Your Summer Guide to Boston's Waterfront

By land and sea, we show you what to do on Boston Harbor

You're in Boston, it's hot and you're bored. No fear! Follow the cool, onshore breezes down to Boston Harbor, where activities embrace the city's natural environment and maritime heritage. From Charlestown and the Financial District to the Seaport and Eastie, our 360-degree guide to the waterfront keeps you moving on land and by sea.

Boston HarborWalk

Neighborhood: Citywide

(©Matt Laskowski)

First-timers to Boston or waterfront novices need to take an afternoon and hoof it along the city’s coast. No beaches here, but that’s okay because this is an exercise in masterfully constructed and absolutely gorgeous, urban land-meets-sea scenery.

The HarborWalk is quite lengthy, but a good starting point is the Seaport District near the World Trade Center—many people don’t realize it but the walk skirts around the finger-like building and juts into the harbor, offering unobstructed views of the Financial District and East Boston.

After that, walk up around Fan Pier, across Fort Point Channel, and then weave around the old wharves up to the North End or beyond. You’ll see a variety of things from seagull-stripped crab claws to luxury yachts and everything between.

Charlestown Navy Yard

Neighborhood: Charlestown

(©David Ohmer)

By foot, boat or Orange Line, it's a circuitous route to Charlestown, but once you get there, head for the Charlestown Navy Yard, where you'll find lots to do. The 30-acre Boston National Historical Park served the Navy for 174 years and was integral in military engagements from the War of 1812 to WWII. Most notably, it is home to the USS Constitution, the famous 52-gun frigate named by George Washington and today lovingly dubbed Old Ironsides because her oak hull was never penetrated by cannon ball. Still commissioned, the Constitution currently rests in dry dock undergoing renovations, but you can still board her top deck for photo opps on a limited basis, and then learn more at the USS Constitution Museum, also on site.

Not to be overlooked, World War II Fletcher-Class destroyer USS Cassin Young shows off the Navy's role during a more modern conflict.

Long Wharf

Neighborhood: Financial District

(©Boston Harbor Cruises)

Follow the HarborWalk to Long Wharf. This is the city's main access point to recreation on Boston Harbor—and it's also hugely historical. Long Wharf is one of Boston's original wharves and was named "Long" because it ran all the way from its existing location up what is now State Street to the Old State House. The Chart House restaurant serves up fresh lobster and creative seafood dishes in John Hancock's former counting house. 

Cruising Boston Harbor

Neighborhood: Financial District

Many cruise companies offer tours and sails of Boston Harbor. While we could mention them all, two favorites are Boston Harbor Cruises—for its sheer number of options from sightseeing and sunset cruises to the thrill ride Codzilla that tears through the water at high speed—and Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships offering soft sailing adventures aboard its historical schooners the Liberty Clipper and the Liberty Star. And yeah, passengers do get to help hoist the sails. Both companies dock at adjacent Long and Central wharves.

Boston Harbor Islands Welcome Center

Neighborhood: Financial District

This National Park information center is a main access point to the Boston Harbor Islands. Catch ferries, grab maps, ask questions—do it all here. This summer, the BHIWC participates in the new Isles Arts Initiative, transforming into an adventure-themed getaway complete with treasure hunt maps, relevant historical news clippings and photos, scientific specimens from the islands and loads more.

New England Aquarium

Neighborhood: Financial District

(©Justin Hamel)Fear not. You can still experience Boston’s waterfront when it rains, fish and all. Hours can be spent roaming New England Aquarium, peering into its centerpiece, the Caribbean reef-themed Giant Ocean Tank, or encountering animals up close at the Shark and Ray Touch Tank and the Marine Mammal Center where California sea lions and Northern fur seals play.

Boston Harbor Mini Speed Boats

Neighborhood: Financial District

(©Where)Not too many people get to captain their own ship in Boston’s animated inner harbor. For 90 minutes, Boston Harbor Mini Speed Boats lets you man an F-13 mini speedboat for an at-times zippy water-view tour, passing by such sights as the USS Constitution, East Boston Shipyard, Fort Independence, and the John F. Kennedy Library at Columbia Point.

Dining Hot Spot #1: Rowes Wharf

Neighborhood: Financial District

Cocktails at Rowes Wharf Sea Grille during Summer in the City (©Claire Iltis)Swanky Rowes Wharf is home to Boston Harbor Hotel and its top-notch restaurants Meritage and Rowes Wharf Sea Grille, both run by legendary longtime local chef Daniel Bruce. But, in summer the place to be seen is out on the wharf terrace four nights of the week for the Summer in the City series. Hot, live local musical acts and bands vary by day (soul music on Tuesday, for example) and then on Friday the program screens classic films like “Cool Hand Luke” and “Vertigo.” Cocktails quench a hot day's thirst.

Dining Hot Spot #2: Atlantic Wharf

Neighborhood: Fort Point

At the point where Fort Point Channel meets the inner harbor, new-ish Atlantic Wharf is home to a couple of art galleries as well as three stellar restaurants. Jody Adams’ Trade serves up an international mix of flavors in small plates inspired by the celebrated chef’s travels around the world, like fried polenta bites with aji amarillo or burrata with apple and fig chutney. Don’t skip the cocktails; they’re innovative and expertly crafted. Italian restaurant NEBO owned by the Pallotta sisters features hearty, rustic Italian dishes. Smith & Wollensky offers the atmosphere of a lounge-y steak house, an alfresco patio with killer views, and some serious steaks and chilled shellfish.

Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum

Neighborhood: Fort Point

(Courtesy of Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum)For those interested in embracing Boston’s Colonial past, Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum focuses on the singular event of Dec. 16, 1773. This museum and learning center provides a unique, immersive experience set during the historic time period led by actors, tea-tossing reenactments, high-tech interactive exhibits, and three authentically restored tea ships.

Moakley Courthouse

Neighborhood: Fort Point

Criminals like Whitey Bulger have met fate in the courtrooms of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse, but it’s not super obvious that this stately building on the Fan Pier waterfront also features a half-dozen art galleries. These are open to the public, as is a beautiful permanent installation in the rotunda called The Boston Panels, created by contemporary abstract artist Ellsworth Kelly.

Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston

Neighborhood: Seaport District

(©Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston)At this point, you’ve moved into the Seaport District. One of your first stops should be the Institute of Contemporary Art. There is much to see and do at this museum that was built back in 2006 and designed with Boston’s waterfront in mind. Just look at the dramatic glass cantilever that extends to the water’s edge. Explore today’s cutting-edge art in permanent collections and special exhibitions in the galleries. Then make the most of the surrounding seascape at special summer programming like Harborwalk Sounds, for which the ICA teams up with Berklee College of Music to present the free Thursday night concert series on its pavilion.

Dining Hot Spot #3: Liberty Wharf

Neighborhood: Seaport District

Legal Harborside's roof deck (©Chip Nestor)Spectacular views of Boston Harbor can be had from Legal Harborside's roof deck; scoring a spot up top is tough, unless you've planned ahead. Legal Sea Food's flagship location features three different dining options across three floors: sushi on the roof, fine dining on the second floor and a casual menu of seafood favorites complete with picnic table seating on floor one. Legal Harborside is just one of a few dining options at Liberty Wharf, which opened in on Northern Avenue back in 2011. Del Frisco’s Double-Eagle Steakhouse serves killer cuts of meat, chic tequila bar Temazcal Tequila Cantina features upscale Mexican, and Jerry Remy's is the Seaport District's resident sports bar; all have incredible views.

Blue Hills Bank Pavilion

Neighborhood: Seaport District

Score a harbor-side seat for musical acts performing at this Live Nation amphitheater, which locals still frequently refer to as Harbor Lights, its given name on opening back in 1994. Today, concertgoers heading for the branded Blue Hills Bank Pavilion can belt out hits with club acts like The Decemberists and Rise Against as well as former headliners—see Santana, Jackson Browne and Faith No More—looking to give more intimate shows. 

Castle Island

Neighborhood: South Boston

An artillery battery from the Massachusetts National Guard 101st Field Artillery Regiment returns a 21-gun salute to USS Constitution (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Dietrich/Released) 110603-N-LE393-244)Down in South Boston, this retreat juts into Boston Harbor and is the historic site of Fort Independence, a former sea defense, since 1634, although the existing structure dates to 1851. Today, Castle Island serves city dwellers who come to walk dogs or run the serene two-mile, Pleasure Bay loop. Grab a hot dog and ice cream cone at the food stand, and then find a grassy patch facing Boston Harbor for views of passing ships and the Boston Harbor Islands.

Columbia Point

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum on Columbia Point (©Tom Fitzsimmons/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library)Neighborhood: Dorchester

Dorchester rendezvous Columbia Point is Boston's Kennedy compound. The large spit of land is home to both the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate (as well as UMASS Boston). The former honors America's first Catholic—and wildly handsome—President with exhibits, films, lectures and more, while the latter examines the 47-year career of his brother, a Massachusetts Senator as well as democracy and the country's legislative process.

Port Norfolk

Neighborhood: Dorchester

Protected in an inlet by Columbia Point and the Squantum peninsula of Quincy, Port Norfolk's newest resident the local upstart Boston Harbor Distillery rings in summer by opening its doors for the first time ever. Soon to be known for its signature liquor—Lawley’s New England Spirit—this place celebrates its brick-and-beam building's roots as a former factory for, alternately, yachts and Seymor's ice cream. For 10 bucks, visitors can tour the 11,000-square-foot space, learn about the building’s history, and try samples in the lounge.

Boston Harbor Shipyard & Marina

Neighborhood: East Boston

KO Pies in Boston Harbor Shipyard (©Breville USA)Whether you're on the go by land or by sea, East Boston's shipyard and marina is a cool spot to check in. HarborArts' outdoor Shipyard Gallery, on the grounds of the actual working marina, shows off large-scale sculptures and other types of installations created by artists living in the 'hood and elsewhere in the city. Liz LaManche recently completed her 1,000-foot, 17-design dock tattoo "Connected By Sea." Anchored nearby, the authentic Nantucket Lightship LV-112 models a historic era of harbor patrol and navigation that began in the 1930s when this 150-foot National Historic Landmark was built. After five years of repairs, her beacon shines again Aug. 7, 2015, although the public can tour the interior of the vessel on Saturdays (10 am-4 pm) or by appointment. If hunger hits, Aussie outpost KO Pies serves up savory meat pies, sausage rolls and bottles of Coopers Brewery Pale Ale.

Piers Park

Neighborhood: East Boston

View of the skyline from Piers Park (©Mr. Seavey)

Wrap up this 360-degree tour of Boston Harbor with unrivaled views of the Boston skyline at Piers Park. Across the harbor from both the Seaport District and the Financial District, the large, landscaped park is situated, literally, across a series of piers. To get here, jump on the Blue Line and get off at Maverick Station—it’s only a short walk.