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Celebrating the Fourth of July

Concerts, history, and fireworks on tap

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The most explosive—literally—holiday of the year is here again. The Fourth of July weekend in Boston is jam-packed with dazzling fireworks, critically acclaimed musical guests, historical tours, whale watching cruises, and more.

Since 1974, the musicians of the Boston Pops have lent their considerable musical talent to accompany a stunning display of fireworks, howitzers, and church bells along the Charles River. As longtime Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler (Hon.’51) warned at the time, “All hell could break loose.” In the best sense of the word, he was right.

Today, the annual concert and fireworks display draws hundreds of thousands of people to the banks of the Charles for one of the nation’s biggest and most celebrated Fourth of July celebrations—with millions more across the country watching the event on television. If you’re lucky enough to be in the city for the holiday, this is an event not to be missed.

Along with the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, the 32nd Boston Harborfest is in full swing, showcasing Boston’s rich heritage with a wide range of daily events. And there’s lots more to do as well, so break out the sunscreen, bring some water, and enjoy all that the city has to offer this July 4.

Following is a guide to celebrating America’s birthday, Boston-style.

Wednesday, July 3

In Her Voice: Jacqueline Kennedy, The White House Years

At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, a new exhibition, In Her Voice: Jacqueline Kennedy, The White House Years, highlights the former First Lady’s series of oral history interviews with noted historian Arthur Schlesinger in 1964. The famously private First Lady recorded the interviews just months after the assassination of her husband. They remained sealed for 47 years before being published in September 2011, when Caroline Kennedy released them to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her father’s presidency. Visitors can listen to Kennedy share her unique impressions of world leaders and events, her role as First Lady, and her life as a wife and mother in the White House. The exhibition includes photographs, documents, and artifacts illustrating many of the events she describes.

In Her Voice: Jacqueline Kennedy, The White House Years is at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Columbia Point, Boston. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 with student ID and $12 for adults. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Park Street, transfer to the Red Line towards Ashmont, and get off at JFK/UMass. There is a free shuttle bus, marked “JFK,” to the museum every 20 minutes from 8 a.m. until closing.

Whale Watching

Hop aboard the Voyager III for a view of some sea creatures you won’t see at the New England Aquarium. This high-speed boat travels to whale feeding grounds 30 miles east of Boston for an aquatic adventure. While taking in the beautiful view, passengers can interact with naturalists and educators onboard, spot whales, dolphins, sea birds, and other marine life, and enjoy the boat’s full-service snack and concession bars.

Whale watching cruises leave at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. from the New England Aquarium dock, One Central Wharf, Boston, and last three to four hours. The cruise is $45 for adults and $35 for children. Tickets can be purchased here. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center, transfer to the Blue Line, and get off at the Aquarium stop.

Town Hall Blues Band

As part of Boston Harborfest’s free concert series, the Town Hall Blues Band is slated to play a lively variety of classic and original rock, blues, and jazz guaranteed to get you in a holiday mood.

Town Hall Blues Band will perform from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on City Hall Plaza, One City Hall Square, Boston. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center.

Boston Pops Concert

Although there won’t be any fireworks accompanying this concert, you can listen to the Boston Pops perform a run-through of their Fourth of July concert, including Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. Best of all, the crowds won’t be nearly as bad as they will on Thursday evening.

The Boston Pops Concert is from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Hatch Shell, 47 David G. Mugar Way, Boston. Attendees can enter the Oval (the lawn/seating area in front of the Hatch Shell) beginning at 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public, so you may want to arrive early. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Park Street, transfer to the Red Line towards Alewife, and get off at the Charles/MGH stop.

Thursday, July 4

Flag-Raising Ceremony and Parade

Kick off the most patriotic day of the year by attending the flag-raising ceremony at City Hall Plaza. From there, follow a parade to the Granary Burial Ground, where wreaths are laid on the graves of some of America’s most noted patriots. The parade concludes at the Old State House.

The flag-raising ceremony and parade is  at 9 a.m. at City Hall Plaza, One City Hall Square, Boston. It is free and open to the public. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center.

Declaration of Independence Reading

After following the parade to the Old State House, stay to listen to a reading of the Declaration of Independence and be reminded of what the holiday is all about. The address will be read from the balcony of the historic building, just as it was on July 18, 1776, when Bostonians gathered to hear it read for the first time.

The Declaration of Independence reading is at 10 a.m. at the Old State House, 206 Washington St., Boston. It is free and open to the public. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center and walk to Washington Street.

Pirates & Patriots

The Freedom Trail Foundation’s Pirates & Patriots tour immerses participants in the world of riots, revolution, slavery, and piracy that once took place along Boston’s shores. The tour begins at Long Wharf with a visit to 18th- and 19th-century buildings, proceeds to the harbor, where visitors will hear fascinating tales of John Hancock’s smuggling and the hanging of pirates Jack Quelch and William Fly, and ends at Griffin’s Wharf, site of the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

The Pirates & Patriots tour is offered once daily, and departs at 12:30 p.m. from the ArtsBoston booth, a freestanding kiosk on the south side of Faneuil Hall, near the Samuel Adams statue. Admission is $11 for students and $13 for adults. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center and walk to Congress Street.

Boston University BU, things to do July 4, Boston Pops Charles River Hatchshell

Photo courtesy of Flickr contributor bexatious

The 40th Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular

One of Boston’s most celebrated traditions, the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The evening sky will light up with a dazzling fireworks display—some 16,000 different effects—above the Charles River. For the first time ever, fireworks will be launched not only from barges on the river, but from the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge as well. Before the colorful climax, the Boston Pops will perform its annual free concert, which draws an estimated crowd of 500,000. This year’s concert has a decidedly local flavor: four well-known New England natives will light up the Hatch Shell stage: Grammy-winner Susan Tedeschi (Norwell, Mass.), singer-songwriter Howie Day (Brewer, Maine), national recording artist Ayla Brown (Wrentham, Mass.), and multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Ellis Hall (Roxbury, Mass.). As the fireworks explode and church bells ring across the city, the Pops will close with a stirring rendition of Tchaikovsky’s explosive 1812 Overture.

Note: Be prepared for tremendous crowds. If you plan on watching from the Oval, which opens to the public at 9 a.m. and is usually full by 2 p.m., arrive as early as possible. In light of the Boston Marathon bombings in April, security is expected to be very tight. Don’t bring backpacks, grills, coolers on wheels, premixed beverages, sharp objects, or pets (unless they’re service animals), as they’re not allowed. All carried items are subject to inspection.

Find a complete list of allowable items here. All allowable items must be checked and carried through security checkpoints by 4 p.m.

The 40th Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular concert begins at 7:30 p.m. Fireworks will be launched at 9:30 p.m. The event takes place at the Hatch Shell, 47 David G. Mugar Way, Boston. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Park Street, transfer to the Red Line towards Alewife, and get off at the Charles/MGH stop. The MBTA will provide extra bus and subway service on July 4, and all buses and trains will be free to the public after 9:30 p.m. More information on the event can be found here.

Other places to watch the fireworks
Don’t want to get caught in the massive crowds at the Esplanade? Below are some suggestions for places with a terrific view of the pyrotechnics display, but without quite as many people.

Longfellow Bridge

Get a front row seat for the fireworks from this bridge spanning the river between Boston and Cambridge. You’ll be close to the action, and have a beautiful view of the fireworks reflecting on the river. The bridge will be closed to cars.

Along the Charles River, Cambridge

For a top-notch view of the fireworks, simply walk across the Longfellow Bridge to Cambridge, hang a left, and line Memorial Drive. Spectators will be able to hear the music, and the crowds will be smaller.

Larz Anderson Park
23 Newton St., Brookline

Families should consider setting up camp at this beautiful park. There’s more room for games and picnics, and its high vantage point offers a wonderful view of the fireworks.

Oakley Country Club
401 Belmont St., Watertown

Park at the entrance of this country club and score a great view of the display. Grab a seat at one of the highest points of the golf course, sit back, and enjoy the show.

Information on other fireworks displays in nearby towns is available here.

Friday, July 5

To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis

This special exhibition at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum recalls the two weeks in October 1962 when the world held its breath as the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in what could have been a disastrous nuclear war. Under orders from Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union secretly assembled several nuclear missile sites in Cuba, only 90 miles from the United States. If launched, the missiles could have reached and destroyed most major US cities in less than five minutes. Told from the viewpoint of the United States, the exhibition recounts how JFK calmly but deliberately conducted negotiations that ultimately persuaded Khrushchev to dismantle the missile sites. To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis reflects on one of the major achievements of the Kennedy presidency. JFK secretly recorded the White House meetings during which he and advisors conferred, and visitors can listen to excerpts from the 43 hours to hear how the president and his staff negotiated one of the gravest crises in modern history.

To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis is at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Columbia Point, Boston, through December 1, 2013. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 with student ID and $12 for adults. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Park Street, transfer to the Red Line towards Ashmont, and get off at JFK/UMass. There is a free shuttle bus, marked “JFK,” to the museum every 20 minutes from 8 a.m. until closing.

GUY and DownCity Band

What better way to spend part of the long holiday weekend than listening to some free music? Two spirited bands will rock City Hall Plaza on Friday afternoon. First up is GUY, a dynamic duo stemming from the Boston band the Pincushions. Through their rhythmic acoustics, these two talented musicians put a fresh spin on classic and modern songs from the likes of Sublime, Toto, the Police, and Men at Work.

If you plan on catching DownCity Band’s performance, be sure to lace up your dancing shoes. This nine-piece dance band, featuring a soulful female and male vocal duo, promises an assortment of toe-tapping tunes.

GUY will perform from noon to 3 p.m. DownCity Band will hit the stage from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Both concerts are free and take place at City Hall Plaza, One City Hall Square, Boston. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center.

A Night in King’s Chapel Burying Ground

Interested in exploring the darker side of Boston’s history? Join the ghoulish guides from Ghosts and Gravestones on a tour through the haunted King’s Chapel Burying Ground, Boston’s oldest graveyard. Prepare for chilling tales of some of the city’s more nefarious characters, including the story of Ephraim Littlefield and his shocking black-market body trading scandal.

Tours begin at 7 p.m., 8 p.m., and 9 p.m. at King’s Chapel Burying Ground, near the corner of School Street and Tremont Street, Boston. Reservations are required and can be made by calling 617-269-3626 or by purchasing tickets here.

Boston University BU, things to do July 4, New England Aquarium, outdoor seals and sea lions exhibition

Zoe the California sea lion pup plays with a toy in the New England Aquarium’s New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center. Photo courtesy of the New England Aquarium

Saturday, July 6

Whiskers, Flippers, and Fun

Have you yet to meet Isaac, Cordova, and Zoe, the stars of the New England Aquarium’s outdoor seals and sea lions exhibition? You’re in store for a treat, as the trio shows off their swimming, porpoising, and vocal skills. Watch as they learn new behaviors, get their teeth brushed, and interact with the public. While you’re there, be sure to check out the aquarium’s star attraction: the recently reopened Giant Ocean Tank, whose new 200,000-gallon capacity holds an astonishing 2,000 animals.

The New England Aquarium, One Central Wharf, Boston, is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday. Admission for adults is $22.95, $15.95 for children 3 to 11, and $20.95 for seniors (60+). Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center, transfer to the Blue Line, and get off at the Aquarium stop.

The BaHa Brothers and Primal Funk

Live it up at the annual Party on City Hall Plaza this Saturday, headlined by two bands sure to get the crowd moving. The BaHa Brothers, who favor the sounds of Jimmy Buffett, are on stage first in a concert that features their take on classic rock from the ’60s and ’70s, as well as their own compositions.

Later, Primal Funk, a band that has opened for some of the nation’s top musical acts, including the Temptations and Maroon 5, will perform an explosive set of funk hits from the ’60s to today.

The BaHa Brothers play from noon to 3 p.m., Primal Funk from 6 to 9:30 p.m. Both concerts are free and take place at City Hall Plaza, One City Hall Square, Boston. Take an MBTA Green Line trolley to Government Center.

The Adams Family

No, this historic tour does not feature Gomez, Morticia, or Cousin Itt (whose last name, by the way, was spelled with two d’s). This Boston by Foot tour will introduce you to the lives of the nation’s second president, John Adams, and his equally accomplished wife, Abigail, and three generations of their descendants. Portrayed by knowledgeable guides, this Adams family will guide you on a walk from the Old State House across Beacon Hill and into the Back Bay, where they’ll regale you with stories of their life in Boston from the eve of the Revolution to the turn of the 20th century.

The Adams Family tour departs from the Boston Massacre Monument at the Old State House, 206 Washington St., Boston, at 3 p.m. You can purchase tickets here or directly from your guide.

Boston University BU, things to do July 4, Boston Harborfest, Chowderfest

The Chart House returns to this year’s Chowderfest, hoping to win the coveted Best Chowder award. Photo courtesy of Flickr contributor Brandon Cripps

Sunday, July 7

Chowderfest

Grab a spoon and dig in at the annual all-you-can-eat Boston Chowderfest (pronounced “Chowdahfest”). This delicious competition features chowder from some of the city’s tastiest eateries, such as Anthem Kitchen & Bar, Ipswich Clambake Company, and Chart House, all vying to win the fan-conferred Best Chowder award. Make your way from booth to booth and sample (as many times as you’d like) each restaurant’s offering. Come hungry.

Boston Chowderfest is on Sunday, July 7, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at City Hall Plaza, One City Hall Square, Boston. Tickets are $13 for adults, $9 for children, and can be purchased here.

Ben Franklin: Son of Boston

On this Boston by Foot tour, you’ll find yourself walking among the many homes and haunts of one of Boston’s most beloved figures: Benjamin Franklin. You’ll learn about his extraordinary life as a scientist, inventor, diplomat, and much more.

The Ben Franklin: Son of Boston tour departs from the Irish Famine Monument, at the corner of School Street and Washington Street, at 3 p.m. You can purchase tickets here or directly from your guide.

Duck Tours

Hop aboard a “DUCK,” one of the World War II–style amphibious landing vehicles visible on many Boston streets, for a chance to see some of the city’s most famous sights—by land and by water. The views of the Boston skyline from the Charles River are breathtaking.

Boston Duck Tours are 80 minutes long and depart from the Prudential Center, 800 Boylston St., Boston, or the Museum of Science, One Science Park, Boston, every half hour beginning at 9 a.m. Tickets are $33.99 for adults, $27.99 for students (12+), seniors (62+), and military, $22.99 for children (3 to 11), $10.50 for children under 3. An abbreviated, 65-minute tour departs from the New England Aquarium, One Central Wharf, Boston, every 20 to 25 minutes beginning at noon, and is $3 cheaper. Tickets can be purchased here.

Tom Vellner can be reached at tvellner@bu.edu follow him on Twitter at @tomgvellner.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Celebrating the Fourth of July

  • Benjamin Franklin on 07.03.2013 at 7:21 am

    There is nothing to celebrate when the unpredictable acts of terrorists can effectively compel the people of MA to sacrifice their essential liberty for temporary security on independence day. Given the number of men who have marched into battle fields facing blazing guns for us to fear the unknown is pathetic. Lady Gaga is right this is no longer the home of the brave.

    • Kerberos on 07.03.2013 at 2:25 pm

      Using Lady Gaga as a life guide to call people of the United States and residents of Massachusetts pathetic, is fairly pathetic within itself. Have an original thought of your own that will bring positivity to the world…there’s a thought.

  • Anne Arsenautl on 07.05.2013 at 4:25 pm

    I missed seeing the fireworks on July 4 in Boston this year. I could not even get it on TV because my stations preferred the Washington celebration which was not as good as Boston’s. As a Bostonian this celebration means a lot to me, and no terrorist is going to change my mind.

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