Boston Harbor Islands

Best Cruises to the "Other" Boston

Boston Harbor Islands

The Boston Harbor Islands are magical...a whole different universe made up of 32 islands and 2 peninsulas. 

A short 15-minute ferry ride takes you to the closest Harbor Island, located less than 4 miles from your departure wharf in downtown Boston. 

None of the Islands are farther than 10 miles away.

The islands dot the Inner Harbor, Outer Harbor, and even extend a bit into Massachusetts Bay, where the tiny eastern-most island The Graves boasts the tallest lighthouse in Boston Harbor.

What else can you see and do on the Islands? 

Well, more historic lighthouses, sandy beaches, hiking trails, and great spots for picnics, photographs, and bird-watching...plus guided tours conducted by Park Rangers.

Here's our review of 6 popular ways see and explore Boston's Harbor Islands - ferry cruises, dinner cruises, lighthouse cruises, sailboat charters, and as part of a whale watch.  You can even walk or bike to Castle Island. 

Whichever you choose, you're sure to have a memorable adventure!

Did you know . . .most of the 34 Harbor Islands (and peninsulas), except for Castle Island and Spinnaker Island, make up the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area, which also includes two additional peninsulas, Web Memorial Park and World's End.  Nineteen of the Harbor Islands, including The Graves, are officially part of the City of Boston. 

 

Harbor Island Ferry Cruises

Boston Harbor Islands - Ferry cruisesYou can't beat the convenience of the Harbor Island ferry cruises.  

Pick up your tickets at the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion on the Greenway across from the Boston Marriott Long Wharf Hotel and hop on the comfortable 200-person catamaran at nearby Long Wharf.

In as little as 15 minutes, you'll be stepping ashore on Spectacle Island or Georges Island.

Spectacle Island's 121 acres boast two sandy beaches, a welcoming Visitors Center complete with rocking chairs on the veranda, a cafe, a marina, and lifeguards, showers, and changing areas - so bring your swimsuit and a towel.

Or explore the island's five miles of hiking trails and enjoy spectacular city skyline views.

By contrast, Georges Island's 39-acres (53 at low tide) mainly contains Fort Warren, built in 1845, decommissioned in 1947, and now a National Historic Landmark. 

Although the fort served as a prison during the American Civil War and gained recognition for its relatively humane treatment of Confederate soldiers, it's best known in Boston for its ghost legend, "The Lady in Black." 

Park Rangers conduct free activities such plays, historic shows, and musical performances on many weekends.  Vintage baseball games are especially fun - check the July calendar for dates. 

The whole island is fortified, so if you're not interested in forts, you may want to either skip Georges Island or stop here only long enough to catch a water shuttle to Lovells Island, Peddocks Island, Grape Island, and Bumpkin Island.

These smaller islands are far more rustic than Spectacle Island and Georges Island.   Although they offer picnic areas, hiking trails, and beach areas, swimming is at your own risk - no lifeguards!

Camping is available on Grape, Bumpkin, and Lovells Islands for a small fee (confirm the amount when you make reservations).  You must make advance reservations, as each island has only 6 - 10 individual campsites and 2 group campsites. 

Campsites have composting toilets and picnic tables - but there's no fresh water, electricity, food, or phone service - so you need to plan very carefully.

To reserve a campsite, call this toll-free number:  1-877-422-6762.  You'll be assigned a specific campsite by an Island park ranger when you check in. 

The easiest way to purchase Harbor Islands ferry tickets is on-line.  Go to the Boston's Best Cruises website for ticket purchase, schedules, and more information (note: service is limited during non-summer months).  Be sure to also check out the off-season specialty cruises between November through April. 

Additional contact information:  Park Rangers: 617-223-8666

Especially on summer weekends, advance ticket purchase on-line or in person at the Pavilion is strongly recommended. 

Boston Insider Tips:  What to Bring
  • Sun block
  • Light jacket (offshore temperatures are cooler than you'd expect)
  • Water bottle
  • Swimsuit and towel if you plan to swim
  • Camera, binoculars
  • Picnic lunch (although you can buy snacks on Spectacle Island)


 

New England Coastal Tour

Graves Lighthouse - part of fall foliage tour from BostonThese special 1-day New England Lighthouse tours by luxury bus give you the chance to see spectacular beaches, wetlands, harbors, and lighthouses along the North Shore, New Hampshire, and Maine. 

You'll visit Hampton Beach and have plenty of time to photograph 19th century Nubble Light in York, Maine. 

Don't miss this chance to see New England's glorious coast at its best!

- Find out more about the New England Coastal Tour

 

Boston Harbor Islands - By Sailboat!

How to tour Boston Harbor Islands by sailboatExploring the Harbor Islands by sailboat gives you the ultimate freedom, allowing you to go to many more islands than you can reach by ferry. 

Several islands - Spectacle, Georges, Gallops, and Peddocks Island (Portuguese Cove) offer moorings, and you can also anchor off the islands. 

Anchor your boat, and hike up to the top of the 100 feet high bluffs on Great Brewster Island where you can see 4 lighthouses across the Harbor.  Explore the tidal pools and rocky shores of Grape Island.  Photograph the abundant wildflowers on Rainsford Island. 

 

Whale Watching Cruises - See the Islands Too!

How to tour Boston Harbor Islands by sailboatWhales, dolphins, and other sea life may be the stars of these cruises, but your ride out and back takes you past numerous Harbor Islands. - it's like getting a bonus island tour as part of the whale cruise.

This photo, taken by my daughter on a whale watch last spring, shows Boston Light on Little Brewster Island.

 

Castle Island

Boston Harbor view of Castle IslandCastle Island has it all - cool breezes on hot summer days, great views of the USS Constitution turnaround cruise each July, a historic fort, and grassy slopes for frisbee games and picnics. 

Best of all, you can walk or bike there from South Boston.

More about why you'll love visiting Castle Island

 

Boston Harbor Islands Map

Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area MapThis map, courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, shows the 32 islands and 2 coastal peninsulas belonging to the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreational Area created in 1997. 

The islands dot Boston's Inner and Outer Harbors. 

In size, they range from less than an acre to over 200 acres. 

The Harbor Islands had military and strategic importance to Boston and the United States from Colonial times through World War II. 

 

Trivia Quiz: Name the Boston Harbor Islands

Through the years, some former Harbor Islands have become connected to the mainland, especially around Boston Logan Airport, while landfill has turned others into peninsulas.  In case you're curious, here's a complete list of current islands and peninsulas

  • Bumpkin Island
  • Button Island
  • Calf Island
  • Castle Island
  • Deer Island
  • Gallops Island
  • Georges Island
  • Grape Island
  • Great Brewster Island
  • Green Island
  • Hangman Island
  • Langlee Island
  • Little Brewster Island
  • Little Calf Island
  • Long Island
  • Lovells Island
  • Middle Brewster Island
  • Moon Island
  • Nixes Mate
  • Noddle's Island
  • Outer Brewster Island
  • Peddocks Island
  • Raccoon Island
  • Ragged Island
  • Rainsford Island
  • Sarah Island
  • Shag Rocks
  • Sheep Island
  • Slate Island
  • Snake Island
  • Spectacle Island
  • Spinnaker Island
  • The Graves
  • Thompson Island


Spectacle Island

Boston Harbor Islands ferries stop first at Spectacle Island

This 121-acre island opened to the public only in 2006 after a rather infamous previous life as a City of Boston garbage dump followed by a stint as a Big Dig landfill.  

View from Spectacle Island of other Boston Harbor Islands - photo copyright 2009 D. Baron
View from Spectacle Island - Photo courtesy of D. Baron

Now that the almost 4 million cubic tons of Central Artery / Tunnel debris dumped there have been capped, 2 beaches created, and 28,000 trees, shrubs, and vines installed, Spectacle Island is the new "gateway" to the Boston Harbor Islands.

However, you can still see traces of Spectacle Islands history in the beautiful bits of sea glass and pottery scattered across the sandy beach.

If you haven't visited this island before, get off the ferry and explore.  You'll find a new solar-powered Visitors Center complete with rocking chairs on the veranda, cafe, marina, a gorgeous beach with lifeguards, showers, and changing areas - so bring your swimsuit and a towel!

Spectacle Island also has 5 miles of hiking trails going up to the island's highest point, where you'll enjoy spectacular views of the Boston skyline and waterfront. 

On Sunday afternoons from June through August, you can also enjoy free jazz concerts at the Visitors Center.

And on Thursday evenings from late June through early September, you can hop on a Boston dinner cruise and come out for a special New England clambake dinner put on by super-chef Jasper White's Summer Shack Restaurant.

 

Georges Island

After stopping at Spectacle Island, the Long Wharf ferries continue on to Georges Island, which is also where you can catch the water shuttles to other islands.  Ferry service between Spectacle and Georges Islands is included in the basic fare that you pay at Long Wharf.

Georges Island, photographed at 2,000 feet over Boston Logan Airport's runway 32.  Copyright 2007 Adam Van Dusen
Aerial photo of Georges Island - Photo courtesy of Adam Van Dusen

This 39-acre island (53 acres at low tide) contains Fort Warren, built in 1845, decommissioned in 1947, and now a National Historic Landmark.  In fact, the whole island is fortified, so if you're not interested in forts, you may want to either skip Georges Island or stop here only long enough to catch the water shuttle to the smaller islands.

Although the fort was used as a prison during the American Civil War and renowned for its humane treatment of Confederate soldiers, it's best known locally for its ghost legend, "The Lady in Black." 

What to learn more about this ghost?  Go on one of the free guided tours of the fort given by Park Rangers.

You can also hike around Georges Island on your own.  There's a gravel beach, a large dock, and paved walkways. 

You can also enjoy lots of other free activities here.  Although programming varies each year, typical events are plays, historic shows, and musical performances.  Vintage baseball games are especially fun - see the July calendar for dates. 

 

Lovells Island, Peddocks Island, Grape Island, Bumpkin Island

These islands are more rustic than Spectacle Island and Georges Island, and offer picnic areas, walking and hiking, plus free Park Service Ranger tours.  Although you can swim, it's at your own risk - no lifeguards are here.

Lovells Island, photographed from Ft Warren on Georges Island (c) 2007 Chris Wood

You can take the water shuttle from one of these islands to another. 

You may feel like you're the first person to explore some of these places - but that's far from true.  Native Americans and Colonists used them as places to grow cultivate crops, so you're actually following in the footsteps of history.  Grape Island, for example, got its name from Colonists who found lots of wild grapes growing on it.

Camping is available on Grape, Bumpkin, and Lovells Islands for a small fee (confirm the amount when you make reservations).  You must make advance reservations, as each island has only 6 - 10 individual campsites and 2 group campsites. 

Campsites have composting toilets and picnic tables.  There's no fresh water, electricity, food (although you can take the inter-island shuttle over to Spectacle Island and visit the cafe), or phone service - so you need to plan very carefully.

To reserve a campsite, call this toll-free number:  1-877-422-6762.  You'll be assigned a specific campsite by an Island park ranger when you check in. 

 

Getting to the Boston Harbor Islands by ferry

Boston Harbor Island Express boat

Ferries to Georges Island and Spectacle Island depart from Boston's Long Wharf North between early May (check the May Events Calendar for exact start date) and Columbus Day Weekend in October. 

Seven cruises depart daily, starting at 9:30am and continuing at 1 hour, 15 minute intervals.

Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion

Purchase tickets at the Boston Harbor Islands Pavilion on the Rose Kennedy Greenway across from the Long Wharf Marriott. 

Ticket Prices:  Round trip tickets for adults are $17, and for children 3-12 are $10.  Tickets for Seniors 65+, Active Duty Military, and Students are $12 (ID required).  Children under 3 are free.  A family package (2 adults, 2 children under 12) is $43. 

Off-season cruises between November through April take you around the harbor on the comfortable heated Harbor Express ferry.  You can see the Boston Harbor Islands and beautiful city skyline views.  Tickets are only $6 - purchase and depart at Long Wharf next to the Long Wharf Marriott Hotel.

Especially during the summer and on weekends, advance ticket purchase on-line or in person is recommended.  If you want to purchase tickets on-line, they will be e-mailed to you - very easy!  Go to the Harbor Express Ferry website for ticket purchase, schedules, and more information, or call 617-223-8666.

The ferries and water shuttles are operated by Boston's Best Cruises. 

Additional contact information: 

  • Park Rangers: 617-223-8666

What to bring:

  • Sun block
  • Light jacket (offshore temperatures are cooler than you'd expect)
  • Water bottle
  • Swimsuit and towel if you plan to swim
  • Camera, binoculars
  • Picnic lunch (although you can buy snacks on Spectacle Island)

 

Insider tips:

You'll find the biggest crowds on the Boston Harbor Islands on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day).  These are also the days when special activities are scheduled.

If you just want to see the Harbor Islands instead of exploring them, try one of these:

 

More details about Boston Harbor Islands cruises

Nearest T station: Blue Line/Aquarium
Event schedule:  Download a calendar brochure to find free activities
Marina information, including fees:  857-452-7221
Nearest parking:  Boston Harbor Garage is the closest.  Check Boston garages near North End attractions for prices, discounts, and other less pricey options

Like this Page? Please Share!


Boston skyline, as seen from the ferry to the Boston Harbor Islands / Boston Harbor Islands - www.boston-discovery-guide.com
Photo courtesy of gstremer; copyright (c) 2006

 

Related Activities

Best places to go sailing in Boston Fenway Park Tour - free with Boston discount card New England Fall Foliage Cruises