I’ve been touring Greater Boston with my kids, and here are some of my favorite excursions. Some are off-the-beaten-path, and many reflect my particular interest in urban/suburban planning.
I welcome your recommendations as well.
1. Zimman’s and murals in Lynn
Lynn’s Zimman’s is a fantasy in fabric rolls, a color therapy in silk and cotton, the largest fabric store in the Northeast. The color therapy then continues outside. The brick walls of Lynn’s antique downtown are now splashed in colorful paint, epic murals. The downtown is a museum turned inside out, scaled huge, and made free — a museum where people live, for example the guy shown holding his sneakers on an eight-story mural. He lives in the building.
2. Wenham Museum and Wenham Tea House
Most of the Wenham Museum’s creepy, antique dollhouses were in storage when we went (too bad!), to make room for a temporary exhibit, but its train room was in full form. Every kid who entered squealed, and darted around to follow the trains and discover tiny amusements. I too had fun exploring places shrunken and fantasized into miniature.
Then we were lucky to get seats at the Tea House across the street with no reservation. So many grandmas with their granddaughters. So many pastel floral sundresses! My son was the only boy there. The place exudes girly refinement and charm.
3. Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary, Topsfield
Straight from Wenham, we drove to the nature reserve in Topsfield. Greater Boston has many nature reserves, all special and lovely, but this one is extra special and extra lovely.
4. Former Medfield State Hospital, originally Medfield Insane Asylum
I have never been to a place so haunted and haunting before. Thousands of people, both patients and staff, lived here, on the edge of Medfield, by the woods and a river bend. The volunteer groundskeeper told me that some years only five visitors came in the entire year; the patients were abandoned. The nurses lived in the attics, which appear to have few windows. He mentioned that most of the building interiors are cluttered now with broken glass and fallen plaster, but several were cleaned up to serve as movie sets, for example, for Shutter Island.
Go soon. It will get redeveloped.
5. Wellesley Office Park
I have lived near this parcel of land all of my life — driven by it countless times — and I never knew this time capsule was there, fenced in between Route 128, Route 9, and the river. Wellesley Office Park is Greater Boston’s premier mid-century corporate campus. These are not plain box buildings, but architect-designed structures of drama. You will find there monumental brick towers, orange tiles, windows arranged in bold geometries — a scavenger hunt for mid-century architectural surprises.
Then go check out Newton’s Echo Bridge nearby.
6. Nantasket Beach in Hull
Of course, it is hard to go wrong with beaches, especially on a perfect August afternoon. The joy of beaches runs timeless. But especially so at Nantasket Beach. We rode the painted horses in a carousel originally from Paragon Park, my first amusement park love in the ‘80s. At a counter, we got comfort food in cardboard boxes, and brought it to the beach. I gazed at the horizon and at my kids cavorting in gentle waves, to the sounds of ’90s covers — Cranberries — played by a live band on amps. Then we visited the art deco bathhouse from the ‘30s. It is now my favorite bathhouse.
7. MarketStreet in Lynnfield, It’Sugar
I do not really have a thing for shopping malls, but my kids rated this visit so highly that I figured it belonged on the list. Lynnfield’s MarketStreet is part of the new trend in shopping malls that throws off the mall roof, and puts all of the shops at street level. The development includes a skating rink, a bowling place, and some housing on the side. We got lunch at wahlburgers.
What did it for my kids, though, was It’Sugar. There is a time for every purpose under heaven, and maybe that includes a time, and a place, for gross quantities of candy? (In addition to Halloween.)
8. Farmer’s Porch at Tangerini’s Farm in Millis
Quick, we need an antidote to It’Sugar! The antidote is to be found at the Farmer’s Porch at Tangerini’s Farm in Millis. A wholesome lunch, on wooden picnic tables, in a greenhouse. Outside the glass structure are farm animals and fields. On a cold November day, I especially enjoyed the light and warmth here. Aaaahhhh.
(Open May through November.)
9. MWRA Wastewater Treatment Plant
Tours are open to the public, and free of charge, you just need to provide some info ahead of time, for a security clearance.
Inside, you will find huge long pipes and switches labeled:
Thickened digested sludge
Danger hot flushing water: not for drinking
Primary scum battery
Reactor scum grinder
You know you want to visit.
Deer Island processes the wastewater generated by millions of people — in a fully automated way. In off hours, Deer Island only needs ten people on site to run the whole thing. Also notable: the project was built on time and on budget. The plant means we can flush toilets without making our ocean a cesspool.
10. Winthrop Center
The MWRA plant is located at the tip of the peninsular town known as Winthrop. Winthrop’s little downtown is showing wear, but it offers plenty to delight your eyes. Perfect for afternoon strolling.
11. Saugus Ironworks National Historic Site, and Kane’s Donuts, in Saugus
After the MWRA tour, we went to Saugus Ironworks, which also offers free admission. It is a reconstructed factory from the 1600s. I was so impressed by the human ingenuity on display there, leagues more primitive than the MWRA facility and yet mind boggling.
While in the neighborhood, be sure to stop by Kane’s Donuts.
12. Revere Beach
We walked the beach in March, snow still on the ground. We passed many strolling couples! Romance is alive and well, year-round, on Revere Beach.
The cast iron pavilions were constructed 1895–1905. Imagine the turn-of-the-century beach parties at the new pavilions.
13. Everett Center, Pastelaria Ki Sabor
Everett has been in the news for the new mega-casino-hotel and its multi-million-dollar uber-shiny Popeye sculpture, fresh flower ornamentation, and general glitz. Everett Center is another scene altogether, not ostentatious in the least. It has an 1890-something library that is bustling, buildings in many shades of brick, independent convenience stores, and an aqua blue mid-century city hall. I Googled to learn more about city hall’s mod architecture, but all I found were some reviews like “The way this place is run is absurd!”
At the end of our stroll, we happened upon a Brazilian diner called Pastelaria Ki Sabor that was hopping. The food was inexpensive and wonderful.
14. Suburban bohemia of Beverly
In the past I had glimpsed Beverly and found the quintessential suburbia of the manicured lawn, of oversold McMansions and modest mid-century subdivisions. I guess I had missed the southern part of Beverly, between the Bass River and the Atlantic Ocean, just north of Salem’s Halloween-happy downtown. This part is suburban bohemia!
It includes a historic downtown with a red Romanesque church, vegan raw food, an offbeat cinema, an old YMCA, and a dollar store. There is a nearby art school. A sandwich-board boasted to us: “Live music every Saturday.” Rantoul Street has big-new-residential-development, and other streets have super old houses. The area has a train station, and vacant and reused industrial buildings.
In short, Beverly’s suburban bohemia has a bit of everything, which makes for excellent peeping, from river to ocean.
15. Downtown Chelsea
Right before visiting downtown Chelsea, I had been reading that the dense, urban downtown areas like Manhattan’s Greenwich Village or Boston’s North End, which used to be home to many families with children, now primarily draw as residents younger and older adults, childless middle-agers, and, in general, wealthy people. There is a decades-long discussion in the urban planning literature about the benefits and drawbacks of such locations for child-rearing, with some commentators saying the discussion is now moot, as few kids live there. And then I showed up in downtown Chelsea, a dense, urban setting, and passed on the sidewalks one family after another. There were many children.
16. Downtown Gloucester
My impression was that downtown Gloucester had buildings from more decades than any other downtown in the area. Well, maybe except for Salem. Go to Gloucester for layers of texture, patterns, and ornaments, and for quirky shops. The downtown is meant for tourism, an excellent destination after Gloucester’s Good Harbor Beach.
17. Crane Estate, Ipswich
I had already been to several of the region’s old estates, and I was expecting this one to be similar. But then I saw the backyard. It is called a “grand allee,” and it sweeps from the mansion down the hill just about to the beach. Phenomenal. Jaw dropping.
18. A walking tour of Braintree
I printed out the WalkBoston walking route for Braintree, which gave me permission, or a needed nudge, to wander where I would not have otherwise thought to go.
The sights included a white BMW that matched the garage facade behind it, and a little orange and red corvette that appeared to be molting, next to a granite-lined river.
I also spotted a brand new modern-design three-family house, blue with red doors and white trim, so conspicuous in a well worn area, by an auto repair yard, truck repair yard, six beige-brick three-story box apartment buildings, antique homes dressed in ’70s vinyl, and a graffiti-decorated pedestrian crossing under train tracks.
19. Norwood Center, The Norwood Theater, and To Beirut
All I had known of Norwood was the Auto Mile, until I happily discovered its downtown of 1890s and 1920s grandeur. I mistook Norwood’s town hall for a Gothic Revival church. The indie theater is no hole in the wall, but a Spanish Romanesque stone building worthy of the aristocracy, or of early capitalists as the case may be. Its marquee announced an evening of blues, cool. The downtown is gritty and peeling, textured and layered, rich and worn.
At Norwood Center’s To Beirut, even the dandelion greens are delish.
20. Weston Center
I have lived most of my life a few miles from Weston Center without ever knowing that Weston had a center. It turns out not to be critical knowledge. But anyway, it is fun to poke around in a town where many multi-millionaires live. The center has a green (white, and streaked by little sledders, when I went), stone churches, an upscale supermarket, a well-regarded Chinese dumpling place, and a gift shop that sells crystal made in Prague.
21. Lincoln, all over
Many great thinkers of urban planning have imagined that ideal places to live would combine the graces of both town and country. We thrive on urbanity and pastoralism together, or something like that. Greater Boston has it all. And the country is to be found… in Lincoln.
Lincoln is a playground for crunchy-cultured people with cars, or bikes. Lincoln features the de Cordova museum (with the dreamiest sculpture park), Gropius house (Bauhaus architecture), Codman Estate, Drumlin Farm, Codman Community Farm, the Food Project (where we get veggies from June until October), and Walden Pond (on the border with Concord.)
Travel the narrow, curving, sloping lanes of Lincoln, and the scene continually changes, closing under trees and opening before meadows, rising and falling along hills, all framed by antique stone walls and decorated with unusual houses that impress for their design and style, not size. Among the houses are many mid-century-modern gems.
22. Take your pick of town and city centers
Greater Boston has countless wonderful town centers, city centers, and village centers (that I have been counting). Any of them would make for terrific outings: Concord, Newton, Wellesley, Belmont, Winchester, Arlington, Brookline, Salem, Gloucester, and Manchester-by-the-Sea, to name a few good ones. At any of these, you will find excellent restaurants (options ranging from upscale to lowbrow), a bookstore and a toy store, attractive churches and civic buildings, and abundant little surprises. Even the centers that do not appear at first glance to be tourist destinations will reveal their delights to you. I loved finding in Danvers, for example, Pig Cupcake Agony. It is a thing, kind of.
In case you are seeking more inspiration for local travels, here is a video slideshow narrated by my kids:
And follow me on Instagram: @amydain