The Massachusetts capital wears its history well. You can immerse yourself in the story of America's 18th-century struggle for freedom from its British colonial overlords or simply indulge in the cuisine and culture on offer.
Boston is much more European in its layout than most US cities, and crowds around its large harbour. The historic core is the North End, full of revolutionary relics – and great restaurants. To the east is the airport; to the south, the Financial District and, beyond that, the Seaport district, which is being smartened up rapidly; to the west, the serene streets of Beacon Hill. The fashionable Back Bay district, even further west, was once marshland.
America's first subway system – known as the "T" – is the backbone of the city's public transport. Most of the colour-coded lines use proper underground trains, while the Green Line has streetcars (trams) which run below the surface for some of their journey. The standard fare on the T and the buses is $2 (£1.25). An alternative is the Hubway, Boston's rent-a-bike-here-leave-it-there system.
Take a hike
The best way to immerse yourself in the past and present city is to take the Freedom Trail, which starts conveniently at the main Visitor Information Bureau and is defined by a red stripe along the sidewalk for a fascinating 2.5 miles. It passes locations that were crucial to the start of the American Revolution, including the Old South Meeting House, the Old State House (extraordinarily part-used as a T station), the merchandise-filled Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House and the serene Old North Church.
Take a view
The Freedom Trail ends at the Bunker Hill Monument, a 221ft obelisk built to commemorate the first big battle of the American Revolution. Climb the stairs (9am-5pm daily) for a fabulous free view of the city.
Lunch on the run
Take a taxi from the monument to Cambridge – Boston's alter ego, home to Harvard University. It should cost $15 to drop you off at 1246 Massachusetts Avenue, where brainy people go to meet and eat: Mr Bartley's Burger Cottage (mrbartley.com). Mr Bartley himself may well be perched on a chair outside, taking orders to speed up the customer turnover in the restaurant he created half a century ago. The burgers have celebrity names: the Mark Zuckerburger (with Boursin and sweet potato fries) is named for the former Harvard student who founded Facebook. Billionaire or not, you have to pay in cash: the motto is "real food, real money".
Whether you want to buy words by the million in one of the bookstores or find a one in a million piece of art, Cambridge is a good place to shop. If you're in the market for clothes, any garment under $175 (£110) is free of sales tax. The Garage at 36 John F. Kennedy Street is full of independent stores where you can buy a lucky charm or acquire a tattoo.
Dining with the locals
At Union Street, you are on the edge of the North End, where dozens of Italian restaurants serve anything from bargain pizzas to fine-dining masterpieces. For a feast that you are unlikely to match, aim for Taranta at 210 Hanover Street (tarantarist.com). This is where Machu Picchu fuses with the Amalfi coast, with fresh New England materials: ravioli stuffed with lobster and crab, and gnocchi made from yucca, are just the starters.
Go to church
"Life's too short for long-faced religion" is the slogan of the Old South Church, a Gothic masterpiece on Copley Square (oldsouth.org). The church's "signature service" is at 11am each Sunday.
Out to brunch
After nourishing the soul, feed the body around the corner at Stephanie's on Newbury, at 190 Newbury Street (stephaniesonnewbury.com). Brunch is served every Sunday from 10am till 3pm – book in advance for "sophisticated comfort food".
For a very different experience, the handsome surroundings of the Oak Long Bar + Kitchen, in the Fairmont Copley Plaza at 138 St James Avenue (oaklongbarkitchen.com), are just the place for clam chowder.
A walk in the park
Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of Manhattan's Central Park, moved on to Boston to make even more of a verdant impression. He laid the foundations for the "Emerald Necklace" of parks and waterways along the western side of Boston. Start at the Emerald Necklace Conservancy Visitor Centre, housed in a former pumping station at 125 The Fenway in the Back Bay Fens (emeraldnecklace.org). If it's closed (normal hours are 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday), you'll find a map and information boards outside.
If you wondered what the architect Renzo Piano worked on before he designed The Shard in London, it was the marvellous extension to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at 280 The Fenway (gardnermuseum.org). The founder was a woman of remarkable taste, combining light and nature, art and architecture. Open 11am-5pm daily except Tuesdays (Thursdays to 9pm), admission $15 (£9). (Simon Calder/The Independent)