Best Books about Boston

Boston books to read before, during, and after your visit

Are you looking for the best books about Boston?

One of my favorite parts of planning any trip is poring through travel books ahead of time. I like to learn as much as possible about where we're going, its history, and perhaps most important, the people who live there.

The following list includes many of my own favorite Boston books from my personal library (um . . . overflowing bookshelves in a corner of my office).  I've added Amazon photo links in case you want your own copies - some of them are very cheap!

In addition, be sure to check out my recommendations for cookbooks by Boston chefs.


Boston Sites and Insights

By Susan Wilson and Susan Carolyn Wilson, 2004

So much of what we know about events in Boston during previous centuries comes from eye-witness accounts, as recorded in journals, letters, newspapers, and even old photographs.

Of course, people see things in individual ways - and even eye-witness accounts often contradict each other.  How do you know if what you learn from history books is "true" or "accurate"? 

One reason why I particularly like this book, which describes Boston's major historical sites and attractions, is that the authors (a mother-daughter team) cite original sources as much as possible.  Where eyewitness reports or records differ from each other, they say so.

As a result, what you'll find here sometimes differs a lot from the "popular wisdom" stories about events that you'll see in a lot of books about Boston.  If you want to know more about famous Boston sites, historical events, and the real stories behind them, this is a book for your Must-Read list.


Boston's Public Parks and Gardens

By Richard J. Berenson and Jon Marcus, 2002

This informative book about Boston parks and gardens provides a lot of interesting, well-researched details about how the parks developed historically and what you'll find to enjoy in them today.

Although it focuses on Boston's "Emerald Necklace," the series of connecting parks planned in the 19th century by famed landscape designer Frederick Law Olmstead, it also includes a small section on other areas, such as the Esplanade, Boston beaches, and even Olmstead's Brookline home on the edge of Boston.

Pros:  Includes 2 things that are critical for any successful book about gardens: excellent photos, and easy-to-read maps.

Cons:  This book was published in 2002,  and does not include the new Rose Kennedy Greenway - but it does include everything else.


Car-Free in Boston

Edited by Jeff Perk, 10th edition, 2003

I've lost track of how many copies of this compact, crammed-with-info book about Boston's public transportation system that we've owned. Invariably, it gets left on the T (Boston's subway) by one of us or one of our friends. Inevitably, we buy another copy because we can't live without it.

In addition to providing very detailed information about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) options, including maps for each of the rapid transit (T) system, commuter rails, buses, and ferries, it also describes non-MBTA options and everything else that you need to know to get around the metropolitan area successfully without a car.

Sections on "Popular Sites and Excursions" and "Place Listings - How to Get There" give you detailed information about how to get to every neighborhood, attraction, historical site, college, theater, museum, sports arena, and so forth - plus thumbnail descriptions of each place.  A Must Have.


Dark Tide:  The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919

By Stephen Puleo, 2003

The Great Molasses Flood in Boston's Italian North End ranks as one of the city's worst disasters - but for years, suggestions that Italian anarchists were to blame shrouded the real cause.

In Dark Tide, a sometimes gripping and always fascinating book about Boston in the early 20th century, Stephen Puleo presents the results of extensive primary-source research to uncover the real reasons - mostly related, perhaps not surprisingly, to corporate greed and lack of concern about public safety.

Underlying the "what really happened and why" narrative is what, personally, I find the most fascinating aspect about this story: an in-depth look at Boston life, social and economic structures, class and ethnic conflicts, and portraits of daily life in one of Boston's most interesting and vibrant historic neighborhoods. Particularly interesting are Puleo's depictions of how fear, paranoia, real-life events, and self-interest form a toxic stew.

Highly recommended.


The Gardner Heist

By Ulrich Bose, 2009.

Wait for a snowy February weekend or a rainy June day to read The Gardner Heist, because once you start it, you won't be able to put it down.

This non-fiction thriller centers on the 1990 theft of 13 paintings, including 3 Rembrandts and a Vermeer worth hundreds of millions of dollars, from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Fenway.  Thieves posing as Boston cops entered the museum and walked out with perhaps the biggest haul in the history of art theft, unleashing a massive search that so far has produced mostly dead ends.

Enter the book's author, Ulrich Boser, a contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report who initially reported on the story but then found himself in the role of obsessed amateur detective after inheriting the files of a fine arts adjuster haunted by the unsolved crime until he died. While pursuing clues and a previously overlooked possible observer of the thieves, Boser finds himself among felons in the underbelly of the art world and organized crime.  Finally, fearing for his own safety, Boser pulls back - but not before he identifies a possible suspect, and presents convincing evidence to the reader.  You can form your own opinion . . . and then find out if you're right if this crime is ever solved.

Great gift for mystery/thriller fans.


Historic Boston in Four Seasons

By Samuel Chamberlain, 1938.

With only 73 pages, this small book consists almost entirely of black and white photographs, plus captions.  My copy is somewhat yellowed with age.  The binding is kind of worn in spots, and wasn't that good to begin with.  The dust jacket is long gone.  But this is one of my favorite books about Boston. 

Historic Boston captures "old Boston" during all seasons.  What''s special is that you can see these very same places today - the Massachusetts State House, Old Granary Burial Ground, Boston Common, Paul Revere's House, the U.S.S. Constitution, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Rose Garden, the Swan Boats . 

Bring this book with you when you visit, and see how little has changed in 70+ years.  But look a little closer, and you begin to notice what's missing . . . you see Trinity Church without the John Hancock Tower soaring next to it, the Custom House Tower without Financial District skyscrapers towering over it, and the Charles River without Storrow Drive.  What's really shocking is that most streets appear to have no traffic!

Perfect gift for someone moving to the city.


Historic Taverns of Boston

By Gavin R. Nathan, 2006.

This fascinating, carefully researched, and well-written history takes you through almost 400 years of Boston's love of beer.

Did you know that the first Puritans brought 10,000 gallons of beer with them on their ship, the Arbella

You'll also find out about the role played by taverns during the Revolution. 

In case you wonder exactly what the Colonists drank, Nathan provides easy-to-follow recipes for you to try at home.

You'll learn a lot from this book about Boston, then and now, and your view of taverns will never be the same.

Great gift book for beer lovers.


Old Landmarks and Historic Personages of Boston

By Samuel Adams Drake, 1873

This meticulously researched book relies upon a lot of original source materials - court documents, journals, legal papers, depositions, letters - to bring to life the people, events, and history of Boston's earliest days.

The original author's preface, dated October 22, 1872, describes his concern about the rapidity with which old landmarks were disappearing plus his desire to identify exactly where historical events had unfolded as being his two motives for writing the book.

On November 10 and 11, a Great Fire destroyed a large part of older Boston - so many of the landmarks and events that he documented were no more. A second preface sadly acknowledges this, and gives thanks that the Old South Meeting House and the Old State House were spared.

If you are interested in the history of Boston places and people and don't mind slightly old-fashioned language, you'll find this book fascinating. And because it uses original sources and materials rather than just re-telling second-hand accounts, it's a lot more accurate than many of the quick summaries of Boston history that you'll find in guidebooks.

Highly recommended.


Walking Tours of Boston's Made Land

By Nancy S. Seasholes, 2006

This thoroughly researched and fascinating book traces in detail how "land making" - the filling of tidal flats - has created much of the land that Boston now occupies.

By tying the land creation to historical events and landmarks, Ms. Seasholes makes the history of the city come alive. To add to the entertainment value of the book, all of this is explained in the context of walking tours through various parts of the city.

I love the detailed maps and old photos in this book. The maps show how each section of the city grew, and in many cases, how older sections became entirely erased by newer developments.

The photos include lots of aerial views and show land actually being created as dams and embankments are built to hold back the water. Amazing, when you consider what those areas look like now - full of homes, shops, high-rises, and lives being lived.

If you want to see and experience the city in a new way, follow one or more of the tours in this book about Boston's land creation projects with a copy in your hand.

Highly Recommended.

Related information
  • Boston movies - See if you can find familiar scenes in these well-known and less-known movies filmed in Boston
  • Cookbooks by Boston chefs - If you love to cook (or eat), you'll find plenty to enjoy here


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