The Freedom Trail in Boston is different from just about any other historic attraction you’ll visit with your kids, offering as it does a chance to physically locate numerous important historical events in the context of a modern city landscape. I’ve probably walked the trail a half dozen times during my life and it never ceases to amaze me how easily one moves from Paul Revere’s grave to the spot where the Sons of Liberty met before the Boston Tea Party to the site of the Boston Massacre to the bell tower where lights so famously warned of the British coming in 1775.
What is the Freedom Trail?
Running for two and a half miles from the Boston Common in front of the Massachusetts State House through downtown Boston across the Charles River to Charlestown and the site of the Bunker Hill Monument, the Freedom Trail links sixteen different historic sites and also numerous monuments, historic markers, and public art. Perhaps the best aspect of the trail is its Yellow Brick Road quality – it is actually physically marked in the sidewalks and streets of Boston using red bricks and paint, making it fun to follow for even younger kids.
It is possible to walk the entire Freedom Trail with kids during the course of a single day (we did in the summer 2011 when our boys were six and nine) although if you do so, it’s important to remember that you may not want to go inside all of the available historic sites. It would also be easy to cover the trail on multiple days if you’ve got a longer stay in Boston planned or if you want to be more thorough.
Sites your kids won’t want to miss
The Granary Burying Ground. Located close to the beginning of the trail, just up the street from the Boston Common, this graveyard is the final resting place of Paul Revere, Ben Franklin’s parents, the victims of the Boston Massacre (who were buried in Sam Adams’ family tomb), and John Hancock.
The Old South Meeting House. Where the public meeting that led to the Boston Tea Party took place, this former Puritan meeting house also houses a bell made by Paul Revere and a really interesting exhibit about free speech and public discourse in American life.
Site of the Boston Massacre. A dramatic way to engage your children with the history of the trail is to tell the story of the Boston Massacre, when British soldiers opened fire on ordinary citizens who, angry about the Stamp Act, were pelting them with snowballs and rocks. Five men died; the site is marked in the ground with a circle of stones.
Paul Revere House. The oldest building in Boston is this tiny wooden house, which was occupied by the Revere family in the late eighteenth century. Kids will be amazed to see how small the house is; knowledgeable guides inside can tell you about what life was like when its most famous occupant lived there.
The USS Constitution. Not to be missed is the oldest commissioned warship in the world, which is also called Old Ironsides. It’s worth waiting in line for a tour, which is led by an active-duty sailor and will take you below decks and give you a fascinating view of what it was like to live and fight on this 214-year-old ship. In fact, you might consider visiting the Constitution separately from the rest of the trail. It was the last site we saw and I found myself wishing that we had left it for a different day so that in addition to touring the ship we had time and energy to visit the adjoining museum. Note that to enter the Constitution, adults must have ID and will have your bags inspected.
Making the most of your time along the Freedom Trail
If you don’t know Boston at all you might want to check out a map of the trail before you visit to familiarize yourself with the sites along it. And if your children haven’t yet studied the American Revolution in school, you might want to share with them with at least a few of the basic facts and important figures like Paul Revere. Sharing the story of his ride, the Boston Massacre, and the Boston Tea Party before you walk the trail will help engage children and give you a chance to turn your walk into something of a scavenger hunt as you seek out the sites of these famous tales. Got toddlers? Consider breaking the trail up into smaller chunks so that you aren’t wrestling with them in numerous museums.
You can also encourage older kids by picking up or downloading the two Junior Ranger handbooks for the trail published by the National Parks Service (there is so much material to cover that they offer a separate books for the Boston and Charlestown portions of the trail). Note that the downtown National Parks Service Visitor Center is situated in the middle of the trail, so you might want to stop by there before you actually begin your walk (they can give you a free map to guide you as well). The Park Service also offers a free walking tour on a first-come, first-served basis.
As far as knowing what you are looking at, the sites along the Freedom Trail all include signs explaining their significance, and the buildings you can enter all offer either paper or human guides (or both). I think that a self-guided tour works best with kids, since it gives you the flexibility to explore the areas you all find the most interesting and to stop whenever you want to. Since the trail is marked in the sidewalk, it’s virtually impossible to get lost. Most of the sites are free, although there is a small fee for some of them.
Check ahead also for the hours of the sites you want to visit, which vary at different times of the year (the Freedom Trail Foundation offers links with information for each individual site). For example, the State House is not open for tours on Saturday or Sunday. The Constitution is only open between Tuesday and Sunday from November 1 until March 31. And of course, be prepared for crowds and lines at some of the more popular sites if you visit during summer months or school holidays.
Since the trail meanders through downtown Boston, you’re never far from food while you’re on it. Faneuil Hall Market, which comes about halfway through the trail’s monuments if not its distance, is a tourist hub with numerous restaurants offering everything from enchiladas to sushi (you will in fact find one of only three U.S. outposts of my favorite British chain Wagamama). To keep in the historic New England spirit, I recommend Durgin Park, which is one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in the United States. Although it is now corporately owned, you’ll still find the tiled floors, mouthy waitresses, and thick clam chowder that have been served there for generations. A bit further along the trail marches directly through Boston’s Italian neighborhood called the North End, where in addition to excellent pizza, you’ll find the best cannolis around at Mike’s Pastry. And you could easily pack a picnic, which you could enjoy in the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway or the lovely courtyard that fronts the Old North Church.
If you walk the length of the trail from the Common to the USS Constitution and find yourself tired and unwilling to walk back across the river to downtown, I recommend catching the boat shuttle that runs from the Charlestown Navy Yard to the Long Wharf near Faneuil Hall. The boat ride makes for a relaxing end to the day, and you’ll get some great photo ops of the Boston skyline.
Of course, what makes the Freedom Trail one of the more family-friendly attractions you’ll find in any American city is the fact that you can pick it up anywhere along its length, spend as much or as little time as you want, and still come away having learned some valuable lessons about the history of Boston and the Revolutionary War.