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WHAT IS IT? The 2½-mile Freedom Trail. Blazed in Boston’s streets is a redbrick pathway leading from the verdant Boston Common downtown to a 211 foot-high obelisk, the Bunker Hill Monument, in Charlestown. The helpful path guides you (and 1.5 million annually) to 16 sites critical to the birth and early life of our nation.
BEAUTY (8/10) The redbrick historic structures that make up Boston’s Freedom Trail intermingle well with the surrounding modern buildings. The inner vistas provided by Boston Common’s expansiveness are breathtaking as is its welcoming verdant space.
Many of the historic buildings that skirt the Freedom Trail are archetypical examples of Georgian-style architecture, as in these buildings are the ones shown in textbooks as the most representative and the most beautiful. The State House is an exception as the most famous use of Federalist-style architecture.
No American city's buildings garner more of a powerful historic sense than those in Boston, primarily because they remain vibrant, living among the skyscrapers of today. These structures never died. Most of them still serve the same purpose as they did in the 18th century.
The Site's numerous graveyards hold their own macabre feeling of beauty. Many of the ancient tombstones hold fancy etched calligraphy and intricate, symbolic designs including sinister skulls, mourning angels and mirthful skeletons. These designs, while pleasantly normal in Puritan New England, would be out of place in a modern cemetery.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (10/10) Downtown Boston and its famous portion of the Freedom Trail are the epitome of American history. It is our self-imagined vision of what American history is: Georgian-style, redbrick buildings; stern men with white wigs saying important things; men with tri-cornered hats on horseback; lots of talking and rabble rousing; serious churches and Revolutionary War success. Our history-deficient country takes history-themed vacations here where we “follow in the footsteps of history” and clamor to listen to high-priced tour guides recount facts we tried not to listen to in school.
What exactly happened along this part of the Freedom Trail? Well, from Stops 1-11 (the downtown section) there was a lot of talking and political planning and a lot of everyday boring activity that occurs in every large city. History remembers many of the important people buried in the cemeteries along the way.
Stops 12-14 (the North End section) are where the fun starts and where the legends were made. OK, stop 10 is the Boston Massacre site but if you blink you'll miss it. Its only marked by a circle of cobblestones and is located next to a busy auto intersection. Where were we? Stop 12 is Paul Revere's House, the oldest house in Boston and Stop 13 is the Old North Church of two lantern lighting fame. If you want the rest of the Patriot's Day story go to Minute Man NHP. Stop 14 is another cemetery.
Stops 15-16 are located in Charlestown, a long walk (bridge crossing included) from downtown Boston. Stop 15 is the USS Constitution, our first and greatest warship and Stop 16 is Bunker Hill, site of the Revolutionary War's first major battle. FYI, the Boston Tea Party ship is NOT a part of the Freedom Trail and the National Park Service but it is within walking distance of downtown and was the sight of a significant historic event.
CROWDS (8/10) Downtown Boston is perpetually crowded with cars, tourists, workers and everything in between. In addition, Beantown’s streets are maddeningly circuitous, cross at weird angles and make it very easy to get lost. No worries, though, the redbricked and clearly painted Freedom Trail changes everything.
It’s OK to be a tourist and almost impossible to get lost once you get downtown and onto the Trail. You share the walk in this vibrant beautiful city with its citizens and the sightseers around you. There is so much to see and so much to take in. Time quickly becomes irrelevant and the crowds become a joy.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) First, the bad parts. Parking is a nightmare. We tried and it nearly reduced us to tears. We repeat, do not attempt to park on the streets. Parking garages are a pricey but do-able option; the garage under Boston Common runs $6 for the first hour, $18 for up to nine hours. Downtown Hotel self-parking runs about $25 per day. Boston traffic is notoriously bad. The Big Dig collapsing has made things worse.
The good parts. Well, once you get downtown you should have no worries. After testing the car option, we stayed on the outskirts of town, took the subway (the T) in and had no problems. Many Boston tourists choose one of the myriad guided tour trolleys that circumnavigate the historic areas. They allow you unlimited re-boarding privileges and take you to most tourist-friendly parts of town.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5) The National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Center bookstore stocks a half-hearted selection of Revolutionary War-era books. You are better off looking for that perfect title at one of the bookstores in the privately-run Freedom Trail sites. Remember, no admission price is necessary if you are just going to the bookstore.
Freedom Trail Stop 8 used to be the Old Corner Bookstore, once home to Ticknor and Fields the Boston publisher who brought the world Hawthorne, Longfellow, Emerson, Alcott and Stowe, among others. As recently as our 2004 visit, the building housed the Globe Corner Bookstore. No longer. The current resident is the Chicago-based diamond retailing chain, Ultra Diamonds, who have 143 nationwide stores where “you should Never Pay Retail”. Why must one of them be in one of America's most storied literary buildings and a part of the Freedom Trail?
The Globe Corner bookstore is now located across the Charles River in Cambridge. If books are your thing, you might as well go to Cambridge and browse its many clean and well lit bookshops.
COSTS (3/5) The NPS portion of Boston NHP is free. However, the NPS maintains only a few of the Freedom Trail's attractions. Still, only three of the 16 units charge an entrance fee: the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere House and the Old State House. Entry into the Trail's three churches is free but a donation is suggested. The USS Constitution Museum, while free, also asks for donations.
Check the listings at the bottom of the review for the following information: Freedom Trail Site and Stop Number; whether the Site is free; if the Site offers free tours; if the Site has a Museum; and with whom the Site is affiliated.
Boston and the Freedom Trail can be as cheap or as expensive as you would like. Just be careful. Staying in the city, parking in the city, visiting all the Freedom Trail stops, taking a guided tour and riding a tourist trolley will make your costs skyrocket. If you stay outside the city, ride the subway in and around town, walk the Freedom Trail, visit only the free sites and take only the NPS, State House and USS Constitution tours your day could be surprisingly inexpensive but also long and tiring.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5) The NPS presence at Boston NHP takes a back-seat to private and public entities who are, in turn, seen as Park affiliates, as well as the numerous for-hire tour services. There are Rangers here who give tours and talks but unless you are looking for them, as we were, you might not even realize that the Freedom Trail is a National Park Site.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) The Freedom Trail is easy to follow, stacked with informational help and sufficiently self-guided. We skipped the Ranger-led tour along the Freedom Trail but hit two other wonderful (and free) Ranger-led talks which included a humorous look at the history of Faneuil Hall, from inside the so-called “Cradle of Liberty”, and a terrific tour of the USS Constitution.
The tour of the 200 year-old Old Ironsides, still an active warship, is given by the U.S. Navy. Our guide was an active duty sailor. Despite the large group, 80 or so, he answered every question, cracked jokes, and explained everything we wanted to know about the ship. He was superb. Arrive early to ensure a spot on the Old Ironsides tour. There is limited access, security checkpoints can be an issue and the waiting queues sometimes grow out of control.
FUN (9/10) Great free Ranger talks, sunny days, hours spent lounging and reading in Boston Common, easily followed tour paths, superb people watching and gorgeous views made our trips to Boston NHP unforgettable. There are also plenty of restaurants, shopping opportunities and taverns along the Freedom Trail in case you need a break from walking through history.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (9/10) Of course. Walking the Freedom Trail will bring every American History test you have taken come to life. Seriously, though, Boston sits among the pantheon of American cities and the Freedom Trail is a perfectly created tourist center. We prefer the suburban Boston Minute Man NHP but you cannot go wrong in downtown. Just don't forgot to visit the North End and Charlestown portions of the Freedom Trail; the Old North Church and the USS Constitution are Boston NHP's shining gems.