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.
Boston's Seaport Neighborhood Guide
Once a seedy quarter, the Seaport neighborhood’s salty bars have given way to cocktail dens and trendy restaurants.
LouisBoston: Still family-run after five generations, this fashion institution moved last year from Back Bay, where it had been for 22 years, into a modern and glassy HQ. louisboston.com.
KO Pies: At KO, Aussie chef Samuel Jackson serves up classic antipodean staples like beef pies and fish-and-chips, as well as Tim Tams—the quintessential treat—for dessert. kocateringandpies.com.
Drink: Part local watering hole, part industrial-chic speakeasy, Drink has inventive barkeeps who pour cocktails with pride. The only bar pretzels found here are baked fresh and served with a side of housemade mustard. drinkfortpoint.com.
Temazcal: Two-time James Beard Award–winner Todd Hall aims to change Americans’ perceptions of Mexican food at his new cantina using centuries-old recipes for dishes like barbacoa (braised short rib with chipotle chiles) and lechon asado (whole roast suckling pig). 617-439-3502; temazcalcantina.com.
Boston Children’s Museum: The playland moved to a waterfront space in 2008 and has hands-on exhibits for kids, like a Wizard of Oz display where munchkins can create tornadoes in Dorothy’s bedroom and scale the mountain beneath the Wicked Witch’s castle. childrensmuseum.org.
Flour: The second outpost of Joanne Chang’s famous bakery still has her beloved sticky buns, sour cream coffee cake and homemade Pop Tarts, as well as a growing list of savories. flourbakery.com.
Legal Harborside: This Boston seafood staple launched its first fine-dining endeavor last month in a glistening three-story space along the water. Expect inventive twists on traditionally baked stuffed lobster, as well as abalone and up to 14 types of oysters from the North Atlantic coast and Alaska. 617-477-2900; legalseafoods.com.
Boston Shopping Guide
Emblematic of the new energy in Boston’s design community is the ten-month-old boutique Twelve Chairs (twelvechairsboston.com), which is quickly becoming an essential stop for one-of-a-kind items sourced throughout New England. Co-owners Roisin Giese and Miggy Mason pick their favorite design haunts in the city.
Lekker: Dutch designer and Ralph Lauren Home alumna Natalie van Dijk finds unique pieces from Europe for her South End studio, like a teak Belgian dining table ($2,350), and ships them stateside. lekkerhome.com.
Koo de Kir: In her charming Beacon Hill shop, Kristine Irving has created one of the top home accessories stores in the country, along with a flawless design consultancy service. koodekir.com.
Acquire: Owner Nikki Dalrymple is a former PBS television producer, and her shop in the North End is an education in 1940s-inspired wares like an oversized electric Newgate chrome clock ($350). acquireboutique.com.
Hudson: This is a smartly edited South End shop with standout vintage items, like an antique pine desk ($895). hudson-boston.com.
J.E.M.: Exclusive pieces from independent designers like Scott Mullenberg and Anne Ricketts give this South End space the feeling of a gallery. A John Atwater table sculpture ($525) also functions as a light, bringing together form and function. jemhome.com.
Reside: A midcentury-modern mecca, Reside carries a plethora of Eames, Noguchis and Nakashimas in two locations (Cambridge and the South End). resideinc.com.
Michelle Willey: At this SoWa (South of Washington Street) boutique, the focus is on the table, with picks like brasserie-rimmed bowls from French porcelain company Pillivuyt ($60 each). michellewilley.com.
Patch NYC: Opened last spring by two ex–New Yorkers—hence the name—this South End shop is filled with vintage jewelry, scented candles, linen scarves and original artwork by co-owner Don Carney. patchnyc.com.
Summer in the City
Boston joyfully comes to life in the summer months, with plenty of warm-weather outdoor fun to be had between cultural and culinary pursuits.
This summer, Boston joins Paris, London and other enlightened cities with its new bike-share program. With 61 stations throughout the city, including Back Bay and the South End, you’ll never have to ride the T again. Even hotels are jumping on the bandwagon: The Fairmont, for example, offers guests use of its BMW bicycles at both the Copley Plaza and Battery Wharf locations, while the Ames lends out its four new bikes downtown (altabicycleshare.com).
But it’s not just bikes. A yacht race on par with the America’s Cup visits the harbor during the only U.S. stop of the 11-leg Extreme Sailing Series (extremesailingseries.com), which culminates, fittingly, on July 4. Make a night of it by catching the Boston Pops Orchestra along the Charles.
For less extreme sailing, the Boston Harbor Hotel (bhh.com) arranges chartered boats for guests who want to explore the city by sea. And for nature lovers—remember, Henry David Thoreau was a Bostonian—the Boston Harbor Islands (bostonislands.com) provide 1,600 acres of hiking, kayaking and fishing in pristine wilderness, all within an easy 15-minute ferry ride from Long Wharf.