Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Beacon Hill
A step into Boston’s past
This story originally ran May 20, 2008; it has been recently updated to include new locations and current information.
Beacon Hill, situated just north of Boston Common, is easily one of the city’s oldest—and most beautiful—neighborhoods. A stroll down any of the narrow gas-lit streets will take you past bow-fronted Federal-style brick rowhouses that recall the eras when architect Charles Bulfinch, author Louisa May Alcott, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., resided here. More recent residents have included poets Robert Frost and Sylvia Plath, Secretary of State John Kerry (Hon.’05), and actress Uma Thurman.
Once owned by the first European to settle Boston, William Blaxton, Beacon Hill was later sold to the Puritans. The hill was originally much higher than it is today (its height was significantly reduced to build houses). The neighborhood got its name from the beacon that once illuminated the hill.
During the 19th century, the area was home to both the richest and the poorest Boston residents. On the south side resided some of the Hub’s most patrician Brahmin families, and the north slope was referred to as Black Beacon Hill.
Today Beacon Hill is one of the city’s most exclusive residential neighborhoods. Pricey, one-of-a-kind boutiques and antique stores line Charles Street, a draw for residents and tourists alike. But the neighborhood also offers some affordable (or free) pleasures. Here are a few.
Massachusetts State House
One Ashburton Place
The Massachusetts State House sits at the top of Beacon Hill on land that was once John Hancock’s cow pasture. Designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798, the main dome of the state house was gilded in copper by Paul Revere and later redone in 23-karat gold. Free tours are offered weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
The Boston Common is the oldest public park in the country. It began as 50 acres of grazing land for cattle. Today, it’s a lovely green oasis, lined with benches, and the site of numerous cultural attractions. During the summer months, there’s an old-fashioned carousel (rides are $3), and visitors can cool off by dipping their feet in the adjacent Frog Pond, which in winter is transformed into a popular ice skating area.
The 2.5-mile Freedom Trail begins at the common and leads visitors to 16 historic sites, among them the King’s Chapel, Faneuil Hall, and the Bunker Hill Monument. The trail, marked with a wide red line, winds its way through several neighborhoods, including the North End, the waterfront, and Charlestown. Guided Freedom Trail tours meet in front of the Visitor Information Center on the common. More information about tour options, times, and cost is here.
10½ Beacon St.
Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum has approximately 600,000 volumes; its holdings include vast collections in areas such as New England, state, Boston, and local history and English and American literature. The athenaeum is furnished with oriental rugs, oil paintings, sculptures, and fresh flower arrangements, making you feel as if you’ve stepped into someone’s stately home. The building’s large Palladian windows overlook the Old Granary Burying Ground, where some of Boston’s most prominent early citizens are interred. The athenaeum is a members-only library, so visitors are allowed only on the first floor, but you can take a guided art and architecture tour on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 3 p.m. The number of people in a tour is limited, so it’s best to book early. For reservations, call 617-227-0270. The library also offers film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, and musical performances, open to members and the general public.
150 Bowdoin St.
This pub, located in the shadow of the State House, was originally built in 1899 as a luxury hotel featuring a rooftop garden and Boston’s first “passenger lift.” The hotel later became a men-only club favored by many of the city’s most prominent politicians and lobbyists. Rumor has it that President John F. Kennedy wrote his speeches by the fireplace while serving as a member of the Massachusetts legislature from 1947 to 1952. Serving burgers, sandwiches, and soups, as well as less traditional pub food, 21st Amendment is still popular with politicos, lobbyists, and local media, but it also attracts tourists and Beacon Hill residents. The pub’s name refers to the constitutional amendment that repealed Prohibition.
Tip Tap Room
138 Cambridge St.
Just as its name suggests, this open-air (weather permitting) restaurant, which opened in 2012, offers a variety of tips and taps. Tips range from turkey in a sage-peppercorn marinade to lamb in a mint and shallot sauce, and there are 36 drafts on tap as well. Where the Tip Tap Room’s menu truly shines, however, is in its wild game selection: there’s elk, yak, ostrich, and kangaroo—to name just a few. To view the daily wild game specials, check out its Facebook page. Past specials: antelope with watermelon mint salsa and Allagash Blonde Ale–roasted rabbit saddle with cilantro and scallions.
44 Charles St.
The Paramount is an affordable eatery known mainly for its breakfasts: a line forms almost immediately on weekend mornings. Grab a tray and wait in line for the restaurant’s Spanish omelet or famous pancakes. By night it is transformed into a more elegant venue, with white tablecloths and table service. Try the popular pan-roasted teriyaki glazed salmon for dinner.
Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill
46 Charles St.
This sunny gift shop is a great place to buy a birthday present for that difficult-to-shop-for someone, with staples such as Vera Bradley and Vineyard Vines and an array of housewarming gifts. Many of its items have a Boston theme, such as Robert McCloskey’s book Make Way for Ducklings and related merchandise. Blackstone’s celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2012, and keeps things interesting for its customers: last year, the store hosted book signings by Beacon Hill authors John D. Spooner and Shelly Dickson Carr and New York Times best-selling author William Martin.
Twentieth Century Limited
73 Charles St.
Twentieth Century Limited has everything you need to look fabulous if you’re having tea with royalty. The shop’s sparkling tiaras, necklaces, rings, and brooches make a great addition to any costume jewelry collection. The store also sells vintage bags, gloves, and hats, and antique black-and-white photos from bygone weddings and parties.
81 Charles St.
Isabelle’s Curlycakes is Beacon Hill’s first and only self-described “cupcake bar.” With a menu that changes daily, customers are sure to find something sweet to suit any craving. There are six regular flavors and a selection of unique specialty flavors, like peppermint, key lime, and Boston cream. For true cupcake enthusiasts, large orders and cupcake delivery services are also available.
88 Charles St.
Billing itself as a “jewelry, accessories, and home design” store, Good offers a painstakingly curated collection of products. You won’t find any novelty items or brand names here, but you may find beautiful handwoven silk scarfs, handmade brass earrings, or vintage cuff links and pottery. Things are on the pricey side, but definitely worth it if you value attention to detail and craftsmanship.
101 Charles St.
When owners Susan and Timothy Corcoran first opened Black Ink, it was a stationery store. Over the past 17 years it has evolved into an eclectic gift shop, selling “unexpected necessities.” But don’t expect knickknacks—everything in the store has a purpose, albeit not always readily apparent (needle threader, anyone?). You can pick up a doorstop shaped like Swiss cheese or an authentic plastic cafeteria tray with matching cup. Make sure to budget a lot of time for this place, as it’s impossible to see everything at first glance.
144 Charles St.
Known for its weekend brunch, Panificio serves a range of breakfast items, from French toast made with homemade apple cinnamon raisin bread to frittatas, open-faced omelets with sautéed vegetables and mozzarella. It’s the perfect place for an affordable lunch—the Cubano sandwich with roasted pork, smoked ham, pickles, Swiss cheese, and horseradish Dijon is delicious—or dinner—the gnocchi Bolognese is excellent. At any time of the day, the square pizza is a great snack, as are the numerous pastries.
Nichols House Museum
55 Mt. Vernon St.
To see what a Beacon Hill home looked like in the 19th century, visit the Nichols House Museum. The home was built in 1804, making it one of the earliest structures on Beacon Hill. It was designed by Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch, who also designed many Beacon Hill mansions. The museum’s hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, from April 1 to October 31, and Thursday through Saturday from November 1 to March 31. Tours are given every half hour starting at 11 a.m.
97 Mt. Vernon St.
The Persian restaurant Lala Rokh takes its name from the romance novel by the 19th-century writer Thomas Moore. The restaurant is decorated with the owners’ personal collection of antique Persian miniatures, tapestries, and 16th-century European maps, which line the walls. The owners are originally from Northwest Iran, but the restaurant offers Persian dishes from numerous regions, each accented with different spices. Try the morgh pollo, saffron-seared chicken in a tomato broth served with basmati rice and flavored with cumin, cinnamon, rose petals, and barberries.
Museum of African American History
46 Joy St.
In the decades before the Civil War, the largest population of African Americans in Boston lived on Beacon Hill’s north slope. The Museum of African American History commemorates the men and women who fought for the abolition of slavery, while establishing schools, churches, and businesses on the hill. In 1783, Massachusetts banned slavery, and the free black population continued to spread throughout the city. The MAAH is New England’s largest museum dedicated to preserving the contributions of the region’s African Americans. It is located in the Abiel Smith School, the nation’s first building constructed specifically to house a black public school. The museum also operates the adjacent African Meeting House, the country’s oldest surviving black church built by African Americans. The Black Heritage Trail walking tour is led by U.S. Park Service rangers and takes visitors to eight sites on Beacon Hill, starting with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment Memorial in front of the State House, which honors one of the first official black army units in the United States during the Civil War. More information on the MAAH and the Black Heritage Trail can be found here.
40 West Cedar St.
This enchanting florist on the corner of West Cedar and Pinckney Streets is impossible to resist. The displays of garden ornaments and fresh flowers change weekly, and the rustic aesthetic is comfortably at home among Beacon Hill’s cobblestone streets. The store, built in 1897, was originally a butcher shop and still retains all of the original interior elements, including a meat refrigerator that now serves as a cooler for flowers. You can find the perfect gift for any gardener or interior design enthusiast, but be sure to pick up a bouquet for yourself as well.
75 Chestnut St.
Tucked away off the beaten path of Charles Street, 75 Chestnut offers upscale pub and seafood fare. The interior is a comfortable but stately mélange of mahogany and low lamps, with a fully stocked bar and a midsize dining area. It’s not cheap, but this is where to go for the most authentic New England cooking—try the classic herbed clam chowder or the Nantucket Seafood Stew, with gulf shrimp, scallops, hand-cut salmon, halibut, sea bass, vegetables, and potatoes.
This historic square, with its gas streetlamps and cobblestone streets, is actually a small private park surrounded by the most elegant townhouses in Boston. Look for 19 Louisburg, once an Episcopal convent, now home to Secretary of State John Kerry, and 10 Louisburg, where Louisa May Alcott resided until her death from mercury poisoning in 1888.
Gardens of Beacon Hill
In the 1920s, the Beacon Hill Civic Association encouraged the greening of the neighborhood and residents began to transform their service yards into gardens. Once a year, on the third Thursday in May, visitors can tour several of these hidden gardens. Visit the Beacon Hill Garden Club for more details.
Getting there: By public transportation, take the MBTA Green Line inbound to Park Street and walk through the Boston Common towards the State House, or take the Red Line to the Charles/MGH stop.
Click on the points in the map above for more information on the places listed in our guide to Beacon Hill.