Boston is the largest city in New England, the capital of the state of Massachusetts, and one of the most historic, wealthy and influential cities in the United States of America. Its dozens of museums, 62 historical sights, nearly 2000 restaurants, and wealth of live performances all explain why the city gets 16.3 million tourists a year, making it one of the ten most popular tourist locations in the country.
Although technically not part of Boston proper, the cities of Cambridge (just across the Charles River, home to Harvard and MIT), Newton, Brookline and Somerville are in many ways an integral part of the larger city and are an essential component to any visit to Boston.
Boston is a city of diverse neighborhoods, many of which were originally towns in their own right before being assimilated into the city itself. These neighborhoods still go by their original names and people will often tell you they are from "JP" (Jamaica Plain), "Southie" (South Boston), "Dot" (Dorchester) or "Eastie" (East Boston) rather than from "Boston". Alternatively, people from the suburbs will tell you they are from Boston when in fact they live in one of the nearby (or even outlying) suburbs. If in doubt, you can look for "Resident Parking Only" signs which will tell you what neighborhood you are in.
These distinctions can cause problems when trying to send mail or when using directory assistance to search for phone numbers. When sending letters to residents, zip codes will often be valid for several different neighborhood labels. "Boston" will work, but so will "Dorchester", or even sub-neighborhoods such as "Neponset", "Uphams Corner" and "Fields Corner." Residents still use them with pride.
To this day, if you dial 411 to search for a phone number, the listing may not be found under "Boston," but in the neighborhood where the person/business is located.
Also be aware that geographic references tend to mean little. For example, South Boston is different from the South End, which is actually west of South Boston and north of Dorchester and Roxbury. Some other confusing notables: East Boston and Charlestown are further north than the North End. The West End is in the northern part of town (bordering the North End and Charles River). Dorchester Heights is located well within South Boston.
Among Boston's many neighborhoods, the historic areas of Back Bay, Bay Village, Beacon Hill, Chinatown, Downtown, the Fenway, the Financial District, Government Center, the North End, and the South End comprise the area considered "Boston Proper." It is here where most of the buildings that make up the city's skyline are located.
Boston neighborhoods (nicknames in parentheses):
Allston and Brighton (Allston-Brighton, All-Bright)
East Boston (Eastie)
Fenway-Kenmore (The Fens, Kenmore Square)
Hyde Park (HP)
Jamaica Plain (JP)
South Boston (Southie)
West Roxbury (Westie, West Rox, WR)
Allston and Brighton are abutting neighborhoods. Brighton is rather suburban, large and home to the largest population of Asians in the City of Boston --even more than Chinatown in total numbers if not percentage of population. Allston is more urban than Brighton and smaller. It is closer to the City and quite close to Harvard Square in Cambridge. In fact Harvard University has recently published plans to expand "Harvard Sq." into North Allston. You will often hear them called Allston-Brighton, although they are quite distinct. They are connected to the rest of the city by a narrow neck of land between the Charles River and the town of Brookline.
East Boston is on a peninsula across Boston Harbor from the main bulk of the city. Logan Airport is in East Boston. Several underwater tunnels connect East Boston to the rest of the city.
Charlestown is across the Charles River, on the part of the mainland where Cambridge and Somerville are located. It's where you'll find the Bunker Hill Monument.
The South End, North End, South Boston, and the West End are not the neighborhoods farthest in these respective directions. They are named for their positions relative to the original penninsula of Boston, which as been landfilled to such an extent that the South End is now landlocked.
The Back Bay is one of the few neighborhoods with streets organized in a grid. It is so named because it used to be mud flats on the river, until the city filled in the bay in a land-making project ending in 1862. It is now one of the higher-rent neighborhoods in the city. The north-south streets crossing the axis of Back Bay are organized alphabetically. Starting from the east, at the Public Garden, and heading west, they are: Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield, Gloucester (pronounced 'gloster'), and Hereford. After Hereford is Massachusetts Avenue, more commonly known as Mass. Av., and then Charlesgate, which marks the western boundary of Back Bay. The alphabetical street names continue a little way into the Fenway neighborhood on the other side of Charlesgate, with Ipswich, Jersey, and Kilmarnock, but the streets are no longer arranged in a grid.
There are also several "districts" you might hear mentioned. "Districts" are generally areas of common interest located within a larger neighborhood:
Financial District (downtown)
Leather District (downtown)
SoWa District (South of Washington, South End)
Theatre District (between Chinatown and Bay Village)
Waterfront District (South Boston)
Ladder District (newer phrase for Downtown Crossing)
When to visit
As many know, the weather in New England is very unpredictable and becomes moderately cold in the winter, as well as rather humid summers. Late May through late September, you'll be comfortable with no jacket or sweater.
When the heat does start, there are miles and miles of beaches within the city -and just outside of it- that are available for swimming. (The old Standells classic "Dirty Water" doesn't really apply anymore as the water is very safe to swim in thanks to the 15-year old Boston Harbor Cleanup project.)
Early summer tends to be nice, but you don't know when that will be year to year. In that time however, the temperature will be perfect, and there will be no humidity. The remainder of summer tends to be very warm with uncomfortably high humidity. Walking around Boston in this weather can be very uncomfortable. You'll be best off taking a cab, bus, or the T (air-conditioned, unlike the London Underground).
Boston's fall foliage is at or near its peak beauty in mid-October, which also normally offers the advantage of many crisp sunny days. (Outside the city itself, peak foliage timing depends on how far north or south you venture from Boston.)
If you opt to visit during the less busy wintertime, rest assured that the nearby Atlantic Ocean has a large moderating effect on temperatures. The average low in January is 22F