Boston's pricey, but having a good time together doesn't need to break your bank. Try these budget-smart plans for an outing and a meal. (Transportation and, unless otherwise noted, alcohol not included.)
1. CHECK OUT THE LIBRARY
No, we're not suggesting you read to each other. Most Boston-area public libraries have passes giving cardholding residents deep discounts on many local museums (passes are limited, so plan ahead or be flexible). Through the Boston Public Library website, my husband and I reserved a Sunday pass to Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (25 Evans Way, gardnermuseum.org) and picked it up at a library branch a few miles from our home. The pass got us in for $5 each — $10 off the normal per-person fee. (If you can't score a pass, go for the home team discount: Wearing Red Sox gear gets you $2 off regular admission at the Gardner — Isabella was a huge Sox fan.) We saw "Off the Wall: Gardner and Her Masterpieces" (on display through August 28) and left with an appreciation for both the art Gardner collected and her quirky, lively spirit. Afterward, we walked the roughly half mile to Mission Sushi & Wok (1625 Tremont Street). This Roxbury Crossing restaurant offers a pan-Asian menu, from Japanese sushi to Korean barbecue beef to Malaysian mee goreng, a stir-fried noodle dish. The sushi specialty rolls and bibimbap are particularly good. Many entrees are less than $15 each, and a number of lunch specials are priced around $10.
2. CHANGE THE GAME
Tickets to see Boston's best-known pro teams play practically guarantee a good time — but prices can be as memorable as the games. If you don't want to scour ticket services or sit in the bleachers, try one of the scads of other sporty options in the area. We picked up two tickets to see the Boston Breakers (bostonbreakerssoccer.com), Boston's professional women's soccer team, for $15 each with advance purchase (there is a $2 surcharge per ticket if you order online, so buy over the phone at 617-945-1704). After the game at Harvard's Jordan Field in Allston (65 North Harvard Street), go for a late dinner at Garlic 'n Lemons (133 Harvard Avenue), a cafeteria-style Middle Eastern restaurant. The price of an excellent chicken shawarma pita wrap: a most palatable $6.75. Both Jordan Field and the Allston restaurant are off the 66 bus line, but we found free parking near both locations — on a side street within a 15-minute stroll to the stadium and in a municipal lot behind Garlic 'n Lemons.
3. LOOK TO THE PAST
You can't walk out the door here without tripping over a historic site of one sort or the other. Playing tourist can make for a great brunch date. Try the inspiring Black Heritage Trail tour of Beacon Hill, which starts at the Beacon Street memorial commemorating Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment. Tours take place Mondays through Saturdays at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m. through September 3; in the fall, they will be offered Mondays through Saturdays at 2 p.m. (For more information, check nps.gov/boaf/index.htm.) It's a fascinating way to discover Boston's thriving 19th-century African-American community and its role in combating racial injustice and thwarting "slave catchers" dispatched by Southern slaveholders after 1850's Fugitive Slave Act. Plus, 90 minutes of ambling up and down Beacon Hill is good exercise, and the tour is free. That leaves plenty of budget for caramel and banana French toast ($11) and a guacamole and pepperjack omelet ($10) at The Paramount (44 Charles Street), an oasis of affordable food on Beacon Hill. (Be prepared to stand in line if you're going on a weekend.) Or for sandwiches and coffee, there's the Thinking Cup (165 Tremont Street).
4. TAKE A HIKE
Head out to Long Hill in Beverly, a 114-acre estate maintained by the Trustees of Reservations. The formal Sedgwick Gardens near the main house are lovely, and there's a relaxing 1.2-mile trail looping through woodlands. Best of all, it's free, as are many similar excursions. You can bring a picnic, or stop at Beverly's popular Depot Diner (23 Enon Street) for breakfast or lunch (it closes at 3 p.m.). Most menu choices are under $10, including the Chicago omelet (bacon, mushrooms, spinach, tomatoes, and Monterey Jack); the open-faced turkey sandwich with mashed potatoes and a vegetable will set you back $11.99.
5. BOWL YOUR DATE OVER
Play the quintessential New England game of candlepin bowling, invented in Worcester and affordable enough for any frugal Yankee. Norwood Sport Center (65 Cottage Street E, norwoodsportscenter.com) may not be the chicest place to bowl in Greater Boston, but it offers excellent value for candlepin. A string for two here costs $8.50 total, including shoe rental, and it's smashing fun.
Afterwards, treat yourselves to a mouthwatering Moroccan meal a few blocks away at Cafe Paprika (734 Washington Street), where a number of the entrees, such as lemon chicken tagine or salmon tagine, are just under $15 each. Don't worry if you don't know much about Moroccan food: Odds are good that the Norwood restaurant's hospitable owner, Lahson Abaichi, will be on duty as host, and he's happy to guide you through the menu.
If you prefer tenpin bowling, Boston Bowl in Dorchester (820 Morrissey Boulevard) offers special prices during off-peak hours (11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays): two games for $10 per person, including shoe rentals, socks, and 10 game-room tokens (no discounts on its candlepin lanes). After that, head over to Pho So 1 Boston (223 Adams Street) to enjoy a lunch of hot noodle soup (a large bowl costs $7.75).
6. TRY SOME HIP HOPS
Beer gets us closer to heaven, said some wishful wag. If true, brewery tours must be a step in the right direction. The Samuel Adams Brewery (30 Germania Street, Jamaica Plain) and the Harpoon Brewery (306 Northern Avenue, Seaport District) offer the best-known local tours. But we got our pint of heaven at Jack's Abby (100 Clinton Street, Framingham), where free tours take place on Sunday afternoons (reserve your spot online at jacksabby.com). There's plenty of parking (if one of you is the designated driver), or take the train—the brewery is about a half-mile from the Framingham commuter rail station. After the tour, head to the beer hall and kitchen, where beef goulash with bread dumplings is $10 and steamed mussels $12. You'll have cash left over for a flight or two of some of the 24 lagers on tap in the beer hall. Prices on those vary, but a blissful flight of four beers can easily be crafted for $7 or $8.
7. PROVE MILTON FRIEDMAN WRONG
The late economist famously wrote "there's no such thing as a free lunch," but there are free concerts, movies, and shows, especially in summer. You know about the ever-popular Free Shakespeare on the Common and the Free Summer Concert Series at the Hatch Shell, of course. Or get thee and thy date hence to options like Apollinaire Theatre Company's version of Hamlet, free in Chelsea's Port Park (99 Marginal Street), itself an intriguing landscape redesign featuring re-purposed industrial objects (the amphitheater reclaimed part of an old oil tank). The show runs Wednesdays through Sundays through July 31 at 8 p.m., with student performances in Spanish on July 30 and 31. (See apollinairetheatre.com for more information.) Don't forget to check the weather, and bring a chair or blanket to sit on. Parking is also free. For dinner, pack a picnic or hit the food trucks that Apollinaire has invited. Another good dining choice, about half a mile away, is Chelsea's Mi Salvador & Mexicano Restaurant (222 Broadway).
8. PUT PIZAZZ IN YOUR PICNIC
In good weather, picnics make a perfect afternoon date — a book of verses underneath a bough, as one poet said. Make it a memorable meal by shopping at a specialty food store. We went to Tutto Italiano (1889 River Street) in Boston's Hyde Park neighborhood. (Tom Menino, Boston's longtime mayor, was a frequent visitor.) Tutto Italiano is located in a nondescript strip mall, but inside, the family-owned store offers an alluring deli counter with a backdrop of, yes, beautiful loaves of fresh Italian bread. The shop sells huge takeout Italian sandwiches, as well as salads. Italian sodas and pastries complete your picnic menu; we spent less than $25 for the two of us. (There are also Italian groceries and wine.) Try picnicking at Houghton's Pond Recreation Area, less than 20 minutes away by car, in the Blue Hills (840 Hillside Street, Milton). Houghton's Pond includes lots of space for picnickers, as well as swimming (in a fairly shallow area), a beach, and fishing. There's also a walking trail around the pond. Parking is free, but it may take a while to find a space in summer. Tutto Italiano is open until 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, until 5 p.m. Saturdays, and is closed Sundays.
9. OPEN YOUR FRONT DOOR
One great date event that happens in spring and fall is the roving art exhibition that is Open Studios (cityofboston.gov/arts/visual/openstudios.asp). These are like neighborhood museums displaying local arts and crafts, plus you get to meet the artists. There are nearly a dozen open studios in Boston neighborhoods this fall, starting with Jamaica Plain Open Studios (September 17-18). If you head to JP, you can also try one of the neighborhood's many fun spots for lunch, such as the cafe and deli at City Feed and Supply (672 Centre Street), Cafe Beirut and its authentic Lebanese cuisine (654 Centre Street), and El Oriental de Cuba (416 Centre Street), a longtime Jamaica Plain standby for Cuban cooking.
10. BE LIKE ROCKY
Take a tip from Rocky and go skating with your honey this winter. The activity doesn't carve much out of the budget, even if you need to rent skates. Cambridge's Community Ice Skating at Kendall Square (300 Athenaeum Street) charges $8 a person to rent a pair of skates, plus $5 admission to the open-air rink. You can rent a locker for a buck. Take the Red Line to the Kendall Square stop, just a third of a mile away from the rink. If you drive, park in the Cambridgeside Galleria, which offers a weekend rate of $3.99 for up to 10 hours, or in the lot on 350 Kendall Street, which charges $2 an hour for up to three hours after 4 p.m. and on weekends, with validation. Skate in the afternoon, then warm up with a bowl of soup or one of the sandwiches — the Balakani, roasted eggplant, feta, basil, tomato, and pesto on ciabatta, is $8 — at nearby Cambridge spot Tatte Bakery & Cafe (318 Third Street).
Martha E. Mangelsdorf is a Boston-based writer and editor. Send comments to email@example.com.