Strolling around the Boston Public Garden is one of the nicest outdoor things to do in Beantown. The garden was established all the way back in 1837: in fact, it is the oldest botanical garden in the USA. Read on to discover 10 fun things to do in the Boston Public Garden!
Separated only by Charles Street from the Boston Common, the other historic green space in downtown Boston, the Public Garden features a lagoon and dozens of mature trees. If you’re like me, you like to take green breaks when exploring a city. And the Boston Public Garden makes for the perfect green break when exploring downtown Boston.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE BOSTON PUBLIC GARDEN
The Boston Public Garden has a fascinating history! In colonial times, the area now occupied by the garden used to be smelly marshland. In 1824, the citizens of Boston voted to keep the land public and fill it in.
The land still remained empty until, in 1837, a group of citizens sought approval to create a garden on the property. The city leased them 20 acres, and designated the area a public garden. Sadly, in 1852, the land was returned to the city for financial reasons, but the seeds of the idea had been planted.
In 1859, a final vote determined that the land would forever be committed to public use. A competition was held to determine the design of the garden, and architect George F. Meacham won the $100.00 prize!
The garden was laid out largely based on Meacham’s plan. Trees were planted, the suspension bridge was built, and the lagoon filled. The Boston Public Garden remained a green oasis, maintained in great condition, all the way into the mid 20th century.
In the two decades following World War II, however, the garden fell into a state of deep neglect. In 1970, the Friends of the Public Garden came into being. They campaigned for major improvements to the garden, and, in conjunction with the city, orchestrated projects that ultimately restored the garden to its original beautiful state.
Today it’s a well-maintained, beautiful green space right in the heart of the city. It is part of Boston’s Emerald Necklace designed by Frederick Law Olmstead: a chain of nine parks linked by pathways and waterways.
THE BEST THINGS TO DO IN THE BOSTON PUBLIC GARDEN
The Boston Public Garden is designed in the Victorian tradition, which means lots of colorful flower beds, ornamental statuary, and pretty fountains. The garden is almost a perfect rectangle, bounded by four historical downtown Boston streets.
If you are in Boston for even the briefest of vacations, a quick stroll through the garden is a must! But if you have a few days to explore this historic city, allocate a few hours of your trip to enjoying all that’s on offer in this beautiful green space.
We visited the garden in early summer. My suggestions are perfect if you plan to visit in late spring, summer, or fall, but you can enjoy the garden in winter as well. Entrance to the garden is free.
So, here are 10 fun things to do in the historic Boston Public Garden:
#1 See the Make Way for Ducklings statue
You can see Nancy Schön’s work in many places in and around Boston (and in other places like Moscow and Tel Aviv), but her most popular sculpture is the Make Way for Ducklings statue in the Boston Public Garden.
Located near the corner of Beacon Street and Charles Street, the work is based on a beloved 1941 children’s story written by Robert McCloskey. The piece consists of a bronze mother duck, followed by a line of eight little bronze ducklings.
McCloskey’s story is about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s quest to find the perfect Boston abode for their about-to-be-born ducklings. They love the little island in the lagoon at the Boston Public Garden, but are scared away by a child rushing around on a bicycle.
Eventually they settle on a quiet spot along the bank of the Charles River. After the ducklings learn to swim, however, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard bring them to live on the little island in the lagoon in the Boston Public Garden!
The statue is a favorite photo spot in the garden, so expect to wait a bit for your turn unless you visit really early in the day.
#2 Enjoy a ride on a swan boat
If you visit the Boston Public Garden between mid-April and early September, you must take a ride on a Boston swan boat! Operated by the Paget family since the 1870s, the Boston swan boats are made of fiberglass and operated via foot pedals.
Gliding slowly across the surface of the lagoon in a swan boat, with mallards trailing after you, is an iconic Boston Public Garden experience. The route takes you under the 19th century suspension bridge in the garden, and goes around the little island in the lagoon.
Each ride lasts for about 15 minutes. The price of a ride is modest, so you can take more than one if you really like it! Buy tickets at the boarding dock on the day of your visit. Even if there is a line, it moves pretty fast. Check hours and ticket prices for the date of your visit! If you have a Go Boston all-inclusive card, a swan boat ride is included.
#3 View the statue of George Washington
To see one of Boston’s largest and most impressive sculptures, head to the Arlington Street entrance to the Boston Public Garden. Here you’ll see the massive equestrian statue of George Washington, sculpted by local artist Thomas Ball and cast in bronze.
Funds for the statue were raised through donations and a great fair held in 1859. Ball completed his model in four years, but the casting in bronze was delayed by a few years, because of the Civil War and resulting shortage of bronze.
Unveiled eventually in 1869, the statue shows Washington as a strong and forceful figure, sitting gracefully atop his horse. The statue is 22 feet tall, and it sits on a platform 16 feet tall. So it’s really majestic! Set in the midst of floral beds, the statue makes for a great photo.
#4 Admire the floral displays
As a garden designed in the Victorian tradition, the Boston Public Garden features formal displays of flowers in good weather months. Wherever you walk in the garden, you’ll see beautifully maintained flower beds bursting with color.
In the spring, the garden features beds of tulips in multiple colors. Tulips have bloomed in the Boston Public Garden all the way since the middle of the 19th century! If you’re lucky enough to catch the peak, you’ll be dazzled by the swathes of color running through the garden.
We visited in the summer, when beds of annuals in every color brighten the landscape. Roses in many colors bloom here in the summer, as well as many tropical flowers.
While you’ll love the bright pops of color from the flower beds, take the time to admire the rest of the flora in the park as well: the beautiful old trees, and shrubs with variegated leaves are more subtle but very interesting.
If you visit in the fall, you will love the leaf color in the garden: the trees look simply spectacular, dressed in shades of yellow, orange, and red.
#5 Take a photo of the resident swans
Although the swan boats have been plying on the lagoon since the 1870s, real swans have been in the garden even longer. The first swans were brought to the garden in 1868, and since then, visitors to the garden have been charmed by the graceful birds.
There was a period of a few years in the later half of the 1900s when the garden didn’t have its swans. But in 1991, a pair was brought back to the garden. The current resident swans are called Romeo and Juliet. But they are both females, so their eggs don’t hatch!
In the winter, the swans are housed at the Franklin Park Zoo. Come May each year, they are returned to their warm-weather home in the Boston Public Garden in a formal ceremony called The Return of the Swans. If you’re in town on the day of the ceremony, head to the garden to watch the parade. It is led by a brass band!
Although the swans are definitely the stars, you’ll see lots of cute ducks, geese, and squirrels in the garden as well.
#6 Enjoy a picnic in the garden
One of the most fun things to do at the Boston Public Garden is to have a picnic in the shade of one of the mature trees. And lazing in the shade on a nice day after you eat, people watching and savoring the beauty of the environment, is definitely bliss. So be sure to pack a blanket when you head out!
During the good weather months, many restaurants in the area offer picnic hampers packed with all kinds of great picnic fare, including sandwiches, salads, and even desserts. Order the previous day and just pick up your picnic basket when you are ready to eat.
Try Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse on Arlington Street, just a short walk from the garden entrance at Arlington and Boylston. Or the Beacon Hill Bistro on Charles Street: they offer lots of choices, and even provide a blanket!
#7 Do a guided walking tour
Strolling the meandering pathways of the Boston Public Garden is a pleasure. With views of the Boston skyline beyond the trees and the beautiful flower beds close at hand, the garden makes for a super scenic walk.
But if you want to learn more about the history of the garden, the many sculptures that grace the garden, and its plants, then join the Untold Stories of the Public Garden free guided tour, offered by volunteers from the Friends of the Public Garden. I really enjoyed the tour, and learned a lot!
You’ll learn, for example, that every single one of the statues in the garden has been done by a local artist. Your guide will point out trees of special interest, like the Japanese pagoda with the enormous horizontal spread, and the weeping beeches.
Tours are offered on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, as well as Wednesday mornings, from late May until early September. No reservations are needed; just show up at the Make Way for Ducklings statue and look for a sandwich board near the entrance that details the day’s tour. Tours last about one hour. Wear sunscreen and bring a hat!
#8 Watch (and hear) the street musicians
Boston is considered a very walkable city, with thousands of people walking the city’s many sidewalks. And many musicians see an opportunity to test out their musical skills and stage presence by busking, or performing on the street.
You’ll see buskers performing in many places in downtown Boston, and the Boston Public Garden is no exception. Strolling the garden to the strains of music is a fun experience. The street musicians are invariably fun to watch, and some of the music is really good too!
If you visit the garden during the day or in the evening, you’re almost certain to catch at least one or two street musicians performing, especially on the bridge.
#9 See the Monument to Ether
You can see several public art works inside the garden. The Ether Fountain is the oldest monument here, and its theme is unique: it was erected in honor of the discovery of ether as an anesthetic for surgeries. The first use of ether happened in 1846 at the local Massachusetts General Hospital.
Made of granite and marble, the tall monument features the story of The Good Samaritan at the top. It is surrounded by a pool. The bas reliefs on the monument were chiseled by a local stonecutter.
#10 Hit the ice cream truck
It wouldn’t be a day out in the garden without ice cream, right? If you find yourself in the mood for an ice cold sweet treat after your visit to the garden, make your way to one of the ice cream trucks just outside!
We’ve generally found an ice cream truck at the corner of Arlington and Boylston, and their soft serve ice cream is delicious!
If ice cream doesn’t appeal, head to one of the many cafes just outside the garden for coffee or a cold drink. Thinking Cup is just a short walk away, and they serve gourmet coffees and yummy pastries. It’s a great way to cap off your visit to the lovely Boston Public Garden!
GETTING TO THE BOSTON PUBLIC GARDEN
The Boston Public Garden is located right by the Boston Common. If you are staying in downtown Boston, you should be able to walk to the garden, or take an Uber or Lyft. Parking is available if you drive to the garden.
If you plan to use public transport to get to the Boston Public Garden, use the MBTA Trip Planner to get trip suggestions.
PARK HOURS AND ADMISSION
The Boston Public Garden is open 365 days a year! The garden opens at 6.30 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m., but pedestrians can access it even outside these hours.
There is no entrance fee to the garden.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOSTON
The Four Seasons Boston is located very close to the Boston Common and the Boston Public Garden. Rooms are elegant, and bathrooms are stunning. Some rooms have views of the city skyline. The hotel offers a free shuttle to popular attractions within a 2-mile radius. Check prices and availability!
The Whitney Hotel is located near Beacon Hill. Set in a charming neighborhood, the stylish building houses super comfortable rooms, some with views of the Charles River. Check prices and availability!
Want to stay by the water? The Boston Harbor Hotel is located at Rowes Wharf, about a mile from the Boston Public Garden. Rooms are spacious and extremely well furnished. Many rooms feature great ocean views. Check prices and availability!
So there you have it: how to spend a fun morning or afternoon at the beautiful (and historic) Boston Public Garden! Have you visited? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Comment below to respond. If you haven’t yet visited, I do hope you will add it to your itinerary for your next visit to Boston!
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