9 Non-Touristy Things to Do in Boston

When it's time for a break from Boston's well-known sites, get off the beaten path and explore some lesser-known places
When it's time for a break from Boston's well-known sites, get off the beaten path and explore some lesser-known places | © Inge Johnsson / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Mark Nayler
20 October 2020

Boston isn’t short on famous sites and busy tourist attractions. But what should you do if you want to escape the crowds? From hiking Spectacle Island to exploring abandoned bear dens, here’s our list of offbeat activities to enjoy in the Massachusetts capital.

Visit the Mapparium

Library
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Never heard of a “mapparium” before? Head to the Mary Baker Eddy Library to see a stained-glass 3D globe, showing the world as it was in 1935 (the year of the mapparium’s construction). A walkway runs through the center of this three-story-high structure, which colorfully illustrates how continents were divided up almost a century ago. The World of Ideas presentation looks at how ideas have traveled and changed our world, and a permanent exhibit entitled An Inside View focuses on the history and construction of this unique attraction.

Browse at Brattle's Book Shop

Bookstore, Library, Shop
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People buying book at Brattle Bookstore, Boston
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Brattle’s, near the Boston Common, is a book lover’s dream. A specialist in used books since 1825, this family-owned store’s shelves are crammed with over a quarter of a million titles, ranging from bargain paperbacks to a valuable collection of rare and antiquarian volumes on the third floor. Outside the entrance, under a giant mural of famous writers such as Yeats and Kafka, are yet more books, some going for as little as a dollar. If you’ve any questions, ask proprietor Ken Gloss, a respected expert on everything bookish.

Find Bodega

Store, $$$
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A surprise awaits you beyond the cluttered interior of the convenience store found at 6 Clearway Street, in the Back Bay area of the city. Behind a door at the back that’s disguised as a defunct Snapple vending machine is Bodega, a smart streetwear and shoe store founded in 2006. Browse the tidily stocked shelves to choose from a range of top-brand clothing and accessories, from jackets and beanies to watches and jewelry. The staff members are helpful and politely request that you don’t take photos when inside.

Stop for an espresso at Caffé Vittoria

Cocktail Bar, Coffee Shop, Italian, Coffee
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Cosy Caffé Vittoria was Boston’s first Italian café when it opened in the North End in 1929. It’s still serving some of the best cappuccinos, lattes, espressos and macchiatos in the city, as well as homemade cannoli, tiramisu and several specialty cocktails (the North End Express is a must-try). Aficionados will also appreciate the vintage espresso machines on display and the coffee-related paraphernalia lining the walls. As is fitting for a café that displays its old-school credentials with such pride, payment is cash only.

Wander the historic cemeteries

Church
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Gravestones in King's Chapel Burying Ground, Tremont Street, Boston, MA
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Boston is home to sixteen historic cemeteries, the oldest of which is attached to the King’s Chapel and dates from 1630. One of its most famous residents is Bostonian shopkeeper Joseph Tapping (1655-1678), whose gravestone reminds visitors of their mortality with engravings of a winged skull and draining hourglass. Copp’s Hill (1659) and Granary (1660) are the city’s other two oldest burying grounds and contain many strikingly adorned tombstones. During fall, visit the arboretum at Forest Hills, one of the most beautiful garden cemeteries in the U.S.

Visit the Ether Dome

Museum
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On October 16, 1846, in what is now known as the Ether Dome within Massachusetts General Hospital, a Boston dentist successfully conducted the first public surgery using ether as an anesthetic. Over 8,000 operations were performed in this elegant, light-filled amphitheater between the hospital’s inauguration in 1821 and 1868, and it’s still used as a teaching theater today. Also on display are a mummy, a skeleton and a small collection of antique surgical implements. Staff in the hospital’s reception will point you to the Ether Dome.

Explore the Old Bear Dens

Historical Landmark
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When the Franklin Park Zoo opened in 1912, people flocked to see its wild bears. Although the zoo closed due to declining popularity in 1954, the large open-air enclosures in which these magnificent animals lived were left standing and are still intact today, as are some detailed stone engravings of their former residents. The Old Bear Dens are found by taking a path that leads through woodland off Playstead Road (near the White Stadium), in a forgotten corner of what is now called Zoo New England.

Shop at Boston Public Market

Market
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Boston Public Market vendors. Image shot 08/2019. Exact date unknown.
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From honey and craft beer to poultry and cheeses, everything on offer in this vibrant indoor market comes from or is produced in New England. As well as 35 permanent vendors, Boston Public Market also offers several stylish eateries, including Bon Appetit Crêperie (sweet and savory crepes, made to order) and the Beantown Pastrami Company (towering turkey, corned beef or pastrami sandwiches). The Boston Public Market Association runs a year-round calendar of events, such as cooking classes, festivals, workshops and tours.

Explore Spectacle Island

Natural Feature
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Lush Spectacle Island  with fluffy clouds and green grass.
© DejaVu Designs / Alamy Stock Photo
If you want to escape the city, jump on a ferry and head to the 105-acre (42ha) Spectacle Island, located 4mi (6km) offshore. In the mid-19th century, it was the site of two hotels used for gambling and other frowned-upon activities. After police closed these shady establishments in 1857, the island became a giant dumping ground, until it was renovated in the 1990s. Spectacle is now a popular recreation spot, offering 5mi (8km) of hiking trails, a snack bar with outdoor seating and the Harbor’s only sand beaches.
These recommendations were updated on October 20, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.