by Francesca Di Meglio
Boston, Massachusetts, may be a big city but it often has the feel of a small town, thanks in large part to its vibrant immigrant neighborhoods. From its inception, Boston and its surrounding area have been a popular destination for foreigners coming to America to start a new life. Who could forget the Pilgrims? Nearly four centuries later, about one quarter of the city’s residents are immigrants, most recently from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Russia. Although tourists rush to the Freedom Trail, which leads to colonial-era sites, they often overlook the landmarks of Boston’s immigrants, especially the thriving Irish and Italian communities.
The Dreams of Freedom museum (1 Milk St.; 617-338-6022; www.dreamsoffreedom.org, $7.50 for adults, $3.50 for kids ages 6 to 18, free for kids under 5) is a great place to start learning about the city’s ethnic groups. Here, you can listen to recordings of Irish, Italian, Chinese and African immigrants recounting their voyages to Boston. The kids will love taking a peek inside their luggage and standing on a simulator that rocks back and forth much like a ship on the Bowl of Tears, the name that poet John Boyle O&Mac185;Reilly had given to the treacherous Atlantic Ocean journey made by many 19th-century immigrants.
The museum’s other highlights include a beautiful display of family photos belonging to various immigrants and the chance to take a surprisingly difficult sample citizenship test. A multimedia presentation provides a great overview of the city’s immigration history, including the controversial trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists and Italian immigrants who were executed during the height of the Red Scare for a murder that many believe they did not commit. Before leaving the museum, you can pick up a map of Boston’s Immigrant Walking Trail featuring the must-see sights honoring numerous nationalities.
To zero in on the Irish experience, the Boston Irish Tourism Association (888-749-9494; www.IrishHeritageTrail.com) also provides a map of significant landmarks. The first stop after the Dreams of Freedom museum is the Irish Famine Memorial, two statues depicting an Irish family both before and after immigrating. The tribute was unveiled in 1998 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the famine, which began with a potato blight and resulted in about 100,000 Irish moving to Boston from 1845 to 1849.
Walking along to nearby Tremont Street, you’ll see the Granary Burying Ground, which includes the final resting places of highly regarded Irish Americans, John Hancock and Robert Treat Paine, who signed the Declaration of Independence, as well as Boston Massacre victim Patrick Carr. You can round out your tour in Charlestown by visiting the Bunker Hill Monument, which honors hundreds of Irish soldiers who fought at Bunker Hill in 1775. Or check out the JFK Library and Museum, President Kennedy’s official repository of papers in Dorchester.
For a look at the contributions Boston’s Italians have made, turn your attention to the North End Market Tour (617-523-6032; www.micheletopor.com; $42 per person), which literally offers a taste of la dolce vita. Led by Italian cuisine expert and North End resident Michele Topor, this gastronomic journey begins on Cross Street in Martignetti Liquors (64 Cross St.; 617-227-4343), where Topor will teach you how to pick an affordable bottle of vino to complement any meal. From there you’ll walk past ladies on their stoops speaking the Napolitano dialect and young kids playing soccer in the street to Boschetto Bakery (158 Salem St.; 617-523-9350). Here, you’ll get to peer inside a 130-year-old brick oven that holds up to 200 loaves of bread and taste taralline, small knots of seasoned dough boiled and then baked until hard (all the better for dipping in coffee). The tour varies slightly from day to day, but along the way, you will probably also stop at Salumeria Italiana (151 Richmond St.; 800-400-5916), where you’ll sample procsiutto di Parma (Italian ham) and Genoa salami. You’d be remiss not to beg Topor to bring you to Maria’s Pastry Shop (46 Cross St.; 617-523-1196). The unadorned interior strikes quite a contrast to the decadent sfogliatelle (Italian breakfast pastries) and marzipan made there.
Plan your tour just before dinner because the North End offers a variety of options for a more substantial meal than the samples Topor serves. For a refreshing snack, head to the local favorite, Monica’s, (67 Prince St.; 617-720-5472) for spinach-and-cheese calzones. For a slightly more elegant atmosphere (but not nearly as much colorful commentary from the wait staff about the beloved Red Sox), you can go to Cantina Italiana (346 Hanover St.; 617-723-4577), the oldest restaurant in the neighborhood, which specializes in traditional dishes like lasagne. If you’re itching to try new England clam chowder, the Marriott Long Wharf’s Oceana restaurant (296 State St.; 617-227-0800) is within walking distance of the North End. With a fantastic harbor view, it’s also a great place to stay ($209 to $429).
For more information, call the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau at 888-733-2678 or visit www.bostonusa.com.