The Freedom Trail is an excellent way to introduce kids to the rich history of our city, as well as a fun family outing. When we made our own family outing to this series of Boston landmarks, my seven-year-old twins were as excited as I was about the things we were about to see. We'd recently read a book about Paul Revere, and had gone out to Concord to see one of the Patriots' Day reenactments, so they were definitely primed for some juicy history.
Keep in mind that while the Freedom Trail encompasses 2.5 miles of 16-plus historical sites, many of them can be viewed from the sidewalk or entered briefly for a quick look around. You'll only want to plan extra time for the types of sites that spark kids' curiosity—otherwise, it's a long day. We think the following are must-see stops with kids:
1. Boston Common is America's oldest public park and a spot my family knows well. Considering the park boasts a playground, Frog Pond, and carousel, this also makes a great last stop if you decide to reverse the order of your outing. For us, it was the perfect place to begin because my kids could start the Freedom Trail by pointing out three spots they already knew: the Common itself, the gold-topped Massachusetts State House, and the Park Street Church. Check, check, and check! Free
Follow the golden dome to the Massachusetts State House. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Fisher
2. Towering over the Common is the Massachusetts State House and its iconic gold dome. Your walk through history can include a stop at the state's legislative hub for a tour of the Senate and House chambers, and to learn fun facts about the building's history. Did you know the dome was once build out of wood? Your little constituents will also get a lesson about the state insect (hint, it's the ladybug) as well as the "sacred cod." If a guided tour isn't what your group is in the mood for, materials for self-guided visits are available. Keep in mind that the State House is only open on weekdays. Free
3. Just beyond Park Street Church, the Granary Burying Ground is fascinating to kids starting to learn history. After the kids scatter to locate the graves of Paul Revere, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and the victims of the Boston Massacre, parents can catch up to explain the significance of these patriots whose names will come up again at other stops along the trail. Free
4. If you have a future architect in the group, a stop at King's Chapel is a must. Built on a burying ground because no one would sell the Anglican Church desirable land, the original wood structure was replaced by the current granite building and is considered one of the best examples of Georgian Church architecture in all of North America. If that doesn't excite your troop, a tour of the crypt and bell tour should do the trick. Suggested donation $2
5. As you head down School Street, there is a familiar figure standing outside of the site of the Old Boston Latin School. It's Benjamin Franklin. While known as a son of Philadelphia, Franklin spent his early years in Boston and attended America's oldest public school. Five of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence attended Boston Latin, including Franklin. However, he did not graduate. Perhaps you don't have to mention to the kids that one of history's most famous men dropped out of high school. Free
6. By the time you hit the corner, stomachs may be rumbling. You're in luck. The Old Corner Book Store, the oldest commercial building in Boston, has retained its old charm on the exterior, but on the interior it is more contemporary. It's currently leased by Chipotle. Whether or not you stop for a bite, check out the Irish Famine Memorial across the street, erected in remembrance all those lost during the Great Hunger.
7. The Boston Tea Party didn't start at the Boston Harbor, it started at the Old South Meeting House when 5000 people gathered to protest British taxation. At the time it was the largest building in the city. Today, you can check out a 100-year-old 3D model of colonial Boston or do the Old South Church Meeting House scavenger hunt, a hit with families who stop in off the trail.
8. The Old State House was once the meeting place of the Massachusetts Assembly and the site where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the citizens of Boston. Today it's a family-friendly museum with exhibits that include an interactive map of Colonial Boston and hands-on historical activities for kids. During school vacation weeks, special programs include scavenger hunts, colonial games, or meetings with a Revolutionary character. We had the pleasure of meeting a citizen who told us all about what life was like in Boston in 1765.
9. Right in front of the Old State House is a circular memorial commemorating the site of the Boston Massacre. It's a good chance to slow down and remind older kids of the sometimes violent aspects of the Revolution, with a moment of silence to honor these early patriots. Free
10. Known as the "Cradle of Liberty," Faneuil Hall was where Bostonians first publicly spoke out against British rule, and is still an important meeting place today. Visitors can view the Great Hall and hear free talks about the hall's history by park rangers. Once back outside, be sure to point out the unusual grasshopper weathervane atop the hall to your kids. According to legend, anyone who couldn't name the shape of the weathervane was deemed a spy during the War of 1812, so make sure your Boston kids know! Free
Don't miss the famous statue of Paul Revere outside the Old North Church. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey via Flickr
11. The Paul Revere House is one of the stops my girls love to visit, and one we'll most certainly visit again. During school vacation weeks, this museum offers special activities that give kids an idea of what it was like to live in Paul Revere's time. All year long, visitors get a taste of what it was like to live with period furniture, small bedrooms, and the lack of indoor plumbing.
12. The Old North Church is famous for having displayed the lanterns to signal "One, if by land, and two, if by sea" on the eve of the Revolution, so at the very least, it's worthy of a trip inside, where kids can sit in the pews and soak in the church's history. Free
13. Copp's Hill Burying Ground might not contain as many famous residents as the Granary Burying Ground cemetery, but its clear view of Charlestown makes it obvious why British troops camped out here before and during the Battle of Bunker Hill. Free
Kids love to pose by the big captain's wheel on the U.S.S. Constitution. Photo courtesy of Edward Faulkner via Flickr
14. The U.S.S. Constitution might have been my family's favorite stop on the entire trail. As cool as it was to be on the deck of this historical ship and to climb below decks, talking with the sailors onboard was the biggest treat of all. One told us stories of what it was like to serve on the ship when it set sail to Marblehead last summer, and another told the kids what life was like aboard the boat back in its heyday. My girls were shocked to learn that kids as young as eight served on the ship, bringing cannonballs to the men and getting only four hours of sleep a night. Free
15. The 294 steps inside the Bunker Hill Monument are well worth the climb once you peek out the window to Charlestown below and Boston across the river. The monument is free to enter, but you must pick up a ticket at the museum across the street first and tickets are limited, so keep that in mind while planning out your route. The museum itself is also free, and includes some artifacts from the battle as well as a huge diorama depicting the action. Free
Before you run out and hit the Freedom Trail, a few last tips to help you plan your day:
- Depending on your family's size and kids' ages, you might opt to split up the trail into two or even three separate visits. The sites are clustered Downtown, in the North End, and in Charlestown, making it easy to either follow the red brick route all day or to split it up over various visits. However you decide to attack it, your kids are sure to love this peek into the past, as long as you keep short legs (and attention spans) in mind. Do as much as your family can in a day, and go back for more another time!
- Taking the T to the start of the trail makes the day a breeze. No parking hassles, no downtown garage fees, and you can pack everyone up and head back home whenever needed.
- Make sure to pick up a map or guide book at the start of the trail so you can keep track of where you're headed (and where to find the ever-important bathrooms).
- Apart from water and sunscreen on sunny days, you won't need to bring much along to guarantee a fun outing. What you will want to do is make a stop or two to enjoy lunch and a snack or dessert. Check out our picks of 8 Places to Eat with Kids Along the Freedom Trail to help you plan.
Top photo: A revolutionary war actor guides children through the Granary Burial Ground. Photo courtesy of Sharon Mollerus via Flickr
Article was originally posted in 2014 and updated by Elizabeth Fisher in 2017.