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The New Boston

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© Karin Hansen

With high-profile restaurants, world-class museums and a flourishing design scene, Boston is ready to shine again.

Traffic and accents have long been Boston’s bywords and bugaboos. But since the Big Dig, the city’s astronomically priced highway overhaul, was completed in 2007, the infamous gridlock has cleared, and neighborhoods long inaccessible have begun to flourish. Though nothing can replace the errant R’s—not left in cars parked in Harvard yards—a new Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, on the heels of the Institute of Contemporary Art, which opened in 2006, has inaugurated an era of renewed artistic ferment. The design scene is also thriving, thanks to a fresh group of retailers with impeccable taste and a strong vision to push the city forward with a sophisticated aesthetic. You’ve never seen Boston look this good. The energy is tangible—and edible—at a crop of new restaurants like Barbara Lynch’s French-Italian bistro Menton (see “Boston's Best Seafood Restaurants”) and Todd Hall’s haute Mexican eatery Temazcal (see “Boston’s Seaport Neighborhood Guide”), while the invigorated arts scene is attracting artists, then galleries and, of course, then trendy cocktail dens. “There’s a generation of Bostonians who want to make their mark and are presenting something new and innovative,” says Debi Greenberg, owner of the luxury retail outlet LouisBoston. “But they want to do it in a Boston way.”

Boston was once well-known for its arts scene (William Morris Hunt, Edmund Tarbell, Lilian Westcott Hale), but at the start of the 21st century, it was still most recognized for the colossal $500 million theft at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. The Gardner (280 The Fenway; gardnermuseum.org) is back in the game with a bright young curator, Oliver Tostmann, Ph.D., whose first exhibitions will be primarily displayed in the museum’s gleaming 70,000-square-foot addition by Renzo Piano, set to open on January 19, 2012. At the still-infant—in museum years—Institute of Contemporary Art (100 Northern Ave.; icaboston.org), iconoclast photographer Catherine Opie’s striking images of political demonstrations share space alongside vinyl-inspired artwork, including David Byrne’s life-sized Polaroid montage, which became the cover of the Talking Heads’ album More Songs About Buildings and Food (which might as well be the mantra for the new Boston). Not to be outdone, the 53 galleries in the Museum of Fine Arts’ (465 Huntington Ave.; mfa.org) Foster + Partners–designed wing include iconic works by John Singer Sargent, Paul Revere’s silver Sons of Liberty bowl and a stained-glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The modernists aren’t neglected either; there are paintings by Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe, as well as photography by Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams. You’re likely to find Boston’s as-yet-undiscovered talent in Fort Point Channel, a harborside neighborhood once owned by the Boston Wharf Company, now swarming with artist studios and galleries.

Tucked away in a renovated early-20th-century warehouse, the gallery FP3 (346 Congress St.; fp3boston.com) showcases work by local artists in a warm space designed by David Hacin, who used reclaimed timber from buildings in the area. At the year-old Grand Circle Gallery (347 Congress St.; gct.com), find diversion in the extensive collection of vintage travel posters from the Golden Age of travel, starting in the late 1800s, up to World War II, acquired by owners Alan and Harriet Lewis over 25 years of adventures. Through July 30, an exhibition copresented by the International Poster Gallery includes original color lithographs promoting North African safaris, steamship trips along the sub-Saharan coast and the rise of airline travel from continental Europe and America. Nearby, the Fort Point Arts Community Gallery (300 Summer St.; fortpointarts.org) features an installation of paintings, photography and mixed media by Boston-area artists called “Here We Are, Who Cares?” FPAC, as it is called, also sponsors seasonal art walks through the neighborhood to see works in progress in places like Midway Studios, three massive warehouses turned artist co-op.

For the sophisticated traveler, Boston’s hotel options have been confounding. But in the past few years, overstuffed armchairs and Colonial portraits of Founding Fathers have been replaced by top-tier luxury hotels. The Ritz Carlton (rooms, from $395; 10 Avery St.; 617-574-7100; ritzcarlton.com), which underwent an $11 million renovation in 2008, continues its improvements this year with the completion of a new lobby bar and lounge in May. Try the Southie Tea Party, with tea-infused Bushmills whiskey.

Across Boston Common in Back Bay, that neighborhood of charming brownstones and posh Sunday brunches, the 273-room Taj Boston (rooms, from $250; 15 Arlington St.; 617-536-5700; tajhotels.com), which opened in 2007, keeps pace with the city’s renaissance with its newly unveiled Tata Suite. Named after the founding family of the Taj group, it includes 24-hour butler service and sweeping views of the Public Garden and Commonwealth Avenue. The three-year-old Mandarin Oriental on Boylston (rooms, from $395; 776 Boylston St.; 617-535-8888; mandarinoriental.com) has spacious sun-drenched rooms with Frette linens, walk-in closets and deep marble soaking tubs. The hotel’s 16,000-square-foot spa offers personal consultations, herbal tea and a eucalyptus oil–infused quartz-crystal steam room. The spa situation is rivaled at the two-year-old Fairmont Battery Wharf (rooms, from $300; 3 Battery Wharf; 617-994-9000; fairmont.com), which just added an Exhale spa in March—complete with an expansive hammam—and Aragosta, a Mediterranean meets New England restaurant from chef David Daniels.

The 114-room Ames Hotel (rooms, from $245; 1 Court St.; 617-979-8100; ameshotel.com) might be the true embodiment of the new Boston. Inside its historic 1889 Romanesque façade—Boston’s first skyscraper—designer David Rockwell has retrofitted a sleekly modern interior featuring plush cream-colored beds, oak floors and slate gray walls on which hang playful artwork. Not an oil portrait is to be found.

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