Boston Common to the Charles River

This tour spends most of its time in parks and gardens, starting at the eastern edge of the Boston Common at the Granary Grave Yard. After a stop at the Massachusetts State House the tour wanders through the Boston Common and the Public Garden stopping at the various interesting sites to see. From the Public Garden the tour crosses over the busy Storrow Drive using the Arthur Fiedler Footpath to the Charles River Esplanade, a three mile long park alongside the Charles River.

The tour includes the following sites: Granary Burial Ground, Massachusetts State House, Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, the Boston Common, Frog Pond, Soldiers and Sailors Monument, Boston Common Visitors Center, Central Burying Ground, the Public Garden, Swan Boats, Park Bench from Good Will Hunting, Equestrian Statue of George Washington, "Make Way for Ducklings" Statues, Charles River Esplanade, Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell and Community Boating Boston.

If walked directly from location to location without stopping, the tour is about 1.9 miles long and would take approximately 45 minutes to walk.

Start the Boston Common to Charles River Tour

Google Maps Version of Tour

Stop 1:  Granary Burial Ground

(95 Tremont St., open daily from around 9am to 4pm, https://www.boston.gov/cemeteries/granary-burying-ground)

Many of the Revolutionary War’s most famous Boston citizens are buried at this cemetery. It was established in 1660, making it Boston’s 3rd oldest cemetery, and was given the name because it was located next to Boston’s grain storage building (which was torn down and eventually became the Park Street Church). John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin’s parents (under the prominent obelisk), Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, James Otis, all five of the Boston Massacre victims, and Peter Faneuil are all buried here. 

The cemetery has 2,345 grave markers but it is estimated that over 5,000 people are buried there. During the Victorian era the headstones were reorganized into straight rows to make a more orderly appearance and to accommodate new technology (e.g. the lawn mower).

Stop 2:  Massachusetts State House

(24 Beacon St, Mondays through Fridays 9am to 5pm, closed on holidays, https://www.sec.state.ma.us/trs/trsidx.htm)

The State House is the state capital of Massachusetts and houses the state legislature and the offices of the Governor. Designed by Charles Bulfinch the building was completed in 1798 and is considered a masterpiece of federal architecture. The building is located next to the Boston Common and was built on land originally owned by John Hancock who also was Massachusetts’s first elected governor (Hancock’s house, the Hancock Manor, was located at what is now the West Wing of the State House. The house was demolished in 1863 to make way for townhouses which were demolished in 1916 to make way for the West Wing).

The golden dome was originally made of wood and in 1802 was covered in copper by Paul Revere’s copper company (Revere was the first American to successfully roll copper into sheets). The East and West Wings of the State House were added in 1917.

The State House is a nice air conditioned place to stop right next to Boston Common. There are many benches inside offering a chance to sit, rest and contemplate the various statues, murals and stained glass windows that can be found throughout the building. Daily docent led tours of approximately 45 minutes are offered weekdays between 10am and 3:30pm.

Stop 3:  Robert Gould Shaw Memorial

(across Beacon St from the MA State House)

The memorial commemorates Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the first documented African American volunteer regiment in the Civil War fighting for the North.

While African Americans had fought in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, northern racist sentiments kept African Americans from joining the North at the beginning of the Civil War. A clause in Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation allowed African American volunteer regiments and the first was formed under Massachusetts Governor John Andrew in 1863 - the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Governor Andrew chose Robert Gould Shaw, the son of a prominent Boston abolitionist family, to lead the 54th regiment. 

The 54th Regiment became famous following an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863 (depicted in the 1989 academy award winning movie Glory). At least 74 enlisted men and 3 officers were killed in the battle, including Colonel Shaw, and many more were wounded. Sergeant William H. Carney became the first African American to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by saving the regiment’s flag from being captured even though he was severely injured. At the end of the war by the time the regiment returned to Boston in September 1865 only 598 of the original 1,007 men who enlisted were able to take part in the welcoming ceremony.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the artist that created this high-relief bronze monument which was unveiled on May 31, 1897. The scene shows the 54th Regiment marching down Beacon Street on May 28, 1863 as they left Boston to head south with Colonel Shaw on horseback and three rows of infantry men march behind him.

Stop 4: Boston Common

The Boston Common is the oldest public park in the USA dating back from 1634 when the first European settler of Boston, Anglican minister William Blackstone, sold his 44 acres to puritan colonists for 30 pounds (6 shillings per homeowner).

Residents of Boston used this common area to graze their livestock (up until 1830). Puritanical public punishments were carried out using the Common’s whipping post, pillory, and stocks and hangings were made on the “great elm”.

The British used the park as a camp just before the Revolutionary War and from this location 3 brigades started their fateful march to Lexington and Concord.

Through the years it has maintained its popularity as a public park in Boston and its size has allowed large events includes speeches from Martin Luther King Jr. and Pope John Paul II.

Stop 5:  Frog Pond

(bostonfrogpond.com)

This was originally a real pond with lots of frogs but was replaced with a man-made water structure that allows for a spray and splash pool in the summer and ice skating in the winter. The splash pool is free and open to all during the summer months. The outdoor skating is weather dependent but generally available between November and March, requires a fee to enter and skates can be rented. USA today voted it Best Outdoor Skating Rink in the USA and 2nd overall in North America. There is also a frog pond café located at the site offering simple food and drinks.

Next to the Frog Pond is the Boston Common Carousel which is a small but fun carousel for kids.

Stop 6:   Soldiers and Sailors Monument

The Soldiers and Sailors Monument is atop Flagstaff Hill. The monument, designed by Martin Milmore, was unveiled in 1877 as memorial to the Civil War. Flagstaff Hill during the Revolutionary War was a fortified British redoubt and today offers fantastic views of the Commons and the City.

Stop 7:  Boston Common Visitors Center

(139 Tremont Ave, 8:30am to 5pm Mon-Fri, 9am to 5pm Sa-Sun)

The center provides information about Boston and the Freedom Trail including free maps. There are tours available, a souvenir shop and public restrooms.

Stop 8:  Central Burying Ground

The Central Burying Ground was Boston’s 4th cemetery, established in 1756 to help with the overcrowding of burials at King’s Chapel, Copp’s Hill and the Granary Burying Ground. It was located in the least desirable section of the common, furthest away from the market center of town. It is located on Boylston Street between Tremont Street and Charles Street.

Buried in the grounds are British common soldiers who died during the occupation of Boston and Americans from the Battle of Bunker Hill. Famous burials include the artist Gilbert Stuart, painter of the famed portraits of George Washington and Martha Washington, the composer William Billings, Samuel Sprague, who  was a participant in the Boston Tea Party and fought in the American Revolutionary War, and his son, Charles Sprague, one of America's earliest poets.

The large free standing structure, “the Dell”, houses the remains of the graves that were moved to accommodate the extension of Boylston Street to connect with Tremont Street and required removing a row of the tombs in 1836.

There is a large mass grave with a slate tablet and three boundary stones that house the remains of the British soldiers that were uncovered during the 1894 excavation of the nation’s first subway line under Boylston Street.

Stop 9:  Public Garden

(Friendsofthepublicgarden.org)

The Public Garden was established in 1837 and became the nation’s first public botanical garden. The garden was designed along the lines of a Victorian landscape garden. Each year over 26,000 tulips are planted to bloom in the Spring and the garden is an incredible showcase of Boston’s Fall Foliage with the wide variety of trees planted in the park.

In Colonial times this area was a tidal marshland, connected to the Charles River. In 1794, the city, leased an area that would become Charles Street to be used as a ropewalk, or a place for rope manufacturing, after a fire had burnt down their previous location. A condition of the lease was that the rope manufacturers had to build a seawall and to start filling in the land that would become the Public Garden. Much of the landfill came from Mount Vernon, a hill in Beacon Hill, which no longer exists because its dirt was completely removed for land fill.

In 1821 the Mill Dam was built along Beacon Street from Charles Street to Brookline to provide water power for the mills and factories but turned the marshes into mudflats. In 1837 the City Council received a petition from a private association of seventeen Bostonians to establish a botanical garden on this uninviting ground. The Council promptly leased about twenty acres to the group, incorporated as “Proprietors of the Botanic Garden in Boston,” and in 1838 the area was first designated as the Public Garden.

In the 1950s and 60s the park suffered from neglect and deteriorated almost beyond saving. In 1970 the Friends of the Public Garden were formed to preserve and enhance the Public Garden and the Boston Common and Commonwealth Avenue Mall. Daily free tours of the Public Garden are offered through this group.

Stop 10:  Swan Boats

(swanboats.com).

In the center of the park is a 4 acre pond that is the home to many ducks and a few swans. The Swan Boats are a popular tourist attraction operated on the pond allowing groups of people to relax sitting on a boat with an ornamental white swan at the rear and be pedaled around the pond by a tour guide.

The boats were created and have been operated by one family, the Pagets, for over 100 years.  In the 1870s Robert Paget was granted a boat for hire license by the City of Boston and boat rowing in the Public Garden became popular in the summertime. In 1877 with the growing popularity of the bicycle, Paget introduced a foot-propelled paddle wheel attachment and used a Swan to cover the captain of the boat. The current fleet consists of six boats, the oldest of which was built in 1910.

The trip takes about 15 minutes. $4 per adult, $2.50 per child.

Stop 11:  Statue of George Washington

There are many statues located around the Public Garden but the most notable is the very large equestrian statue of George Washington, dominating the western entrance to the park, which was unveiled in 1869 and sculpted out of bronze by Thomas Ball, and is considered one of the best equestrian statues in America.

Washington was given the control of the Revolutionary army starting in Boston where he lead the army to drive the British Soldiers out of Boston by a daring overnight fortification of a hill in Dorchester Heights which gave the colonial soldiers the high grounds to train their cannons on the British.

Stop 12:  Park Bench from Good Will Hunting

This is from the scene in Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams and Matt Damon sit together on a park bench in the Public Garden. After William’s death in 2014, fans will leave flowers and notes, especially on the anniversary of his death.

Stop 13:  "Make Way for Ducklings" Statues

The "Make Way for Ducklings" statues, near Charles and Beacon Streets, are one of the most famous statues in Boston. They are inspired by Robert McCluskey's 1941 book about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard and their adventures while finding a safe place to hatch and raise their offspring in and around the Public Garden. Boston-area sculptor Nancy Schön designed the bronze duck sculptures which depict Mrs. Mallard leading her ducklings.

Stop 14:  Charles River Esplanade

(esplanade.org)

The Esplanade is a state owned 64 acre park that follows the south bank of the Charles River for three miles with the river on its northern border and Storrow Drive on its southern border. It contains walkways, playgrounds, ballfields, boating and the Hatch Memorial Shell performance stage.

The park was originally known as the Boston Embankment and was created during the construction of the Charles River Dam Bridge (today the site of the Museum of Science) in 1910 but was only a narrow strip of parkland. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the Esplanade was widened and lengthened (trees were planted, the first lagoon and the music oval were built) and a boathouse was built in 1941. In 1949 with the construction of Storrow Drive additional islands and multiple paths were built along the Esplanade to make up for the land lost to the road.

Stop 15:  Edward A. Hatch Memorial Shell

(hatchshell.com)

The Memorial Shell is a stage used for free concerts most weekends and many weeknights during the summer but its best known for its annual Fourth of July concert played by the Boston Pops Orchestra.

The original wooden shell was built in 1928 and was first used for a concert on July 4, 1929, with Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops Orchestra. The permanent shell was designed by architect Richard J. Shaw and was completed in 1940. There is a memorial nearby to Arthur Fiedler the first permanent conductor of the Boston Pops.

Extra Stop (Food & Drink):  Owl’s Nest Craft Beer Garden

(https://nightshiftbrewing.com/locations/owls-nest/)

A beer garden on the Esplanade run by Night Shift Brewing. Beer, wine (and seltzers for kids) and food trucks are located in a beautiful setting. Porta-potties are available.

Extra Stop (For Pets):  Lotta Fountain for Dogs

Built in 1939 this 6 foot granite fountain spouts water into a pool for dogs to take a drink.

Stop 16:  Community Boating Boston

(21 David G Mugar Way, www.community-boating.org)

Joe Lee, who came from a wealthy Boston family, formed Community Boating officially in 1946 with the idea that sailing would enrich the lives of children who lived in Boston’s working-class West End neighborhood. This was the country's first public boating program and had a mission to offer affordable, accessible “Sailing For All”.

Membership in the club includes sailing and rentals but this location also offers to the public hourly rentals of sailboats, kayaks and paddle boards.

Start the Boston Common to Charles River Tour