Boston Wanderings: Your Guide to Our Favorite Spots Off the Freedom Trail

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Heading west through the Boston Common.

Corner any local in Boston and ask them what you should do on your visit to this city, we guarantee 9 out of 10 times the Freedom Trail will be a part of their answer. That’s because when it comes to Boston, the city has made a name for itself in walking tours. But for those visitors who want to get a nice walk in with a little less history, we’ve put together a route that hits all the best spots.

 

TIP: Boston’s streets are old, so there are two things to remember when you hike. First, when it comes to shoes, choose function over fashion—you’ll be walking along stone, brick, and cobbled streets, so a comfortable pair of shoes will get you a lot farther (I’ve lost a few good pairs to these streets before). And second, make sure you have a map and/or GPS on your phone—Boston streets are winding and can get confusing at times, so without some guidance you might end up walking in circles.

North End: We start our non-Freedom Trail walk on the Freedom Trail (ok, yes we admit that is a bit confusing). While this historic neighborhood is home to some of the top Revolutionary sites in the city, it is also home to some of the most delicious food. Take a moment to wander through the Old North Church, and onto Hanover Street, where you can pick up some snacks for later—cheese, charcuterie, cannoli, they’ve got it all! (Note: This is home to the famed Mike’s Pastry. We try to get there early to beat the lines, but you can stop by at any time to get your Italian bakery fix if you’re ok waiting in line.)

Faneuil Hall and the North End Park: Over the years, Boston has made more of an effort to increase its green spaces in the city. One such example is the North End Park, which has become a staple for both locals and visitors in the summer months. Here, you can lay out a blanket and have a picnic (stop by the Boston Public Market for other food options), play in the water fountains, or sit at one of the tables and read before continuing on. Just south of the park you’ll find one of Boston’s top attractions—Faneuil Hall. Here, you can shop, eat, grab a snack, or just wander through and catch a street performance.

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The Massachusetts State House lights up at night.

The Boston Common: Climb the stairs past Boston’s concrete City Hall (a product of 1960’s geometric design and often described as one of the ‘Ugliest Buildings in America’), and turn left onto Tremont street. Follow the curve until you reach a large open green space. This spot, known as Boston’s Common, has existed since colonial times and was once grazing land for Boston’s livestock. Look north to spot the gold-domed State House, the hub of Massachusetts’ government, and continue west past the Frog Pond, which in summer months is a swimming spot for children, and in the winter transforms into a fun ice skating rink.

TIP: Before you walk through here, read up on the famously obese squirrels—they are adorable!

 

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Beacon Hill: North of the Common, one of our favorite areas to walk is Beacon Hill. Here, you’ll see the true historic beauty of Boston’s architecture, with brick streets and brownstone homes lit by picturesque street lamps—you feel like you’re taking a step back in time. Wandering through here doesn’t take long, but it’s a must-see for architecture and history nerds.

 

Boston Public Garden: From Beacon Hill, turn left onto Charles Street heading back towards the Public Garden. One of our favorite stops is the Make Way for Ducklings statue, commemorating the 1941 illustrated book by Robert McCloskey about a family of ducks that trekked through the city in the most adorable way. If you’re looking for real ducks, head over to the pond and watch the swans and ducks swim around, or if it’s the right season, take a ride around the pond on one of Boston’s swan boats.

Newbury Street and Copley Square: By now you’ve walked a few miles through historic Boston, so you’ll be in need of some refreshments. Wander down Newbury Street for a taste of high end shopping plus a selection of restaurants. One street over is Boylston, which brings you to the heart of Copley Square and some of our favorite Boston Landmarks—Trinity Church, Boston Public Library, the Prudential Center—there’s plenty to do in that space.

TIP: When on Boylston Street, be sure to look for the Boston Marathon Finish Line (in front of Marathon Sports), but be careful of cars when snapping photos!

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Day Trip: Joshua Tree National Park

By mid- to late- February those of us who live in the northern hemisphere tend to get a little antsy. Cold, frigid temperatures combined with regular and unpredictable snow and sleet tend to force us indoors for most of the season. While yes, there are winter adventures we can participate in, those tend to rely heavily on the weather for safety reasons. As such, us outdoorsy-types tend to go a little crazy this time of year.

Winter, however, can be an ideal time for day trips (and some overnights) if you head south. A favorite spot is Joshua Tree National Park, a desert haven for hikers, climbers, and bikers. While during usual tourist season this park can reach temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the winter months can be quite pleasant (we do always advise that before heading out to these parks, you check the weather and other important information on the NPS website).

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For views like this, be sure to make time for a longer hike (and note the ruins of a former house to the left).

For this particular guide, you can hit most of the major spots in the park in a day trip by car. It’s a three-hour drive to Joshua Tree from San Diego or LA, so plan for a long day if you are returning to one of those cities afterwards, pack food and lots of water, and be sure your gas tank is full. We start our tour at the West Entrance Station, heading southeast into the heart of the National Park.

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Reminds us of Breaking Bad…

1. Viewpoints. Before you read on, a warning: BE SURE YOU CAN SEE YOUR CAR AT ALL TIMES. As you drive through the park, you’ll notice that coming in from the west entrance the desert is filled with the towering trees that give the park its name. Many visitors will pull over at designated picnic spots and small parking lots, where you can access shorter trails, hike, and take a few photos. This is a great way to get acquainted with the park, but be sure to not wander too far. While yes, the terrain is fairly flat and open, it’s important to be safe when you explore.

2. Hidden Valley. One of my favorite parts about Joshua Tree is that as you travel along, there are moments when you look out to the horizon and focus on a steep rock formation, and upon a closer look realize that there is a person at the top. It’s no surprise that Joshua Tree has become a mecca of sorts for rock climbers, and winter is prime season for groups to camp out and spend a few days challenging their skills. Hidden Valley, which is a part campground, part hiking trail loop through former cattle rustler hideouts, is a great spot to stop and watch the climbers (or try it out yourself!). For those who aren’t into climbing, the one-mile loop hike is fairly easy, and lets you explore inside some of the rock formations without having to strap on a harness.

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Keep an eye out for climbers in high places.

3. Barker Dam. Continuing past Hidden Valley, this hike is friendly for all levels. It takes you on a one-mile loop past an old dam, which was once used for cattle and now acts as reservoir for wildlife within the park. You’ll also have a chance to see a few etchings in the rock from past inhabitants before this park became a park.

4. Ryan Mountain. With the summit at 5,458 ft overlooking the Lost Horse and Pleasant Valleys, this three-mile out-and-back hike is ideal for the hiker looking for more of a challenge. Be sure to bring lots of water for this trek, as even in the winter you’ll feel that desert dryness.

5. Skull Rock. Park Boulevard eventually splits to a north-south intersection. For our day trip, we turned north to head back to Route 62, which created a nice loop for our drive and had us back in San Diego by dinner time. On the way, you’ll notice sections where tourists have pulled over to crowd into certain spots for photos. One such location is Skull Rock, which at certain angles appears to be pulled right from a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It’s worth checking out, even for just a few minutes before you head back into civilization.

6. Star Gazing. Ok, so a day trip wouldn’t include this part, but if you have the chance, book a campsite and spend the night in the park. Joshua Tree National Park is famous for its night sky views. Don’t believe us? A quick image search will convince you.

 

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Dead men tell no tale…

Five Tips for the Solo Traveler

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Coffee: The solo traveler’s best friend.

I was sitting in a restaurant one evening in Paris—the dining room was snug, with tables packed in to fit as many people as possible. I was alone, jotting down details of my day in my journal and slowly sipping a glass of red wine. In the time it took me to go through my meal, I conversed briefly with three couples who came and went from the tables to either side of me. And with each conversation, there was one comment that all three made about my travels.

“You are traveling by yourself? How brave!”

Traveling by yourself isn’t that scary though, especially when in a big city. To me, solo travel offers me a chance to unwind and catch up on thing I love, all on my own time. Paris was a place that was high on my list, and to be able to experience it in a way that was perfectly catered to me, it made my experience that much more memorable.

Of course, there are times that traveling alone gets tough—eating on your own can get lonely, but you can also push yourself to be more outgoing (something I often struggle to do in my day to day routine) and make friends with other travelers. Solo travel gives you a chance to make an experience that is all your own, but it helps to have a few tips before you head out there.

1. Take Some Extra Time to Plan

When traveling alone, especially as a woman, I find it gives my family some peace of mind if I put together an itinerary so they know where I will be on my travels. This means including any hotel addresses and phone numbers, tour company information (if you plan to do a tour), and any train/plane information as you move from one place to another. Beyond that, when traveling solo you have a chance to see and do exactly what you want so researching your destination ahead of time and making plans makes the anticipation that much more fun.

2. Learn to Read a Map

I still travel like it’s 2008 (pre-iPhone, reliant on paper maps and the occasional Internet café). Technology has definitely made traveling easier, especially since now you can buy temporary international plans to use maps, text, post to Instagram, etc., and WiFi access in most hotels makes it easier to keep in touch with friends and family at home, but I still find it so appealing to switch my phone to airplane mode and use a paper map and guidebook to travel around a new city. This does require a moment of letting go—once you switch that phone over to ‘might as well be dead’ mode, you have to rely on your skills to navigate the old-fashioned way. Same goes if your phone dies while out for the day—it’s important to always know where you are, so learn the basics.

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Solo trips take you places you never expected. I fell in love with Bayeux on my last trip to France. 

3. Make New Friends

You’re traveling solo, but you don’t have to be alone. For younger travelers, hostels are a great way to make new friends and meet fellow solo travelers. Taking a day tour is another great way to interact with people. For me, in my day to day life I tend to be more introverted, but when traveling alone I have to force myself to be more social. Surprisingly, that little push has led to some lifelong friendships, and it makes my travel experiences so rewarding.

4. Reach Out to Old Friends

Even if you haven’t spoken in years, when traveling to a city where you know someone, take the moment to reach out. I guarantee 95 percent of the time they will be thrilled to meet up. Whether they live there, or in some cases, happen to be traveling there at the same time as you, it gives you a chance to catch up and get some good advice for when you are exploring the city later on.

5. Enjoy Your Time Alone

Solo travel isn’t for everyone, but if you decide to take a trip on your own, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. Take advantage of the time alone to see and do what you love—this trip is just for you, so make the most of it.

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A rare photo of the author, jet lagged but excited to be here 😀