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., lived here. More recent residents have included poets Robert Frost (Hon.’61) and Sylvia Plath, former US Senator and Secretary of State John Kerry (Hon.’05), and actor Uma Thurman.
The area, once owned by William Blaxton, the first European to settle Boston, was known as Tri-mount, or Tremont, because of its three peaks. It 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 current name from the hill that was topped by a beacon, which once alerted Bostonians to danger.
During the 19th century, Beacon Hill 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 boutiques and antiques stores line Charles Street. But the neighborhood also offers some affordable (or free) pleasures. Below, we’ve put together a list of places you won’t want to miss.
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, this 50-acre green oasis is the site of many cultural events. During the summer months, there’s an old-fashioned carousel (rides are $3 for three minutes), and visitors can cool off by dipping their feet in the adjacent Frog Pond, which in winter is transformed into a popular ice-skating rink.
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 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.
Marliave, which bills itself as the oldest chef-owned restaurant in Boston, has been serving Beacon Hill residents since it was opened in 1885 by a Parisian named Henry Marliave. The restaurant features dishes made with local fruits and vegetables and naturally raised animals. Breads, desserts, sauces, and pastas are made daily in-house and prepared to order. Marliave has an idiosyncratic cocktail list and offers classic dishes such as Beef Wellington (beef tenderloin with wild mushrooms, foie gras, and a red wine sauce served in a pastry crust) and diver scallops (scallops with sweet potato ravioli, mixed mushrooms, and crispy sage). The eatery is also famous for its raw bar; diners can order oysters and clams for $1 each, daily from 4 to 6 pm and 9 to 10 pm. The restaurant recently added an espresso bar in the lower level, serving coffee, tea, snacks, and pastries.
10½ Beacon St.
Founded in 1807, the Boston Athenaeum has about 600,000 volumes; its holdings include vast collections in subjects 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 buried. The Athenaeum is a members-only library, but the public is allowed on the first floor and can take a guided art and architecture tour on Tuesdays at 5:30 pm, Thursdays at 3 pm, and Saturdays at 11 am. The number of people in a tour is limited, so it’s best to book early. For reservations, call 617-720-7612. The library also offers film screenings, poetry readings, lectures, and musical performances, which are open to the public.
Zen Japanese Grill & Sushi Bar
21A Beacon St.
If you’ve got a craving for fresh, tasty sushi, or even a seafood or chicken entrée, Zen has plenty of mouthwatering options, from cold and hot appetizers to makimono, rice bowls, and noodle dishes. If the possibilities overwhelm you, order something from the chef’s special creations list, like the “volcano” maki, filled with spicy tuna and topped with scallops, crabmeat, and enoki.
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 architect Charles Bulfinch and completed in 1798, is topped by a dome gilded in 23-karat gold and adorned with a wooden pine cone, 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 building is home to the state legislature and the Massachusetts governor’s office. Free 45-minute tours are offered weekdays from 10 am to 3:30 pm. 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. In the early 1980s, producers selected this neighborhood pub, called the Bull & Finch, as the inspiration for the show, which starred Ted Danson. (The exterior is shown in the opening of each episode.) Founded in 1969 as a local neighborhood watering hole, it became a destination for tourists and 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 am to midnight, but it’s 21+ after 10 pm.
150 Bowdoin St.
This pub, sitting in the shadow of the State House, was 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 US congressman, from 1947 to 1953. Serving burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, salads, 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. You can find the eatery’s wild game specials on its Facebook page. Past specials: antelope with watermelon mint salsa and venison fillet with cauliflower au gratin, chanterelle mushrooms, charred cipollini onions, and braised spinach.
272 Cambridge St.
Launched in June 2015, this charming upscale French restaurant replaced Pierrot Bistrot Francais. Award-winning French chef Jacky Robert (the chef behind Petit Robert Bistro) has partnered with Stanislava Sosnitsky to serve up pan-seared foie gras, coq au vin, duck Magret à l’orange, 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 macarons, passion fruit baked Alaska, chocolate mousse, and a selection of French cheeses.
44 Charles St.
This Beacon Hill institution (it opened in 1937) is known mainly for its affordable breakfasts: a line forms almost immediately on weekend mornings. Grab a tray and wait in line for the western burrito 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 the roasted buddha bowl with cauliflower, avocado, and chickpeas for dinner.
Blackstone’s of Beacon Hill
46 Charles St.
This sunny gift shop offers housewarming gifts, collectibles, and knickknacks to spruce up any mantel. Many items have a Boston theme, such as Robert McCloskey’s classic children’s book Make Way for Ducklings and related merchandise. Blackstone’s also hosts book signings and other special events.
47 Charles St.
This Tuscan eatery will make you feel like you’re dining in Florence. The menu includes such traditional fare as vitella Milanese (sautéed breaded veal scaloppine) and scottadito di agnello (rack of lamb), as well as handmade pastas, local and imported cheeses, and homemade sausages. It’s a bit on the pricey side, but worth the splurge. The wine list has more than 100 wines from Tuscany alone. 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 spot specializes in apparel, with a focus on emerging brands from global designers. You’ll find stylish boots and shoes, cropped jersey jackets, blazers, strapless dresses, and accessories from around the world: scarves from Japan, 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 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.
Tatte Bakery and Café
70 Charles St.
Satisfy your sweet tooth with Tatte’s 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 and Boston. This café, in the heart of Beacon Hill, 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 kebab, prosciutto and fig, and roasted cauliflower for lunch. Or has been recognized by numerous publications, including the Boston Globe and Bon Appetit magazine. Among the pastry standouts are the strawberry raspberry pavlova and the tiramisu cup.
Twentieth Century Limited
73 Charles St.
This vintage costume jewelry 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. It also sells vintage bags, gloves, and hats, as well as antique black-and-white photos from bygone weddings and parties.
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, so 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 confections for holidays, including Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter, are also available.
101 Charles St.
When Black Ink opened, it was a stationery store offering a wide selection of papers and rubber stamps. Over the past 26 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 mechanical pencils, beautiful wrapping paper (sold by the sheet), unusual paper clips, and Tintin books. Make sure to budget a lot of time; it’s impossible to see everything at first glance.
131 Charles St.
This trendy women’s apparel boutique offers a number of up-and-coming—and pricey—brands like Maison de Papilon and Yumi Kim, along with more established lines like Rails and Milly and Rebecca Minkoff. Crush Boutique also has a store on Newbury Street.
133 Charles St.
This gift shop offers apparel, home goods, jewelry, and handbags, most imported from Europe. You’ll also find an assortment of items made by local artists. Owner Millicent Cutler has an eye for sleek, eye-catching design and frequently features new designers from the United States and Europe, as well as one-of-a-kind pieces from local clothing designer Erin Robertson and jewelry designer Nicole Fichera.
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 open-faced omelets served with home fries and toast. It’s a great 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 and vegetable gnocchi are both excellent. At any time of the day, the square pizza is a great snack, as are the many 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: April 1 to October 31, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm; November 1 to March 31, Thursday through Saturday, 11 am to 3 pm. Tours are given every hour on the hour starting at 11 am.
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. It 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.
40 West Cedar St.
This florist, on the corner of West Cedar and Pinckney Streets, has displays of garden ornaments and fresh flowers that change weekly, and its rustic aesthetic is comfortably at home among Beacon Hill’s cobblestone streets. The store, built in 1897, was originally a butcher shop and retains all of the original interior elements, including a meat refrigerator that now is a cooler for flowers. The shop also offers houseplants, pots, 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 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 fare and seafood. 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 clam chowder, the Nantucket seafood stew with shrimp, scallops, mussels, salmon, and swordfish, or the char-grilled pork chop, with mashed potatoes, baby vegetables, haricot verts, and apple brandy sauce.
This historic square, with its gas street lamps 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 author Louisa May Alcott lived until her death from mercury poisoning in 1888.
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 toward 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.