From April through much of September, Boston's swan boats glide across the Lagoon in the Public Garden, just as they have every year since 1877.
Swan boat season begins in mid-April, and lasts through the last Sunday in mid-September - a popular summer activity in Boston for tourists and locals alike.
The Swan Boat cruise is short - only about 12-15 minutes - but it gives you the perfect way to relax, soak up the beauty of the surrounding garden, and experience tranquility in the middle of a busy city.
You'll see plenty of mallard ducks, the little island made famous by Make Way for Ducklings, and perhaps even a stately pair of friendly real swans. Sometimes the real swans even swim along next to your swan boat, giving you fantastic photo opps.
If you're visiting Boston and looking for things to do that capture the essence of the city, don't miss the chance to take a swan boat ride (or two).
After plying the water for 140+ years, they're a Boston cultural icon, right up there with the city's red and white neon Citgo sign, Fenway Park, and, of course, lobster rolls and clam chowder.
Top photo:Swan boat ride around the lagoon in the Public Garden, (c) Boston Discovery Guide
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Why are Boston's Swan Boats Swans?
Back in the 1870s, the City of Boston granted a "boat for hire" license to Robert Paget. At that time, rowing small boats across the Public Garden's lagoon was a favorite activity of many Bostonians. (Try to imagine that happening today!)
Paget, whose descendants still own and operate the Boston Swan Boats business, decided to introduce a new kind of pleasure boat based on catamarans powered by a foot-propelled paddle wheel mechanism. In effect, Swan Boats are operated somewhat like bicycles ... except that they float in the water instead of rolling on land, lack wheels, and carry about 20 passengers.
Inspired by Lohengrin, a popular opera by Richard Wagner in which swans pull a boat carrying a knight on a mission to rescue a beautiful maiden, Paget created a similar magical effect by concealing his boat operators with a much-larger-than-life swan crafted from copper.
The original boats carried only a few passengers, but in 1914, John Paget (Robert's grandson) began to enlarge the vessels to contain additional rows of seats.
The Swan Boats continued to share the Lagoon with the row boats until the mid-1940s. Now, the Swan Boats share the water only with actual swans and ducks.
What Are the Swan Boats Like Today?
Today, each swan boat is constructed from 2 pontoons measuring 30 feet long, about 3 feet wide, and spaced about 3 feet apart with wooden flooring on top. Six wooden benches with side rails provide seating for up to 20-25 passengers.
In 2011, the Swan Boats were declared a Boston Landmark.
The swans, still as beautiful as ever, are now made from white fiberglass.
To go for a ride, you must first get your ticket at the small rustic office on the edge of the Lagoon and then stand in line to wait for a boat to pull up at the wooden dock next to the office. The line usually moves fairly quickly, as around half a dozen boats typically circle around the Lagoon.
Crew members carefully guide passengers on board because the boats may rock slightly in the water in the Lagoon, which is only about 3-4 feet deep at its deepest point.
A crew member, mostly hidden behind the boat's swan, pedals and steers each boat in a figure-eight pattern around the Public Garden's lagoon at a leisurely speed of about 2 miles per hour. Many of the crew members - mostly local college students - are athletes who use the pedaling as a great workout for their leg and thigh muscles.
Boston's Swan Boats are unique - they're the only swan boats of this type in the world.
What Will You See When You Go for a Swan Boat Ride?
The swan boats initially head toward the southern end of the Lagoon (which, in case you're wondering, is an artifical lake covering about 4 acres). You may notice tall Boston buildings in the distance . . . or you may focus only on green grass, rippling water, and leafy trees.
As your swan boat slowly circles the lagoon's edge and then turns north, you'll see the expanse of water stretching out ahead of you, and perhaps another boat pushing off from the dock. If you're a fan of E. B. White's The Trumpet of the Swan, perhaps you'll imagine Louis, the mute swan, swimming along by the side of your boat and playing his trumpet.
You'll pass under the Public Garden's beautiful 19th century suspension bridge, and then emerge in the north part of the pond.
You'll circle the small island make famous by Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings. This is the spot where Mrs. Mallard - a fictional duck supposedly modeled after an actual wild duck who decided to make her nest in a Swan Boat - brought her eight young ducklings to live after hatching them in the nearby Charles River.
Look closely, and you may see one of Mrs. Mallard's descendants sunning herself on the duck ramp going up to the island.
You may also see the Public Garden's two real swans, a pair that returns every spring (after spending the winter at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo) to grace the Lagoon with their presence.
After about a quarter of an hour of peacefully gliding around the pond, your Swan Boat eases back up to the dock.
Too short a ride? You can always get back in line and go for another. The tickets are so inexpensive that you could ride around for an hour and spend less than you would for lunch in a nearby restaurant, and the line moves quickly because as many as six boats operate during peak times.
If you have a Go Boston discount card, you may be able to ride on the Swan Boats for free.
Where Do the Swan Boats Go during the Winter?
At the end of each summer season, the crew and Paget family members disassemble the swan boats, a process that takes roughly 4 days. Paget family members (currently the 4th and 5th generation descendants of Robert Paget) store the pieces in the basements of their houses for the winter.
When spring arrives, the Paget family brings the pieces back out, reassembles them, and launches the swan boats for another season of pleasure in the Public Garden.
Details & Directions: Boston Swan Boats
Location: Public Garden, next to Boston Common and bordered by Beacon Street, Arlington Street, Charles Street South, and Boylston Street
Nearest T station: Green Line/Arlington
Open (weather permitting): Daily from mid-April to mid-September; April to mid-June: 10am - 4pm; mid-June to Labor Day: 10am - 5pm; after Labor Day: noon - 4pm weekdays, and 10am - 4pm weekends.
Please note: Swan Boats do not operate during heavy rains, strong winds, thunderstorms with lightening, or intense heat.
Cost: Adults $4.50, Children (2 - 15 years) $3, Seniors 65+ $4; pay with cash or credit card
Nearest parking: Boston Common Garage (underground), entrance on Charles Street
For more information: 617-522-1966; website
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