Almost Free Fun Activities for Middle Schoolers in Boston’s North End
Deciding What to Do
Recently, I had my two favorite middle schoolers for the day. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a car; I’d had to drop it off at the shop and it looked like it would be there for a couple of days. It was also one of the first very hot days of summer. So I decided we would hop the T (the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, our public transportation system) in search of adventure and something cool to do. Our travels took us to the Haymarket and the North End, where we soberly remembered World War II, ate well, and cooled off in a public fountain. And everything except the transportation and the lunch was absolutely free!
Taking the T
Public transportation in the Boston and Greater Boston area is relatively easy to use and frequent. I love being free to participate fully in our day trips, without having the added responsibility of driving (and the expense of parking). We took a bus to a local subway station and then took the subway train Inbound to Boston. Depending on where you are coming from, and on what line, you may need to switch. Ultimately, you will be either on the Green Line or the Orange Line and you should get off at the Haymarket T Station. This is the station that will bring you to where our little group began its jaunt to Boston’s North End.
The Haymarket, on Blackstone Street, (you cross it to get to Carmen Park and the New England Holocaust Memorial from the Haymarket T station’s Orange Line), has been operating informally for hundreds of years, and more formally since about 1830. These days, it only operates on Fridays and Saturdays, all year round (with the exception of Christmas and New Year). The hours, however, are informal. More precisely, there really aren’t any. Sellers get there relatively early in the day (typically between 6 and 7 a.m.) and pretty much stay until either their produce is sold out or bad weather drives them to pack up early. Since sellers tend to buy at Boston’s wholesalers, they sell at very low, bargain prices...but their wares are not necessarily organic, locally grown, or “fresh off the tree” and they also tend to be fairly ripe. That’s bad news if you’re buying produce to last you a week, but great news if you’d like to buy your family a few healthy snacks to eat right away (like on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, for example)!
New England Holocaust Memorial
The New England Holocaust Memorial should not be missed! This is especially true if you have middle school children with you, since, at least in Massachusetts, Holocaust literature is part of the middle school English Language Arts curriculum. The New England Holocaust Memorial is located in Carmen Park, a little rectangular green island bordering the streets that separate the Haymarket T station’s back entrance, the steps that lead up to Government Center’s City Hall Plaza, the North End, and the Quincy Market. The entrance on the Haymarket T station side is marked by a stone with an inscription of a quote by Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemoeller. The entrance on the Quincy Market side is marked by a memorial stone that tells the facts of the Holocaust; visitors to this Memorial often leave a stone (a Jewish tradition) or a flower (a Christian tradition) on top, to mark their visit. This entrance is also marked by a low chain fence, punctuated by rhombuses, reminiscent of the barbed wire that surrounded the Nazi death camps into which Jews and other “undesirables” had been herded.
The Memorial itself is really a pathway through tall glass tunnels inscribed with numbers, in memory of the tattoos that the Nazis placed on each concentration camp prisoner’s arm. Each structure is built over a steel grate and each structure is dedicated in memory of one of the camps. From these steel grates steam often comes up, to remind us of the horrid conditions in which concentration camp prisoners lived...and of their ultimate ghastly fate.
(On a side note: I am old enough to have been a pre-teen myself when the New England Holocaust Memorial was first inaugurated. Back then, the trees had just been planted, saplings, so there was no canopy over the glass structures of the Memorial. I was there on a very sunny summer day and, as I walked into the first glass structure, my entire hand and arm were suddenly covered in gray-ish black numbers (the effect of the sun’s rays shining through the Memorial’s glass panels). I was rooted to the spot, physically transported in time to World War II and in place to Auschwitz-Birkenau or, perhaps, Treblinka, the “children’s” camp. I could not breathe. I have never forgotten. As grateful as I am for the shady canopy that now exists, I wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for the future of humanity to cut them all down and begin again, so that my children’s generation can not only study and learn about these “acts of inhumanity that can stem from the seeds of prejudice” but feel them.)
The Quincy Market is another iconic area of Boston, on the way to the North End. There are many shops and stands, selling everything from Boston logo merchandise to Chinese embroidered knickknacks, handbags, and ornaments. There are also many different restaurants (Mija, for Mexican food and margaritas, for example) and food stalls indoors. For free (or the price of a donation, if you are so inclined), especially in summer, there are always outdoor performers to watch for entertainment, throughout the Marketplace. On the day we went, there was a man drumming on plastic (and one metal rim) buckets. There was also a dance/comedy troupe, called “Breeze Team” (judging by the back of their T-shirts), which we enjoyed for an entire half hour before our stomachs grumbled, reminding us that we needed lunch.
What do you think of Umberto's?
Where to Eat
There are many places to eat in the North End, most of them good, many of them upscale. You should budget spending about $10-$20 per person, depending on where you decide to go. My personal favorite, however, is: Galleria Umberto, 289 Hanover Street, Boston, MA (617) 227-5709. Here is my review:
One of the not-so-secret best places to eat lunch in the North End - or anywhere in Boston - is Galleria Umberto. I have been eating Umberto's pizza since I came to the U.S. when I was 2 years old. My family would make the trek in from East Boston, in all kinds of weather, to shop for fresh vegetables and fruit at the outdoor Haymarket and then venture into the North End for everything from bread (at Umberto's when they were mainly a bread bakery selling pizza slices on the side) to shoes. The lines have always been long, with people waiting patiently for up to an hour for a slice of heavenly pizza from this family-run and operated eatery. Since the mid-70s, when they moved from Parmenter Street to Hanover Street (the North End's main street), Umberto's has been serving slices of Sicilian style pizza by the panful to faithful regular customers and tourists alike. They also serve the best arancini (fried Sicilian rice balls filled with a meat, peas and cheese) I have ever eaten (and I keep trying to find similar or better, but with no success), spinach and ricotta-stuffed calzones, panzarotti (these are the Italian equivalent of a knish, mashed potatoes stuffed with ham and flavored with Italian parsley, shaped like a log and fried). They are usually open 11-2, Monday through Saturday, but you should definitely plan to get there early: when they run out, they close. If you would rather take your meal to eat al fresco (at the Rose Kennedy Greenway across from Hanover Street, for example), you can also call ahead and pick up your order. Note: if you're in Boston in July, you are out of luck: the family closes down for the month and takes its annual (well-earned) vacation.
Are you a Mike's or a Modern Family?
Which of these two famous North End bakeries was your favorite?
Caffè and Dessert
There is an ages old rivalry in Boston’s North End when it comes to pastry, between Mike’s Pastry (300 Hanover Street, (617) 742-3050) and Modern Pastry (recently expanded right next door to its former address at 257 Hanover Street, (617) 523-3783). The lines at both bakeries spill out the door, year round. Modern Pastry recently expanded and patrons can now sit and enjoy their coffee and cannoli (or any other delectable pastry, such as hearty cream-filled lobster tails or delicate fruit-topped custards). At Mike’s, the pastries are just as varied, hand-crafted, and delicious. The only real downside, IMNotSHO, is that Mike’s fills its cannoli ahead of time, so they have a tendency towards what I call “sogginess creep” (they’re not exactly soggy but you can see and taste that the cannoli are on their way there!). Modern, on the other hand, fills its cannoli when you order them, so it can take a long while (no, they haven’t forgotten about your order, but you will probably start to wonder!) - especially if you order multiple cannoli. Modern tends to be the favorite of die-hard North End locals (full disclosure: my family has been a Modern family since we landed in the US, way back in ’68; nonetheless, I do recommend you try them both and make up your own mind because they are both quite good, but for different reasons), while Mike’s Pastry tends to be the tourist fave. Note: Both pastry shops are CASH ONLY!! Try them both and see which you like better! Or, of course, you can opt to stop in at one of the myriad Italian coffee shops, such as the Caffè Paradiso, Caffè Vittoria or Caffè dello Sport. No matter which option you choose, please take a moment to come back to this article and share your experience in the Comments...or take the poll!
Cooling Off in North End Park
Summers in Boston tend to be hot and humid, with temperatures rising to the mid-90s. There are several places in Boston where kids - and adults - can cool off in water. I strongly advise you to make sure you and your kids wear bathing suits and (following the advice in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) always carry a towel, even if you’re just running into Boston for a museum visit, or for a Haymarket run. In the North End, there are spray fountains in the two parks of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. This park is located where the elevated expressway used to be. This expressway was torn down and brought underground in the ‘90s, as part of the Big Dig project. Luckily, Boston politicians and community leaders decided to turn the 15 acres of land into green space and, thus, the Rose Kennedy Greenway (home to five parks) was born!
Whether you live in or near Boston, or are visiting from farther afield, the North End offers a lovely place for a jaunt with middle schoolers...or without! Please feel free to let me know if you tried/liked (any of) the ideas presented here or to add your own suggestions for almost free fun things to do in Boston's North End!