Boston overlooks the bustling Boston Harbor, and stretches west along the south bank of the River Charles. It’s a jumble of interconnecting commercial and residential districts, most with their own unique personality, history, attractions, and appeal. The city’s layout is not particularly intuitive; but each neighborhood has its own logic that is usually dictated by the dependable presence of the water, whether it’s the river or the harbor.
The city’s most prominent tourist area is around Boston Common and Faneuil Hall, with many historic sights and waterfront attractions. That said, there are key historic sites scattered all throughout the city. The best museums and universities are farther away from the center, in various neighborhoods including the Fenway, the Seaport District, and across the river in Cambridge. So the truth is there is no one “best” place to stay, but rather many excellent options.
The West End and the North End occupy the northern tip of Boston, surrounded on three sides by waterways. The North End is one of the oldest and most atmospheric parts of the city, its narrow streets packed with rowhouses and history and hearty Italian restaurants, but there are not many accommodation options. The West End was a similarly vibrant immigrant neighborhood, but it was razed in the name of urban renewal in the 1950s. Nowadays there are few reasons to visit the West End, although it is can be an affordable and convenient place to bed down.
Further south, the heart of the city is the Boston Common, flanked on one side by Beacon Hill and on the other by Downtown and the Financial District. With the river at its back door, Beacon Hill is a storied residential neighborhood with unmatched charm, fabulous shopping, and a few swanky hotels. Downtown contains the city’s biggest concentration of historic sights and many (mostly upscale) hotels. Attractions such as Faneuil Hall, the Freedom Trail, and the Boston waterfront make this a popular area to stay.
From here, the city fans out to the south and west. Along the Charles, the Back Bay is laid out in an elegant and orderly grid, terminating at Kenmore Square, while the Fenway nestles in between the eponymous baseball park and greenway further west. To the south, the Seaport District is a hotbed of trendy dining and nonstop development – most with views of the harbor and beyond. Boston’s outer reaches – including Allston/Brighton, Jamaica Plain, Dorchester, and South Boston – are mostly residential areas, each with its own central square and neighborhood vibe (but little reason for short-term visitors to stay there).
Meanwhile, the separate city of Cambridge stretches along the north shore of the Charles River. Anchored by two academic institutions – Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – the smaller city has its own culture and attractions, as well as easy access into Boston.
With too many one-way streets and not enough parking, Boston is a nightmare for uninitiated drivers. Fortunately, it is a compact, walkable city. It is also well connected by subway (known in Boston as the T), so driving is never required and rarely recommended. Active types can also get around on Blue Bikes, the city’s bike-share program.
The Best Places to Stay in Boston
Best Luxury Hotel: Liberty Hotel, InterContinental Boston
Best Boutique Hotel: No 284, Verb Hotel, Whitney Hotel
Best Midrange Hotel: Newbury Guest House
Best Cheap Hotel: Revolution Hotel, Oasis Guest House
Best Neighborhood in Boston for History & Sightseeing: Downtown
Boston has a modern, bustling, workaday Downtown, but this business district is also packed with colonial architecture, revolutionary sights, and landmarks of the new American nation. The Freedom Trail is a 2.4-mile walking trail which connects 16 historic sights, starting at the city’s central green (the Boston Common) and winding its way through the Downtown neighborhood and beyond. Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market comprise a tourist hub, with shopping and dining, as well as an information center for National Park Service. And the nearby Boston Harbor waterfront is a hive of activity such as boat tours, whale watching cruises, and the New England Aquarium.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for Dining: South End
It’s not easy to choose one best Boston neighborhood for dining, since each area excels in its own way. The city’s Italian immigrant community shows off its stuff in the North End. Dim sum and dumplings and other Asian delights are on the menus in Chinatown. Downtown is home to two biweekly outdoor food markets — the long-running wholesale Haymarket and the seasonal Greenway Farmers’ Market – as well as the (indoor) locavore Boston Public Market. Across the channel, the Seaport District was once the center of the city’s fishing industry and seafood is still a draw, amid many trendy, new dining options. There is one neighborhood, however, that offers hungry travelers all this and more. In the South End, the streets are lined with old-school diners, new-fangled sandwich shops, pizza parlors, noodle houses, French bistros, Italian enoteche, veggie havens, oyster bars, tapas bars, cocktail bars, brunch hot spots, and coffee shops. Lots of coffee shops. Not to mention the SoWa Open Market (Sundays, May through October), which is the city’s longest running outdoor art market. In addition to local makers hawking their wares, the market includes food trucks, a farmers’ market, and a beer garden, so it’s a veritable celebration of local art, food and drink.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for Nightlife: Kenmore Square
It should come as no surprise that the best nightlife in Boston is near the city’s universities. Most centrally, in Kenmore Square, Boston University students and other party people flock to the bars and clubs along Lansdowne Street. (Incidentally, this neighborhood also offers more highbrow nightlife at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Berklee Performance Center, and the Huntington Theater.) Further west, the Allston/Brighton neighborhood is densely populated with students from dozens of nearby colleges and universities, earning it the dubious title of “student ghetto”. Ghettos have always harbored rich musical culture and Boston is no exception, as this neighborhood is home to the city’s best clubs for live music.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for First Time Visitors: Downtown
Downtown Boston is basically tourist central, which makes it ideal for first-time visitors. The Boston Common is the city’s historical center and transportation hub, as well as the start of the Freedom Trail. From Faneuil Hall to the Rose Kennedy Greenway to the Boston Harbor, the neighborhood is packed with attractions, many of which are the city’s highlights. If that’s not enough, Downtown offers easy access to the surrounding neighborhoods, including the North End’s restaurants, the boutiques on Beacon Hill, the Seaport District’s waterfront dining, and the Back Bay’s chic boulevards.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for Romance: Beacon Hill
There’s something about Beacon Hill’s flower-filled window boxes and gaslit streetlamps that lend this neighborhood an irresistible air of romance. It is mostly residential, the narrow streets lined with red-brick sidewalks and Federal-style rowhouses. That means there are not many places to stay, but the few options are delightful indeed. (The boutique Whitney Hotel is a gem.) The commercial strip, Charles Street, invites casual browsing in antique shops and unique boutiques, and stopping for refreshment at a quaint cafe or an intimate restaurant. The street terminates at the lovely, blooming Public Garden, always open for a romantic stroll. There’s no doubt about it: Beacon Hill is for lovers.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for Families: Downtown
Downtown is the best jumping off point for Boston’s funnest family attractions, which include the Rose Kennedy Greenway, the New England Aquarium, the Boston Harbor Islands, the Children’s Museum, and the Boston Tea Party Ships, as well as the obligatory history lesson on the Freedom Trail. But Downtown is good for families for other reasons, too. Kids might need some room to run around, and they will find it at the Boston Common or the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Families need fast and affordable dining options, which are plentiful at Quincy Market and environs. If families want to move around the city, they can hop on the T; kids under 12 ride for free. And, there are loads of hotels in the area. Most of the Downtown hotels are expensive, but there are more affordable options just north of here in the West End.
Best Neighborhood in Boston for Shopping: Back Bay
Back Bay is Boston’s famous, Parisian-style neighborhood, characterized by the gracious brownstones on Commonwealth Ave and the iconic architecture on Copley Square. Here, also, is Boston’s best known shopping strip, Newbury Street, long a symbol of fine art and high fashion, thanks to its many galleries and boutiques. Nowadays, most of the shops on Newbury are high-end national (and international) chains; but there are still some local gems, and even a few of the original Boston icons, such as Newbury Comics. One block over, there are two massive shopping centers on Boylston Street — Copley Place and the Shops at Prudential Center – guaranteed to make a dent in the wallet.
Best Neighborhood in Boston Without a Car (for walking): Downtown
Frankly, visitors without a car can stay in any of Boston’s central neighborhoods without much inconvenience. In fact, having a car would likely add inconvenience, as parking is expensive and driving is daunting. Unlike many American cities, Boston is compact and its many green spaces make it pleasant for walking. For longer distances, it’s easy to get around by the inexpensive and user-friendly subway (known in Boston as the “T”). All of the central neighborhoods listed here feature inviting walking routes and convenient T stations. That said, Downtown is probably best for non-drivers, as it is the most centrally located neighborhood with the most tourist attractions and the most T stations. Downtown walking routes include the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the HarborWalk. Nearby, the Emerald Necklace is a network of green spaces that winds westward through the city; another option is the Charles River Esplanade, a parkland that runs along the river.
The 7 Best Neighborhoods in Boston for Tourists
Downtown is Boston’s business district, but it’s also tourist central, thanks to the many attractions along the Freedom Trail and fronting the Boston Harbor. Downtown is an easy walk to the four surrounding neighborhoods, but also has plenty of convenient T stops for travelers who want to venture to other parts of the city. Downtown also has a huge variety of restaurants and myriad accommodation options, making it the most popular neighborhood to stay in Boston. The only negative about Downtown Boston? All the tourists, of course!
Best Hotel: InterContinental Boston, Godfrey Hotel
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: Harborside Inn, HI Boston
The West End is dominated by government buildings and hospitals, which does not make it the most appealing place to stay. That said, the price is right. A handful of hotels offer exceptional service and value, not to mention easy access to the Boston Garden (for sports or concerts) and North Station (for transportation). A handful of restaurants, clubs, and sports bars keep things lively at night. Best of all, it’s a short walk to the North End and Downtown.
Best Hotel: The Boxer Boston, Kimpton Onyx
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: Indigo Hotel
Delightful Beacon Hill is a tourist favorite for its narrow streets and stately homes, evoking 19th-century Brahmin Boston at its best. The boutique-lined commercial strip, Charles Street, offers just enough dining and shopping options. All of the attractions of Downtown are nearby, but the skyscrapers and traffic and crowds are worlds away. Visitors may be surprised to learn the neighborhood’s intriguing ultra-local history: before the Civil War, Beacon Hill was home to a thriving community of free blacks and a base for an active abolitionist movement; learn more on the Black Heritage Trail which runs through the neighborhood.
Best Hotel: Whitney Hotel, Liberty Hotel
Little more than a decade ago, the Seaport District was an expanse of parking lots surrounding the city’s gritty working fishing docks. Then somebody realized that this stretch of waterfront has amazing harbor and skyline views… and the rest is history. Nowadays the Seaport is crammed with hotels and restaurants catering to business travelers from the nearby convention center. Tourists also appreciate the setting, the waterfront parks, and the proximity to Downtown Boston (and South Station for transportation). There are also a few highlight attractions right in the Seaport District: the ICA Boston, the Boston Tea Party Ships, and the excellent Children’s Museum.
Best Hotel: Envoy Hotel, Residence Inn Boston Seaport
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: Yotel
Back Bay is a wonderful option for travelers who want to be close to the sights, but also experience the charms of a unique Boston neighborhood. These elegant streets are blessed with Boston’s best shopping, excellent restaurants, a good selection of hotels and guesthouses, and a delightfully sophisticated neighborhood atmosphere. Back Bay’s centerpiece is Copley Square – graced by art and architectural gems such as Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library – while the Charles River Esplanade runs along the neighborhood’s northern edge. Downtown Boston and Kenmore Square are within walking distance.
Best Hotel: No 284, Lennox Hotel
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: Newbury Guest House, College Club, Hotel 140
Trendy, artsy, and eclectic, the South End is well away from the tourist track. That’s partly because it contains no traditional tourist attractions. But what the South End lacks in historic sights and museums, it makes up for with diverse restaurants and a vibrant art scene. SoWa is the city’s most active art district, hosting dozens of galleries, a monthly open studios event (First Fridays), and a seasonal outdoor artists’ market. Unfortunately, there is only one T stop serving this expansive neighborhood, so travelers should be prepared to do plenty of walking.
Best Hotel: AC Hotel by Marriott
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: StayPineapple, Revolution Hotel
Not technically a neighborhood of Boston, Cambridge is a separate city (across the Charles River) with its own cultural institutions, dining scene, and green spaces. Most notably, two world renowned universities reside in Cambridge, each offering an array of museums, architecture, and public and performing arts. Cambridge has a diverse and satisfying range of restaurants, a few decent music and comedy venues, and a slew of accommodation options. A quick ride on the T lands you in Boston.
Best hotel: Charles Hotel, Royal Sonesta
Best Midrange/Cheap Hotel: Kendall Hotel, Irving House, Harding House