History by the Sea, Your Guide to NPS Sites in Boston

Overview and Getting There

Boston is the one of the birthplaces of the nation, home to a crucible of events that transfigured the colonies into the states, and formed the origin of the country we have today. It's a great city to explore, as you can see so much in a short amount of time. Many of its historical sites are centrally located in the city core. For the sites in Boston proper, walk or take the T or car services like Uber or Lyft to the sites; on Day 3, a one-day car rental is recommended, and a car is also needed for our suggested extensions out to Cape Cod National Seashore and Lowell National Historical Park.

All the major airlines fly into Boston Logan International (BOS), with JetBlue and Delta both having hub operations and the majority of the flights. Boston is also the northern terminus for the Acela Amtrak express train (the fastest train in the Western Hemisphere) and dozens of local Amtrak trains. Using the train to get to and from NYC is a good bet and often reasonably priced.

Accommodations can be tricky, as hotel rates can be high in Boston, and many of the points earning chains have high redemption levels in the city. You’ll not need a rental car in the city though; more often than not it is a headache to worry about parking, and you will also pay for parking at your accommodation. The public transportation network is robust in Boston, and if you need to get to sites that aren’t directly connected by easy public transit, both Uber and Lyft offer very competitive prices for trips in and around Boston.

 

Suggested Itinerary

Days 1 and 2 (City sites are accessible on foot, via the T, or via car service or taxi)

  • Adams National Historic Site
  • Boston African American National Historic Site
  • Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
  • Boston National Historical Park
  • Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
  • Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

Day 3 (A one-day car rental is recommended)

  • Minute Man National Historic Park
  • Salem Maritime National Historic Site
  • Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

Extension option (A car is needed)

  • Lowell National Historic Park
  • Cape Cod National Seashore
  • Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park

Day 1

  • Boston African American National Historic Site
  • Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
  • Boston National Historical Park

Boston is, generally, a very walkable city. Begin at the Boston National Historic Park, which encompasses sites that are accessible on the Freedom Trail, a 2.5 mile trail that winds through Boston and takes you to Faneuil Hall, Old South Meeting House*, Old State House*, Paul Revere House*, Old North Church*, Charlestown Navy Yard, USS Constitution, USS Cassin Young*, Bunker Hill Monument, and Dorchester Heights, among many other Boston attractions that are not part of the NHS. [Asterisk denotes a part of the park that is privately owned and has separate donation or entry fee, i.e. is not covered by any NPS pass.] The trail will take between one and a half to three hours, depending on how much time you pause at each stop.

Faneuil Hall, photo Daderot / CC BY-SA 3.0

Faneuil Hall, photo Daderot / CC BY-SA 3.0

At Faneuil Hall, pick up a map (and a stamp) or download the app from the park’s website. Most sites on the trail are open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Also pick up a map at Fanueil Hall (and stamp) for the Boston African American National Historic Site, a short walk that begins near the gold-domed State House. We recommend the Boston African American NHS one-mile trail through the picturesque Beacon Hill neighborhood. Fourteen buildings that represent the history of the African American community in Boston during the 19th century are included, and do check the website for the times of ranger led tours. Many of the sites are now private property, and can only be viewed from the exterior. The African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School are owned by the Museum of African American History; you can also get a stamp and map at the school.  

If you have time on Day 1, do consider a trip out to the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, a collection of 34 islands and peninsulas in the Boston Harbor; Grape, Bumpkin, Peddocks, Thompson, Lovells, Spectacle, and Georges islands are all accessible by concessionaire ferry service. This is the closest to Boston proper where you can camp. Make sure to check the website for specifics of which island ferries leave from which terminals —there are three departure terminals located throughout Boston. Departures for the islands vary due to their popularity, some ferries are hourly during summer months, while others may only have one daily crossing; be sure to double check all times of sailings before leaving Boston. You could spend a whole day exploring these islands, and extending your trip to do so would allow you to consider camping as well — though make reservations ahead of time as space can be limited. Campsites will require you to pack in your water. Also see if one of the yurts on Peddocks Island is available; for around $60 a night it’s a bargain for Boston, and comes with running water and electricity!

Boston Harbor Islands, photo by Doc Searls / CC BY

Boston Harbor Islands, photo by Doc Searls / CC BY

If you have energy and daylight at the end of Day 1, go for the late afternoon crossing to the hub islands, Georges or Spectacle, after finishing your walking tour. You’ll have about two to three hours before the last boat back, which is plenty of time for exploring. On Georges, Fort Warren is an exemplar of the Civil War era forts, and dominates the island.

The second option (and you can do both!) is to build in time on Day 2 to visit either before or after Adams National Historic Park. The Hingham and Hull launches will bring you to Georges, Lovells, Peddocks and Bumpkin Islands. More particulars follow, in our Day 2 sequence.

Day 2

  • Adams National Historic Site
  • Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site
  • John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
  • Longfellow House- Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

Adams National Historic Park is the first stop for the day, and arriving early is important. To reach the park, take the red line of the T to Quincy Center. The visitor center will also validate for free parking in the attached parking garage, though make sure to take your parking ticket with you inside to get the validation.. Adams NHP showcases the homes and birthplaces of the Adams family along with other preserved buildings; it is well worth the visit. The only way to see the buildings is by a two and a half hour guided tour, limited to about 20 people. Tours leave quarter past the hour every hour (10:15, 11:15, etc). Tickets are free, though are first come first served and are given out at the visitors center starting at 9:00 a.m.; a line will start forming some days as early as 8:00 a.m., and on exceptional peak days in the summer or during school breaks, all tours might fill by 10:00 a.m. Getting there early assures you can select your preferred tour, with the last one at 3:15 p.m. Consider picking the last tour so you can check out the Boston Harbor Islands NRA, as per Day 1— the Hingham and Hull launches are relatively close to the Adams NHP Visitor Center.

John Adams Birthplace, photo by Daderot / CC BY

John Adams Birthplace, photo by Daderot / CC BY

Assuming you take an early tour and have already seen the Harbor Islands on the previous day, proceed to the Frederick Law Olmsted NHS. From Adams NHP, it’s about 1.5 hours on public transit, or 30 minutes by car to the offices of one of the most renowned landscape architects in American history. Frederick Law Olmsted and his son, along with their associates, designed some of the great city and national parks in America, including Central Park in NYC and Boston Common. According to olmstead.org, “The firm was responsible for projects in Acadia, Everglades, Great Smoky Mountains and Yosemite. A partial listing of projects in the nation’s capital reads like a guide to the National Park Service managed sites of Washington, D.C., including the Mall, Jefferson Memorial, Roosevelt Island, White House grounds and Rock Creek Park.” When Olmsted's son, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. was in his later years, he “actively worked for the protection of California’s coastal redwoods and lived to see Redwood National Park’s Olmsted Grove dedicated in his honor.” The site interprets the offices and works of the Olmsted family and has pastoral gardens and grounds. Note that the site is only open Wednesday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and only in the summer months.

From here continue on via your own car or a car service like Uber or Lyft, two miles to the John Fitzgerald Kennedy NHS, the birthplace of John F. Kennedy, the 35th President. The site is open Wednesday through Sunday, though only during the summer and fall months, May 21 through October 31. Half hour tours occur at regular intervals during open hours, between 9:30a.m. until 5:00 p.m.. There are also self-guided tours of the neighborhood that interpret the childhood life of JFK.

The final stop for the day will be the Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters NHS, which is located across the Charles River in Cambridge. This is a short three mile drive or a 30-minute bus ride on the 66, and will bring you to the house that was both the headquarters for General George Washington during the Siege of Boston, and later the home of the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The site is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 9:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., with 50 -minute long guided tours throughout the day. Time your arrival to catch the last tour at 4:00 p.m. Again, this site is only open during the summer months, so check that the house is open for tours before heading to Cambridge. After touring, enjoy the evening in Cambridge or take a short ride back to central Boston on the T.

Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters NHS, photo by Daderot / CC BY

Longfellow House - Washington’s Headquarters NHS, photo by Daderot / CC BY

Day 3

  • Minute Man National Historic Park
  • Salem Maritime National Historic Site
  • Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

Note: This day will require the use of a car, consider a one-day car rental.

Minute Man National Historical Park is a 40-minute drive from central Boston. You can reach it via a longer ride on a city bus, but consider starting out after the morning rush hour ends, after 9:30 a.m. As you’ll be heading in the opposite direction of most of the morning commuters, you will avoid some traffic. The park is open from sunrise to sunset, though confirm the hours of the historic buildings and visitor centers. Start at the visitors center for lots of important background information on what led to the very first battle of the American Revolution. From there, take the two-mile Battle Road Trail, the exact same path the British soldiers marched to Concord, only to have to retreat hours later under heavy fire from the growing colonial militias. There are many sites along the way, including several homes from the era, Hartwell Tavern (a restored period inn), and a plaque that marks the exact spot where Paul Revere was captured on his famous midnight ride. The path can be walked to the end and back, or there is limited parking along the trail. Bicycles are permitted, and another great way to explore this trail. Note that many of the structures along the trail are only open for tours during the summer months, from late June to late October.  

North Bridge, Minute Man National Historic Park, photo by Derek Wright.

North Bridge, Minute Man National Historic Park, photo by Derek Wright.

A second section of the park is the North Bridge, where the colonial militia fired back at the British in the “shot heard ‘round the world,” a defensive stand that would lead, later that day, to the first coordinated offensive attacks against the British Empire. You can tour the bridge, a reconstruction, as the original was torn down not long after the Revolutionary War ended. From there proceed up the hill to the North Bridge Visitor Center housed in the Buttrick Mansion. The grounds here are ideal for a picturesque stroll.

Another preserved house between the Bridge and the Battle Road Trail is The Wayside, home to Samuel Whitney, muster master of the Concord Minute Men, and later home, at different times, to three famous authors — Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop. The home has recently reopened after a major three-year renovation. Tours of the home are available, at $7.

Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, photo by Derek Wright.

Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, photo by Derek Wright.

From Minute Man, head to the Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, north of Boston. This is one of the least visited NPS units, though is one of the most fascinating in the historic category. The site is a working recreation of a 17th century iron works, compete with waterwheel, forge, and mill.  The scale of the machinery and works is impressive, and a part of human history that is not often seen. The site is only nine acres, though the buildings and history will encourage you to want to learn more about the area and the early industrial processes of the colonies. As well, the entire place has a fun hobbit-like quality to it and is a treat to explore! Guided tours are available seven days a week and come highly recommended; you will even see the giant machinery in action!

Custom House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, photo by Derek Wright.

Custom House, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, photo by Derek Wright.

From Saugus Iron Works, proceed 20 minutes north by car to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The town of Salem is most associated with the infamous witch trials, though offers much more to offer than haunted tours and rides. Salem was one of the major ports of the Western Hemisphere in the 1600’s, and tons of trading occurred on the banks and in the port. It was only after the technological advances of larger and larger ships that the deeper ports of Boston and New York won out. The history of the town is well preserved within the Salem Maritime NHS.

There are several preserved buildings on the site, from 16th -19th century homes and the famous Custom House that Nathaniel Hawthorne worked in for several years, which inspired him to write The Scarlet Letter. Many of the sites offer tours, though check with the visitor center for more information. There is also a newly restored replica of the ship The Friendship of Salem, which you can tour.  

Note that the visitor center is located in the former Salem Armory about a ten-minute walk from the site. There is ample street parking, though it is metered, two hours at a time. There are additional paid parking garages in the vicinity.

Extension day

  • Lowell National Historic Park
  • Cape Cod National Seashore
  • Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park

If lingering in the Boston area, we recommend driving to these sites.

Lowell National Historic Park provides a look at the industrial age in America, as it relates to mills and textiles. Many preserved buildings offer a great introduction to a lost industry. Working textile machinery replicates the sounds and space of the mill; this too is one of our favorite historical parks, as we learned a great deal about both the growth of the textile industry and the many women who took a chance in leaving more agrarian homes to work in a new industry.  Also, the park sites are linked by working vintage streetcars!

Cape Cod National Seashore is comprised of 40 miles of protected seashore, and offers six public beaches. Many are managed by the local towns and have strict residency usage requirements, so a little research is recommended; perhaps start with the NPS website for this as well as info on the many walking and hiking trails, where lighthouses and historic buildings are in abundance. We recommend coming early and staying late, as on summer weekends parking lots can fill by ten in the morning. The park also offers many guided activities.

Wilkinson Mill, Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park, photo by Derek Wright.

Wilkinson Mill, Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park, photo by Derek Wright.

Blackstone River Valley National Historic Park is of the newest of the NPS units, designated in 2015. The site is in the process of combining and selecting urban, rural, and agricultural landscape features (including the Blackstone River and Canal) of the region that provide an overarching context for the industrial heritage of the Blackstone River Valley. In addition, the park will interpret the nationally significant sites and districts that convey the industrial history of the Blackstone River Valley, and work to support the network of partners, resources, and facilities throughout the John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor. There are a great deal of historic buildings and trails, it’s well worth a half-day visit. You will need a car the sites stretch across the state of Rhode Island and into Central Massachusetts.