Get out of your car and get on a boat.
Whether you’re looking for a way to cool off, see Boston with new eyes, or simply avoid the perpetually bad traffic, a range of ferries and river shuttles provide a nice option for summer travel in the area. Before there were bridges and tunnels, cars and trains, Bostonians traveled by boat, criss-crossing the harbor and rivers by ferry. For much of the 20th century, water transportation options declined as people boarded the Blue Line and into their cars.
But in recent years, there’s been a resurgence in options for exploring Boston Harbor by boat, and longer, warmer days mark the return of seasonal service. With parks to explore, breweries to try and museums to visit on one side or the other, not to mention breathtaking views of the skyline and coastline along the way, the journey is part of the journey. ‘adventure. Whether the ship is departing from Long Wharf or one of the new docks, now is the perfect time to head to the water and come on board.
Directions: Downtown to Charlestown
On my way: The upper deck of this small ferry is the place to be. As the boat slowly sails out of Long Wharf, take in views of the Custom House Tower with its magnificent clock face. The bottom of the original Custom House building once stood at the water’s edge, but rehabilitation efforts have put a bit of town between it and the modern shore. Arriving in Charlestown, the ferry dock at Pier 4 offers a perfect view of the Bunker Hill monument.
What can you do there: This ferry connects two of Boston’s biggest tourist attractions: the New England Aquarium and the USS Constitution. Inside the aquarium, aquatic exhibits wrap around a giant ocean tank with touch tank experiences along the way. Not enough time for a full visit to the Aquarium? The outdoor harbor seal enclosure provides great entertainment for passers-by whether the seals are frolicking or floating.
In the Charlestown Navy Yard, visitors can board the 225-year-old USS Constitution or the USS Cassin Young, a World War II destroyer. Each day, “Old Ironsides” fires its cannons at 8:00 a.m. and again at sunset. The ceremony is fun to watch, but tends to surprise anyone who isn’t expecting it.
$3.70 each way, daily, mbta.com/schedule.
Route: Seaport East of Boston
On my way: The trip from Lewis Mall to Fan Pier offers views of the Nantucket Lightship and many sailboats. Be on the lookout for seaplanes (and regular planes) arriving and departing. Every once in a while, the boat captain’s friendly dog adds an extra dose of fun to the ride.
What can you do there: This trip is reserved by art. On the harbor side is the main building of the Institute of Contemporary Art, with rotating exhibits in the fourth-floor galleries as well as indoor and outdoor performances. Bookworms might appreciate the new Porter Square Books outpost nearby, which shares space with the Center for Creative Writing on Grub Street.
At the other end of this journey is the ICA Watershed, an extension of the museum which is open from May 26 to September 5. It is also accessible via an ICA river shuttle service included free with admission to the museum. Also in the East Boston shipyard are Downeast Cider and Seabiscuit, a cafe that serves Aussie meat pies. Thanks to two summers of mural painting by a group called SeaWalls, there’s an abundance of ocean street art to explore in the neighborhood (check out this map for details).
$5 each way, weekday service during commuting hours, seaportferry.com.
Itinerary: The Salem Ferry
On my way: As the ferry rounds the end of Deer Island and speeds up, the temperatures drop and the North Shore comes into view. It’s an especially nice respite on a hot day. Passing Winthrop, Revere, Lynn, Nahant, Swampscott and Marblehead, the coastline changes from a combination of beaches and industry to houses perched on cliffs. After passing a handful of islands, the boat slowly enters Salem Harbor with a view of the Fort Pickering Lighthouse and hundreds of sailboats on mooring balls. There is a very low chance of spotting a whale along the way.
What can you do there: Some of Salem’s oldest homes are clustered along the water, including the famous Seven Gabled House, which is a short walk from the ferry pier. Down the street, the National Park Service runs the Custom House where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked. Clustered around Essex and Washington streets is the bustling center of pedestrianized downtown with a mix of shops, restaurants and witch-themed experiences. The Peabody Essex Museum is a must-see, with galleries that capture Salem’s maritime past as it traded with ports around the world, the captivating 19th-century Chinese Yin Yu Tang House, and a rotating mix of special exhibits focusing on the art, fashion and science.
$25 one-way with round-trip discounts, daily May 26-October 31, commuters, kids, seniors and locals, cityexperiences.com.
Itinerary: from Gare du Nord to the seaport
On my way: A ride on this ferry offers the most comprehensive aquatic tour of Boston’s Inner Harbor. Passengers who want to be outside can hang out in the back, but the large windows make the sunny interior a great place to watch in any weather. Departing from Lovejoy Wharf, views include the Charles River Dam and Locks operating buildings, an intimate look at the ongoing construction of the new North Washington Street Bridge, and a 180° view of the USS Constitution.
What can you do there: Lovejoy Wharf promenade overlooks Zakim Bridge and TD Garden. In addition to the ferry dock, it is home to Converse and its flagship retail store, which offers custom shoe designs. Night Shift Brewing and the Alcove have patio seating for drinking and dining, and Row House hosts outdoor workout classes on their rowing machines. With time to spare before the next train or a big game, the new Hub Hall inside Gare du Nord offers another group of dining options.
Around the Seaport Ferry Dock, the best views are from atop the roof of the Fan Pier Pavilion, from the seats in the amphitheater at ICA, and from the steps down to the water at Pier 4. For Al fresco dining, Gather at District Hall feels like an institution in this rapidly changing neighborhood. Over on Thompson Place is the headquarters and beer garden of Trillium Brewing.
$5 each way, weekday service during commuting hours, seaportferry.com.
Route: Encore River Shuttle
On my way: The boat trip to Encore Boston Harbor is the best way to explore the Mystic River, and there’s certainly no classier way to travel than in the small luxury yachts that provide the service. In contrast to the sleek interior, the journey passes through shipyards and working port areas and heads under the Tobin Bridge. For a particularly striking view, be sure to admire the Charlestown hill ridges from the north, with Boston’s skyline, from the Custom House to the Prudential Tower, sprawling in miniature behind them.
What can you do there: The hotel, casino and adjoining restaurants offer a taste of Vegas on the shores of Everett. More adventurous passengers and outdoor enthusiasts can explore the parks and riverside trails along the Mystic and Malden rivers on foot or with Bluebikes.
Free, afternoons and evenings Thursday to Sunday, May 1 to September 30, visitwynn.com.
Itinerary: Boston Harbor Islands
On my way: Traveling to Georges Island, ferry passengers see several of the other thirty-four islands in the harbour: Thompson, Spectacle, Long, Gallops and Rainsford. Although each has its own ecology, from beaches to marshes to cliffs, most of the islands look like lumpy green hills because they are drumlins created by glaciers.
What can you do there: This summer, Spectacle Island and George Island bustle with activity as Boston Harbor Islands National and State Parks celebrate their 25th and 50th anniversaries, respectively. Spectacle Island offers swimming lessons, kite flying, yoga and live music on Sunday afternoons. Georges Island is home to Fort Warren, which can be haunted and definitely stays cool in the summer, as well as grill and picnic areas and the occasional vintage baseball game.
$24.95 return, bostonharborislands.org.
Route: Hingham and Hull Ferries
On my way: Departing Inner Harbor, passengers on MBTA ferries to Hingham and Hull can watch cranes unload cargo at Conley Terminal, people fishing off Castle Island Pier and work boats of all sizes. The vessels are relatively new and offer pleasant interior space for year-round service as well as generous exterior deck space.
What can you do there: There isn’t much to Pemberton Point in Hull, but bring a bike and there’s plenty to explore in this peninsular town. The public library is in the former summer home of writer John Boyle O’Reilly, Fort Revere offers a great vantage point to see three lighthouses (Boston Light, Graves Light and Minot Light), and the Hull Lifesaving Museum is full of nautical history sites. A relatively flat five miles from the ferry dock is the incredibly popular Nantasket Beach with a carousel and mini golf course across the street.
Adjacent to the Hingham ferry dock at Hewitt’s Cove is a range of restaurants and shops, as well as a movie theatre. With a bicycle it is easy to access Great Esker Park and Bare Cove Park on either side of the Back River. Other nearby parks include Webb Memorial State Park and World’s End, both technically part of the Harbor Islands despite being attached to the mainland, as well as the sprawling Wompatuck State Park.
$9.75 each way, weekdays year-round, weekends late May through early October, mbta.com.
Directions: Pier 6 to Reel House
On the way: Like most water taxis in Boston Harbor, this launch boat sits near the water and offers a more intimate view of the docks and piers depending on the tides. Looking west, passengers have a view of Langone Park in the North End; to the east there is an unobstructed view of the bridges that cross Chelsea Creek.
What you can do there: The free shuttle boat started several years ago to connect people from East Boston to the Pier 6 restaurant in Charlestown and to connect people from the Charlestown Navy Yard to the Reel House in East Boston . The shuttle also continues to the Tall Ship. At each end there is plenty of Harborwalk to explore on foot, interspersed with working harbor areas. If there’s a kid in to the adventure, LoPresti and Menino parks have good playgrounds.
Free (but tip the captain), Friday-Sunday 11am-10pm (May-October), bostonlaunchcompany.com.