Boston neighborhood profile: Back Bay

View of Back Bay and the Charles River from Cambridge

If you’ve visited Boston, you’ve probably spent time in the Back Bay. It is a centrally located, afluent neighborhood with some of Boston’s most iconic buildings, busiest streets, best restaurants, bars and shops. It is chock-full of office buildings, hotels, retailers, restaurants and of course residents.

In the late 1850s the Back Bay was built from reclaimed land from the Charles River basin to accommodate the city’s growth so this is one part of town that won’t be on the Freedom Trail but it has plenty of history. The neighborhood was built for Boston’s well-to-do families who were looking for more space. Unlike older neighborhoods, this was built on a grid with intersecting streets running north to south in alphabetical order (Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon Street, etc…). The massive landfill was completed by 1900 and wealthy families flocked to these new Victorian brownstones like The Gibson House, The Ames Mansion, and The Ayer Mansion to name a few.

BPL
Boston Public Library McKim Building

About The Back Bay: Back Bay is one of Boston’s wealthiest neighborhoods in America and while it is home to nearly 20,000 residents, it really serves as a commercial center, as well as a playground for tourists, day-visitors and residents from all over the city. Residences dominate the streets closest to the Charles River and Esplanade (Beacon Street, Marlborough Street, Commonwealth Avenue). Shopping and dining options take center stage on Newbury and Boylston Streets and as you move further south larger, commercial buildings designated for hotels and office space dominate the skyline along St. James Avenue, Stuart Street and Huntington Avenue.

When you visit the Back Bay, leave your car behind, because parking is scarce and expensive. The neighborhood is pedestrian-friendly, but if you don’t want to walk the MBTA’s Green Line runs down Boylston Street with three stops in the neighborhood (Arlington, Copley and Hynes) and the Orange Line Back Bay Station is across from the Copley Mall. While many books and movies use the Back Bay as a backdrop, Boston’s Back Bay in the Victorian Era is worth reading to learn about the neighborhood’s history, the people who helped build it and the many prominent familes who moved here in the mid- and late-1800s.

Boston Public Garden

What to do in the Back Bay: If you like architecture, you’ll love the Back Bay. The neighborhood has many churches built in the late 1800s (e.g., Christian Science Church, Trinity Church, and Arlington Street Church to name a few). These aren’t on the scale of Europe’s most famous cathedrals but they do enhance the streetscape and are beautiful. However, my favorite building is the Boston Public Library (a.k.a. the BPL). I love the original McKim building (1895) and the “new” addition that opened in 1972 as well as the many rooms inside but my favorite part of the library is the Italianate courtyard. It is a wonderful place to relax and grab a coffee.

However, I think the most photographed building in the Back Bay is probably I.M. Pei’s Hancock Tower built in the 1970s. It’s mirror reflection of the original Hancock Building (now the Berkeley Building) captures the spirit of Boston; modern, bold and forward thinking but proud and mindful of its past. Pei intentionally designed the Hancock Tower to reflect the (original) 1947 beaux arts Hancock building, ensuring we remember and learn from our history. If his design and architecture looks familiar it is because Pei would go on to become one of the most admired architects of the late 20th century. He would famously go on to create the glass pyramid for the Louvre in Paris.

The Back Bay has some of the city’s most beautiful parks. The homes lining Commonwealth Avenue look out onto the Commonwealth Mall, which is decorated with sculptures on each block and framed by large elm trees. I think it’s most beautiful in the summer and in December when the trees are full of tiny white lights. It is also the narrowest part of Boston’s chain of parks referred to as the Emerald Necklace. From the Mall, you can stroll up to the Public Garden, which is the oldest part of the Back Bay and where the marshland was first filled. It is the nation’s oldest public garden and dates back to 1837. Then there is my favorite park in the city, The Esplanade, which stretches beyond the Back Bay and has paths for walking, jogging and biking. There is always something happening here and it is an idyllic setting for a jog, a picnic with friends or in my sister’s case, a marriage proposal.

Restoration Hardware Boston in the Back Bay

Shopping in the Back Bay: Newbury Street is a favorite destination for shopaholics and window shoppers alike. Many luxury brands and art galleries can be found at the start of the street with more ecelectic shops (like my personal favorite, Trident Booksellers & Cafe) and musicians busking for tips in the blocks that follow. If the weather isn’t cooperating, walk over to the city’s only downtown malls (Copley and Prudential), which are adjoined via a pedestrian walkway over Huntington Avenue.

Shops open and close with a speed that can make your head spin. Rising rents and online shopping has been the demise of many independent shops. I still miss Boston’s LGBTQ bookstore, Glad Day Bookstore in Copley Square, but there is always a new shop opening and there is something for everyone. Need an ancient fuse for your apartment that hasn’t been rewired since the 1970s? No worries, head over to Economy Hardware on Mass Ave. Need a statement gift for someone who already has everything? Go to Simon Pearce or Shreve Crump & Low. Want to grab a bottle of wine to bring to a dinner party later this week? Bauer Wines has you covered. There are also more clothing, shoe stores and salons than I could possibly list covering every trend and budget from Valentino to T.J. Maxx.

Sonsie Boston photo from TripAdvisor

Restaurants in Back Bay: This neighborhood has everything you could want from cheap eats to some of the priciest meals in the city. It would be difficult to do this neighborhood justice in a single post, but I feel compelled to share a few places I enjoy.

If you’re more of a cheap eats diner, head over to the stretch of Boylston Street just west of Massachusetts Avenue and join all the Berklee music students at the fast casual dining options set up along this stretch of Boylston. If you’re willing to stand in line (there is always a line), probably the best noodle shop in Back Bay is Santouka. While it isn’t a “cheap eats”, it is still on the cheaper end for dining and their all-day breakfast menu makes the Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury a personal favorite. However, many people come to the Back Bay to eat outside and for years Sonsie has been the place to see and be seen. However there are a great many cafes and restaurants that offer streetside dining like Atlantic Fish Co., Stephanie’s on Newbury and Piattini to name a few.

For a more romantic setting, I love the hidden Mexican restaurant, Casa Romero’s private patio garden, or reserve a table at La Voile. For a finer dining experience Deuxave (French), Uni (Sushi and Asian), Sorellina (Italian), Grill 23 (Steakhouse) and the Fairmont Hotel’s Oak Long Bar + Kitchen (American) in Copley Square are all great options. A newcomer to the Back Bay dining scene, scheduled to open in June 2021, is the rooftop restaurant and bar, Contessa, at the newly remodeled and branded Newbury Hotel. The restaurant is gorgeous and the expectations for the food and service are high. It is worth putting on your list of places to try this summer or fall.

Although I’m not one to spend a lot of time discussing sweets, the Back Bay has something to tempt everyone. For me it is a small independent chocolatier based in New Hampshire with a shop in the Back Bay called L.A. Burdick. When I am in the Back Bay I try not to walk within a block of this cute shop and cafe, because I inevitably find myself buying something. In the winter I rationalize the calories by purchasing the best hot chocolate in the city to keep me warm.

Bukowski Tavern in the Back Bay

Favorite Bars in the Back Bay: So many bars have come and gone over the years and recently, the coronavirus has driven a stake through the heart of many long-standing bars. It is my hope that those remaining establishments will be able to pull through. Similar to other residential neighborhoods, most of the bars in the Back Bay are also restaurants so places like Sonsie, Oak Long Bar + Kitchen and Grill 23 (all previously mentioned) are popular places in part due to their large bars to grab drinks with friends. However, if you’re looking to sit outside, there are only a few bars that have patios. The best option is the Loews Hotel restaurant and bar, Precinct. Their large sunken, lounge-like patio with comfortable furniture is a popular place to meet up after work for a drink.

One of my favorite dive bars in Boston is (ironically) located in a parking garage. Bukowski’s Tavern, named after a German-American poet, is the only bar I regularly visited when I lived in the Back Bay that remains open. Back then, if you hesitated ordering a beer the Irish bartender would spin a wheel on the wall behind the bar (you can see it in the far right in the photo). Whatever it landed on was what you received. This happened to me once, and I was stuck with a $20 specialty Belgian beer. I never again hesitated.

What to do, man dancing

Gay Life in the Back Bay: This neighborhood has many LGBTQ+ residents. Moreover, this is where many travelers opt to stay when they visit Boston because of its central location, proximity to points of interest and Boston’s traditional (if no longer) gayborhood, the South End. Gay bars, bookstores and other shops moved out of the Back Bay mostly due to high rents by the late 1990s. My favorite gay bookstore in Copley Square, We Think The World of You, closed about 20 years ago. The last gay bar I can recall in the Back Bay closed before that. However, on any given night you will see gay friends meeting for drinks at many restaurants and bars in the neighborhood. If you are visiting and would prefer a gay owned establishment that markets themselves to the LGBTQ community go to Club Cafe on the Back Bay / South End line.

If you happen to be new to Boston or planning a visit, feel free to reach out to me with any questions. If you are familiar with Boston’s Back Bay, recommendations and comments are welcome.

2 responses to “Boston neighborhood profile: Back Bay

  1. I enjoyed your article, the area has changed alot since I lived in the south end in the 50s, the common, frog pond & swan boats were my playground

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  2. A few years ago, I attended a session at the New England Museum Association on LGBTQ+ history sites in New England. One of the presenters was from the Gibson House, and she discussed their “Charlie Gibson’s Queer Boston“ tour. I don’t think they are currently doing the tour on a regular basis right now, but I have been wanting to take the tour since I heard about it. Their website says that you have to email to schedule the “Charlie Gibson’s Queer Boston” tour. The website used to have a schedule of the tours, but a lot of things have changed during the pandemic (house museums have suffered a lot). I wanted to go on the tour the last time I was in Boston, but I was there for work and wasn’t allowed the free time I’d expected to have while in the city. Maybe I’ll get down after the pandemic and can take the tour. It sounds fascinating. Have you taken the “ Charlie Gibson’s Queer Boston” tour?

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