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How to make your Boston staycation feel like a vacation

Hotel deals, restaurant picks, great tours and museums, and more will make your staycation in Boston feel like a vacation.

A vacation at home.

Iker Ayestaran for the boston globe

A vacation at home.

If you’ve ever come home from a trip and thought, I need a vacation, then you know that traveling can sometimes be less than relaxing. And that’s where a staycation — a vacation without travel — can help. Staycations may have gained popularity during the recession and slow recovery, but there are reasons other than financial to consider a few days off at home: Your flight won’t be canceled; you don’t need a phrase book; and you can’t leave your toothbrush behind. So save some stress, and some cash, by enjoying a vacation close to home. Here’s how.

 1. MAKE PLANS

Don’t just wing it. Choose, then read up on day-trip destinations and make an itinerary for the weekend or week. To make it feel special for kids, take a drive before you “check in” at home.

2. KEEP EVERYDAY LIFE OUT

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It’s a simple formula: Treat your time off at home like a vacation and it will feel like a vacation. Ban housework, set an out-of-office alert on your personal e-mail account, even stop your mail for the week. If you don’t create some separation, your staycation can end up feeling like a really long chore-laden Saturday afternoon. 

3. SET A BUDGET — THEN SPEND IT

Spend a little more than usual, budgeting for meals, entertainment, and souvenirs. Look at it this way: 79 percent of vacationers surveyed by Newton-based TripAdvisor said they planned to spend $3,000 on vacations in 2012. So go ahead and buy that “I [shamrock] Boston” T-shirt. You’ll still be $2,990 ahead.  

4. ACT LIKE A TOURIST

Why stop with a shirt? Do all the silly stuff you’ve never gotten around to. Go on a duck boat tour or an Upper Deck Trolley tour (both run year-round, and the latter is offering off-season extras through February 28). On a clear day, shell out the $14 to go to the top of the Pru. Window-shop on Newbury, and end the day with cannoli in the North End. There’s a reason tourists do these things: They’re wicked fun.

5. GET TAKEN FOR A RIDE

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Save on parking and avoid traffic by taking the T (just plan around busy commuting times — you’re on vacation, remember). You can also hail a cab or use your smartphone to summon a livery service such as Uber (uber.com) or Hailo (hailocab.com/boston).

The Boston Globe - The Boston Gl

You can have a hands-on experience at the EcoTarium in Worcester.

6. LEARN SOMETHING

You can never go wrong visiting one of Boston’s big five museums — the Museum of Fine Arts, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Children’s Museum, the Museum of Science, and the New England Aquarium. But you’ll find fun off the beaten path, too.

> Nichols House Museum

Go inside a Beacon Hill mansion at this former home of the well-to-do Nichols family. It’s stuffed with original furnishings, art, and Chinese porcelain. 55 Mt. Vernon Street, Boston, 617-227-6993, nicholshousemuseum.org

> EcoTarium

The indoor-outdoor attraction is part science museum, part nature center, and part park. The playground, nature trails, and model steam engine are open year-round. Come on a snowy day for sledding (you can borrow a sled) and to watch river otters frolic in the snow. 222 Harrington Way, Worcester, 508-929-2700, ecotarium.org

> Fuller Craft Museum

If “craft” makes you think “Pinterest,’’ think again. This museum features amazing handmade work, including jewelry, ceramics, and wooden sculpture. Don’t miss the March 9 Appraisal Day, where, for a $5-per-piece contribution to the museum (in addition to the $5 admission), experts will tell you if your family heirloom is trash or treasure. “It’s not as glamorous as Antiques Roadshow,” says museum director Jonathan Fairbanks, “but you have a greater opportunity to discuss the objects.” 455 Oak Street, Brockton, 508-588-6000, fullercraft.org

> Museum of African American History

Located at the end of the 1.6-mile Black Heritage Trail, this Beacon Hill museum just started a 10-month celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. To arrange a guided tour of the Trail (even in winter), call 617-742-5415. 46 Joy Street, Boston, 617-720-2991, maahmuseum.org

> American Textile History Museum

This museum, housed in an old mill and affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, affords a hands-on experience with all things fabric. Its current exhibition, “Suited for Space” (through March 3), details the evolution of the spacesuit. 491 Dutton Street, Lowell, 978-441-0400, athm.org

7. PLAY CAR GAMES

If you plan to drive for a day-trip, make getting there fun. Forget those expensive travel games with the teeny-tiny magnetic pieces. I Spy and License Plate Bingo require little more than a few players and an open road.

8. IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Boston is famous for being a city of neighborhoods. Spend a day — or more — soaking up the atmosphere in a new community. Check out the handy neighborhood brochures at cityofboston.gov/neighborhoods.

Iker Ayestaran for the boston globe

Take a vacation from meal planning, prep, and cleanup by hiring a personal chef.

9. TREAT YOURSELF

You’re saving a boatload of cash on travel and accommodations, so why not spring for some luxury services normally reserved for the 1 percent?

> Take a vacation from meal planning, prep, and cleanup by hiring a personal chef. The service can make “you feel a little pampered,” says Boston-based chef Lester Esser, whose pricing starts at $250 plus the cost of groceries for four to five complete meals for two. 617-512-5114, lesteresser.com

> Drop off your laundry for wash-and-fold service.

> A couple of small home improvements — like a deep cleaning or repainting a room — will last even after your co-workers’ tans have faded. Reserve these services and more on Handybook.com, a new site (developed in the Harvard Innovation Lab) that lets you choose from a list of fixed-price services available in your area.

10. GET A ROOM

Staying local doesn’t necessarily mean staying at home. Whether you’re looking for a romantic night out or a family getaway, take advantage of special packages.

the liberty hotel

The Liberty Hotel offers skating passes for the Frog Pond on Boston Common.

> Winter Wonderland

The Liberty Hotel

You’ll receive skating passes for the Frog Pond on Boston Common, hot chocolates or hot toddies in the hotel’s Liberty Bar, and breakfast for two. 215 Charles Street, Boston, 617-224-4000, libertyhotel.com; from $229 per night, through March 30 (Frog Pond skating is expected to last through mid-March)

> Sweets for My Sweetheart

The Langham, Boston

This is classic romance: chocolate-covered strawberries, a bottle of champagne, rose petals on your pillows, and a meal at the hotel’s famous Cafe Fleuri Saturday Chocolate Bar (normally $40 per adult). Recover with late checkout the next day. 250 Franklin Street, Boston, 617-451-1900, boston.langhamhotels.com; from $389 per night (Fridays and Saturdays only), through March

> Couples Experience at Emerge

Clarendon Square Inn

Check in, then spend the day at nearby Emerge Spa & Salon on Newbury Street. You get a 60-minute couples’ massage, the “ultimate shave” for him and a wash and blow-dry for her, plus a private Hydrostorm therapy session — steam, shower, waterfall, and aromatherapy — and lunch in the spa’s penthouse lounge. 198 West Brookline Street, Boston, 617-536-2229, clarendonsquare.com; from $573 per night, through 2013

> Art Lovers Package

Millennium Bostonian Hotel

Stroll around the Museum of Fine Arts for the day before turning in at your room overlooking Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Wake up to breakfast for two at the hotel’s restaurant, North 26 (up to $50 value). 26 North Street, Boston, 617-523-3600, millenniumhotels.com/boston; from $249 per night, through 2013 

> Little Black Box

Revere Hotel

In your room, you’ll discover a “little black box” from the South End boutique Olives & Grace containing an assortment of gourmet foods from small-batch makers across the country. The package also includes two cocktails at the hotel’s Emerald Lounge and late checkout. 200 Stuart Street, Boston, 617-482-1800, reverehotel.com; from $449 per night, through March

> Bed and Breakfast

Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common

This package is designed to get you moving. In addition to free valet parking and breakfast for two at Artisan Bistro (includes tax and gratuity), you’ll have free access to the state-of-the-art Sports Club/LA on site. 10 Avery Street, Boston, 617-574-7100, ritzcarlton.com/boston; from $405 per night, through 2013

> Set Your Sights on Boston

Nine Zero, Hotel Marlowe, Onyx Hotel

See Boston like a VIP. The three Kimpton group hotels have sightseeing packages that include one breakfast for four and a private tour of Boston — complete with souvenirs — with a local tour company. 800-546-7866, kimptonhotels.com/hotels/hotels-boston.aspx (mention rate code PSYS); from $529 per night, through 2013

The Lenox

The Lenox in Back Bay has several rooms with fireplaces, and the chef will send up gourmet s’mores.

> S’mores and More

The Lenox Hotel

Enjoy a campfire favorite without having to camp. Several rooms have working fireplaces. A concierge will maintain your fire for you during your stay; even better, the kitchen will send up gourmet s’mores (no toasting necessary). Top it all off with breakfast at City Table the next morning. 61 Exeter Street, Boston, 617-536-5300, lenoxhotel.com; from $359 per night (two adults, one child), through 2013 

> Pirate Treasure Package

Seaport Hotel

The booty includes a welcome toy and gift bag for each child and complimentary kiddie sundaes with the purchase of a meal in Aura restaurant, TAMO Bar & Lounge, or through in-room dining. 1 Seaport Lane, Boston, 617-385-4000, seaportboston.com (reference code FEBKIDS); from $169 per night (two adults, up to three children), through February 24

11. WISH YOU WERE HERE

Send postcards to grandparents and friends. Need some inspiration? Visit the MFA exhibit “The Postcard Age,” which runs through April 14.

 12. AVOID THE TV TRAP

You’ll be hanging around home, but don’t just sit in front of the TV all week. Try these entertaining alternatives:

Theater  The Glass Menagerie, featuring an all-star cast that includes Zachary Quinto (Spock in the upcoming Star Trek movie), just opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. Starting March 8, Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company stages A Raisin in the Sun, while Oliver! runs at the Wheelock Family Theatre, in the Fenway, through February 24.

Film The Institute of Contemporary Art on Fan Pier is screening Oscar-nominated short films throughout February and March. If you’re staycationing because you’ve just welcomed a new bundle of joy, try the “Bring Your Baby” matinees at AMC theaters in Framingham, Burlington, and on Boston Common the first Tuesday of every month.

Events If you opted out of a trip to Orlando, you can still see “Disney on Ice Presents Rockin’ Ever After” at the TD Garden in Boston through February 24.

13. CHOOSE A THEME

While you might not be soaking in the atmosphere in an exotic locale, you can still have an immersive vacation experience by building activities around a fun theme. A few ideas:

Laura Barisonzi

Watch chocolate being made in Somerville.

> Just the Factories, Ma’am

The Taza Chocolate factory might not have Willy Wonka’s lickable wallpaper, but it does have organic dark chocolate and vintage candy-making machines (561 Windsor Street, Somerville, 617-284-2232, tazachocolate.com, reservations required). You can tour the Samuel Adams Brewery Mondays through Saturdays (30 Germania Street, Boston, 617-368-5080, samueladams.com) and the Harpoon Brewery on weekends (306 Northern Avenue, Boston, 617-456-2322, harpoonbrewery.com). Farther afield, take a weekday self-guided tour of the Cape Cod potato chip factory (100 Breed’s Hill Road, Hyannis, 888-881-2447, capecodchips.com).

> You Say You Want a Revolution?

Visit thefreedomtrail.org (or call 617-357-8300) to schedule a 90-minute tour with a costumed historian. Tours start at $10 per person ($125 minimum per group), and you pick the date, time, and route. A typical Freedom Trail tour goes from Boston Common to Faneuil Hall and includes 11 of 16 potential sites. Or for about $125 an hour, your family can enjoy a custom walking tour of historic sites from a private tour company like Boston Your Way (617-792-9710, bostonyourway.com). Back home, watch the Disney classic Johnny Tremain. Celebrate our first president’s birthday on February 22 by baking a Washington cake — you’ll find the recipe for it and other period dishes at the Old Sturbridge Village website (osv.org/explore_learn/recipes.html).

> Call It a Knight

Start with a visit to the Higgins Armory Museum, which features 4,000 pieces of armor and weapons (100 Barber Avenue, Worcester, 508-853-6015, higgins.org). Eat like a king with recipes from A Feast of Ice and Fire, the cookbook in which two local cooks reproduce dishes from George R.R. Martin’s best-selling fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire.” Daunted by ingredients like locusts? Try Boston’s famous Medieval Manor, where mussels and roasted herbed chicken are served up alongside swordfights and jousting. The Sunday show is discounted for families, but parents should know that the place rates itself “PG 15½’’ (246 East Berkeley Street, Boston, 617-423-4900, medievalmanor.com).

> How Sweet It Is

During maple sugaring season (late February to early April), visitors can learn how syrup is made at several Mass Audubon locations. One is the Ipswich Wildlife Sanctuary, which hosts the February Flapjack Fling & Sugaring Tours on February 23 (978-887-9264 or ipswichriver@mass-audubon.org; registration required). You can also visit one of the Bay State’s many family-run sugarhouses. The Williams Farm Sugarhouse (491 Greenfield Road, Deerfield, 413-773-5186, williamsfarmsugarhouse.com) serves up treats like maple sugar on snow with the traditional side of sour pickles. Find more farms at massmaple.org.

 

CoCo Key Water Resort

Feel the heat at CoCo Key in Fitchburg.

14. POOL YOUR RESOURCES

Take a dip without taking a trip at these hotels, which offer day passes (most cost $25 to $35 per adult, $5 to $25 kids) for swimmers.

> Boston Harbor Hotel

Saltwater lap pool, fitness room, saltwater Jacuzzi. 70 Rowes Wharf, Boston, 617-439-7000, bhh.com

> The Langham, Boston

Chuan Body + Soul spa, including the swimming pool. 250 Franklin Street, Boston, 617-451-1900, boston.langhamhotels.com

> SPA InterContinental

Lap pool. 510 Atlantic Avenue, Boston, 617-747-1000, intercontinentalboston.com

>CoCo Key

The area’s two CoCo Key indoor water parks both have tube slides, water cannons, and more. Check their websites for money-saving specials (family of four for $100; free grandparents Sundays; military discounts). CoCo Key Water Resort (at the Holiday Inn), 150 Royal Plaza Drive, Fitchburg, 978-342-7100, cocokeyfitchburg.com; CoCo Key Water Park (at the DoubleTree by Hilton), 50 Fencroft Road, Danvers, 978-646-1062, cocokeyboston.com

15. LEAVE YOUR DIET BEHIND

Your staycation might not feature boardwalk treats or a midnight buffet, but you can still indulge with a few of the area’s most decadent delicacies.

(Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe

Try the local fare at Kane’s Donuts in Saugus.

> Kane’s Donuts sells quite possibly the best doughnuts in the country. Make that the world. No, definitely the universe. 120 Lincoln Avenue, Saugus, 781-233-8499, kanesdonuts.com 

> Check out the oversize ice cream cones at Bedford Farms, which, true to local custom, remains open in the dead of winter. 18 North Road, Bedford, 781-275-6501, and 68 Thoreau Street, Concord, 978-341-0000; bedfordfarmsicecream.com

> Pay a visit to cash-only Cabot’s Ice Cream and Restaurant. They offer four different kinds of hot fudge for sundaes. ’Nuff said. 743 Washington Street, Newton, 617-964-9200, cabots.com

> Just outside of Faneuil Hall, Saus is a new counter-service eatery serving excellent french fries with your choice of 12 homemade sauces. 33 Union Street, Boston, 617-248-8835, eatfrites.com

> Belly up to a bowl of mac and cheese at the Silvertone Bar & Grill, where you can order yours with peas, crispy bacon, honey chili chicken, or steak. 69 Bromfield Street, Boston, 617-338-7887, silvertonedowntown.com

Iker Ayestaran for the boston globe

Take the scenic route.

16. TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE

16 Even if you’re heading for a familiar destination, make it a pretty drive. Find the best at byways.org, myscenicdrives.com, and similar websites.

17. BE YOUR GUEST

Transform your house into a romantic B & B. Go upscale — Frette sheets, organic toiletries — or just visit the dollar store for new hand towels, drinking glasses, and serving trays. Fill a “welcome” basket with soaps, lotions, toothbrushes, tea bags, and other items you’d find in a well-appointed guest room. Turn down the bed and leave chocolates on the pillows before you go out for the day.

18. THINK GLOBALLY, COOK LOCALLY

Now’s the chance to try cooking all those recipes you don’t make time for in everyday life. Hit your local library for a selection of international cookbooks and then hit the streets for authentic ingredients. Find a comprehensive list of ethnic food markets in the area at bostonmuseum.org/bostonethnicmarkets.html.

19. GIVE BACK

Use some of your time off to give back to your local community. Hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and area historic sites often need volunteers. At bostonvolunteer.org, you can peruse the calendar of events for no-commitment or last-minute opportunities. Events are sponsored by well-known charities like Rosie’s Place and Habitat for Humanity. “The site makes it easy for people to volunteer and help people,” says founder Josh Konoff. For families, the online calendar at www.bostoncares.org allows you to search for age-appropriate events like Kids Who Care Day at the Greater Boston Food Bank on February 20 from 1 to 3 p.m.

the boston globe

Save a trip and dine at EVOO in Cambridge, O Ya in Boston’s Leather Distict (above), or The Butcher Shop in the South End.

 20. EAT YOUR WAY ACROSS AMERICA

Zagat recently released a list of top-rated restaurants around the country. Skip the multi-city tour and check out these local taste-alikes instead:

> Bacchanalia in Atlanta gets praise from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its prix fixe menu and “easygoing luxury.’’ For a similar experience, try EVOO in Cambridge, where you can relax and enjoy a daily three-course menu or seven courses Mondays through Thursdays. 350 Third Street, Cambridge, 617-661-3866, evoorestaurant.com

> For sushi that will knock your tabi off — if you can get a table — you can’t beat Urasawa in Los Angeles. But you can’t beat Boston’s O Ya, either — if you can get a table. It made Zagat’s list, too. 9 East Street, Boston, 617-654-9900, oyarestaurantboston.com

> A butcher shop and wine bar in New Orleans, Cochon Butcher is a Zagat favorite. Boston’s own Butcher Shop is a restaurant, too, serving delectable house-cured meats and much more. 552 Tremont Street, Boston, 617-423-4800, thebutchershopboston.com

Stephanie Tyburski is a freelance writer in Arlington. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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