If you’re looking for free things to do in Boston, head to the Back Bay neighborhood’s Copley Square, where most of the sites can be enjoyed without costing you a cent. This city square contains some of Boston’s best historical places, art and architecture.
200 Clarendon Street
You probably know the tallest building in Massachusetts by its former name, the John Hancock Tower. Despite the recent renaming that reflects its street address, this 62-story glass office building that opened in 1976 has lost none of its visual appeal. You can’t tour the interior, but you can get some great photos of the exterior from all around Copley Square.
Boston Marathon Memorial
The Boston Marathon Memorial, created by artists Robert Lamb and Robert Shure and installed in 1996 to mark the race centennial, is found near the event’s finish line. Set within a portion of the square’s brick walkway, a map—created from various shades and patterns of granite—depicts the route that race participants follow each year, and the names of all the winners are inscribed around the border. Granite posts with marathon-themed inlaid bronze images complete the memorial. By 2020, two new monuments honoring the victims and survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings will be completed.
Boston Public Library
Bibliophile or not, take the 1-hour art and architecture tour offered by the Boston Public Library, which looks out onto Copley Square. Treasures abound in the 1895 McKim Building—murals, paintings, statues, an interior courtyard, and a grand staircase flanked by massive lion sculptures. The stunning main reading room spans 218 feet and reaches a height of 50 feet with its barrel vaulted ceiling. The adjoining 1972 Philip Johnson Building is an open, welcoming space flooded with natural light.
The Fairmont Copley Plaza Boston
One of the finest hotels in Boston, The Fairmont was designed by Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, the architect behind The Plaza in New York. Designated a AAA Inspector Pick for its beautiful architecture and modern comforts, this hotel has been charming guests with its Renaissance and Beaux Arts influences since 1912. Red awnings span the front façade, which faces Copley Square. The opulent lobby features a gilded coffered ceiling, crystal chandeliers and marble columns. If you’re staying at the “Grande Dame of Boston,” take the complimentary tour offered weekend mornings. Visitors are welcome to have a peek at the lobby; doing so is encouraged by the staff!
“John Singleton Copley”
In 2002 a bronze statue of American portrait artist John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) was added in Copley Square. Artist Lewis Cohen depicted the square’s namesake in period-appropriate attire (picture a buttoned vest, long coat and buckled shoes) holding a palette and paintbrushes. The black granite base is fashioned upon a patterned brick design underneath. Snap a pic of the statue head on and the Fairmont hotel fills the background of your shot; snap it from a slight angle and 200 Clarendon, the library or Trinity Church will come into view. Either way, you can’t lose!
Kahlil Gibran Memorial
This pink granite structure honors the work of artist, poet and writer Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931). A bronze plaque atop a granite block contains an image of Gibran holding a copy of “The Prophet,” the book for which he is best known. Fittingly, the memorial resides directly across the street from the Boston Public Library, one of the places where he used to study and write. Gibran’s godson, Kahlil George Gibran, created the memorial, which was installed in 1977. Inscribed on the front are these inspiring words from the poet: “It was in my heart to help a little because I was helped much.”
OAK Long Bar + Kitchen
Tucked inside The Fairmont, this Copley Square restaurant and bar offers the same high-level sophistication as the rest of the property; the space is refined yet comfortable. A blending of dark woods with red and off-white décor along with crystal chandeliers and small tabletop lamps at the bar create a warm ambience. The coffered ceiling’s square panels boast intricate designs overhead. These surroundings are impressive, as are the seasonal craft cocktails and shared plates, which account for this AAA Inspector Pick designation.
Old South Church
This magnificent work of Gothic Revival architecture by Charles Amos Cummings and Willard T. Sears stands at the Boston Marathon finish line. The building was finished in 1875; the congregation, however, formed back in 1669, intertwining with Boston’s Colonial and Revolutionary history. Hues of brown, grey and pink color the exterior stonework; the copper cupola has turned to verdigris, making it a distinctive green dome; and the campanile towers over Copley Square. Interior highlights include stained-glass windows and ornately carved cherry woodwork.
“Tortoise and Hare”
Artist Nancy Schön, a longtime fan of the Boston Marathon, created this 1995 art installation to recognize the race participants from around the world. You’ll likely agree that she succeeded in her desire to come up with a design that appeals to youngsters and also serves as a metaphor for the event. Her bronze sculptures depicting the tortoise and the hare from one of Aesop’s most famous fables—where the slow but patient tortoise beats the fast but overconfident hare—reside on the brick surface near the Copley Square fountain.
With the completion of Trinity Church in 1877 (the parish itself dates to 1733), Henry Hobson Richardson secured a spot at the top of the architectural world. His masterpiece, featuring arches and a central tower, came early in his career and heavily contributed to what became the Richardsonian Romanesque style. Murals and stained-glass windows grace the interior, and on the grounds is a statue of Philips Brooks, Trinity rector 1869-91 and one of the most popular preachers of his time. Fun fact: He wrote the lyrics to “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” A free 1-hour tour is offered each Sunday, but a fee is charged other days.