct, daily flights to Boston include American Airlines (tel: 0345 789789), from pounds 173 plus tax from 1 November to 14 December - book before 31 October; British Airways (tel: 0345 222111), from pounds 167 plus tax - book at least seven days in advance and include a Saturday-night stay; and Virgin Atlantic (tel: 01293 747747), from pounds 165 plus tax - from 1 to 30 November. Upon landing at Logan International Airport, take a short, free bus connection to the Water Shuttle ($10(pounds 6) one way) to cross to Rowes Wharf and Boston proper and save on expensive taxi rides through the tunnel systems under the harbour.

Getting around

Boston is a quirky American city in which walking is encouraged. Its compact size means most places can be reached by foot in under an hour. Long grids of roads make navigation easy, while jaywalking restrictions are generally ignored by Bostonians.

Quick, efficient travel between neighbourhoods is by the underground T-line. Easy to use, with logical stations, and cheap at 85 cents a journey (three-day weekend pass $9 for unlimited travel), it covers all of the main areas in Boston and Greater Boston. Taxis average $5 for most journeys, but hailing them takes effort and attitude. Have an idea of your route before you get in, and if the driver says he doesn't know how to get there, get out and hail another. Trips to Cambridge can be made along the riverbank paths by hired bike (tel: 267 4733).

Where to stay

The Bed and Breakfast Agency of Boston (tel: 0800 895 128 toll-free from the UK; or: 001 617 523 5761) represents more than 150 b&b houses and apartments, all in downtown, central Boston locations. Accommodation ranges from waterfront lofts to federal town houses and Back Bay Victorian buildings. Nightly rates start from $90 for a double room, $100 for a studio, $120- $160 for a one-bedroom apartment and $150-$280 for a two-bedroom one. All apartments have cable, free local telephones and fully equipped kitchens.

In the centre of Copley Square is the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel (tel: 001 617 267 5300), a 1912 European-style hotel known as "the Grande Dame of Boston", with rooms from $329 for a double. The downtown district is an excellent place to find good accommodation at weekends, when business clientele vacates the hotels. The Hotel Meridien (tel: 001 617 543 4300) offers double rooms from $325-$555; weekend rates start from $189 for a double.

If you prefer to stay on Boston's "Left Bank", then accommodation in Cambridge can be very reasonable. The Inn at Harvard (tel: 001 617 491 2222), next door to the university, offers double rooms from $169, while the Howard Johnson Hotel (tel: 001 617 492 7777), between Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and just two miles from downtown Boston, offers low- season doubles from $165, high-season from $235.

What to see and do

Explore Boston's heritage by following one of the many walking tours, including the Black Heritage Trail and the Freedom Trail (tel: 227 8800 for a free map and guide). Both trails begin at the Boston Common Visitor Information Center next to Park Street T-line station.

Boston teems with historical and cultural attractions, and for $26.50, the Boston Citypass (tel: 707 256 0490) allows free admission without queuing to six of the city's most famous must-sees, including the Museum of Fine Arts (tel: 267 9300) and the John F Kennedy Library and Museum (tel: 929 4523). Also worth a visit is the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum (tel: 338 1773).

For a different slice of Boston culture, go shopping in fashionable Newbury Street, a twinkling retail paradise of illuminated trees after dark. Downtown Crossing is home to the city's department stores, including Macy's and Neiman Marcus and also Filene's Basement, the country's oldest bargain store. Filene's Basement has an automatic mark-down policy and you can pick up a pair of Prada shoes for around $75.

Just don't wear them on a Duck Tour (tel: 723 DUCK), a narrated historic drive that takes place in authentic Second World War amphibious vehicles, through the Boston streets and into the Charles River with a splash.

Bond with some local residents on a whale-watch with Boston Harbor Cruises (tel: 227 4321) as humpback, minke and finback whales swim majestically around your catamaran, from April to October. A sunset whale-watch costs $28; whales are guaranteed, or your money back.

Nightlife

Spirited bars with live music abound, especially around the Faneuil Hall and Harvard Square areas. Jake Ivory's (tel: 247 1222) is a lively piano bar with singalongs, while the Regattabar (tel: 864 1200) hums to the sounds of top jazz performers from Tuesday to Saturday. Some may prefer the gentler ambience of the Oak Bar at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Hotel (tel: 267 5300), where you can relax in a big chair with an oversized drink and a cigar.

Party animals should head for Avalon (tel: 262 2424), Boston's biggest, hi-tech dance club, or Sugar Shack (tel: 351 2500) for R&B and Motown classics. For full club and bar listings, including those off the beaten track, pick up a free copy of The Improper Bostonian, Boston's answer to Time Out, from newspaper vending machines in the street.

Outdoor activities

The Charles River is where Bostonians go to get a lungful of fresh air. Community Boating (tel: 523 1038) has an armada of different boats to sail for all levels of proficiency. Sailing season is from April to October. Otherwise, you can skate or cycle gently along the Esplanade, after a visit to Earth Bikes'N'Blades Rentals (tel: 267 4733), which also runs cycle tours around Boston.

If you'd rather watch other people exert themselves, then visit Fenway Park to watch baseball heroes the Boston Red Sox. Baseball season runs from April to October, with afternoon and night games, priced between $12 and $35 a seat.

Food and drink

This is America, so you're never going to go hungry. Resist the urge to graze all day and save your appetite for some of the excellent restaurants dotted around the city. Boston-Style Banquets covers all tastes for a very reasonable price, and half the fun is deciding whether that hub-cap of bruschetta really is just the starter.

Seafood is a local mainstay, especially lobster. Turner Fisheries of Boston (tel: 424 7425) serves beautifully cooked, generous fish and shellfish dishes - the steamed seafood in a bamboo basket and award-winning clam chowder are recommended. Expect to pay around $25 for a main course.

For kick in the kitchen, Bob the Chef's Jazz Cafe (tel: 536 6204) is a Boston legend, serving spicy Cajun food with live jazz, Thursday to Saturday, at around $25 for two courses.

Have lunch with a view at the Top of the Hub (tel: 536 1775), a restaurant on the 52nd floor of the Prudential Building, which serves inventive American cuisine for around $35 for two courses. At ground level, Vinny Testa's (tel: 262 6699) will fill you up with stupendous plates of mussels, salads and pasta for around $15. Julene the bartender is also mistress of over 200 cocktails at $5 each. Over in Cambridge, Upstairs at the Pudding (tel: 864 1933) offers three Mediterranean-influenced courses plus wine for $65, in an old Harvard ambience. And House of Blues (tel: 491 2583) delivers lively food and music nightly, and an uplifting Sunday Gospel brunch buffet for $26 (tel: 497 2229 for advance tickets).

Out of town

Extensive fishing and hiking are available a short drive out of Boston - contact the Massachusetts State Forests and Parks (tel: 727 3180). North of Boston, the Merrimack Valley includes Lexington and Concord, where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired. Further up the coast is Salem, famous for its witches and less well-known for its fascinating maritime history. South of Boston is Plymouth, landing site of the Mayflower and location of the first Pilgrim colony.

Packages and deals

Anna Melville-James travelled as a guest of Peregor Travel (tel: 01895 630871), which offers tailor-made packages to Boston and Massachusetts. The Boston Citybreak weekend package costs pounds 319 per person, including three nights at the three-star Midtown Hotel based on a twin share, and return flights with Continental Airlines, departing 16 November. Thomas Cook (tel: 01733 418100) also offers Boston Citybreaks of five nights from pounds 424 per person based on two sharing from mid-November to mid-December.

Further information

For a free information pack, contact the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism (tel: 0171-978 7429).

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