Boston on the 4th of July


Nowhere – and I do mean nowhere – can you find a more rootin’ tootin’ patriotic Independence Day than Boston, Mass.

Even with a Category 2 hurricane heading your way.

Dave and I had been talking off and on for years about going to Boston someday on the Fourth of July. It was up there on our list of things to do right along with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade (which we did in 2003), traveling to all 50 states (which we completed in 2012), and going to see La Boheme at the Met (which we have yet to accomplish). Boston was more of an historic thing for Dave and more of a festive thing for me, but we equally wanted to participate in the event.


Once I stopped traveling so much for work last fall, we made a travel schedule for this year, and it included a long weekend in Boston. We bought our plane tickets last January (not out of Des Moines but on Sun Country out of Minneapolis – a less expensive and non-stop flight that would get us to Boston before noon on July 3), booked a hotel well in advance, and waited.

We didn’t expect the hurricane. I mean, how could we have predicted that?

As spring turned to summer, we started doing some research on Boston’s Independence Day festivities: Freedom Trail walking tours, Boston Harborfest, Chowderfest, and especially the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular – the real reason to go to Boston on the Fourth of July.

Ten days out, I started looking at the forecast to see how hot it might be on our trip. The forecast for the Fourth was a 30% chance of rain showers. It had been raining non-stop in Iowa, so we weren’t too worried about a little moisture. But then the forecast turned to a 70% chance, and Tropical Storm Arthur reared its head. As of July 2, it seemed like the worst weather might be on the third, possibly forcing the cancellation of the Pops’ rehearsal concert.

“With Tropical Storm Arthur menacing New England, organizers of Fourth of July concert events will huddle this afternoon to decide whether to proceed with the rehearsal concert set for Thursday night at Boston’s Hatch Shell on the Esplanade,” the Boston Globe reported on Wednesday, July 2.

Oops, Thursday was going to be bad. That was the day we were flying. Would our flight be cancelled?


As we waited in the Minneapolis airport – after checking to ensure that our 7:20 a.m. flight was on time – we learned that the storm had shifted. Friday would be the worst day. The Pops Fireworks Spectacular was being moved up a day – to tonight.


That worked out fine for us, because our flight got us into the city mid-day. We walked to the Public Garden (above, with swan boat) and Boston Common, and by 3 p.m. we had joined a crowd of people streaming on foot to the big event. We thought we were prepared for anything, lugging a blanket to sit on, umbrellas and ponchos for rain, and water bottles and sunscreen for heat. We were walking toward the Esplanade, along the banks of the Charles River, to position ourselves for the fireworks that would take place later that night. Instead, we got in a “line” (really a just a friendly mob) of people waiting to get into the Oval, which is where the Pops perform. We had never given that much thought, figuring we’d never make it into that select group of about 10,000 people, as opposed as the half-million that watch the fireworks from the island.

But there we were. Those around us assured us we were in the best place. Many of the folks we met were locals who had celebrated the Fourth with the Pops concert for years, making it a family tradition. We thought we were prepared, but these people made us look like amateurs, with their patriotic outfits and their comfy chairs and their coolers filled with much better food than we could buy inside and their little bags of fun things to do while they waited for the show to begin.


Dave and I had nothing to do. Once we got inside and claimed a chunk of ground for our blanket, we killed time playing with our iPhones and eating crummy food and taking pictures of people we didn’t know.

Finally the show started, with sort of a pre-show because the concert was being broadcast on the local television station. We heard a lot about Arthur (now a Category 2 hurricane still more or less out over the ocean) and the weather forecast and how loud the cannons would be for the 1812 Overture.

The concert was really terrific. The Boston Pops put on a really great show – they’re fantastically talented, but they keep the music light and fun. Conductor Keith Lockhart was a real treat. I don’t consider myself a traditionally “patriotic” person but I will admit that I got sort of choked up during the Star-Spangled Banner and later during the “patriotic sing-along” consisting of America, America the Beautiful, Yankee Doodle Boy, and all of those kinds of songs.


What I didn’t expect was a guest appearance by Megan Hilty from television’s “Smash” and Broadway. She’s fabulous, and she sang three numbers that I absolutely loved. Later, what’s left of the Beach Boys came out and did a few of their hits (“Fun, Fun, Fun” is the only one I can remember). The crowd loved them and danced and sang and clapped along with them. I think I’m the only person in America who doesn’t like the Beach Boys.

The Pops played a Duke Ellington swing number, a Roaring ‘20s number, and a few other numbers, pausing for commercial breaks. Right as we were nearing the finale – The 1812 Overture and Stars and Stripes Forever – we were informed that the weather pattern had shifted dramatically. The storm, which was predicted to arrive late in the night, was coming NOW. We were told that A) the fireworks were starting right now and B) we needed to evacuate. No 1812 Overture!

Well! OK, we’re done here. We gathered up all our stuff and moved quickly along with the masses toward the entrance and down the street, all the while keeping an eye on the fireworks show to our right, partially obscured by trees.

We made it back to our hotel about, oh, 30 seconds before giant torrents of wind and rain hit the area, soaking hundreds of people still walking to their destinations. It was, for us, a pretty lucky day.


The next day we were not so lucky. The weather forecasters were right: it rained the whole day. We attempted to take advantage of all the city had to offer on the holiday, but at some point, when you’re really, really soaked clear through all your clothes and shoes (even with a big yellow poncho), it ceases to be fun.


We had lunch at one of the dozens of Italian eateries in the North End, savoring the homemade manicotti. We sat in the Old North Church (above) and listened to a costumed re-enactor read aloud the Declaration of Independence (a highlight of the day). We walked over the Washington Bridge to the U.S.S. Constitution (AKA “Old Ironsides,” below) but were disappointed that its sails were already down from its annual “turnaround” sail earlier in the day. We visited the Constitution Museum but were at that point so wet that we couldn’t really get very enthusiastic about what we were seeing.


So we walked back over the bridge to the North End and found a bar/pizza place that was delightfully dry. We peeled off all the wet layers that we could and sat, drinking beer and watching the ubiquitous World Cup, for the next couple of hours.

Eventually we had to leave the bar. We were still wet, and it was still raining steadily, so we headed back to our hotel to change out of our drippy clothes (our hotel room would smell like a men’s hockey team locker room for the duration of our stay) and try to find some dinner.


The next day was sunny and perfect. Armed with a map, GPS unit, and our iPhones, we rented a car and drove to Salem, Mass.

Salem is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go and sort of surprised I’ve never been. It’s only 17 miles from Boston, a city I’ve visited five times before. But now, here we were.

Salem is also one of those places that appeals to people with a lot of different interests. It’s perhaps best known for its witch trials of 1692 – a shameful event in U.S. history of which the city takes full advantage. But there’s also maritime history, the House of Seven Gables, and the world-class Peabody Essex art museum, said to have the finest collection of American, maritime, and Asian art anywhere.

The first thing we did was park our car and walk to the visitor center run by the National Park Service. There you can learn about the Essex National Heritage Area in Massachusetts and especially about the local maritime era. Salem is home to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, which includes the Friendship of Salem, a National Park Service replica tall ship. We walked down to the Derby Wharf and took a look at that, but not before stopping by the Witch Trials Memorial (below), which the tour brochure describes as a “somber place of remembrance for visitors and descendants of those condemned in 1692.”


Which makes me wonder…if they are so interested in remembering and memorializing the shameful events of the witch trials, why then do those in Salem offer the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and the Witch Mansion (“choose your level of scare!”), the Witch History Museum and the Haunted Witch Village, the Witch House and the Witching Hour live spell-casting? Salem has tours, too: the Ghost Walking Tour, Bewitched After Dark Walking Tours, Candlelight Ghostly & Graveyard Walking Tours, the Salem Witch Walk, and (seriously) the Witch City Segway tour.


If the witches aren’t enough, Salem tourists can also learn about Hollywood ghouls at the Nightmare Gallery monster museum, step into yet another haunted house at Frankenstein’s Castle, and stroll through the New England Pirate Museum. For theatre lovers, there’s the Gallows Hill Museum and Theatre, a live re-enactment called “Cry Innocent,” and a 3-D Salem Time Machine. Not enough? Check out the numerous psychics and “magikal” practitioners, or head to the psychic parlor and witchcraft emporium for all your witchcraft needs.

IMG_9739We passed on all of the above. I wanted to tour the Salem Witch Museum (left) because I’ve always been interested in the witch trials from an historic perspective, and I understood that this museum was historically focused.

Well, yes and no. It’s not a history museum you walk through, read, and learn. You pay your money and they take you, in large groups, into a room where you sit and listen to a pre-recorded narrator tell about the witch trials of 1692. The information is actually pretty good, but as the voice speaks, life-size dioramas around the room light up, featuring scenes of the key players in the hysteria, trials, and subsequent killings. Let’s just say they were not Disney-worthy.

Following this presentation, we were split into two groups. While the first group visited a smaller presentation of witches through history led by a 16-year-old girl with braces, the second group was shuttled into the gift shop, where you could buy witch souvenirs of every sort.

I was unimpressed.


Earlier in the day we toured the House of Seven Gables (above), the 1668 mansion that inspired author Nathanial Hawthorne to write his classic novel in 1851. The house was interesting, our young guide was knowledgeable, and I enjoyed the tour – but I might not have taken it if I’d known the tight spaces we had to maneuver through, like a wooden staircase inside a tiny brick closet.

We ate lunch at Scratch Kitchen, which is exactly as it sounds – everything is made from scratch, including the ketchup and mayo. I had a good salad with some bread and shared Dave’s really awesome onion rings and the complementary house-made chips that the server brought in a basket to our table. I would have tried one of the yummy-sounding deserts, but I was way too full.

IMG_9750We left Salem mid-afternoon and drove to Gloucester on Cape Ann. We didn’t stay long – just long enough to walk along the wharf, lined with American flags, to the 8-foot-tall Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial, “Man at the Wheel” (left).

Our next stop was Rockport, also on Cape Ann. Rockport is a picturesque, charming town with a tourist-driven but friendly and historic downtown. Rockport is famously home to “Motif #1,” a red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf that’s become one of the most photographed and painted scenes in all of New England (below). I took many pictures of it, and then we ate ice cream.


We didn’t stay in Rockport long because the town was gearing up for its Fireman’s July 4 Parade and Bonfire, postponed to this afternoon because of yesterday’s inclement weather. We got out right before they closed down the streets.




2 comments so far

  1. Deanna on

    I enjoyed reading about your trip to Boston. My husband and I have been contemplating a trip to Boston sometime next year. However, we always sputter a bit about the high cost of hotels in the Boston city center and also worry about staying in safe areas with clean lodging. Do you stay in the city? Have you ever stayed out a ways, and if so is there reliable transportation into the city?

    Thanks for taking time to read this and any information you can give!

  2. cgieseke on

    Hi, Deanna. We stayed at the Boston Marriott Copley Place. There were several other hotels in the area, and it was very clean and safe. Copley Place is not terribly far from the Public Garden, Boston Common, and the historic district — definitely within walking distance. When I was in Boston a couple of years ago I stayed at the Onyx Hotel on Portland Street — very affordable and close to the North End, which is an area I like a lot. I do think you could stay outside the city and take the train (the train system is very good) but I think you lose something staying outside the city. Just my opinion.

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