This is where the rebellion began--where the Americans, whispering among themselves, first began talking of English tyranny, and its only antidote. It is where the Colonists first openly defied the Crown, turning Boston Harbor into a momentary teacup; where the first major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought on a hill across the Charles River.
And Boston doesn't let you ignore its place in American history.
The Fourth of July is built into the city like a supporting beam in the substructure of the Old North Church. In the North End--where brick buildings in the dusty colors of dried flowers crowd narrow streets--you don't seem very distant from Paul Revere and his famous ride. In the shade of the Old South Meeting House, you can almost hear Sam Adams and his young rebels whispering about the fate of that shipment of tea.
The Freedom Trail, Boston's 2 1/2-mile historic walk from Boston Common to the USS Constitution in the harbor, gives ample evidence of a city preserving its history.
"Bostonians are fiercely proud of this city and its buildings," confirmed David Cruz, who sits on the board of the Freedom Trail Foundation. "We realize this is a very special place . . . The testimony to that is what you see. Many of the buildings have not been changed since they were erected."
The Trail starts at the north end of 360-year-old Boston Common, the nation's first public park and pasture land (cows weren't banned from the Common until 1830). An elm tree at its center was used for public hangings.
Virginia-farmer-turned-soldier George Washington paraded through the Common; troops camped there, filling the air with the smoke of campfire and gunpowder. Today, it is a flower-bordered rolling green park dotted here and there with monuments, lest you forget its age or role in history.
A red line painted down sidewalks, along brick streets and up porch steps marks the Freedom Trail. But a map is more than a luxury because the paint fades in and out, and at many intersections it is anyone's guess as to where it picks up again. You can pick up a map and other information about the trail at the National Park Service Information Center at 15 State St., across from Faneuil Hall.
Starting at the south end of the trail, just off Boston Common on Park Street, is the domed Massachusetts State House, built in 1795. Then its dome was covered with copper from Paul Revere's mill, but in the mid-1800s the gilded look was added.
The House chamber is presided over by the Sacred Cod, a three-foot-long, hand-carved wooden fish that looks a little like a weather vane and hangs from the ceiling. Meant to symbolize the importance of the fishing industry, it also has traditionally indicated how the political winds are blowing: facing north when the Democrats were in control of the House, south when Republicans had the majority. Today, as it has for at least 40 years, it faces resolutely north.
Nearby Park Street Church is at the corner of Park and Tremont streets, better known as Brimstone Corner for the scalding oratory heard there and the brimstone (used to make gunpowder) that was stored in the church basement.
Succumbing to the reverie on things historical that often occurs in this city, one may reflect that on July 4, 1831, "America" ("My Country 'Tis of Thee") was first sung here.
As you walk up Tremont, the bright light from the Common begins to fade and the street darkens as it narrows and buildings close in from the sides. It is the perfect atmosphere in which to come upon the old Granary Burying Ground.
This 17th-Century cemetery, shaded by trees and buildings, looks eerie even during the middle of the day. Adding to the spookiness are the older gray headstones chiseled with frightening images of death heads and skulls, reflecting the Puritans' absolutist views. Later headstones carry the softer images of angels and urns, the promise of a pleasant afterlife.
Among the notables buried here: Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, merchant Peter Faneuil (spelled Funal on the stone), three signers of the Declaration of Independence, and Mother Goose. (Elizabeth Goose, who died in 1757, told stories to her grandchildren that her son-in-law published as the Mother Goose tales.)
The Franklin family monument is also here. Ben himself was born in Boston but is buried in Philadelphia. However his parents' final resting place is here. The smaller markers are actually footstones, so each grave is like a bed, with head and footboards. And don't let the neat rows fool you. In the 1930s, as part of a Works Progress Administration project, the markers were rearranged to make maintainence easier.
Further north along Tremont is King's Chapel, an Anglican church first built in 1686 of wood. It was rebuilt using granite in the mid-1700s, and is the first Colonial church to be built from plans supplied by an American, rather than foreign, architect. Its solid stone mass makes the city's glass skyscrapers, seen to the north, seem fragile by comparison.
Cutting down School Street, dodging flower carts and trinket vendors, you come to the Old Corner Bookstore at Washington Street.
Now called the Globe Corner Bookstore, it served as a literary salon for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Thomas Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others. Publisher and part-owner James P. Fields did something very unusual for the literati of the mid-1800s: He introduced the concept of royalty payments for authors. Today, Globe Corner is a very good book shop specializing in New England travel.
Next comes the Old Meeting House at the corner of Washington and School Streets where, in 1773, a group of Colonial tax protesters waited for Samuel Adams' signal to launch the Boston Tea Party. It is one of three 18th-Century Anglican churches remaining in the city.
Further up Washington, the Old State House is the site of the 1770 Boston Massacre in which five young Americans were killed in a scuffle with British troops. From its balcony, the Declaration of Independence was first read to the Colonists on July 18, 1776.
Up Congress Street, 250-year-old Faneuil Hall at Dock Square is still used as it always has been: a marketplace on the ground floor, a public meeting room above. Patriots first spoke of revolution here in the 1700s, abolitionists denounced slavery in the 1800s, and it is a public forum for political speeches and debates today.
A wide staircase leads up to the main meeting room, its walls crowded with historical portraits and Americana. It is now about twice the size of the original hall but with its antique chairs, wooden banisters and gallery seats, only the electric power seems out of place.
Behind the hall is a cobblestone area of restaurants and shops called Quincy Market. It may remind you of San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf, but unlike the overpriced fish restaurants on the Wharf, there still are a few "real" pubs and eateries here, a few legitimate bargains.
The oyster bar downstairs at the Durgin-Park restaurant, with Bass ale and Samuel Adams on tap and oysters running $3 for a half-dozen, is a good bet. The upstairs dining room, which has been in business since the 1840s, offers Yankee fare: roast turkey, pot roast, prime rib and broiled scrod (a regional euphemism for young cod). The nearby Purple Dragon is, inexplicably, an authentic Irish pub.
If you aren't ready for lunch or at least not ready for pot roast, not to worry. The trail is about to lead you through an open-air produce market and into the North End, Boston's Italian neighborhood of tiny winding streets. You're as likely to hear Italian as English being spoken and the food--from tiny takeout pizza parlors and fancier pasta places--is almost all great. Recommended for eating: the European, Mama Maria's, Pizzeria Regina and Felicia's.
Continuing through the North End, the trail takes you to Paul Revere's house in North Square, the oldest building in Boston. Built in 1676, its dark, low-slung roof and narrow spaces, may remind you of the witch's house in "Hansel and Gretel." Looking back at the house and its surroundings from the middle of the stone-paved square, only the parked cars and a neon sign in the window of a restaurant spoil a timeless tableau.
The Revere house itself has been furnished with period pieces that dispel the rather somber mood of the exterior.
Between the house and the Old North Church ("One if by land, two if by sea . . . ") on Salem Street is the Paul Revere Mall, a brick walkway between buildings that has been refurbished and is set to open this week, in time for Fourth of July festivities , according to Boston's tourism office.
As you approach, the steeple of the Old North Church rises above the surrounding buildings, but the church--with its white steeple--stands out anyway in the sea of red brick buildings that makes up the North End.
If by now you've seen one church too many, skip the tour and dash in the gift shop to check out the Bible from King George II. It has a typo that makes the Parable of the Vineyard read the Parable of the Vinegar.
Follow the red stripe next to Copp's Hill Burial Ground. It's full of more interesting gray headstones, but the occupants aren't quite as well-known as those in the Old Granary cemetery. That defect aside, it is the highest point in the North End and offers some dramatic views. The British also noted its advantage and stationed their cannon here during the Battle of Bunker Hill.
If you're still up for it, cross the bridge over the Charles River for the last two sites on the Freedom Trail map. Bunker Hill is where the first major battle of the Revolutionary War was fought, in 1775. It's also where Col. William Prescott is said to have uttered the famous: "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."
Cutting back down to the harbor, you can go aboard the USS Constitution at the Charlestown Navy Yard, the oldest battleship still in commission. It's made of wood but got the name Old Ironsides because, as fortune would have it during the War of 1812, cannonballs bounced off its sides. She has been restored so many times that only about 5% of the original vessel remains intact. On July 4, she'll be towed into Boston Harbor for her annual 21-gun salute.
Prepare for a wait to board the Constitution, there's usually a long line.
For those who prefer to ride instead of walk the Freedom Trail, there is the Old Town Trolley, an open-air trolley that runs approximately every 15 minutes from the major hotels. Tickets are $14 for 90-minute tours and can be purchased at the Boston Common information kiosk and at the USS Constitution.
As usual, Bostonians will celebrate Independence Day in a big way. Festivities began June 29 with Harborfest, which lasts a week and includes boat parades, exhibits, tours and a "Chowderfest."
The celebration culminates Wednesday at 8 p.m. with a free outdoor Boston Pops concert in the Hatchshell on the Charles River Esplanade at Arlington Street.
On that night, this stretch of greenery running along the Charles from the foot of Beacon Hill to Boston University will fill with thousands of concert-goers toting blankets and picnic baskets.
There's a reason for the crowds. The orchestra always concludes the two-hour event with a spine-shivering Rendition of the "1812 Overture," complete with cannon and a fireworks display over the water.
Enough to make even the most cynical feel a tug of patriotism and pride. If that doesn't do it, perhaps you need a few more oysters, or maybe a Sam Adams.
Julia Frazier contributed to this article.