Massachusetts Holiday Planning Guide
Known as the "Bay State" because of the three bays dominating its coastline, Massachusetts has played a significant cultural and commercial role through most of the United States' history. Attracting an increasing number of foreign travelers, Massachusetts tourism offers numerous places to visit, ranging from historical sites to modern urban centers famous for their culinary, art, and nightlife scenes. With the majority of its population living in and around the city of Boston, in the 20th century Massachusetts transitioned from an economy largely dependent on fishing and agriculture to the country's leader in higher education, healthcare, advanced technology, and financial services. Home to renowned universities and research centers, the state's cities attract a young crowd of students, scientists, artists, and business professionals.
Places to Visit in MassachusettsBoston
: A center of activity in the American Revolution, New England's largest city is just as important today as it was then, playing host to major education and cultural centers. Over 16 million people a year visit Boston to experience both its colonial history and cosmopolitan delights.Cape Cod
: A scenic peninsula popular with vacationers, Cape Cod encompasses 15 towns and two islands, packed full of historical attractions, superb seafood restaurants, and gorgeous beaches.Salem
: Although best known for its 17th-century witch trials, this bustling harbor city was once the center of America's clipper-ship trade with the Far East. Today, Salem's downtown bustles with lively restaurants, cafes, and supernatural-themed stores. Cambridge
: Home to two of the world's most renowned centers of learning, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge exudes an intellectual spirit, which it balances with international eateries, charming historical buildings, and top-notch museums and cultural centers.Plymouth
: The first colony founded by the Pilgrims of the Mayflower, Plymouth has been coined "America's Hometown." Its museums detail the lives and trials of America's early European settlers and the Native Americans who helped them adapt and survive, while its coastline provides excellent opportunities for fishing and whale-watching.Provincetown
: A hotbed of progressive politics and liberal attitudes, far-flung Provincetown boasts a rugged Atlantic coastline, rich artistic heritage, and thriving LGBT community. Among the top places to visit in Massachusetts, "P'town" attracts over 60,000 tourists annually, yet has just 3,000 permanent residents.Cape Ann
: The coastal towns that populate Cape Ann were some of the earliest settlements in America. As well as being rich in historical sites, this charming area has over a dozen beaches and a flourishing arts scene. Waltham
: Once home to a prosperous watch industry, Waltham's manufacturing warehouses now house hip galleries and music spaces. Hyannis
: A popular jumping-off point for ferries to Nantucket Island, Hyannis' pleasant coastal atmosphere and excellent seafood restaurants make tourists reluctant to leave this lovely harbor town.Gloucester
: The fantastic array of historical buildings found in Gloucester make it a popular Massachusetts vacation spot with architecture aficionados, while many artists come here to capture the tranquil waters.
Things to Do in Massachusetts
Popular Massachusetts Tourist AttractionsFreedom Trail
: A 4 km (2.5 mi) trail through Boston's city center, the Freedom Trail tracks some of the country's earliest history, passing 16 important monuments of the American Revolution. The House of the Seven Gables
: Immortalized by the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name, the 17th-century House of the Seven Gables has been transformed into a museum exploring both the celebrated author's work and American history more generally.Museum of Fine Arts
: Home to a renowned and diverse collection, including works from ancient civilizations, the Museum of Fine Arts is Boston's oldest, and arguably best-regarded, cultural institution. Six Flags New England
: Encompassing thrilling rollercoasters, fun kids' rides, and an expansive water park, Six Flags New England remains one of the most popular family attractions in Massachusetts. Boston Public Garden
: Visitors and locals alike flock to the centrally located Boston Public Garden, the oldest of its kind in the country, to take in the towering trees, ride the swan-shaped pedal boats, and walk across the world's shortest suspension bridge. Plimoth Plantation
: The site of the first Pilgrim colony in America, Plimoth Plantation recreates the everyday lives of the early settlers here. North End
: Nicknamed "Little Italy," this five-block area plays host to a sizeable Italian-American community along with some excellent Italian restaurants and cafes. From cannolis to calzones, this is a must for any gastronomic tour of Massachusetts.Norman Rockwell Museum
: Showcasing the world's largest collection of original Norman Rockwell works, this museum provides insight into 1940s and 50s America.USS Constitution Museum
: Spread across a restored shipyard building, the USS Constitution Museum transports its visitors 200 years back in time, chronicling the history of one of America's most famous navy ships.Good Harbor Beach
: Surrounded by verdant trees and impressive villas, Good Harbor Beach is of New England's most picturesque seaside destinations.
Planning a Massachusetts Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Massachusetts with Kids
Packed full of opportunities for learning, adventure, and relaxation, Massachusetts makes an ideal destination for a family holiday. For sheer number and quality of kid-friendly historical sites, few places can compete with Boston
. In the state's capital, youngsters can immerse themselves in the early history of the nation, run around in the city parks, and meet some of the friendly critters of the city zoo. Once you've toured Boston, make Cape Cod
the next stop on your Massachusetts itinerary. The charming assortment of laid-back beach towns here will offer a change of pace for you and your youngsters. On the island of Nantucket
or in the historical town of Hyannis
, little ones can spend their days playing on the beach or trying out water sports. If your budget allows, don't miss the chance to treat the family to a once-in-a-lifetime whale watching trip. If your kids can't get enough of Halloween, make sure to visit Salem
, where the All Hallow's Eve spirit never stops, exemplified by the multitude of spooky shops and attractions.
Things to Do in Massachusetts with Kids
In addition to museums with interactive kid-friendly exhibits, Massachusetts is home to a number of museums aimed specifically at young minds. The Boston Children's Museum
has heaps of attractions for kids aged two to 12, while Children's Museum at Holyoke
and Cape Cod Children's Museum
are best suited to younger children. Critter-crazy kids will love visiting some of the state's six zoos, three aquariums, and countless family-orientated farms. New England Aquarium
is particularly popular, encompassing a huge Caribbean coral reef, penguin exhibit, and more. Winter visitors can soak up the Christmas atmosphere of Yankee Candle Flagship Store
; or, if your trip to Massachusetts is during the warmer months, make the most of the fine weather by fruit-picking at Tougas Family Farm
Tips for a Family Vacation in Massachusetts
Several top Massachussetts tourist attractions offer ticket deals for families, so make sure to enquire at the admissions desk to potentially save a few bucks. If you have a student in your party, remind them to pack their student ID to take advantage of additional discounts on offer. Children aged 11 or under ride for free on Boston's public transport service ("the T") with a paying adult.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Massachusetts
Cuisine of Massachusetts
As is typical of all of New England, Massachusetts' cuisine is characterized by heavy use of seafood and dairy products, a nod to the region's historical reliance on the fishing industry and inland farming. In coastal cities, you can enjoy a wide range of seafood dishes, but Massachusetts is particularly renowned for its clams and haddock.
Foodies on holiday in Massachusetts have more than enough to satisfy them in Boston
, where you can try nearly any cuisine under the sun. You may be lured by the smell of freshly baked pizza in the North End or delicious dim sum in Chinatown, but leave time to try some of the city's local dishes and learn a bit more about Massachusetts. Nicknamed "Beantown," Boston is known for its baked beans. Generally made from haricot (or "navy") beans, Boston baked beans are stewed with a sauce made from pork and molasses and served as a side dish. Hot roast beef sandwiches are a favorite among locals, particularly in the north of city. These are typically served with the beef thinly sliced, on a onion roll, and doused in sweet barbecue sauce.
For dessert, try something that incorporates Massachusetts' rich bounty of fruits. Blueberries, cranberries, and apples are plentiful here, finding their way into pies, cakes, and preserves. If you're not a dessert person, you can wash your meal down with a locally sourced hard or soft cider. Massachusetts is also home to a number of lagers and ales, including Samuel Adams, made by the well-known Boston Beer Company.
Shopping in Massachusetts
A large and cosmopolitan city, Boston
offers some of the best and most diverse stores in the region. For a chic shopping experience, make your way to the city's luxurious Newbury Street
, home to Art Deco architecture, designer boutiques, and trendy art galleries. If upscale isn't your style, head to Haymarket
for something completely different. This bustling open-air market has been operating since 1830 and today ranks as the city's number one spot for bargain produce (not to mention people-watching). The famed Faneuil Hall Marketplace
encompasses over 100 shops and pushcarts, over 30 international food vendors, and about a dozen restaurants and pubs.
Antiquing remains one of the top things to do in Massachusetts, so if you like hunting for treasure, you're in luck. Essex
is considered America's antique capital, and Cambridge
plays host to an antique market of over 150 dealers spaced over five floors. Farther south in Raynham
, you can find a huge flea market full of treasures. Cape Cod
boasts scores of antique shops, including Maps of Antiquity
Major malls such as the Burlington Mall, Holyoke Mall At Ingleside, and Natick Mall
offer a more modern shopping experience, where you can pick up all your essentials along with a few special Massachusetts holiday souvenirs.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Massachusetts
History of Massachusetts
Before Europeans settled in Massachusetts, the land was inhabited by tribes of the Algonquian language family, including the Wampanoag, Narragansett, and Mahican. Their villages consisted of lodges called wigwams along with long houses, and the tribes were led by elders known as sachems.
In the early 1600s, European fishers, sailors, and explorers began to make contact with the indigenous American people. With them came diseases to which the native populations had no immunity, ravaging their communities. Between 1617 and 1619, smallpox killed approximately 90 percent of the Native Americans of the Massachusetts Bay area.
The first European settlers of Massachusetts were the Pilgrims, who came from England on a ship called the Mayflower in 1620. They first anchored in Provincetown
and later moved across the Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth
, where they established their first settlement, the second-ever European settlement in America. They developed friendly relations with the native Wampanoag people, who helped them in their tumultuous early years in the New World. To learn more about the first colony during your Massachusetts trip, visit Plimoth Plantation
, an interpretation of the settlement located on its original site. The Pilgrims were shortly followed by other Puritans who made the voyage to America in hope of establishing an ideal religious society, free of the corruption of the Church of England. They established the Massachusetts Bay Colony at present-day Boston
Increasing tensions between the indigenous and European populations came to a head with the outbreak of King Philip's War in 1675, the bloodiest war of the early colonial period. In a little over a year, almost half of the region's towns were attacked by Native Americans and the major settlement of Springfield was burned. Around 600 colonists and 3,000 Native Americans died in southern New England, largely through disease. Though the colonists managed to endure in America, their local economy was devastated in the course of the war. The colonists received little help from the English government and a growing sense of European-American identity emerged, distinct from that of the king's subjects. In Sherborn
, you can walk atop Lookout Rock, where King Philip is rumored to have observed the events of the war.
Population growth and successful governance allowed the settlers of Massachusetts to repair the damage wrought by King Philip's War and even establish new towns. In 1686, the king declared the Dominion of New England to govern all of the region, centralizing royal control and weakening local government. In 1691, the new king, William III, united the colonies of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth, along with present-day Maine, to become the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Unlike past colonies, its governors were appointed by the crown rather than being elected, creating friction between the colonists and the government in England. Their first governor, Sir William Phips, was deeply influenced by the paranoia and hysteria that was sweeping through Salem
at the time, where it was suspected that some inhabitants possessed dark and supernatural powers. He established a court to oversee the infamous Salem witch trials, in which a number of men and women were hanged for alleged witchcraft. You can learn more about this harrowing period by including Witch History Museum
in your Massachusetts itinerary.
Antagonism continued to escalate between the colonists and the British crown, leading to the struggle for independence from Great Britain. March 5, 1770 marked a turning point known as the Boston Massacre, when British troops fired into a mob of colonial protesters, killing several. Massachusetts was at the forefront of America's independence movement, earning itself the nickname "the Cradle of Liberty." Many of the most famous protests against British rule took place in Massachusetts, including the Boston Tea Party, the events of which are retold at Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum
. The American Revolutionary War broke out in Massachusetts in 1775 when the crown attempted to shut down local self-government. A shadow government was set up by the resistors; shortly afterwards, twelve other colonies pledged their support, forming a Continental Congress to coordinate their resistance. Future president George Washington's first victory was the Siege of Boston in the winter of 1775-1776, after which the British were forced to leave the city. Bunker Hill Monument
commemorates an important battle of the siege.
On July 2, 1776, the Continental Congress declared that the thirteen colonies were separate from Great Britain and on July 4, 1776, they adopted the Declaration of Independence, asserting that the colonies were a new nation: the United States of America. The American Revolutionary War continued until 1783, although Massachusetts was not invaded again. Don't miss the opportunity to explore the Old State House
on your Massachusetts vacation: the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed from its balcony.
In 1780, a Constitutional Convention created a state constitution. The document declared the universal rights of man, an acknowledgement that was instrumental to the state's abolition of slavery three years later. The constitution is still in force, making it the world's oldest constitution currently in use. In the 19th century, Massachusetts grew to become the national leader of America's industrialization and later a center of progressive politics and anti-slavery thought. Although there was significant opposition to abolitionism in Massachusetts, including riots, abolitionist sentiment grew more and more salient.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Massachusetts again played a key role--this time as a northern state dominated by the Republican Party and home to many Radical Republicans. It became a major producer of armaments and sent nearly 160,000 men to serve in the Union's army and navy. Massachusetts' 54th Infantry Regiment was the first official African-American unit in the United States, commemorated today with a monument on Boston Common
, part of the Black Heritage Trail
. In 1869, Boston served as the site of the National Peace Jubilee, a gala to honor veterans and celebrate the return of peace.
By the 1920s, competition from other regions, followed by the Great Depression, led to the collapse of Massachusetts' main industries. Today, the state's economy relies largely on higher education, biotechnology, finance, healthcare, and tourism.
Landscape of Massachusetts
Though it is the seventh-smallest state in the U.S.A., Massachusetts encompasses a fairly diverse landscape of mountains, coastline, and rolling hills. The range of different topographies in a compact area gives you plenty of outdoor Massachusetts vacation ideas year-round, from swimming to hiking to skiing. Several large bays create the Bay State's distinctive coastline, featuring both sandy stretches and rocky coves. Moving west, Massachusetts' landscape becomes more rugged, eventually meeting the verdant Berkshire Mountains, part of the Appalachian range. The Connecticut River and Housatonic River are responsible for the lush and fertile valleys you can find in this part of state. A hike up 530 m (1,739 ft) Monument Mountain
offers superb views of the Housatonic River Valley.
Holidays & Festivals in Massachusetts
As a homage to its history, Massachusetts celebrates American holidays in a big way. Plymouth
was the site of the first American Thanksgiving feast in 1621, and today the occasion is celebrated with a large festival. Held the weekend before Thanksgiving (which is the fourth Thursday of November), the events include historical reenactments, concerts, a parade, food stalls, and more. In Provincetown
, revellers come to watch the annual lighting of the Pilgrim Monument
On America's Independence Day (July 4), you'll find celebrations and parties up and down the state. For patriotic revelry, head to Boston's Harborfest, featuring live music, food, and red-white-and-blue everything. In Old Sturbridge Village
, the holiday is marked a bit more temperately, with a reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Aside from these quintessentially American holidays, food, drink, music, and craft festivals are held in Massachusetts throughout the year. The Food and Wine Festival on Martha's Vineyard
provides an opportunity to sample fine produce and seafood from the region, while Upper Valley Music Festival features a number of local artists.
Massachusetts Travel Tips
Climate of Massachusetts
With its humid continental climate, Massachusetts is a four-season state and it's important to pack with the weather in mind. Winters are cold and snowy, particularly in January when temperatures hover around freezing. Although spring is considerably warmer, it is typically cloudy and wet. Summers are warm but muggy, with temperatures regularly exceeding 26 C (80 F) in July. Fall is arguably the region's most pleasant season, bringing crisp bright days and an explosion of autumnal colors to the deciduous forests. However, temperatures can vary significantly even in this relatively small state. In winter, the temperatures generally become cooler the farther inland you are, particularly around the Berkshire Mountains. In summer, the opposite is often true, and a trip to Massachusetts' islands can provide welcome reprieve from sweltering humidity.
As is the case with all of America's eastern coast, Massachusetts suffers from its fair share of extreme weather and is prone to severe winter and summer storms. Play it safe by checking forecasts before embarking on your Massachusetts holiday and staying informed of developments during your stay.
Transportation in Massachusetts
Massachusetts boasts a well-developed public transportation system by American standards. While traveling by car will grant you the most freedom and flexibility on your Massachusetts vacation, it is possible to see a large portion of the state without your own vehicle. In fact, it is best to forgo a car in Boston, where driving and parking can be challenging--plus, the city boasts a comprehensive transit system, the oldest in the nation. The MBTA (or simply "the T") runs daily services on buses, trains, boats, and trolleys throughout Boston and the surrounding area. You'll be able to identify its stations by a black T on a white circular sign.
Outside of Boston, you can tour Massachusetts using a number of public transportation options. From Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) to Labor Day (first Monday in September), the Capeflyer runs an efficient weekend train service from Boston to Cape Cod. Ferries regularly run between the mainland and islands, although with reduced frequency in the off-season. Those with cars will have to make a reservation in advance to secure a place on the boat.
Moving west from Boston, the Amtrak railroad links the state capital with Framingham, Worcester, Springfield, Northampton, Greenfield, and Pittsfield. Bus companies including Plymouth and Brockton, Peter Pan, and Greyhound also connect a number of towns and cities in the state.