Boston for Beginners

The historic city offers plenty for tourists on a budget

$500 Getaway


I spent the first seven years of my life in Boston and have visited the city at least once a year ever since.

But at age 32, I had never been to Boston Common, Faneuil Hall or Fenway Park.

I had never strolled the Boston Harbor. I had never heard of Beacon Hill.

My limited knowledge of the historical and tourist-worn parts of Boston can be attributed to two things:

1) My mom's family lives in Boston. When we visit, we go to their homes - which are usually crowded with friends and relatives, but are, in fact, not actual tourist attractions.

2) Boston, for all its Northern sophistication, is and always has been an extremely divided town. Roxbury and Dorchester, the areas of Boston where my relatives live, are mostly black and have been since before I was born. The rest of Boston is mostly white.

But I have spent most of my life in a more mixed reality. I grew up in Prince George's County and went to college in Washington, D.C. I am used to seeing a relative rainbow of folks wherever I go.

So when an opportunity arose here at The Sun to travel to Boston on a weekend getaway, I gladly volunteered.

My goal was to find out all I could about the Boston I never knew - without spending more than $500, including airfare, hotel, food and all my incidentals. Such a budget is difficult for me to keep when I stay home in my pajamas on weekends, much less when I travel.

I also had to contend with a mess of family, who expected to see as much of me as possible, and who, for the life of me, just couldn't seem to grasp what in the world I was doing.

"You're going to take a tour?" asked my cousin Ty, a Boston police officer. "A real tour? But you lived here. That's so lame."

"I don't see why you can't stay here with me," my nana said. "Who wants to stay in a hotel by themselves?"

As it turned out, staying within my budget was more than a little tricky. I decided to go on my weekend trip during Easter, a popular travel time. To make matters worse, it also turned out to be the weekend of the Boston Marathon. With the holiday and a major international event, the cheapest hotel I found was in a town called Billerica - about 40 minutes away from Boston proper.

"Bill-RICKA?!" my family screamed, each time I told someone where I had found a cheap hotel. (My family screams a lot.) "Why are you staying all the way in Bill-RICKA? Where is Bill-RICKA?"

But the hotel was nice - a luxurious Wyndham I found using - and at $70 a night, it was a real steal. I found the king-sized bed incredibly cozy and the room blissfully quiet, particularly when the alternative was sleeping in my nana's bed, adjacent to the smoky room where she has her weekly poker game.

The airfare, too, was a good find. Only $128.60 round trip on AirTran. And unlike my original plan to take advantage of a Southwest Airlines e-ticket - which would have only gotten me as far as Providence, R.I. - I was able to fly right into Logan International Airport, just minutes from Roxbury.

The real expense came with the rental car. The best price I could find was $33 per day. Tack on taxes, service charges, fees and insurance, and the total came to an unexpected $131.37

So, by the time I arrived in Boston proper, I had about $100 left to spend, an entire city to explore and one very important thing to do: I wasn't leaving until I had lobster.

Tour time

Friday morning, after handing over $3 at the tollbooth, I met my nana for breakfast at a locally famous spot on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester. Ashley's Breakfast Shoppe offers mouth-watering foods at pre-Reagan-era prices: apple pancakes for $3.90, honey buns for $1. Coffee for 90 cents! Hooray!

I had two eggs, toast with jelly, home fries, bacon and tea (true Bostonians drink tea, not coffee, with milk or cream). With tip, the meal came to $6.

I kissed my Auntie Fern, my cousins and my nana good-bye, parked my rental car at the subway station, hopped on the "T" - the nation's oldest subway system - and headed downtown.

Since no one in my family could really offer any advice about where to go - my Auntie Val once had to ask a tourist from another country where to find historic Faneuil Hall - I asked the subway attendant for guidance. He gave me detailed instructions on where to go, what trains to catch and what sights to see. And the train fare - only $1.25 no matter where or how far I was going - was great for my tight budget.

When I emerged from the train at Downtown Crossing, the weather was perfect - sunny, in the mid-70s and not a drop of rain in sight. It pained me, but I ignored the building directly in front of the subway exit - Filene's - and followed a crowd in front of me to a huge grassy park full of sun-loving loungers.

I asked two men sitting cross-legged on the lawn in front of a gold-domed building that turned out to be the statehouse for the name of the park. One nearly choked on his VitaminWater.

"This is Bahston Cahmon," he said.

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