Cosmopolitan, friendly and full of cultural treats, Boston is a joy to explore – especially come Harborfest, when the city's 4th of July celebrations give visitors the best and biggest historical picture
US marines at 4th of July fireworks
'I guess God made Boston on a wet Sunday,' wrote the godfather of noir, Raymond Chandler. And, out of the summer season, it's easy to see his point. Due to its position on the more turbulent edges of the Atlantic, the city receives merciless punishment from the scalloped waves, yet, like a savvy victim of playground bullying, it outwits its tormentors by surrounding itself with a plethora of islands that help it withstand the onslaught.
Boston is also one of the most ancient and patriotic cities in America, its deep roots blossoming come July into the nation's largest Independence Day festival. Known as Harborfest, this four-day bonanza attracts more than three million people and features Revolutionary War re-enactments, a gargantuan firework display, walking tours and hundreds of other events.
A battle re-enactment in Boston Harbor
The capital of Massachusetts – home to Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and Jack Kerouac – Boston is a natural choice for such a celebration. Yet even though its historic and literary blood runs deep, the city never feels austere. A convivial vibe permeates its famed brownstones and university faculties, while the harbour area exudes a gusty, sonorous vibe with its gurgling chug of vessels ploughing through the oft sprightly spume.
'The thing about Boston is that it's the story of America told through just one city,' says my neighbour, seated on the bar stool next to mine at the Union Oyster House, an ancient tavern serving up local Moon Shoal and Island Creek oysters along with numerous craft ales. 'People will bring up George Washington and the Boston Tea Party if they're in the mood,' he continues, slurping an opalescent crustacean. 'But, really, we're just up for talking about anything if there's a newcomer in the room.'
The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new wing by Renzo Piano
In keeping with its distinctly European milieu, Boston is a wonderfully walker-friendly city and everybody paces around on foot, even in winter when temperatures can dip alarmingly. Skies, however, are almost always blue and clear. An hour of wandering will furnish you with an all-American history narrative – from the 1680 saltbox-style house of the revolutionary Paul Revere, who famously brought news of the impending British invasion to nearby Lexington, to the staggering dimensions of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which showcases some seriously big hitters, including Rembrandt and Sargent. The recent extension to the museum is a graceful creation from London Shard architect Renzo Piano. Most absorbing of all though for many is the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which portrays, in intimate detail, the life of this most celebrated 20th-century Bostonian (true, JFK was born in Brookline rather than Boston proper, but at less than five miles' distance from the capital, it's as good as).
On my final morning in town, I stroll around the stoic-looking, 19th-century masonry buildings in the Inner Harbor area of Fort Point, currently one of the most exciting art and design districts in the US. A local network, the Fort Point Arts Community enables artists to open their studios to curious visitors every weekend. It offers a fascinating insight into the business end of the creative process, with local print, textile, oil-paint and installation pioneers happy to reveal their personal space and explain their current projects.
The JFK Presidential Library and Museum
My encounter with a local artist, who, sporting a handlebar moustache, shares with me his plans to buy a Sherman tank to deconstruct, is perhaps the quintessential one-to-one Boston experience in a neighbourhood recently granted Landmark status. For this is a city that fuses intelligence and curiosity within a most un-American compactness.
It may not have Manhattan's iconic allure, but it comes without the Big Apple's larcenous prices and grumpy cabbies. An essential part of 'the great American story', Boston is at the same time somewhat detached from it. Blending American hospitality with European sophistication and unique events such as Harborfest, the city is the ultimate antidote for anyone who thinks that the urban US can't do classy and demure.
Harborfest is from June 30 to 4 July. For more details, visit