As a child growing up in New Hampshire, it was a big deal for my family to pile into the Country Squire station wagon and drive an hour south to visit the big city of Boston. I have fond memories of watching the penguins in the New England Aquarium, exploring the Old Ironsides warship, and eating thin-crust pizza in the North End with my parents and my brother.
Now, as I make my visit “back East” to visit family each summer, I’m introducing my children to the very sites I toured, gulp, 35 years ago, in Boston. Especially now that my children are in middle school, they can better appreciate Boston’s storied history and top-notch museums.
Here are my picks for the best Boston attractions for tweens, say 9- to 12-year-olds:
The Freedom Trail
You can walk the 2.5-mile red-brick or red-painted trail through downtown and waterfront Boston for free, stopping along the way at such key historic sites and monuments as the 1680 Paul Revere House or the Old North Church, where lanterns hung to signal the “British are coming!” But I suggest the The Freedom Trail's Walk Into History 90-minute public tour, led by costumed docents. It covers just a mile by foot (totally doable for school-age children), but stops at 11 important landmarks from Boston Common to Faneuil Hall. Tour guides dressed in 18th-century attire keep tweens’ attention with tales from Revolutionary War times.
The USS Constitution
“Old Ironsides,” is one of the highlighted sites along the Freedom Trail. Built in 1797 and now docked in the Charlestown Naval Yard, the USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat today. Its nickname comes from the story that during a battle in the War of 1812, the ship’s heavy oak structure seemingly deflected cannon fire, causing one crewmember to exclaim, “Her sides are made of iron!” Active-duty sailors lead free half-hour tours daily (except Mondays) in the warm-weather months of the 44-gun, three-masted frigate. An accompanying museum is also free (a donation is requested) and includes such interactive exhibits for families as “All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812.”
Museum of Science
The permanent and temporary exhibits dedicated to STEM learning (science, technology, engineering, and math) are vast, entertaining, and hands-on at the Boston Museum of Science. Plan to spend a large chunk of time here with your science-loving school-age kids, exploring such beloved exhibits as Beyond the X-Ray, To the Moon, and The Light House. Younger siblings – up to age 8 – should head to the Discovery Center, for interactive play. Make sure to check out the schedule of live presentations, such as Electricity, in which staff members produce live, indoor bolts of lightening.
Viewfinder tip: Boston Duck Tours depart from the Museum of Science, so it's easy to combine two attractions in one.
New England Aquarium
The centerpiece of the New England Aquarium is the Giant Ocean Tank, where walkways spiral up a huge 200,000-gallon cylinder containing oodles of sea life, including 600 animals, such as nurse sharks, stingrays, moray eels, and hundreds of colorful reef fishes. Myrtle the giant sea turtle has been a part of the Caribbean coral reef exhibit since 1970; I likely spied the creature as a child the same way my kids sought her out on a recent visit! More highlights at this stellar aquarium: A shark and ray touch tank, extensive penguin habitat, seal and sea lion outdoor exhibit, and IMAX theatre.
Boston Duck Tours
Bring your earplugs for your Boston Duck Tour: many parents cough up a few extra bucks for quacking whistles that children won’t hesitate to use often on this tour via a WWII-style amphibious vehicle. I took the entertaining excursion when my children were just 6 and 8 years old (and they thoroughly used and abused those whistles!). But I’d like to do it again with them now that they are 11 and 13 and have studied the Revolutionary War in school, since the funny ConDUCKtor points out many of Boston’s historic landmarks along the way. The best part occurs at the end of the 60- or 80-minute tour: a “splashdown” in the Charles River, when kids can take the helm and drive the boat.
Of course, Boston offers many more attractions and activities for families: go to a Red Sox game at intimate Fenway Park; sample savory pizzas and sweet delicacies at the pizzerias and pastry shops in the North End, Boston’s “Little Italy”; take younger siblings to the activity-filled Boston Children’s Museum; or explore the shops, restaurants and street performers at Faneuil Hall.
What are you favorite cities to explore with school-age children?