THE FANTASY OF SPRING VACATION in a warm-weather paradise looms large in New Englanders’ imaginations. What sounds better: mud season and allergy attacks or white-sand beaches and afternoon naps in a hammock? With so many fascinating amusements at hand, though, saving some dough and aggravation by staying closer to home holds plenty of charm.
Here are seven ready-made itineraries spotlighting the vacation wonderland that’s right in your own backyard.
MAKE THE MOST OF THE WATERFRONT
For a day along Boston’s waterfront, start at the Channelside Lot (284 A Street). Parking on weekends is $5 all day. From there, it’s a short trip to a Flour Bakery (617-338-4333, flourbakery.com), where you can fuel up with a famous sticky bun and fabulous latte. (Grab a double chocolate cookie for later.)
Access the HarborWalk at the Hood Milk Bottle Plaza in front of the Children’s Museum. From there, either follow the South Boston Waterfront to Fan Pier or cross the Congress Street Bridge to stroll the HarborWalk on the other side of the channel. If you’re traveling with kids, plan to progress slowly. The HarborWalk stretches almost 40 miles and offers lots to see, from boats of all sizes to public art installations to piers dotted with starfish.
There’s also a whole fleet of museums. Throughout April vacation, the Boston Children’s Museum (617-426-6500, bostonchildrensmuseum.org) will host Earth Week activities, including live animal presentations on Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; check the website for times. Admission is $1 on Fridays if you wait until 5 p.m. to enter — the museum is open until 9 p.m. that day.
Are you a sucker for cephalopods? The “Tentacles Take Hold” exhibit at the New England Aquarium (617-973-5200, neaq.org), opening April 15, features a newly expanded home for the popular giant Pacific octopus.
Older kids may prefer a visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum (617-338-1773, bostonteapartyship.com), which offers an immersive reenactment of our country’s most famous early political protest with hands-on participation, costumed actors, and state-of-the-art 3-D holograms.
At the Institute of Contemporary Art (617-478-3100, icaboston.org), kids under 17 always enter free, and on April 22, families can meet artist Dave Ortega from 2 to 4 p.m. to hear him discuss the life-size comic he is creating. When buying tickets, don’t forget to ask for a free ICA Gallery Games pack, which has art-based activities to help kids ages 2 and up engage with the works on display.
All of this museum-hopping can work up an appetite. Best bets for lunch include the Barking Crab (617-426-2722, barkingcrab.com), whose carnival atmosphere and kids’ menu make it a favorite for families. There’s also Mario Batali’s Babbo (617-421-4466, babbopizzeria.com), open for about a year now, which has quickly become a Boston favorite, with wonderful wood-fired pies as well as pasta, salads, cocktails, and more. Parents with young kids might want to dine after 1 p.m. to avoid the lunch crunch.
Before heading home for the day, check out the Greenway Carousel, across from Faneuil Hall Marketplace. For just $3, you can jump on beautifully carved beasties like butterflies, squirrels, and lobsters.
EXPLORE HISTORY — AND ITALIAN FLAVOR — IN THE NORTH END
The North End is home to window boxes, winding streets, Italian ristorantes — and two notable Freedom Trail stops: the Old North Church and the Paul Revere House. The church (617-523-6676, oldnorth.com) is actually part of a trio of historic buildings. At Captain Jackson’s Historic Chocolate Shop, you can learn how chocolate was made in the 18th century and enjoy a free sample; at the Printing Office of Edes & Gill, you can experience a working Colonial-era print shop. The church itself offers half-hour guided tours (Monday through Saturday between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., limited schedule on Sundays starting in early afternoon) and, on its website, a self-guided tour you can follow via your smartphone.
At the Paul Revere House (617-523-2338, paulreverehouse.org), where the midnight rider and his family lived off and on between 1770 and 1800, four rooms are open to the public and tours are self-guided. The Colonial cookware in the kitchen is especially fascinating to kids.
The North End is just one of 20 stops made by the knowledgeable (and funny) conductors of Old Town Trolley Tours (855-396-7433, trolleytours.com/boston). Ticket prices ($36.86 for adults and $17.96 for kids if you buy online) include admission to the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum (see “Make the Most of the Waterfront”).
Or you can combine lunch and sightseeing with a Boston Pizza Tour (800-979-3370, bostonpizzatours.com). During the 2½-hour walk, you’ll see North End Freedom Trail landmarks and sample slices from some of Boston’s best pizzerias, such as the original Pizzeria Regina (617-227-0765, reginapizzeria.com). Guides customize itineraries based on the day of the week and the size and pizza preferences of your group, so each tour is unique.
There’s a longstanding debate about which North End pastry palace is better: Mike’s Pastry or Modern Pastry. Try both and settle it for yourself. At Mike’s (617-742-3050, mikespastry.com), go for the classic cannoli (con chocolate chips, of course), with a flaky shell and just-sweet-enough ricotta filling. At Modern (617-523-3783, modernpastry.com), the specialty is the sfogliatella (if your Italian’s rusty, just ask for a lobster tail), filled with either real heavenly clouds or creamy custard — it’s hard to tell.
When dinnertime arrives, the intimate yet family-friendly Antico Forno (617-723-6733, anticofornoboston.com) bakes authentic pizza and pasta dishes in a wood-fired oven. Even the pickiest eaters will enjoy the tender gnocchi covered in a rich tomato sauce and bubbling mozzarella
Trying to find parking in the North End is an experience best avoided, so take the Orange or Green Line to Haymarket Station. From there, Hanover Street, the North End’s main thoroughfare, is less than 10 minutes away. Atop the Orange Line Haymarket Station is the new indoor Boston Public Market (617-973-4909, bostonpublicmarket.org), where you can browse almost 40 vendors selling only locally made products, including Q’s Nuts (the Mexican chocolate almonds are addictive) and Mange, which offers amazing fruit vinegars (the mango is revelatory). Some vendors are doing special programming for kids during April vacation week. Pro tip: The Parcel 7 Parking Garage, above the market, charges $3 for up to three hours with proof of purchase.
DIM (SUM) THE LIGHTS IN CHINATOWN AND THE THEATRE DISTRICT
The Rose Kennedy Greenway’s (617-292-0020, rosekennedygreenway.org) Chinatown Park (follow Surface Road from Essex Street) meanders through bamboo groves, over pavement designed to look like a Chinese chessboard, and past a rocky stream. It ends at Beach Street with one of Boston’s most impressive landmarks: the “paifang” gate, a gift from Taiwan, with traditional guardian lions on each side.
Once you’re in Chinatown, the lovely fruit-topped cakes on display in the window of Ho Yuen Bakery (617-426-8320) will draw you — and your little ones — inside. You can’t go wrong with the sweet pineapple buns, sesame balls, egg custard tarts, or savory beef buns, especially since they’re all less than $1.25.
Next, stock up on items like rice bowls, teapots, pitchers, coconut-shaped drinkware, and more, all at discount prices, at Great Wall Kitchen Supply (617-350-3136). Aisles are tight and much of the stock is breakable, so if you have toddlers in tow, you may prefer to browse fans, stuffed animals, lanterns, toys, and other colorful kid magnets sold here and there by street vendors. Another hit with kids (and adults) is Essex Corner (617-338-8882), a cheerful, eclectic shop where you’ll find everything from racks of chopsticks to small toys, plants, home decor, jewelry, scarves, soaps, and much more.
Chinatown is home to a dizzying array of dim sum restaurants. For the most part, all of the well-known spots, including Hei La Moon (617-338-8813) and Chau Chow City (617-338-8158), are worth a try. China Pearl (617-426-4338) welcomes guests with a light-up cherry tree and offers a wide selection of dim sum classics wheeled around on carts.
After dining, head to the Theatre District for a show. Just in time for school vacation, the Citi Wang Theatre (617-482-9393, citicenter.org) will be staging The Wizard of Oz from April 12 to 24. The show is an adaptation of the beloved film with the addition of new songs by Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, who previously collaborated on hits like Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. From April 29 to May 26, see Swan Lake at the Boston Opera House (617-259-3400, bostonoperahouse.com) in a Boston Ballet production as lavish as the venue. Eleven and a half million people have seen the wacky murder mystery Shear Madness, which runs at the Charles Playhouse (617-426-6912, charlesplayhouse.com) every day except Monday. It’s recommended for anyone older than 13, but there’s not really anything to upset younger children — many jokes will go right over their heads.
A trip to the theater can be pricey, so search for tickets discounted up to 50 percent on goldstar.com/boston (think Groupon for events). Sign up for e-mail alerts or get the app to score a deal. Tickets are often for less popular showtimes, so it’s a great resource when your schedule is flexible.
NERD OUT OVER WEIRD SCIENCE IN CAMBRIDGE
Geeks of any age can find endless fun at the 10th Annual Cambridge Science Festival from April 15 through 24 in locations across the city. Governor Charlie Baker takes the stage at First Parish at the kickoff event, Big Ideas for Busy People (tickets required; $10 per person), where top scientists will present innovative notions for the future and take questions from the audience. Other events include the Science Carnival and Robot Zoo (April 16, free), kids’ Lego workshops (April 19, $15; preregistration required), and a cooking demonstration by America’s Test Kitchen (April 21, free; first come, first seated). Check cambridgesciencefestival.org for listings and locations of more than 100 events.
Festival or not, every day is a good day to get your science on in Cambridge. All of the area’s science museums are a pleasant walk from Red Line stops, so start your day at Alewife Station (mbta.com), where parking is $7.
In Central Square, grab a cup of Turkish or Arabic coffee at Andala Coffee House (617-945-2212, andalacoffeehouse.com) or stop at Cafe Luna (617-576-3400; cafeluna-centralsq.com) for weekend brunch with uncommon offerings like eggs Benedict with prosciutto and fig jam and chocolate-stuffed French toast. Reservations recommended.
At the MIT Museum (617-253-5927, web.mit.edu/museum/) in Central Square, see the eerie face of Kismet, the world’s first sociable robot, and then celebrate the centennial of MIT’s move to Cambridge by contributing to a collaborative mural made from tech materials like magnets, copper tape, and LED stickers.
Take the train to Harvard Square for lunch at Clover Food Lab (cloverfoodlab.com), which applies the scientific method to perfecting sandwiches like its chickpea fritter with hummus and pickled vegetables.
Once you’ve filled up at Clover, head over to the Harvard Museum of Natural History (617-495-3045, hmnh.harvard.edu), where you can touch a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite and check out the new marine life exhibit showcasing creatures from local waters. Admission ($12 for adults) also gets you into the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology (617-496-1027; peabody.harvard.edu). Both museums are free to Massachusetts residents (with ID) on Sundays from 9 a.m. to noon and on Wednesdays from 3 to 5 p.m. September through May.
Ever wonder how those Boston Marathon runners have so much endurance? Learn all about it at the Museum of Science (617-723-2500, mos.org) on April 9, 10, 16, and 17, when exhibits throughout the museum will focus on the science of long-distance running. The museum is a 15-minute walk from the Charles/MGH Red Line stop, mostly along the river. (Or transfer to the Green Line at the Park Street station and get off at the museum’s Science Park stop.)
If you want to turn a staycation into a mini-vacation, try one of the hotel packages offered on the Museum of Science website for properties like the luxurious Boston Omni Parker House and the modern Hotel Marlowe in Cambridge. Both packages include museum passes, cookies, breakfast, and a gift for the kids.
REVEL IN ART AND MUSIC ON THE E BRANCH
Hop on the E branch of the Green Line for a trip to some of Boston’s most renowned cultural attractions. The Boston Symphony Orchestra (888-266-1200, bso.org) performance at 1:30 p.m. on April 22 is one of the last of the season and features favorite works by Dutilleux, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Ravel. Even if you don’t score tickets to a performance, Symphony Hall offers hourlong tours on some Wednesday afternoons at 4 and some Saturday afternoons at 2. Discover why it’s one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world and learn about the statues throughout the building and the audition process for musicians. Tours are free; online reservations are required.
If you tour Symphony Hall on a Wednesday, follow it up with a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts (617-267-9300, mfa.org), where admission for adults is by voluntary donation after 4 p.m. that day. But kids enter free all during school vacation week, when activities will revolve around recycling, including the chance to make treasures from trash at drop-in events. Voluntary-donation evenings are great chances to see a hidden gem — like the gallery featuring more than 150 pieces of jewelry from the ancient Mediterranean — or to catch a special exhibition, like the #techstyle show of futuristic fashion that opened last month (it runs through July 10).
Vacation week events at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (617-566-1401, gardnermuseum.org) will also celebrate Earth Day (April 22). Among the activities various days from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., visitors can make a relaxing body scrub or a hanging planter. Isabella was a member of Red Sox nation, and visitors sporting Sox merchandise get a $2 discount on admission.
Pretend you’re living Gardner’s opulent lifestyle for a day, and dine at the lovely Lenox Hotel, a few steps from the Copley stop (where the E branch joins the B, C, and D branches). City Table restaurant (617-933-4800, citytableboston.com) is formal enough to feel like a treat for children and adults but casual enough that parents needn’t stress. It has kids’ menus for breakfast/brunch and dinner, so your little one can nosh on chocolate chip pancakes or mac and cheese while you enjoy croissant French toast with bananas Foster (served during weekend brunch) or steak frites.
After all this staycationing, you may feel the need to give back. The Shops at Prudential Center, another E branch stop, will hold its annual Volunteer Expo on April 14 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in celebration of National Volunteer Week (April 10 to 16). At this free event, learn about opportunities to become involved with more than 60 charitable organizations.
While you’re at the Pru, consider taking a trip to the 50th floor for 360-degree views of Boston from the Skywalk Observatory (617-859-0648, skywalkboston.com) or hopping on a Duck Tour (617-267-3825, bostonducktours.com) and quacking past 36 Boston landmarks.
CLIMB THE WALLS IN SOMERVILLE
Need to get your kids up and out early on a vacation day? Promise them a visit to Union Square Donuts (617-209-2257, unionsquaredonuts.com). Featured April flavors include toasted coconut and raspberry jam. Cinnamon sugar is one of the vegan varieties. You, too, can indulge guilt-free in some deep-fried deliciousness (orange cardamom poppy, perhaps?), since you’ll be working off those calories.
Park free at 30 Dane Street Garage and walk two minutes to Brooklyn Boulders (617-623-6700, brooklynboulders.com/somerville/), a 40,000-square-foot climbing facility with one of the largest bouldering walls in North America. “A family can have a real physical adventure here without leaving town,” says events and partnerships manager Abby Taylor.
To save time, fill out your waivers online before you visit. Once you’ve bought day passes ($25 adults, $20 students) and had a quick orientation, you’ll be ready to hit the walls. Parents can climb with their younger kids while teens are free to explore on their own. School vacation weeks see a spike in visitors, but the welcoming, well-staffed gym is ginormous, and you’ll always find room on the walls. Bring your own lunch or grab a snack at the front desk, and plan to stay awhile.
Time your midafternoon departure with a visit to Artisan’s Asylum (617-284-6878, artisansasylum.com), a few doors down. This 40,000-square-foot “collaborative makers space’’ full of tools, equipment, and wacky inventions caters to creatively inclined adults, but the projects tend to be colorful and kid-like. Daily tour times are displayed in an online schedule. “Science Bob” from Jimmy Kimmel Live! builds stuff here. Check out his hovercraft, as seen on TV.
MILL AROUND IN LOWELL
Start midmorning for a day of time travel to Lowell circa 1910, when the mighty Merrimack River, still breathtaking to behold, powered the Industrial Revolution. If you and your kids need a power boost, grab organic smoothies at LifeAlive (978-453-1311, lifealive.com) before heading to the visitor center at the Lowell National Historical Park (nps.gov/lowe). The city’s April PLAYcation (lowellkidsweek.org) offers more than 20 kid-friendly activities around Lowell, including several right at the park. The desk staff can provide the daily schedule of events or direct you to the trolley that runs to the not-to-be-missed Boott Cotton Mills Museum, which is part of the national park.
If you’re traveling on foot, it’s a 10-minute stroll on cobblestone streets lined with restored red-brick mill buildings. Along the way, children can check out the black steam locomotive preserved for the public to enjoy.
At the Boott Museum, kids love the weaving room that bangs and clangs as it turns out real cloth, available for purchase at the museum store. Admission is free for National Park Week (April 16 to 24). Plan to spend an hour exploring the two floors of interactive exhibits, then head down to the paved Riverwalk for a stroll that literally tells the story (interpretive wayside panels line the path) of how water power transformed this textile town. After approximately a half mile, you’ll hit LeLacheur Park, home of the minor league Lowell Spinners (lowellspinners.com). That’s a good place to turn around and head back to town for lunch.
Merrimack Street offers many great picks for young palates. Try El Potro (978-455-2840, elpotromexicangrill.com) for Mexican food in an animated atmosphere or, around the corner, Tremonte Pizzeria (978-453-1110, tremontepizzeria.com), which serves delicious thin-crust pies and has patio dining.
Sandra A. Miller and Stephanie Tyburski are regular contributors to the Boston Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that kids enter the MFA free of charge during school vacation week, that the museum’s #techstyle show is included with the price of admission, and that the ancient Mediterranean gallery is not new.