Boston Common

Fun Things to Do in Boston's Oldest Park & Freedom Trail Site

Boston Common
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Boston Common's 44 acres of lush green space form the heart of the city. 

This is the place where you can enjoy some of the city's most popular activities and events.

But you'll also find layers and layers of history, going back to Boston's first English settler, William Braxton, who built his log cabin on a slope in adjacent Beacon Hill back in 1625 and fetched water from a spring on Boston Common.

Braxton, who had received about 800 acres as a grant from King James I, called the area by the name used by the Native Americans - Shawmut.

Surrounded by Beacon Hill, Historic Downtown, the Theatre District, and the Public Garden, the Common should be on your places to visit in Boston list - and not only because its the first stop on the Freedom Trail.

Here's a sampling of what you can do and see on Boston Common - but let's start with the panorama of historic events behind a lot of the monuments you'll see.

 

The Freedom Trail & Boston Common

Boston Common - Start of the Freedom TrailPuritan settlers arrived in 1630 and grazed their cows on Boston Common, a practice that continued for the next 200 years. 

Puritans militias trained on the Common, and publically executioned heretics, witches, Quakers, criminals, pirates, and other undesirables here throughout the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.

When the first British troops arrived in 1768 to quell the troublesome Colonists - the beginning of the British Occupation of the city - they set up camps across the Commons. 

During the evening of April 18, 1775, about 700 Redcoats assembled in Boston Common to begin a mission to seize a hidden cache of weapons hidden by the Patriots in Concord.  Their departure from the Common triggered Paul Revere's famous ride across the countrysite - and the next day, the American Revolution officially began.

To find out more about Boston Common's historic role and the Freedom Trail, stop by the Visitor Information Center near the Tremont Street/West Street intersection.  Ask at the counter for the free Freedom Trail map, or download a copy here.

Learn about Freedom Trail Guided Tours

 

Boston Common on the Black Heritage Trail

 

 

 

Boston Common today

During the 2+ centuries since the British left, Boston Common has evolved into a public space used for recreation, speeches, and entertainment.

Sheep were finally banished from the Common in 1830.

Soapbox orators vied for public attention throughout the 19th century at Brimstone Corner across from the Park Street Church.

Literary figures Oliver Wendell Holmes, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are known to have walked through the Common. No doubt Louisa May Alcott did as well during her sojourns on adjacent Beacon Hill.

Famous speakers and performers in the 20th century include Dr. Martin Luther King, Olivia Newton-John, and Willie Nelson. Pope John Paul II celebrated a public Mass.

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and early 1970s, large anti-war protest rallies covered the Common.

President Barack Obama spoke here at a rally in October 2007 as part of his Presidential Primary campaign.

Some of the city's swankiest hotels boast about their perfect views of the Common.  Boston walking tours like to start or end here.  Some of Boston's best restaurants overlook the tree-filled slopes.

Over 200 festivities, parades, demonstrations, concerts, performances, rallies, and other events are held here each year. You can join the popular First Night celebrations here on New Year's Eve, or enjoy Shakespeare on the Common during the summer.

Walk across Boston Common on a warm day and you'll see 21st century Boston at its best. 

Children splash in the spray pool at Frog Pond, the stately hotels near Boston Common gaze out toward green grass and tall trees where students from nearby Emerson College and Suffolk Univerity sometimes study, and skyscrapers gleam in the distance. 

Boston Common

Perhaps a costumed guide strolls by the Common on her way to work. 

Dogs trot by with their owners on a leash, and excited shouts from neighborhood kids aspiring to be future Red Sox drift over from the Common's ball field.

Boston Common - Ice skating on Frog Pond in January/ www.boston-discovery-guide.com

On winter days, skaters glide across Frog Pond, Boston Common's summer oasis now magically transformed into an ice skating rink.

Up on Beacon Hill to the north, the huge golden dome of the Massachusetts State House gleams against the blue sky.  To the west, the glass sides of the Hancock building glisten in the distance.  Walking tours of Boston visitors can be seen in all directions. 

Boston Common, along with the adjacent Public Garden, forms the heart of the older neighborhoods of the city collectively known as Boston Proper.

It's easy to imagine that some earlier city planner with great foresight laid out this lovely expanse of green for future generations to enjoy.

But nothing could be farther from the truth.

 

Boston Common's Biggest Events

Shakespeare on the Common

 

Garden of Flags - Boston Common on Memorial Day

 

 

Fall Foliage on Boston Common

 

More Events

duckling photo - brass band

 

 

Famous Monuments on Boston Common

 

 

Central Burying Ground on Boston Common

 

Boston Common's Frog Pond

 

 

 

Boston Common's Tadpole Playground

 

Hotels Near Boston Common

 

 

Concerts

 

Hotels near Boston Common

These hotels border the Common, overlook it, or are located a block away.  If you're traveling with kids, staying at one of these hotels gives you excellent access to some of the city's best recreation.

Fifteen Beacon Hotel in Boston - Rooftop Deck Liberty Hotel near Boston's Esplanade Taj Hotel Boston Rooftop deck at Beacon Hill Hotel in Boston

 

Boston Common Essentials:  What You Need to KnowCannon next to the Hatch Shell on Boston Esplanade

  • Approximate location of William Blaxton's cabin:  Corner of Charles and Beacon Streets
  • Bought from Willliam Blaxton:  1634
  • Amount paid: 30 British pounds
  • Public executions on the Common ceased: 1812
  • Cows banned from the Common:  1830
  • Original size:  1941, when the art deco-style structure you see today was built
  • Hatch Shell dimensions:  40 feet high and 110 feet wide (160 feet if you include the stairs at the base)
  • Most striking details:  The inlaid wood lining the interior, and the names of composers written in bronze across the front
  • Most unusual feature:  The U.S. Army Cannon next to the Hatch Shell, used in the 1812 Overture at the end of the Boston Pops Fourth of July concerts
  • Boston scavenger hunt questions: Find a statue of the conductor of the first concert at the Hatch Shell  Find the answer

 

How to Get to Boston Common

Fiedler Footbridge to Boston EsplanadeThe easiest way to get to the Common, if you're staying anywhere in central Boston, is to walk. 

Surrounded by Beacon Hill, Historic Downtown, and the Theatre District, and across Charles Street from the Public Garden, the Common

 

 

 

Boston Common marks one end of Boston's history-filled Freedom Trail, and is also part of the popular Black Heritage Trail and Boston's Emerald Necklace of parks.

Despite all of the statues, monuments, and even an old graveyard that you see sprinkled around the area, it can be hard at first to imagine why the Common is a site on the Freedom Trail and Black Heritage Trail.

 

No. The reason is that throughout the history of Boston, the Common has been the site of some of the city's most dramatic events.

A Former Cow Pasture

When the Puritans arrived in Boston in 1630, they were not the first European settlers.

That distinction goes to William Blaxton, an English clergyman who settled on the west slopes of Beacon Hill in 1625 with 200 books and some cows, which he grazed on what is now Boston Common.

After the Puritans arrived in 1630, he decided to move to a less-populated area in what is now Rhode Island. In return for 30 British pounds, he sold them about 44 acres of his land, which he'd received as a grant from King James I.  The Puritans needed a common pasture for their livestock. This moment is memorialized in the Founders Memorial near Beacon Street.

In addition to grazing their livestock on it and putting public buildings and even a graveyard along the edges, the Puritans and their descendents also used it for public executions of heretics, witches, Quakers, criminals, pirates, and other undesirables throughout the 18th century. These events provided an excuse for public holidays attended by large crowds.  Fortunately, Boston's entertainment options have improved a lot since then.

Where the bodies are buried

In 1660, a couple of acres in the southeast corner started being used as a cemetery, now called Granary Burying Ground, after the town's original King's Chapel Burying Ground filled up.  This is no longer part of the Common.

Although Boston banned building on the Common in 1640, the town continued to do so anyway through the early 1700s, erecting several public buildings where you'll now find Park Street Church.

Picture of Central Burying Ground in Boston Common / www.boston-discovery-guide.comYou can find another old graveyard, the Central Burying Ground, near the corner of Boylston and Tremont Streets.  It dates from 1756, when other city cemeteries became too crowded. 

In addition to graves of many British and Colonial soldiers killed during the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, you'll also see graves containing the remains of French Roman Catholic immigrants from the 1700s.

American painter Gilbert Stuart, famous for his portraits of George Washington, is also buried here in an unmarked grave.

Because moving markers around for aesthetic effects (or grass-trimming convenience) used to be a common practice, the markers in this burying ground no longer rest in their original positions.

" . . . two if by Sea"

 

Photo of crowd listening to a Boston Pops concert on Boston Common in September, 2010 / www.boston-discovery-guide.com

Crowd listens to a free Boston Pops concert on Boston Common in September, 2010

No. The reason is that throughout the history of Boston, the Common has been the site of some of the city's most dramatic events.

Historical monuments and memorials

If you are visiting Boston Common while walking along the Freedom Trail or Black Heritage Trail, be sure to visit the 1888 Boston Massacre memorial sculpture near the Central Burying Ground at Tremont Street and Boylston. It commemorates the five men who died during a brawl with the British near the Old State House in 1770. 

Crispus Attucks, of African and Native American ancestry and the first to die, is regarded as the first fatality of the American Revolution.

Photo of monument in Boston Common honoring first Black regiment to serve in Civil War and Robert Gould Shaw / Boston Common - www.boston-discovery-guide.com

Also moving is the Robert Gould Shaw and Fifty-fourth Regiment Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens near the corner of Beacon and Park Streets, across from the State House.

It honors the bravery of the first black regiment to serve in the Civil War and their white leader, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw.

Twenty six year old Colonel Shaw and half the regiment were killed in an attack on Fort Wagner, South Carolina.

Insider Tips

In addition to looking at historical monuments, enjoy the Common's modern pleasures.  Summer or winter, you'll find lots of things to do in Boston Common.  Splash in the Frog Pond spray pool in the summer, ice skate on it in the winter (you can rent skates right there), picnic on its grassy slopes, and if you're traveling with children, let them enjoy the well-equipped playground. 

Be sure to check out dates for the annual free Shakespeare on the Common performances - a "don't miss!" event.

Walk across Charles Street to the Public Garden, go for a Swan Boat ride on the Lagoon, and visit the Make Way for Ducklings statue.

If you're visiting Boston Common because it's part of the Freedom Trail, go inside the Visitor's Information Center near the Park Street T Station and pick up a free Trail map.

You'll also see lots of excellent books and bigger maps available for purchase. The small free maps are all you'll need to navigate the Freedom Trail, but you may find a larger city map convenient for other adventures.

Details and Directions

Boston Common near Visitor Information CenterOpen: All day, every day
Cost: Free
Location: Bordered by Park, Tremont, Boylston, Charles, and Beacon Streets. Beacon Hill is to the north, Downtown Boston to the east and south, and the Public Garden is across Charles Street to the west.
Closest T station: Red and Green Lines/Park Street
Parking: Boston Common Garage
For more information: www.thefreedomtrailfoundation.org; 617-357-8300


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