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Getting to Know Your Neighborhood: Beacon Hill

A step into Boston’s past


Beacon Hill, situated just north of Boston Common, is 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 row houses 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 (Hon.’61) and Sylvia Plath, former Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry (Hon.’05), and actress Uma Thurman.

Once owned by William Blaxton, the first European to settle Boston, the area was then known as Tri-mount, or Tremont, because of its three peaks and was later sold to the Puritans. The peaks were shorn off in the early 1800s so the area around them could be turned into buildable land. The neighborhood got its name from the hill that was topped by a beacon, which once alerted Bostonians of danger.

During the 19th century, the area was home to both the richest and the poorest Boston residents. On the south side lived some of the Hub’s most patrician families, the so-called Boston Brahmins, and the less prosperous north slope was home to many African Americans, a center for black and white abolitionists, and an important station on the Underground Railroad.

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.

Boston Common

Boston Common is the oldest public park in the country. It began as 44 acres held in common by Puritan colonists as grazing land for their livestock. Today, it’s a lovely 50-acre green oasis lined with benches and the site of numerous cultural events. 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.

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Freedom Trail

Freedom Trail

The 2.5-mile Freedom Trail begins at the Common and leads visitors to 16 historic sites, among them King’s Chapel, Faneuil Hall, and the Bunker Hill Monument. The trail, marked with a wide red painted line, winds its way through several neighborhoods, including the North End, the waterfront, and Charlestown. You can take a self-guided tour using a downloadable map or smartphone app. Guided Freedom Trail tours meet in front of the Visitor Information Center on the Common. Find more information about tour options, times, and cost here.

10 Bosworth St.

Billing itself as Boston’s fourth oldest restaurant, Marliave has been serving Beacon Hill residents since 1885, when a Parisian named Henry Marliave arrived in Boston and opened his eponymous eatery. Today, the restaurant features dishes made with local vegetables and fruits and naturally raised animals. Breads, desserts, sauces, and pastas are all made daily in-house and prepared to order. Marliave features a wonderful, idiosyncratic cocktail list and classic dishes such as beef Wellington (beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms, foie gras, and a red wine sauce served in a pastry crust) and rabbit (prosciutto-wrapped tenderloin, roasted sausage, gorgonzola, and caramelized onion polenta). The eatery is also famous for its raw bar, and diners can order oysters and clams for just $1 daily from 4 to 6 p.m. and 9 to 10 p.m.

Boston Athenaeum
10½ Beacon St.

Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum has about 600,000 volumes; its holdings include vast collections in areas such as Boston, Massachusetts, and New England history as well as 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 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 at 5:30 p.m., Thursdays at 3 p.m., and Saturdays at 11 a.m. The number of people in a tour is limited, so it’s best to book early. For reservations, call 617-227-0270, ext. 221. The library also offers film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, and musical performances, which are open to the general public as well as to members.

Scollay Square
21 Beacon St.

Named for the vibrant city square that was demolished in the early 1960s to make way for what is now Government Center, this warm, inviting restaurant is popular with State House pols, Beacon Hill residents, and tourists. The focus here is on American comfort food. The seafood dishes, including miso glazed salmon, pan-roasted shrimp, and pan-seared scallops, draw raves. A popular weekend brunch is offered Saturday and Sunday, featuring a “Make Your Own Bloody Mary Bar.” The bar has a television for sports fans, and the restaurant is decorated with old photos of Boston, including images of now largely forgotten Scollay Square.

Massachusetts State House
24 Beacon St.

The Massachusetts State House sits at the top of Beacon Hill, on land that was once John Hancock’s cow pasture. The main wing, designed by Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798, is topped by a dome gilded in 23-karat gold, and adorned with a wooden pinecone, recalling the influential role that the timber industry played in 18th-century Massachusetts. The dome was originally made of wood shingles, but was subsequently gilded in copper by Paul Revere; the gold was added later to help prevent leaks. During World War II, the dome was painted a dark color so it wouldn’t reflect light during blackouts. The State House is home to the State Legislature and the Massachusetts governor’s office. Free tours are offered weekdays from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. In the House of Representatives’ chambers, visitors can see a large wooden codfish called the Sacred Cod—a testament to the crucial role the fishing industry has played in the Massachusetts economy. To book a tour, call 617-727-3676.

84 Beacon St.

This is the bar that inspired the long-running NBC hit comedy series of the same name. Producers selected this neighborhood pub, called the Bull & Finch, as the inspiration for a new show called Cheers. (The exterior is shown in the opening of each episode.) Founded in 1969 as a local neighborhood watering hole, it became a must-see for the show’s fans. Menu items are named for various characters from the series—those finishing the Giant Norm Burger get their name on a hall of fame wall. The pub sells sweatshirts, T-shirts, glassware, caps, and bottle openers with the bar logo. Open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight, but it’s 21+ after 10 p.m.

Sign in front of Cheers bar in Boston, the bar that inspired the NBC hit sitcom Cheers

Cheers, 84 Beacon St. Photo by Maddie Malhotra (COM’19)

21st Amendment
150 Bowdoin St.

This pub, sitting 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 a Massachusetts congressman 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 is a nod 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 launched 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. Where the menu truly shines, however, is in its wild game, like braised wild boar. View the daily wild game specials on its Facebook page. Past specials: antelope with watermelon mint salsa and venison filet with cauliflower au gratin, chanterelle mushrooms, charred cipollini onion, and braised spinach.

Ma Maison
272 Cambridge St.

Launched in June 2015, this charming upscale French restaurant replaced Pierrot Bistro. Award-winning French chef Jacky Robert (the chef behind Petit Robert Bistro) serves up pan-seared foie gras, coq au vin, duck Magret aux Cerises, and daily specials like tripe, kidneys, and tongue. There is an extensive (and expensive) wine list, as well as a two-tiered dessert cart with irresistible fruit tarts, crème brulee, chocolate mousse, and a selection of cheeses.

Beacon Hill Hotel and Bistro
25 Charles St.

If you are looking for contemporary and traditional French bistro cuisine, the boutique hotel’s bistro is the place for a special occasion. It serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, weekend brunch, and a late-night dinner for after the theater. Or grab a cocktail on a cold night at the cozy fireplace bar. The setting is elegant, but while not cheap, it won’t break the bank: entrées of skirt steak with pesto whipped gold potato or grilled bone-in pork chop with pineapple rice are under $30. Executive chef Tim Partridge does a great job combining global flavors with New England’s local ingredients.

The Paramount
44 Charles St.

This Beacon Hill institution is known mainly for its affordable breakfasts: a line forms almost immediately on weekend mornings. Grab a tray and wait in line for the Spanish omelette or famous buttermilk pancakes. By night it is transformed into a more elegant venue with table service. Try the popular pan-roasted teriyaki glazed salmon or surf and turf tacos 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. It offers housewarming gifts, collectibles, and knickknacks to spruce up any mantel. Many of its items have a Boston theme, such as Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings and related merchandise. Blackstone’s celebrated its 35th anniversary this year and keeps things interesting for its customers with book signings and other special events.

Blackstone's of Beacon Hill store in Boston

Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill, 46 Charles St. Photo by Maddie Malhotra (COM’19)

47 Charles St.

This Tuscan eatery will make you feel like you’re dining in Florence. Happily, you don’t need a passport or airfare to sample such traditional fare as vitella Milanese (sautéed breaded veal scallopine) and scottadito di agnello (rack of lamb). It’s is a bit on the pricey side, but worth the splurge. The wine list has more than 100 wines from Tuscany alone. The handmade pastas, local and imported cheeses, and homemade sausages draw diners back again and again. The friendly staff makes everyone feel like a member of the family.

51 Charles St.

Looking for cutting-edge women’s apparel you won’t find anywhere else in Boston? This stylish boutique, the sister store to December Thieves (below), offers stylish boots and shoes, cropped jersey jackets, blazers, strapless dresses, and accessories from around the globe: scarves from Italy, bags from Paris, footwear from Germany. The store also has a small selection of unique jewelry.

The Red Wagon
69 Charles St.

At the Red Wagon, you’ll find a unusual toys, gifts, clothing, and accessories for babies and children. There is a wide selection of the store’s best-selling roll-neck children’s sweaters (made of 100 percent Peruvian cotton), books, blankets, toys, games, and apparel for kids ages newborn to preteen. The store has an always-changing inventory and receives new styles every day.

Tatte Bakery and Café
70 Charles St.

Satisfy your sweet tooth with Tatte’s dazzling selection of pastries, cakes, and intricate artisanal fruit and nut tarts. Self-trained Israeli pastry chef and owner Tzurit Or started the business in 2007 in her kitchen and sold baked goods at farmers markets before opening her first brick-and-mortar store in Brookline and then expanding to Cambridge (four spots) and Boston (three), including this café in the heart of Beacon Hill. It has a wonderful breakfast menu—poached eggs, breakfast sandwiches, and more exotic fare like Shakshuka (a traditional North African dish with bell peppers and tomatoes, topped with poached eggs and feta cheese)—and sandwiches such as lamb kebob, prosciutto and fig, and roasted eggplant for lunch. Or has been recognized by numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and Bon Appetite magazine. Be sure to try the light cheesecake, a customer favorite.

The Hungry I
71 ½ Charles St.

Housed below street level inside a restored 1840s brownstone, this intimate European-style restaurant features three small candlelit dining rooms with exposed brick walls, cozy fireplaces, framed oil paintings, polished antiques, and embroidered throw pillows. The Hungry I bills itself as Boston’s most romantic restaurant and claims to have played host to many a marriage proposal. The French-inspired menu options change, but diners have enjoyed classics like duck l’orange, frog legs provençal, and beef bourguignon. In the warmer months, be sure to sit out on the restaurant’s beautiful ivy-covered patio.

Twentieth Century Limited
73 Charles St.

This store has everything you need to look fabulous when having tea with royalty. Its sparkling tiaras, necklaces, rings, and brooches include Victorian, Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, mid-century, and contemporary pieces and make a great addition to any costume jewelry collection. It also sells vintage bags, gloves, and hats, as well as antique black-and-white photos from bygone weddings and parties.

Sweet Bakery
81 Charles St.

Sweet’s cakes and cupcakes are baked fresh daily and everything is made from scratch. Select from 20 flavors, which change with the seasons: pink lemonade and piña colada in the summer, apple cider and pumpkin pie in the fall, hot cocoa and snickerdoodle in the winter, and lemon raspberry and chocolate coconut in the spring. Specially decorated treats are available for holidays like Halloween and Christmas.

December Thieves
88 Charles St.

This lovely boutique began on Harrison Avenue in SoWa, and opened on Beacon Hill in 2014. Owner Lana Barakat won Boston magazine’s 2015 Best Shopkeeper award. Offering home décor, candles, jewelry, clothing, scarves, bags, and other accessories, it brings emerging designers to the Boston market and also carries what it calls “curious” items, among them umbrellas featuring carved rabbit heads. Barakat opened a second store, Heist, a few doors down from December Thieves earlier this year.

Beacon Hill Chocolates,

Beacon Hill Chocolates, 91 Charles St.

Beacon Hill Chocolates
91 Charles St.

This sweet shop is a chocolate lover’s paradise. Owner Paula Barth imports the best artisan chocolates from all over New England and around the world, meaning that each truffle is a handcrafted, melt-in-your-mouth delight. Look for classic confections like chocolate-covered cherries, as well as more exotic sweets such as the caramel sushi (caramel and marshmallow swirled together and dipped in dark chocolate) and cappuccino cup (a dark chocolate cup filled with pure Arabica coffee ganache and finished with white chocolate hazelnut foam). Seasonal flavors like the carrot cake snowman (milk chocolate carrot cake ganache enrobed in ivory chocolate) are also available.

Black Ink
101 Charles St.

When Black Ink first opened, it was a stationery store offering a wide selection of papers and rubber stamps. Over the past 23 years, it has evolved into an eclectic gift shop, selling “unexpected necessities.” But don’t expect knickknacks—everything here has a purpose, albeit not always readily apparent (needle threader, anyone?). You can pick up a schoolhouse pencil sharpener or an authentic plastic cafeteria tray with matching cup, unusual paperclips, and Tin Tin books. Make sure to budget a lot of time; it’s impossible to see everything at first glance.

120 Charles St.

Pressed is the go-to dining spot for people looking for a healthy on-the-go food option. Chef Nate Pane offers local, organic, cold-pressed juices, superfood shakes, meant to “charge, calm, or purify,” and nutritious meals like pepita avocado smash toast, pesto kale Caesar salad, superfood sushi, or a root vegetable pad thai made with spiralized zucchini and root vegetables, spicy peanut sauce, sesame, cilantro and chives.

133 Charles St.

This recently opened gift shop offers apparel, home goods, jewelry, and more, most imported from Europe. You’ll also find a select assortment of items made by local artists. Owner Millicent Cutler has an eye for sleek, eye-catching design and frequently features new designers and artists to keep inventory fresh. Ouimillie was named the 2017 Improper Bostonian “Best Gift Shop in Boston.”

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 place to go for an affordable lunch—the Roma sandwich with grilled chicken, tomatoes, lettuce, and lemon pepper mayonnaise on focaccia 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 residence was constructed in 1804, making it one of the earliest buildings on Beacon Hill. It was designed by Massachusetts State House architect Charles Bulfinch, designer of many other 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 hour on the hour starting at 11 a.m.

Nichols House Museum, Beacon Hill Boston

Nichols House Museum, 55 Mt. Vernon St. Photo by Maddie Malhotra (COM’19)

Lala Rokh
97 Mt. Vernon St.

This Persian restaurant takes its name from the romance novel of the same name by the 19th-century writer Thomas Moore. The owners, Babak Bina (MET’88) and his sister, Azita Bina-Seibel, are originally from northwest Iran, but the Persian dishes are from several regions, each accented with different spices. The restaurant is decorated with contemporary photographs and paintings by Iranian artists, and each dining room has a specific theme or artist. Try the morgh polow, saffron-seared chicken in a tomato broth served with basmati rice and flavored with cumin, cinnamon, rose petals, and barberries. Be sure to order one of the traditional desserts, like fereni (rice custard, rosewater, and fresh fruit) and bastani (saffron ice cream).

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 (MAAH) commemorates the men and women who fought for the abolition of slavery, while establishing schools, churches, and businesses on the hill, and is New England’s largest museum dedicated to preserving the contributions of the region’s African Americans. In 1783, Massachusetts banned slavery, and the free black population continued to spread throughout the city. The MAAH is 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 US 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.

Rouvalis Flowers
40 West Cedar St.

This 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. The shop also offers floral design and terrarium workshops and urban garden design by a team of experienced landscape designers. You can find just the right gift for any gardener or interior design enthusiast, but don’t neglect to pick up a bouquet for yourself as well.

75 Chestnut
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 maple Dijon pork chop, with roasted root vegetables and baby kale, in a maple Dijon apple cider sauce.

Louisburg Square

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 Square, once an Episcopal convent, now home to former Secretary of State John Kerry (Hon.’05), and 10 Louisburg Square, 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: 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.

Explore other area neighborhoods here.

This story originally ran May 20, 2008; it has been updated to include new locations and current information.

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