Eight Hidden Gems to Explore on the Water in Boston

Beat the crowds and visit these spots.

belle isle marsh

Belle Isle Marsh photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

As summers get hotter in Boston, finding ways to cool off will continue to be a priority. Blessedly, it’s almost always cooler along the shore as sea breezes brush across the water and bring relief from the heat. Plenty of locals escape to lake houses and beach-side cottages, but there are myriad waterfront options within and near the city that are just a walk, pedal, or train ride away. Some of these spots are perfect for finding solace on a hot day, while others are cool spots that can be visited in any season.

For the folks who associate perfect harbor views with East Boston’s Piers Park, riverfront cycling with Memorial Drive, waterfront movies with the Hatch Shell on the Esplanade, and harbor swimming with the L Street Beach, here are some new options for exploring Boston’s coastlines and rivers. From the North End to the city’s southern border, there’s a local waterfront adventure for any time of day or year.

Swim in Mirabella Pool

Floating pools are all the rage in European cities, but Boston has long had an outdoor pool with an exceptional view right on the water’s edge. Mirabella Pool sits on the North End waterfront between the U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters and the recently renovated Langone and Puopolo Parks. Off-season, the nearby bocce courts provide a great place to play the game or people watch. In addition to swimming and bocce, pool and park visitors can enjoy views of Charlestown, including the USS Constitution and Bunker Hill Monument, as well as the Tobin and Zakim bridges.

Historic maps show that there was a waterfront park with a public beach at this location from 1895 until at least the late 1930s, so there’s a long legacy of swimming at this site. Today, the 38-meter pool is open to all, with a complicated but equitable registration process thanks to COVID-era protocols that have made it both easier and harder to visit the pool. (It’s now free but also requires an advance reservation.) Anyone with a Boston Centers for Youth and Families account can reserve a swim time for free 24 hours in advance. Morning lap swims and 105-minute pool access can be booked for Wednesdays through Sundays, with slightly shorter hours on Thursday and Friday.

475 Commercial St., Boston

Relax at Constitution Beach

Even the official state parks website describes Constitution Beach as “one of Boston’s hidden waterfront gems.” The nearly half mile arc of beach descends slowly into water that is shallow and protected enough to feel warm when the rest of the harbor has a North Atlantic chill. The range of playground equipment, the tidy bath house, and the seemingly ubiquitous presence of one ice cream truck or another makes this a great place to go with a family.

From the beach, there are clear views of planes taking off and landing at Logan Airport, though they only fly directly over the beach if the wind is right. Meanwhile the Blue Line whooshes by on tracks that run parallel to the beach, and the Orient Heights T station is a three-minute walk from the beach entrance. The parking lot is also, for the time being, the northern terminus of the Mary Ellen Welch Greenway, a multimodal path that extends all the way to the waterfront near Maverick Square.

0 Barnes Ave., Boston

Kayak in Allston

Between MIT’s Campus and the Back Bay, it’s easy to believe that the Charles River is wide and straight. Paddling from Allston is a reminder of just how narrow, meandering, and bridge-crossed it is. Setting off upriver from the Charles River Canoe and Kayak docks can feel like escaping into the wilderness with trees overhanging the riverbanks, ducks and cormorants watching from rocks and buoys, and only an occasional building visible above the trees. Setting off downriver, the current helps to do the work as paddlers take in views of the Harvard and Boston University campuses and the city skyline.

Kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddle boards are all available to rent. If you’re paddling with a kid, you might want to rent a canoe, but if you’re a reasonably competent adult, kayaks tend to be a bit faster and easier to steer. One-way rentals incur an additional fee and some transportation logistics, but the opportunity to avoid going upriver and a chance to end the trip exploring the Storrow Lagoon along the Esplanade are well worth it. If you’re starting and ending in Allston, the Owl’s Nest beer garden at Christian Herter Park is an eight-minute stroll from the rental center with Artesani Playground, and usually an ice cream truck, just beyond.

1071 Soldiers Field Road, Boston

Explore the Neponset River Greenway

A confident cyclist can travel more than seven miles along the Neponset River from Readville to Joseph Finnegan Park. Anyone looking for the best of the Neponset River Greenway should start at Mattapan Square and walk, run, roll or pedal to Pope John Paul Park. This segment is entirely on protected paths that wind intimately along the slow-moving Neponset River. Here, the path also runs parallel to the Mattapan High Speed line that extends past the Red Line at Ashmont, offering transit stops that allow folks to explore the path in shorter segments. The Harvest River Bridge is a highlight, with some of the best views of the river, and the off shoot for the Baker Chocolate Factory provides a lovely historic detour.

Regardless of the weather, the path will have other users of all ages and backgrounds enjoying it too. The dense tree canopy offers a layer of protection from the sun on hot days and from light precipitation on rainier ones. For a classic local snack or to escape truly inclement weather, visit Le Foyer Bakery in Mattapan, Steel and Rye in Milton, or Yellow Door Taqueria in Lower Mills.

Climb the Observation tower in Bell Isle Marsh

Where East Boston, Winthrop, and Revere meet is a 350-acre salt marsh reminiscent of the historic shoreline of the area prior to landfilling, wharf building, and seawall construction. Turning off of Bennington Street, the sights and sounds change dramatically. Birds flock to the special ecosystem in the marsh, and signage helps novice birders identify bird species by look, habitat, and season.

For an elevated view of the whole marsh, hike 5 minutes in from the Bennington Street parking lot to a little island with a wooden observation tower topped by a weathervane. The ebbs and flows of the tide, submerging and revealing the salt marsh twice a day, add complexity to the view and reward regular visits. The Boston skyline, less than four miles away as an egret flies, sparkles beyond the marsh. For a more intimate but still elevated view, a quarter-mile boardwalk along the marsh’s southeast edge is accessible from Morton Street in Winthrop.

1399 Bennington St., Boston

Watch a Movie in Christopher Columbus Park

Emerging from the bustle of Faneuil Hall and crossing the Greenway, Christopher Columbus Park feels like an oasis, even when it’s packed with activities. There might be a busker performing along the Harborwalk, a snaking line for the ferries, or wedding photography under the trellis, and it will still provide the benefits of a good waterfront park by being greener, cooler, and calmer than the city behind it. One of the best times to visit the park is at dusk on a summer Sunday, when the Friends of Christopher Columbus Park show vintage movies on the lawn. The combination of movie watching and harbor watching is hard to beat.

In cooler months, don’t miss the annual trellis lighting around Thanksgiving that kicks off the holiday light season, and keeps glowing through the winter months. By Valentine’s Day, hearts and other decorations are added to make it a “tunnel of love.” Whenever there are harbor fireworks, this park has the best lawn for viewing them. All year round, the rose garden, the playground, and the ferry arrivals make the park a joyful destination.

Atlantic Ave., Boston

Ship watch on the Reserved Channel

Boston is not only a historic port city, it has a vibrant working waterfront today, if you know where to find it. Last summer, Massport installed three new cranes to accommodate bigger container ships at Conley Terminal, and after an early pandemic lull, the container ships and cruise ships are back in Boston Harbor and docked along the Reserved Channel. Watching a large container ship arrive in port or pull out with a new load is best viewed from the end of the 88 Black Falcon pier, which is accessible to people walking and biking when there’s not a cruise ship docked there.

Vessels with other cargo—fuels, salt, and cars—tend to continue through the harbor and up towards Chelsea Creek and the Mystic River. For a gritty working port feel and a chance to watch these other ships come and go, the Pier 10 Park, also known as the Drydock Green Space, provides benches for watching the sea and plenty of shade provided by a grove of trees and hulking concrete silos. To watch the boat repair operations of the city’s largest remaining full time working dry dock, head inland to 3 Tide Street and climb up the viewing platform at Drydock Plaza.

Drydock Avenue, Boston

Check out the Condor Street Urban Wild

Each of the 29 urban wilds scattered across Boston is a hidden gem, a landscape less managed than a traditional park and often less obvious. The Condor Street Urban Wild is no exception, though it’s more manicured than most of the others. From the sidewalk, the grassy rise cuts off the view of the water, but follow the spiraling path to the top of the hill and there are views: back across American Legion Playground towards the triple-deckers lining Eagle Hill as well as across the Chelsea Creek towards Marginal Street, PORT (Publicly Organized Recreation Territory) Park, and the salt piles.

Though the urban wild was transformed from a brownfield site to a public space nearly two decades ago, the trees aren’t mature enough to cast much shade yet, so it’s best enjoyed on a cooler day. Depending on the wind and the tides, there may be airplanes flying directly overhead and huge fuel tankers being maneuvered up the creek by a team of tugboat pilots or there may only be occasional bird calls and the low rumble of nearby bridge traffic.

300 Condor St., Boston