Boston Walking Tour: the Freedom Trail
The freedom trail is a 2.5 mile long walk through Boston that passes 16 sites that are significant to the early history of the United States. The trail, formed in 1951, stretches from the Boston Common to the Bunker Hill Monument in Charleston.
Most of the sites are free or suggest donations but a few charge admission: the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House and the Paul Revere House.
The trail starts at the visitor’s center in the Boston Common where there are public restrooms and they provide maps and information about the trail and its sites. There is also an additional visitors center about half through the trail located in Faneuil Hall.
The 16 locations on the freedom trail from South to North include: the Boston Common, the Massachusetts State House, Park Street Church, Granary Burying Ground, King’s Chapel and Burying Ground, Benjamin Franklin Statue and the Boston Latin School Site, Old Corner Bookstore, Old South Meeting House, Old State House, Boston Massacre Site, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere House, Old North Church, Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, USS Constitution and the Bunker Hill Monument.
Stop 1: 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 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: Park Street Church
(One Park St.)
The Park Street Church was founded in 1809, built on top of Boston’s town grain storage building (the Granary). The building, designed by Peter Banner, was Boston’s largest building until 1828 and was the first landmark that travelers could see when approaching the city. The site of the church became known as “brimstone corner” due to the gunpowder stored there during the war of 1812 and its fiery sermons. The first public singing of “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee),” by Samuel Francis Smith, was at the Church on July 4, 1831.
Stop 4: Granary Burying 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 5: King’s Chapel and Burying Ground
(58 Tremont St, 10am to 4pm or 5pm)
King’s chapel was New England’s first Anglican church, founded in 1686. The stone chapel, built in 1754 and designed by architect Peter Harrison, stands in the same place as the original chapel built in 1688. The interior is considered the one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture in North America. And contains the oldest continuously used American pulpit used over 200 years. The bell used to summon people to worship is an original 1816 Paul Revere bell. At the start of the revolutionary war, the minister and loyalist church members fled Boston. After the war king’s chapel became America’s first Unitarian Christian church in 1785 under the ministry of James Freeman.
King’s Chapel Burying Grounds
The burying ground is Boston’s first graveyard, founded in 1630 before even King’s Chapel was built, and was the only graveyard in the city for 30 years. There are 505 headstones and 59 footstones but more than one thousand people are buried here. Some of the notable people buried include John Winthrop (Massachusetts’ first governor), and Mary Chilton (the first woman to step off the Mayflower), William Emerson (father of Ralph Waldo Emerson) and Elizabeth Pain (her life and headstone are supposed to be the inspiration for the character of Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter). Joseph Tapping’s headstone in the front of the burying ground is supposed to be one of Boston’s most beautiful headstones with an image of a skeleton and Father Time battling over the eventuality of death.
Stop 6: Boston Latin School Site / Benjamin Franklin Statue
(45 School St.)
Boston Latin School was the first public school and is the oldest operating school in the United States. Started in 1635 it offered schooling free of charge to rich or poor boys (girls were finally able to attend starting in 1972). The school was founded by the puritans who emphasized education so that their children would be able to read the bible. The school’s alumni include 4 presidents of Harvard, 4 Massachusetts governors and 5 signors of the Declaration of Independence (Adams, Franklin, Hancock, Hooper, and Paine). Some of its most famous drop outs include Benjamin Franklin and Louis Farrakhan. A mosaic and a statue of Benjamin Franklin mark where the schoolhouse used to be located. The original wood building was torn down to allow King’s Chapel to expand. The school is now located in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston.
Stop 7: Old Corner Bookstore
(283 Washington St)
The Old Corner Bookstore was located in what is now Boston’s oldest commercial building. The building was built in 1718 with a ground level apothecary and the levels above for residential use. In 1828 the first bookstore started operating in the building and in 1832 the building was used by the prominent American publishing firm – Ticknor and Fields – who worked with authors such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Dickens, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. In later years other publishing companies operated from this building. In 1960 the building was saved from demolition and is now a historically protected building. Currently a Chipotle Mexican Grill is located in the ground floor of the building.
Stop 8: Old South Meeting House
(310 Washington St, 10am to 4pm)
The Old South Meeting House was built in 1729 as a puritan house of worship and was the largest building in colonial Boston. Leading up to the Revolutionary War the meeting house was a place for the patriots to meet and discuss their issues with the crown. On December 16, 1773, the meeting house was the point where approximately 5,000 colonists gathered to protest a tax on the importation of tea. Later that evening 3 groups of these men snuck aboard the ships that held the tea and toss it into the Boston Harbor, an event which became known as the Boston Tea Party. The building was to be demolished in 1876, but Boston citizens preserved the building. Today the building is a museum and hosts lectures and public forums, along with educational history programs for adults, teachers, and students and on December 16 hosts an annual reenactment of the Boston Tea Party.
Stop 9: Old State House
(206 Washington Street, 9am to 5pm)
The Old State House is the oldest surviving public building in Boston and one of the oldest public buildings in the nation. It was built in 1713 and housed the British colonial government in the Massachusetts Bay Colony until 1776. The Declaration of Independence was read from the balcony of the building in July 1776 and the townspeople tore down and burned the lion and unicorn statues on top of the building which were symbols of the British monarchy. After the Revolutionary War the state government was located in the building until it moved in 1798 to the Massachusetts State House. From 1830 to 1841 the building was Boston’s City Hall and then until 1881 was used as a commercial building. In 1881 the building was almost demolished but the Bostonian Society was formed to preserve the building. The building current houses a history museum.
Stop 10: Boston Massacre Site
(206 Washington St.)
On March 5, 1770, British Redcoats fired and killed 5 people while being harasses by a unarmed mob of Boston residents. Eight soldiers were put on trial for the incident and defended by future president John Adams. Six soldiers were acquitted and two were convicted of manslaughter and given reduced sentences. Paul Revere’s illustration of the incident was used to incite the population against the British Government. These killings are considered one of the primary reasons that the sentiment of the American population started to turn against King George III and the British Parliament. The site is now marked by a cobblestone circle. The victims were buried in the Granary Burial Ground. The massacre is reenacted annually on March 5.
Stop 11: Faneuil Hall
(1 Faneuil Hall Sq, 10am to 7pm, opens later on Sunday)
Faneuil Hall has been a market and meeting place since it was built in 1743. Peter Faneuil, a wealthy Boston merchant, built and gave the building to the city in order to provide a marketplace for peddlers to sell their wares instead of clogging up the streets with pushcarts. Ironically part of Faneuil’s wealth came from the slave trade thus the building known as “the cradle of liberty” was at least partially funded by slavery. The building had an open ground floor to be used as a marketplace and an assembly room on the floor above. Leading up to the Revolutionary War it was the site of speeches by Sam Adams, James Otis and many others where citizens could proclaim their dissent against the British crown. In 1742 the gilded grasshopper weather vane was added to the top of the building. In 1806 the building was greatly expanded by architect Charles Bulfinch and was entirely rebuilt out of non-combustible materials in 1898.
Currently the ground floor has retail stores in it, the 2nd and 3rd floors house the Great Hall which is an auditorium with 2 tiered seating and the 4th floor is a free military museum which houses a collection (including canon balls from the battle of bunker hill) from the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company (the oldest chartered military organization in the western hemisphere - since 1638).
The Faneuil Hall building is also currently part of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace which consists of three other historic buildings housing retail and food eateries. The area between the Eastern end of the Hall and Congress Street is a part of the Boston National Historical Park and this includes a public art installation (a once and future shoreline) of an 850 foot etched flooring showing the approximate location of the Colonial shore line.
Stop 12: Paul Revere House
(19 North Square, 9:30am to 4:15pm (closed Mondays jan – mar), https://www.paulreverehouse.org/)
The Paul Revere House, built in 1860, is the oldest residential home in Boston (and is the only official Freedom Trail historic site that is a home). Paul Revere purchased the house in 1770, when he was 35 years old, and he and his family were still living there when he made his famous ride to Lexington and Concord on the night of April 18 – 19, 1775. He sold the house in 1800 and the building became a tenement with a ground floor used for commercial business. In 1902 Revere’s great-grandson purchased the house and in 1908 it opened its doors as one of the first historical house museums in the United States. The building is still a museum today and new visitor and education center opened and is connected to the house via an elevated walkway. Admission is $5 per person, cash only
Stop 13: Old North Church
(193 Salem St, 10am to 4pm, https://oldnorth.com/)
The Old North Church is Boston’s oldest church, built in 1723. The church played a significant role at the beginning of the Revolutionary War when Paul Revere had a signal system setup so that the rebels could tell at a far distance which direction the British were taking on their march to Lexington and Concord to confiscate rebel weaponry and imprison the leaders. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride” captured event by writing that lanterns were hung to signify “one if by land, two if by sea”. The bells of the church have been restored and are cleaned and rung regularly. One of them has the inscription “We are the first ring of bells cast for the British Empire in North America, A.R. 1744.”
Today this location also includes Clough House (one of the oldest brick buildings in Boston built ca. 1712-1715), five gardens and the Old North gift shop, formally a St. Francis chapel, built in 1918. There is also a chocolate shop that shows how chocolate was made in the 18th century along with its connections to the Old North Church. Admission is $8 per person.
Stop 14: Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
(45 Hull St, 10am to 5pm)
Copp’s Hill Burying Ground, founded in 1659, is where many of the commercial residents of the north end – the merchants, artisans, and craftspeople - were buried. The area was originally owned by a local shoemaker with the last name of Copp. Those buried include fire and brimstone preachers Cotton and Increase Mather who were closely related to the Salem Witch Trials, Robert Newman, the Old North Church sexton who hung the lanterns on the night of Paul Revere’s ride and Prince Hall, the father of black freemasonry. Many African Americans who lived in the “new guinea” community are buried on the snow hill street side. Because of the cemetery’s height, the British used this vantage point to train their cannons on Charlestown during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Stop 15: USS Constitution “Old Ironsides”
(3rd St, Charlestown, 10am to 4pm)
During George Washington’s presidency Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean were capturing American ships. The Naval Act of 1794 provided funds for the creation of six frigates for the United States Navy which included the USS Constitution which was built in Boston and named by George Washington after the United States Constitution. The ship earned its nickname, “Old Ironsides”, during the war of 1812 when British cannonballs fired at the ship seemed to bounce off its hull. A British sailor remarked that the ship must have a side made of iron although in fact the ship is constructed of a three layer wooden sandwich of live and white oak. The USS Constitution served in the Civil War as a training ship for the US Naval Academy, was retired from service in 1881 and became a museum ship in 1907. The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned naval ship still afloat, and still has a crew of active duty US Naval Officers and Enlisted men.
Stop 16: Bunker Hill Monument
(Monument Sq, Charlestown, 10am to 5pm)
The Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775 was one of the first battles of the Revolutionary War. While the British in the end won, the colonists inflicted severe casualties on the British side – 1,000 out of 2,400 were either killed or wounded. The colonial soldiers had received word that the British were planning to fortify the hills at Charlestown which overlooked their encampments in Boston. On June 16 the colonists under the leadership of General Putnam and Colonel Prescott rushed to the hills ahead of the British and in the middle of the night built fortifications. The next morning on June 17 the British were surprised to see the colonists on the hill and General Howe sent 2,400 solders to remove the colonists. 1,500 colonists held off 3 British attacks before eventually retreating when they ran out of gun powder. According to popular stories the colonists were warned “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” in order for their musket fire to be most effective.
The 221-foot 294-step granite obelisk was erected between 1824 and 1843 to commemorate the battle and was built at the site where an earthen fort was constructed before the battle. While the battle was named after the larger more prominent hill, the actual battle took place on Breed’s Hill, a smaller hill in front of Bunker Hill, and is where the monument is located. There is also a museum across the street from the monument that includes exhibits about the battle. There is no admission charge to the monument or the museum.