Ask anyone not from around Boston—Hollywood types, especially—to characterize the city, and you're likely to get a few botched attempts at the Yankee accent, a crack about the famously bad drivers (fine; deserved), and, despite the lingering mob association, the overall sense that the ethos is as staid and buttoned-up as the pearls-and-cable-knit aesthetic. But Boston today is just a shadow of its stereotypical self—as much, if not more, about the forward-thinking as it is about the status quo. One of new mayor Marty Walsh's first orders of business—after establishing a citywide wireless program called Wicked Free Wi-Fi, that is—was to put together a late-night task force to challenge some of Boston's more provincial holdouts, including the 2 A.M. closing time for bars, early curfew for food trucks, and the ban on Sunday morning liquor sales. The message: We like to shake things up as much as the next town.
The Boston skyline as seen from thr Charles River.
It's not just an attitude adjustment. Throughout his 20-year tenure, former mayor Tom Menino oversaw a major transformation of the city's skyline with the addition of some 80 million square feet of glass and steel, including a Rafael Viñoly–designed convention center, and the cranes keep on rising. Before long, the 60-story Millennium Tower, on the site of the old Filene's department store in Downtown Crossing, and a residential complex set to go up between the Back Bay neighborhood and Symphony Hall, will unseat the John Hancock Tower and the Prudential as the city's most imposing high-rises. Meanwhile, the Rose Kennedy Greenway—the final piece of the Big Dig project that connected the North End neighborhood to the rest of the city—has injected some major green, with a mile-and-a-half stretch of park, public artworks, fountains, and food trucks. (Not to mention a custom-built carousel that eschews the standard horses for the more locally relevant cod, harbor seals, and lobsters.) "If I have an afternoon off and it's a nice day, one of my favorite things to do is walk along the Greenway," says chef and restaurateur Joanne Chang, who operates four locations of her much-loved Flour bakery, as well as the Asian diner Myers + Chang. "It's one of the best ways to see Boston."
The Back Bay skyline.
For many years the city was known largely for its prowess in the fields of medicine and academics, but the new Boston is powered by food, art, fashion, and technology. Its three most exciting neighborhoods capture this sentiment, albeit in three distinct ways. Fort Point, which connects the Financial District to the waterfront, is a rising mini-hub of innovation, bolstered by an influx of biotech firms and anchored by Diller Scofidio + Renfro's gleaming Institute of Contemporary Art, whose glass-walled amphitheater overlooks Boston Harbor. Restaurateurs have been drawn to the neighborhood by the real estate gold mine of loftlike abandoned factories: Early adopters like chef/restaurateur Barbara Lynch, who runs three popular spots along Congress Street—including the acclaimed Menton—paved the way for dozens of others. Row 34, a self-described "workingman's oyster bar," draws off-the-clock bankers and local artists alike.
"Cambridge has always taken the lead as the city's brain trust, but Fort Point is giving it a run for its money," says Debi Greenberg, whose men's and women's clothing boutique Louis was a neighborhood pioneer when it relocated to the waterfront from Back Bay in 2010. "I think people are both more relaxed and more productive when they're looking at the ocean."
Row 34 Oyster Bar
On the other side of the Charles River, Kendall Square, Cambridge's most vibrant neighborhood and home to many of the area's tech firms and venture capitalists, is also a booming culinary center. It attracts restaurateurs with its low-lying buildings, a lingering midcentury vibe, and an enterprising clientele hungry for adventurous cuisine. The square itself has become an award-winning example of futuristic urban planning, weaving parks, an ice rink, and a boat basin through its office, residential, and lab buildings. Even the river—that obviously immovable icon of Boston privilege—is now dotted as frequently with young people on stand-up paddleboards as it is with Ivy League racing shells.
Murals by Puvis de Chavannes at the Boston Public Library.
Fashion and home design enter the mix in the South End, a once-gritty neighborhood that's been taken over by artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. At tapas joint Toro—where the pan de banana, griddled banana bread with foie gras toffee, justifies the lengthy wait for a table—the Sunday brunch crowd offers plenty of opportunity for people watching. Here are 20-somethings in raw denim and artfully oversize T-shirts, stylish empty nesters who've traded a house in the suburbs for a neighborhood pied-à-terre, and handsome young families who roll up with designer totes dangling from designer strollers. Shopping in the South End is superior to the now largely chain-filled Newbury Street, and an afternoon can easily be whiled away browsing through the many boutiques dealing in fashion by small independent labels, vintage cookbooks, and modern furniture. Or one can simply walk the brick sidewalks and enjoy the greenery: Tucked among the neighborhood's brownstones are community gardens where vegetables are grown for food and fun—an apt metaphor for a beautifully flourishing Boston, where something new and surprising seems ever ready to emerge.
The Institute of Contemporary Art.
The area code is 617, unless noted.
Go green. The Rose Kennedy Greenway is a 1½-mile breath of fresh air that cuts through downtown Boston. Begin walking at South Station and finish in the North End, where Italian pastry shops and cafés await.
Take a spin. Cycle past the Museum of Science and Harvard University via the Charles River bike path. The Hubway bike-share program has more than 140 docking stations across the city.
Don your Sunday best. The South End's SoWa Sundays, held from May through October, gather craft vendors and food trucks along a three-block stretch. Neighboring design shops include Hudson, Simplemente Blanco, and Mohr & McPherson.
The American Repertory Theater,64 Brattle St., Cambridge; 547-8300; : Harvard's professional theater has been a Broadway testing ground for traditional and immersive drama since its founding in 1980.
The Institute of Contemporary Art,100 Northern Ave.; 478-3100; : The Diller Scofidio + Renfro building overlooking Boston Harbor boasts cutting-edge exhibitions, a collection that includes Roni Horn, Tara Donovan, and Philip-Lorca diCorcia, peerless views.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum,280 The Fenway; 566-1401; : Modeled after a Venetian palazzo, this small museum—home to works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, and Sargent—recently unveiled a new wing designed by Renzo Piano for temporary exhibitions and concerts.
The Museum of Fine Arts,465 Huntington Ave.; 267-9300; : Built in 1909, the museum houses more than 450,000 works of art and keeps on growing. The past decade has seen the openings of new wings dedicated to American, African, and Asian art, as well as a glass-enclosed courtyard by Foster + Partners.
Patch NYC boutique.
The Ames Boston Hotel,1 Court St.; 979-8100; : Built in 1893, this 114-room Romanesque-style hotel was renovated under the direction of David Rockwell with a focus on ultra-luxurious bathrooms.
Chandler Studios,54 Berkeley St.; 482-3450; : Designed by Hacin + Associates with an eye toward the brownstone's original details, the 12-room self-service boutique hotel accommodates independent travelers while providing access to the staff at its sister property, the Chandler Inn Hotel.
The Eliot Hotel,370 Commonwealth Ave.; 267-1607; : With two excellent in-house restaurants—Ken Oringer's Clio and subterranean sashimi bar Uni—you may find little reason to leave this recently refurbished 95-room hotel in the shadow of Fenway Park.
Loews Boston Hotel,350 Stuart St.; 266-7200; : The former Boston Police headquarters has been renovated to house 225 modern rooms—and the superb cocktails at the on-site Precinct Kitchen + Bar.
The Verb Hotel,1271 Boylston St.; 566-4500; : The divey old Fenway Motor Hotel has been reimagined by Elkus Manfredi to feature 94 luxe rooms that include original furniture designs.
Hudson home-furnishings shop.
Alden & Harlow,40 Brattle St., Cambridge; 864-2100; : As chef Michael Scelfo notes, "We don't do foam." Expect honest, creative dishes as eclectic as its Harvard Square crowd, such as mesquite tortellini and chicken-fried local rabbit.
Blue Dragon,324 A St.; 338-8585; : Ming Tsai's 80-seat tapas-style gastropub melds Asian, American, and French flavors with an unforgettable cocktail list.
Clover Food Lab,5 Cambridge Center, Cambridge; : Clover's cafés and food trucks offer local and organic vegetarian and vegan treats, like chickpea fritters, egg-and-eggplant sandwiches, and honey-rosemary soda.
Menton,354 Congress St.; 737-0099; : This Fort Point restaurant has won raves for seasonally inspired prix fixe menus that pay homage to its namesake, a French town on the Italian border—as well as for impeccable service.
Myers + Chang,1145 Washington St.; 542-5200; : The upscale South End diner has an ever-changing menu of Thai-, Chinese-, and Vietnamese-inspired dishes, like green papaya slaw and chicken with ginger-sesame waffles.
Ribelle,1665 Beacon St., Brookline; 232-2322; : Momofuku alum Tim Maslow's progressive Italian-fusion eatery has quickly become one of the city's hardest tables to score.
Row 34,383 Congress St.; 553-5900; : The "workingman's oyster bar" is a more accessible companion to the owners' flagship Island Creek Oyster Bar, with plenty of small plates (fried-oyster lettuce wraps, daily catch crudo), seafood pastas, and an extensive craft-beer list.
Tavern Road,343 Congress St.; 790-0808; : Here, the farm-to-table trend includes spotlighting a locally raised whole animal each week, with entrees and appetizers that use every part, be it steak tartare with peanuts and molasses or house-made porchetta.
Trillium Brewing Company,369 Congress St.; 453-8745; : Everything here is local, from the hard pinewood bar to the wild yeast and bacteria used to brew the four craft varietals.
The lobby of the Ames Boston Hotel.
Bobby From Boston,19 Thayer St.; 423-9299: Owner Bobby Garnett travels the world to fill his carefully curated South End space with pristine men's and women's vintage wear from as early as the 1920s.
Farm & Fable,251 Shawmut Ave.; 451-1110; : Former lawyer Abby Ruettgers's collection of vintage cookbooks—some dating from the 1800s—shares space with new and vintage kitchen tools.
Louis,60 Northern Ave.; 262-6100; : Debi Greenberg proved her keen real estate sense when she moved her popular boutique from Back Bay to the waterfront. Men's and women's offerings from Jason Wu, the Row, and Jonathan Simkhai join an apothecary of hard-to-find beauty brands.
Machine Age,645 Summer St.; 464-0099; : Midcentury modern furniture, objects, and lighting from around the world in a well-organized, 9,000-square-foot Fort Point warehouse space.
Patch NYC,The Courtyard at 46 Waltham St.; 426-0592; : Don Carney and John Ross offer their own prints and collages alongside porcelain tableware from Astier de Villatte, gold-leaf bowls from Waylande Gregory, and more.
Reside,266 Concord Ave., Cambridge; 547-2929; : Midcentury modern furniture, accessories, and lighting in quiet, tree-lined Huron Village, a stone's throw from Harvard Square.
Twelve Chairs,581 Tremont St.; 982-6136; : This South End space deals in eco-friendly accessories like Moroccan recycled-cotton blankets; linen pillows printed with soy ink; and salvaged-wood frames, boxes, and tableware.
Viola Lovely,1409 Washington St.; 857-277-0746; : The South End boutique brings beloved designer Isabel Marant to town, alongside up-and-coming and established labels for women.