One of the oldest cities in the United States, Boston Massachusetts is rich with history. But there’s so much about Boston that most people don’t know. Here are over 30 fun facts about Boston that you didn’t learn in school!
As a Boston native, I’ve stumbled across so many “facts about Boston” lists that are chock-full of misinformation. Or they include quirky facts about other cities and towns in eastern Massachusetts that are really fun—but have nothing to do with Boston.
If you’re looking for interesting facts about Boston itself, you’ve come to the right place! I’ve personally researched each of these Boston facts for accuracy.
1. The first subway in North America is in Boston
Hoping to ease congestion in the city’s busy streets at the turn of the 20th century, Boston city officials took inspiration from European cities like London and Budapest and decided to build an underground transit system. In 1897, the Tremont Street Subway opened in Boston, running from Park Street Station.
On its first day of operation, over 100,000 people climbed aboard the new train to experience the first subway in North America. It was so popular that within a year new stations opened up at Boylston Street, Scollay Square (now called Government Center), Adams Square, and Haymarket.
Locals call Boston’s subway system the “T”—that’s short for MTA, the original name for today’s MBTA, the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.
Bonus Boston fact: The humorous folk song M.T.A. (most famously recorded by the Kingston Trio in 1959) tells the story of Charlie, a hapless Boston T rider stuck on the train forever. The MBTA’s electronic fare cards are called CharlieCards after the song.
2. Boston Common is the oldest public park in the nation
Boston’s townspeople voted in 1634 to tax each household six shillings (the equivalent of about £72 or $95 today) for the purchase of William Blackstone’s farm to use as common land for the community.
Boston Common was used as a multi-purpose area for military training, recreation, and even agricultural purposes. As late as the first few decades of the 19th century, the Common was used as a cattle pasture by local families. Other early uses of Boston Common included public hangings and whippings.
Today, Boston Common and the adjacent Public Garden are among the most visited outdoor spaces in the city. Visitors can enjoy its grassy lawns for picnicking or sports, and the park’s Frog Pond is always popular for winter ice skating and as a refreshing wading pool for kids in the summer.
3. The first chocolate factory in the country was in Boston
In 1764, the talented (but penniless) Irish chocolatier John Hannon, with the help of local physician Dr. James Baker, founded “Hannon’s Best Chocolate”. Their chocolate mill in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood was the first successful chocolate factory in what is now the United States.
Hannon and Baker first produced solid chocolate cakes to make drinking chocolate, and their company revolutionized how the product was packaged and distributed in America. Sadly, Hannon mysteriously disappeared during a buying trip to the West Indies in 1779. Dr. Baker bought the company, renaming it “Baker Chocolate Company”.
Before modern refrigeration, chocolate could only be produced in the cooler months. But in 1869 the Baker family built underground cooling rooms to keep up with the demand for their products. At the company’s peak, they produced over five tons of chocolate a day!
You can still buy Baker’s Chocolate today—it’s produced in the US by Kraft Heinz. Baker’s Chocolate Factory has been transformed into apartments in Dorchester’s Lower Mills.
4. The BU Bridge has a unique claim to fame
The Boston University bridge over the Charles River at first glance looks like an ordinary steel truss bridge. But the BU Bridge has an interesting claim to fame—it’s one of the few places in the world where a boat can sail under a train going under a vehicle driving under an airplane.
Although the Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon, and the 25 de Abril Bridge in Lisbon, Portugal can both make a similar claim, the BU Bridge is the only one where the rail and road traffic are on separate spans.
In addition, the BU bridge has a freestanding walkway under it, so it’s the only place in the world where a toy boat can sail under a pedestrian walking under a train going under a vehicle driving under an airplane. Take that, Portland and Lisbon!
5. Boston’s Old John Hancock Building forecasts the weather
Boston has two John Hancock Buildings: the 26-story structure at 200 Berkeley Street and the sleek glass skyscraper nearby on Clarendon Street. You can’t miss the newer building—it’s the tallest building in New England and an iconic feature of Boston’s skyline since 1976.
But it’s the Old John Hancock building—actually named the Berkeley Building—that shows the weather forecast via a system of colored lights on its spire.
The weather beacon on the building (you can see it in the photo above, to the left of the newer glass tower) was first lit on March 15, 1950. The lights were used until 1973 when they were shut off during the energy crisis. The beacon was re-lit in 1983 and has continued to display the weather forecast ever since.
Locals use a handy rhyme to remember what the lights mean:
Steady blue, clear view
Flashing blue, clouds due
Steady red, storms ahead
Flashing red, snow instead
During baseball season, a flashing red light means the Red Sox game has been called off due to weather.
6. The biggest art heist in history happened in Boston
In the early hours of March 18, 1990, guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum let two men enter the building. The men, posing as police officers responding to a disturbance, handcuffed the guards to a steampipe and stole thirteen works of art.
The valuable artworks included paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and one of the only 34 known works of Vermeer—which the thieves cut from their frames.
It’s estimated that the value of the stolen paintings would now be over 600 million dollars. To this day, the unsolved Gardner Museum heist remains the biggest art heist in history.
Visitors to the Renaissance-style villa will notice the empty frames still on the walls, left in place to honor Mrs. Gardner’s desire that her museum’s permanent displays not be altered.
Bonus Boston fact: The Gardner Museum offers free lifetime admission to everyone named Isabella, in honor of the museum’s founder.
7. Fenway Park is the oldest major-league baseball stadium still in use
Considered one of the most well-known sports venues in the world and a symbol of Boston, Fenway Park opened in 1912 and is the oldest MLB stadium still in use today.
The home of the Boston Red Sox was substantially rebuilt in 1934 and also underwent major renovations in the 21st century.
Fenway’s iconic features include the Green Monster, a manual scoreboard, and Pesky’s Pole in right field. You might also notice a single red seat in the bleachers, representing Ted Williams’ longest home run.
In 1912, Fenway Park’s centennial year, the park was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Fenway’s pending inclusion as a Boston Landmark will prevent any further alterations without approval from the city’s Landmarks Committee.
Bonus Boston fact: According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Fenway Park boasts the longest home sell-out streak in major professional sports history, with 820 sold-out Red Sox games in a row from May 15, 2003 to April 10, 2013.
8. Boston cream pie was invented at a Boston hotel
In 1856, Armenian-French chef M. Sanzian created the Boston cream pie at the Parker House Hotel (now the Omni Parker House) in Boston. The dessert consists of two layers of French butter sponge brushed with rum syrup and filled with custard, coated with a layer of chocolate fondant.
Although Boston cream pie isn’t a pie (it’s a cake) when it was created pies and cakes were baked in the same pans and the terms were interchangeable. On December 12, 1996, Massachusetts declared the Boston cream pie the official state dessert.
The Omni Parker House Hotel still serves Boston cream pie on its menu, and you can even order a slice at breakfast!
You may also like: Iconic Boston Food You Need to Try
9. The last religious martyr in North America was executed in Boston
Mary Dyer was a colonial American Quaker who was hanged in Boston for repeatedly defying a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. Dyer is one of the four executed Quakers known as The Boston Martyrs.
Mary Dyer was tried and scheduled to hang on October 27, 1659 along with three male Quaker evangelists. But Mary alone was pulled from the gallows and given a reprieve. However, she was determined to return to Boston to force the colony to either change its laws or to put her to death.
On June 1, 1660, Mary Dyer was again escorted to the gallows. Once again she was given the opportunity to save her own life. She replied, “Nay, I cannot; for in obedience to the will of the Lord God I came, and in His will I abide faithful to the death.”
Although it’s commonly said that Mary Dyer was executed on Boston Common (even the base of her memorial statue says so), historians now believe her actual hanging place was at Boston Neck, about a mile to the south. This area, near the current intersection of West Dedham and Washington Streets, was also common land—likely the cause of the confusion.
10. ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’ was written by a Bostonian
Boston native Phillips Brooks, an Episcopal clergyman, wrote the lyrics for the classic Christmas hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem” after returning from a trip to the Holy Land. Brooks penned the verses in 1868 while he was serving as rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia.
However, Brooks returned to his hometown the next year to take on the role of rector of Boston’s Trinity Church. He remained in Boston until his death in 1893, a little over a year after becoming Bishop of Massachusetts.
Renditions of the popular Christmas song have been included in many holiday albums in the modern era, notably by Cliff Richard who had a UK hit with the tune in 1982. The next year, American recording artist Amy Grant released her version on her 1983 Christmas album.
11. Ben Franklin was born and raised in Boston
Although many people associate Benjamin Franklin with the city of Philadelphia, he was actually born and raised in Boston. Franklin was born on January 17, 1706 on Milk Street and was baptized at Old South Meeting House.
Ben Franklin attended Boston Latin School, but didn’t graduate. When Ben was 15, his older brother James founded The New-England Courant—one of the first American newspapers—and the younger Franklin became an apprentice at the paper.
Unbeknownst to his brother, the teenaged Ben soon took on the identity of a middle-aged widow with the pseudonym “Silence Dogood”, and wrote a series of letters to the editor. The published letters, which poked fun at life in colonial America, became a popular subject of conversation around town.
When James Franklin found out the true identity of Silence Dogood, he became so angry that 17-year-old Ben left his apprenticeship (essentially becoming a fugitive) and ran away to Philadephia.
12. Boston, Massachusetts is named after Boston, England
On September 7, 1630, a group of Puritan colonists decided to name their new settlement “Boston” after the town in Lincolnshire, England. Several members of the group, who had moved from Charlestown in a quest for fresh water, hailed from the original Boston.
During the seventeenth century, about 250 residents of Boston, England moved to Massachusetts. That was about one-tenth of the English town’s population!
Colonist Thomas Dudley, four-time Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, explained in a 1631 letter to the Countess of Lincoln that the colonists had always intended to name its capital after Boston:
“some on the south side thereof, which place we named Boston (as we intended to have done the place we first resolved on) [for a capital]…”—Governor Dudley’s letter to the Countess of Lincoln, 1631
13. There was no Christmas in Boston for over 20 years
Between 1659 and 1681, it was a criminal offense in the Massachusetts Bay Colony to celebrate Christmas. The colony’s General Court declared that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” would be levied a 5-shilling fine.
Boston’s Puritan settlers interpreted the Bible literally, and noted that there was no scriptural basis for celebrating the holiday, which many referred to as “Foolstide”. They also disliked Christmas’ pagan roots, opining that the day celebrated the solstice and Saturnalia, and had nothing to do with Christianity.
During this 22-year period, the Puritans closed their churches on December 25th, but kept their shops and schools open.
In 1681, under pressure from King Charles II and with the threat of losing their royal charter, the colony reluctantly repealed the law.
14. A flood of molasses killed 21 people in Boston
On January 15, 1919, a steel tank in Boston’s North End containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses fractured and sent the sticky substance cascading down the city’s streets. The giant molasses wave reached a height of over 15 feet (5m) high and a speed of 35 mph (56 kph), killing a total of 21 people and injuring 150.
The flood’s victims ranged in age from two ten-year-old children to a 78-year-old man working as a messenger.
Cleanup of the disaster site took weeks, with crews using sand to absorb the molasses and saltwater to wash it away. But the molasses spread far and wide throughout the city, with cleanup crews, rescue workers, and sightseers tracking the molasses around town.
Today, Boston’s Great Molasses Flood is memorialized with a small plaque near the site of the tank on Commercial Street.
15. Happy hour is against the law in Boston
In most parts of the country, bars have “happy hour” promotions each week, offering discounted drinks to the after-work crowd. But you won’t find these drink specials in Boston!
in 1984, Massachusetts legislators—in an effort to reduce drunk driving incidents—passed a law banning bars and restaurants from offering free or reduced-price alcoholic beverages. Massachusetts is one of only eight states in the country to have a similar ban.
16. The first lighthouse in North America was built in Boston
The original Boston Light, constructed in 1716 on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, was the first lighthouse built in North America. For decades prior, residents had been building bonfires overlooking the harbor to aid ships.
But as Boston was quickly becoming a busy trade port, Massachusetts Bay Colony decided to spend £2400 ($562,990 in today’s money) to build a lighthouse. When Boston Light was first lit, it was one of only seventy lighthouses standing in the world!
The British destroyed the original stone structure during the Revolutionary War, but a replacement was built on the island in 1783. This newer Boston Light is the second-oldest lighthouse now standing in the country.
17. Each December 16, Bostonians reenact the Boston Tea Party
The Boston Tea Party, the famous act of rebellion carried out by colonists in 1773 to protest a series of taxes levied by the British Parliament, rallied Patriots throughout the colonies to fight for independence.
You likely know that on the evening of December 16th, a large group of men led by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty boarded ships docked at Griffin’s Wharf and threw 342 chests of the British East India Company’s tea into the harbor.
But did you know that a reenactment of the event happens every year in Boston? The Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum hosts a celebration of the historic event each December 16th with costumed living history performers.
18. Some of the biggest movie and TV stars are from Boston
Boston might not come to mind as a hotspot for Hollywood actors, but many famous stars were born in the city, including:
- Uzo Aduba
- Connie Britton
- Chris Evans
- Jasmine Guy
- Anthony Michael Hall
- Allison Janney
- Madeline Kahn
- John Krasinski
- Leonard Nimoy
- Edward Norton
- Taylor Schilling
- James Spader
- Uma Thurman
- Mark Wahlberg
- Barbara Walters
You might be surprised that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, perhaps the most famous of today’s actors associated with Boston, weren’t actually born there. Damon was born in nearby Cambridge, and Affleck was born in Berkeley, California.
19. Boston wasn’t always called Boston
Before Puritan settlers arrived in the area, several Algonquian tribes—notably the Massachusett, Pawtucket, and Pokantoket—inhabited the land, calling it Shawmut. This Algonquian word can possibly be interpreted as “living waters”.
Before Boston was settled by Europeans in 1630, the Puritans called the peninsula “Tremontaine”, referring to the three hills that were a feature of the land. Today, Beacon Hill is the only hill that remains of the three—the other hills were cut down in the early 19th century and used to expand Boston’s usable land.
20. Boston is home to the first public school in America
Established on April 23, 1635, the Boston Latin School was the first public school in British America. Modeled after the Free Grammar School in Boston, England, the institution was intended to educate young (white) men of all social classes in the classics.
Until the mid-19th century, the school only admitted male students and employed only male teachers. Helen Magill White was the school’s first female graduate and later became the first American woman to earn a doctorate. Boston Latin admitted its first co-educational class in 1972.
Clement Morgan (class of 1886) and Parker Bailey (class of 1877) were the first Black graduates of Boston Latin School. Both students went on to Harvard College.
Today, the Boston Latin School is the oldest existing school in the United States. Notable alumni include five signers of the Declaration of Independence: Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, William Hooper, and Robert Treat Paine.
21. Harvard University is not in Boston
Although prestigious Harvard University is often associated with Boston, it’s actually located in nearby Cambridge. Cambridge is just across the Charles River from Boston, and is in fact its own city!
But visitors to Boston who want to stroll through Harvard’s lovely campus don’t have far to go—it’s easily accessible by the T. Just take the Red Line across the river to the Harvard Square stop, and it’s just a few minutes away on foot.
Pro tip: Download an inexpensive smartphone walking tour of Harvard’s campus before you visit Harvard, to experience all the must-see campus spots at your own pace.
22. The first phone call happened in Boston
The first telephone call in history happened in Boston on March 10, 1876. From his office at 109 Court Street, inventor Alexander Graham Bell rang his assistant, Thomas Watson saying simply “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
Bell’s first public demonstration of his new invention was also held nearby, at the Boston Athenæum at 10½ Beacon Street. The building and the meeting room where he introduced the telephone to the world are still there today.
Just downstairs from Bell’s laboratory were the offices of Charles Williams, Jr., a manufacturer of telegraph instruments. Williams was Bell’s earliest subscriber, hooking up a phone line to connect his home in Somerville to his Boston office. Williams had telephone Numbers 1 and 2 of the Bell Telephone Company.
23. Much of Boston was once underwater
When Boston was founded in 1630, it was only about 800 acres—just a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow neck. The city began filling in parts of the bay and the Charles River in the early 19th century, and today about 5000 acres in Boston are human-created.
The city filled in the water for various reasons—making improvements to the harbor, burying wastewater pollution, building parks, and adding shipping facilities to compete with other port cities.
Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood, named after the fact that it used to be an actual bay, was one of the larger expansion projects in the city.
24. Boston is the only place you can drink a cold Sam Adams across from a cold Sam Adams
Boston is home to several historic cemeteries, and one of the most popular with tourists is Granary Burying Ground, located on Tremont Street on the historic Freedom Trail. The third-oldest cemetery in the city (dating to 1660), here you’ll find the final resting place of such notable figures as Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Ben Franklin’s parents.
Revolutionary War patriot Samuel Adams is also buried here. Those with a bit of a morbid streak can head across the street to Beantown Pub and sip one of the Founding Father’s namesake beers—right across from his grave marker.
25. Boston is the only state capital in the continental US with a coastline on the open ocean
Boston boasts 47 miles (76 km) of ocean shoreline on the mainland, not counting its 34 harbor islands! Visitors can walk almost the entire coastline (except the area around Logan Airport) via the Boston Harborwalk, a public walkway extending along the city’s shores and beaches.
The only other US state capital city with an actual ocean coastline is Honolulu, Hawaii.
26. The MBTA line colors each have a meaning
The colors of Boston’s four main MBTA train lines—the Green Line, Blue Line, Red Line, and Orange Line—weren’t chosen at random. Each color actually has a meaning!
In 1965, the MBTA named its subway lines after the routes they take. The Red Line travels near Harvard University (home of the Crimson), and the Green Line goes through Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a collection of parks and green spaces. The Blue Line travels under Boston Harbor, and the Orange Line partially follows Washington Street, part of which was called Orange Street until 1824.
27. Some of the old Blue Laws are still enforced in Boston
Boston’s famous Blue Laws are a set of restrictions originally put in place by the Puritans. While many Blue Laws have been changed or repealed (or at least no longer enforced), there are still several restrictions that still affect Bostonians. Many of these laws restrict alcohol sales:
- Grocery and convenience stores can only sell beer and wine from 8 AM to 11 PM, Monday through Saturday
- No alcohol may be sold before 10 AM on Sunday
- Restaurants and bars can only serve alcohol from 8 AM until 2 AM Monday through Saturday
- It’s illegal to sell alcohol on any election day while polls are open
- Retail liquor sales are banned on Christmas and Thanksgiving
Blue Laws also control which businesses can legally operate on Sundays and some legal holidays. In 1648, elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared, ”Whoever shall prophane the Lord’s Day by doing any servill worke should be fined or whipped.”
In colonial times, Blue Laws prohibited all trading, farming, hunting, and fishing on Sundays.
But the complete ban on retail stores opening on Sundays existed until 1983! Today, retailers can do business on Sundays but must pay workers a premium.
28. The Old State House is the oldest public building in the city
Completed in 1713, the Old State House (originally called the Town House) is the oldest surviving public building in Boston—and one of the oldest in the nation! This jewel of a building surrounded by skyscrapers is a rare example of Anglo-Flemish Baroque architecture in the city.
The building originally served multiple functions within the city, as a merchant’s hall as well as the seat of colonial government.
Its red-brick facade was witness to the grisly Boston Massacre of 1770, when British soldiers fired into a group of Bostonians. Massacre victim Crispus Attucks, a man of Native American and African ancestry, is often named as the first American killed in the Revolution.
The Declaration of Independence was first proclaimed to the people of Boston at the Old State House. On July 18, 1776, Boston Tea Party participant Colonel Thomas Crafts, Jr. read the document aloud from the building’s balcony to the crowd assembled in King Street.
Boston pro tip: History buffs visiting Boston will want to allocate at least a couple of hours to visit the Old State House. Now a museum, you’ll be drawn in by its fascinating exhibits and interactive presentations with living history reenactors.
29. The Boston Marathon is the oldest in the world
Boston’s famed annual Marathon, held each year on the third Monday in April (Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts) attracts 500,000 spectators each year, making it the most widely viewed sporting event in New England.
But the Boston Marathon is also the oldest in the world! The very first Boston Marathon was held on April 19, 1897, just a year after the first modern Olympics debuted in 1896. The Boston Marathon’s founders were inspired by the Olympic event and wanted to host a similar marathon in the Boston area.
Even when the world was shut down for the pandemic, the Boston Marathon continued with some modifications. 2020 saw the 124th Boston Marathon as a virtual experience, where runners could safely compete from around the globe.
2021’s Boston Marathon was postponed until October of that year, and included both a virtual and in-person competition.
In 2022, Boston returned to hosting its iconic marathon in person for the 126th annual running of this world-class race.
30. Boston is home to the world’s ugliest building
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder—but to many, the ugliest building in the world makes its home in Boston. The city’s controversial City Hall, built in 1968, is a prominent example of Brutalist architecture.
Many leading publications have long put Boston City Hall right at the top of their “ugliest buildings” lists, but a resurgence in the public’s appreciation for midcentury design—along with some simple changes to the building like attractive LED light displays might change the stark concrete building’s reputation.
Personally, I’m not a fan of Boston’s City Hall. But many buildings that were thought of as “too modern” at the time later became classics. What do you think?
More resources for your trip to Boston:
- Iconic Boston Food You Need to Try
- Your Guide to Walking the Freedom Trail in Boston
- How to Get to Boston’s Cruise Port
- 10 Scenic Ports You Can Visit on a Canada and New England Cruise
- Omni Parker House Hotel Review Boston, MA
What are your favorite fun facts about Boston? Let me know in the comments below!
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