Boston Basics

Exploring a cool square mile of one of America's hottest cities

By: Allen Salkin

Boston is ready for its close up. So let’s get really, really close. We could have taken a wide survey of New England’s capital city, chronicling the new boutiques in Harvard Square; listing the bustling Italian restaurants in the rejuvenated North End; and ticking off the billions of dollars spent on new roads, the “Big Dig” highway project and other transportation improvements. But to show how attractive a destination the city has become, we decided that less is more. So instead, consider just one square mile of the city.

This isn’t just any square mile, mind you. Few cities can boast a mile with such a rich concentration of history, nightlife, shopping and hotels. This mile, encompassing much of the Downtown Crossing neighborhood, starts at the eastern edge of Boston Common near the final resting place of Paul Revere, and runs east to the spiffed-up South Station where high-speed trains and new airport connections start, and north to the restaurants of Faneuil Hall and the waters off Long Wharf. In between is the Old South Meeting House where, in 1773, angry colonists declared “No tax on tea!” launching the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. It is an exciting, walkable area, the heart of the financial district and of tourism, and thus the centerpiece of any visit to Boston, business or pleasure.

And make no mistake, the city is getting more than its share of both business and leisure visitors these days. In the past five years, the number of tourist visits to Boston has grown steadily. In 1999, there were 14.56 million, rising to 16.28 million in 2004. Projections by the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau are for 2005 visits to reach 16.7 million, a 3 percent rise. The addition of low-cost carriers Jet Blue and Song into Logan airport, and a supply of hotel rooms that grew by 3.1 percent in 2004 and 5.4 percent in 2003 has certainly helped the city’s tourism industry as well. Domestic travelers accounted for 75 percent of total spending and leisure travel spending outstripped business travel spending, all of which means if you don’t currently have a client looking to book a Boston vacation, there’s a good chance you will have one soon.

So here’s a look at the city’s ground zero a square mile of downtown Beantown.

Classic and Contemporary

There’s no shortage of hotels in our square mile, and on top of any list has to be the six-year-old XV Beacon, at the base of Beacon Hill on the edge of the Common. Located in a former turn-of-the-20th-century office building, the hotel is so chock full of delightful surprises and touches of grace that it is an attraction in and of itself. The 61 rooms all have fireplaces and queen-size poster beds. Every room is individually designed and each floor contains either a two-room suite or adjoining rooms that can be converted into a two-room suite.

What amazed me most, however, was the stunning hotel restaurant, The Federalist. Near the entrance hangs a Gilbert Stuart portrait of a colonial bigwig. While the main floor is nice, groups of 10 to 45 people can, and should, ask for the large table in the wine cellar. One wall is made of a tile fresco excavated from an ancient Roman house, a stunning piece of opulence. Wines here include a 1907 bottle of Heidsieck Monopole salvaged from a schooner sunk by a German U-Boat.

Just down the road, on Tremont Street, is the Nine Zero. Boston is not immune to that breed of hotels that some call “boutique.” Unfortunately, at many of these places, the operating principle seems to be that if the owners put some nice toiletries in the bathroom, a soft mattress pad on the bed and a martini shaker on top of the mini-bar, they’ve suddenly turned a room the size of a Motel 6 special into something worth charging $395 a night for. The Nine Zero was booked solid on a weeknight in June, so this recipe seems to be working.

To this formula the Nine Zero has added the ability to purchase almost everything seen in the hotel, from bathrobes to sofas, on its Web site. Of course, agents do not receive added commission if the clients they booked into the hotel decide to drop $3,000 on a sofa or $65 on a bathrobe.

The Nine Zero does make for a chic place to stay, and it couldn’t be more conveniently located, across from the Common and the main pick-up point for Trolley Tours. But the rooms are small even my “Spectacular-class” room. (The rooms come in three classes: “Intimate,” with one queen-size bed, “Fantastic,” a king bed, and “Spectacular,” on the top three floors with a view.)

Service was adequate, even if there were some disappointments. For instance, when I called the front desk to ask why there was no switch to turn the fan off in the bathroom, I was told at first that there was a switch, and it was my mistake that I couldn’t find it. Then, after consulting with the hotel’s “engineer,” I was told there was no switch because the fan could not be turned off. I kept the bathroom door closed and told myself that the undying hum was white noise for sleeping.

Personally, I’d rather stay in a solid landmark hotel like the property next door, the Omni Parker House. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the 551-room hotel, making it America’s longest continually operating hotel. John F. Kennedy made his first public speech, at age seven, in the Press Room here the same place where he later announced his candidacy for Congress (and where he also had his bachelor party). Malcolm X was a busboy in the hotel restaurant in the early 1940s, and Ho Chi Minh was a pastry chef here from 1911-1913. The Boston Cream Pie was invented here, as was the term scrod, meaning “catch of the day.” Undoubtedly, a stay here makes for an only-in-Boston experience.

Recommended by the helpful people at the Greater Boston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Boston Harbor Hotel can be reached from Logan airport via a seven-minute ferry ride. Complimentary services include shoe shines and a favorite newspaper delivered daily. Rooms have harbor views, work desks, separate seating areas, two-line speakerphones and high-speed Internet.

For pure consistency, the Wyndham Boston is another good bet. With solid, no-nonsense rooms in a property located a block from Faneuil Hall, it will satisfy most clients. Members of Wyndham’s ByRequest program (anyone can join for free online), can customize the way their rooms are set up, including asking for the towels to be folded neatly on the foot of the bed.

While the Wyndam might not have much in the way of charm, the Langham Hotel Boston, which is housed in a former Federal Reserve Bank, certainly does. Built in 1922, the Renaissance Revival structure has a granite and limestone facade with red awnings. When it was turned into a hotel, a glass mansard roof was added, allowing a third of the rooms to feature sloping glass windows that look out onto the leafy Post Office Square park. Clients looking for something different may be interested in the Langham’s second-floor suites, which are lofts containing a living room below, an upstairs sleeping loft and bathrooms on both floors.

The hotel’s formal restaurant, Julien, is wildly ornate in a French style, with lots of gold and burgundy, and is named after the city’s first French restaurant which opened on Post Office Square in 1794.

In the Heart of the Action

A great complement to reservations at any of these hotels and a solid opportunity to increase commissions is the Go Boston Card, an all-inclusive pass to the city that includes admission to over 60 attractions, and discounts on shopping and dining, much of it in the Downtown Crossing area. The card comes in one-, two-, three- and five-day options, starting at $45 per adult and $25 per child for one day and climbing to $115 for adults and $55 for children for five days. Agents receive 10 percent commission.

Included in the card is a pass for the Beantown Trolley Tour Boston, a bus tour run by Gray Line that allows people to hop on and hop off at any stop along the way. Three of the 19 stops are in Downtown Crossing. The buses will run clients to all those other wonderful parts of Boston not mentioned here Cambridge, Back Bay and Charlestown among them.

Also included in the pass is Duck Tours, a sightseeing ride conducted on W.W.II-era amphibious vehicles which roll past land-based sights before tucking their tires away and plunging into the Charles River for a city-view cruise. It’s a unique way to tour the city to be sure.

The card includes admission to the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House Museum and Boston’s Children’s Museum. It grants a 15 percent discount on entrees at Cheers and 20 percent off breakfast at the Elephant & Castle Pub.

The card also includes admissions to many of the attractions along The Freedom Trail, a 2½-mile-long walking tour marked by a wide brick line that connects 16 of Boston’s most historic sites. Much of The Freedom Trail passes through Downtown Crossing the Boston Massacre Site, Park Street Church and the Old Corner Bookstore are all stops along the trail, which starts at the Boston Common visitor center.

And in case anyone asks, Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play, is just five quick stops away from Downtown Crossing on the fun-to-experience “T” subway.

While there may be no guarantees on when the Red Sox will next be in the World Series, for the foreseeable future the city of Boston, as a destination, is a sure winner.


Boston Harbor Hotel

Langham Hotel Boston

Nine Zero

Omni Parker House

Wyndham Boston

XV Beacon


Even though there’s plenty to do in our square mile of downtown Boston, of course most clients will want to see the full gamut of Boston’s offerings.

For the best of Boston’s attractions, direct clients to take The Freedom Trail out of downtown. It will stop first at the Old North Church (yes, the “One if by land, two if by sea” church), then it crosses the Charles River on the Charlestown Bridge and climbs Bunker Hill, site of the monument commemorating the battle between the American and British fought June 17, 1775 (where Americans heard the order, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes”).

Once on the other side of the river, send clients over to Harvard Square in Cambridge. Hot attractions in this little village founded in 1630 are the old bookstores, one-of-a-kind boutiques, like Black Magic Chimney and Fireplace on New Street, and the many events including serenading the autumn equinox with RiverSing 2005 on Sept. 22, and a roiling Octoberfest celebration Oct. 2.

Back on the city side of the river, the Museum of Science on Beacon Hill has updated itself with state-of-the-art dinosaur exhibits, a special Discovery Center for children 5 and under and a wraparound movie screen.

And in the thriving Back Bay neighborhood, there’s good old Fenway Park where the Red Sox may or may not be playing in the World Series again this October. Tickets are hard to come by, but tours are available hourly, seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. or until three hours before game time, whichever is earlier.

Also in Back Bay is one of the strangest and entertaining sites I’ve ever seen, the Maparium, a three-story hollow stained-glass globe with a bridge through the center that has some astonishing acoustics a whisper at one end can bounce off the glass walls and sound like it’s right in your ear even if the person is 25 feet away.
Boston Red Sox:
The Freedom Trail: www.thefreedom
Harvard Square:
Museum of Science: 

Online Only: GOOD EATS

On a warm summer day I found out how wonderful this old slice of Boston could be. I’d spent the day walking the curving roads of Downtown Crossing the street plan dates from colonial-era Boston and now even modern skyscrapers can be found on deliciously winding streets with charming parks every few blocks and I was very hungry. I started thinking about seafood and decided that there must be someplace good down by the water. Someone had mentioned a place called The Barking Crab. I didn’t find it, but many Bostonians do recommend it for an informal seafood feast on picnic tables. Instead I wandered down State Street, across Atlantic Avenue one of the thoroughfares in Boston where road construction, though impressive, is not yet finished and found myself on Long Wharf.

There I spotted Tia’s Seafood Restaurant and Bar. It was exactly what I’d imagined, a harborside spot, hopping with an after-work crowd and offering a classic Boston menu. I couldn’t decide what to order. The fried fresh belly clams with coleslaw and French fries sounded awfully good. But so did the one-pound lobster special. I ordered both. With a pint of beer. Oh Lord was it good, the clams tasting of the cold ocean and the crispy batter, the lobster meaty and holding every ounce of melted butter it was dipped into. I ate it all.
Afterward I said to myself, “Well I’m no Red Sox fan, but, you know what? I like this town a lot.”

Downtown Crossing is full of taverns, trendy eateries and tourist-friendly spots. On another night I ate at an outdoor seafood restaurant (do you sense a theme?) at Faneuil Hall called The Salty Dog. Not an original name, and when the fried fisherman’s platter arrived it looked like it might be a typical mess of formerly frozen fish. Aaargh!

But it weren’t no frozen fish! It be scrumptious! The fried scallops were each as big and meaty as a filet mignon, the chunks of cod as fresh as the magician delighting a crowd with his juggling and his banter in the public square nearby.

Other places to recommend include the trendy Umbria Ristorante Ultra Lounge, on Franklin Street, where the special one night was a veal T-bone with pancetta mashed potatoes. On Devonshire Street is the more downscale Elephant & Castle Pub, where the shepherd’s pie is famous. The manager recommended I try a nightcap at her father’s bar, The Littlest, which is on the block behind the Nine Zero. The bar takes its name from the fact that it is the littlest bar in Boston, about 100 square feet.

They manage to keep an ample supply of grog on hand, nevertheless.

Online Only: MORE CONTACTS (Beantown Trolley Tour) (Boston Harbor Hotel)

Umbria Ristorante Ultra Lounge (no website; 295 Franklin Street 617-338-1000)
The Barking Crab (no website; 88 Sleeper Street, 617-426-2722)