Doing Boston in a day. An itinerary for making most of a short stay

`THE Bostonian who leaves Boston ought to be condemned to perpetual exile,'' wrote William Dean Howells a century ago. Today, as then, Bostonians blissfully ignore Howells's advice and travel to the far ends of the world on business and pleasure. Yet the statement still contains an element of truth, if it's taken to mean that Bostonians sometimes fail to appreciate the pleasures of their own city.

Hardly noticed by residents scurrying between home and work, Boston has become a major tourist attraction drawing thousands of visitors each year from around the country and the world.

As a 16-year resident (who realizes that, no matter how long I'm here, I'll never quite attain the title ``native''), I've been grateful to my out-of-town guests. It's been their interest in the history, culture, and beauty of Boston that has lifted me out of my recliner and into the city.

Whether from Minneapolis or New Zealand, St. Louis or London, they've wanted to know the best way to see the city, often having only a day or two for sightseeing before heading on their way.

While Boston's residential neighborhoods and outlying towns contain worthwhile attractions, I usually point first-time visitors to the downtown/waterfront and Back Bay/Fenway areas, the heart of the city. Below is one (admittedly arbitrary) way to spend a summer day in the ``Hub.'' All you need are comfortable walking shoes and a map.

Morning: getting the lay of the land

The best way to see Boston is on foot, setting your own pace and letting the leather meet the bricks. Begin at the information kiosk on Tremont Street at the Boston Common, the large downtown park. The city's most famous walk, the Freedom Trail, begins here, and is marked by red bricks or a painted line on the sidewalks. The three-mile walk takes you past most of the key historical sites that have made Boston famous. A stop at the Paul Revere House, for example, gives you a look at the only 17th-century building still standing in Boston.

For those who've already traveled the Freedom Trail, a new two-mile Harborwalk (marked by a blue line on the pavement) takes you along Boston's renovated waterfront, including the Waterfront Park and the Boston Tea Party Ship. The tour begins at the Old State House. Other walks take you to Beacon Hill, a historic residential district with narrow streets, brick town houses, and gas streetlamps, and along a Black Heritage trail.

For those who don't relish a morning on foot, there are a number of tour companies that use buses to cover essentially the same ground. Or if you'd rather take in the whole panorama of Boston at once, the Observatory atop the 60-story John Hancock Tower at Copley Square (tel. 247-1977) offers a great vantage point. Viewing tubes help you zero in on famous Boston sites, and historical exhibits explain how modern Boston blends the old with the new.

If you opt for this sky-high tour, you'll have another benefit: time to slip downstairs and over to the Public Garden for a turn on the ever-popular Swan Boats, still a bargain at 95 cents a ride (tel. 522-1966). These graceful pedal-powered boats have been a fixture in the park since 1877, and are said to have been inspired by the opera ``Lohengrin.''

Lunchtime: grazing Faneuil Hall

No matter where you've wandered on your morning, you're not far away from the Faneuil Hall Marketplace (Quincy Market). Here you'll find restaurants in every price range. But even more fun is ``grazing'' through the food stalls, which offer a range of ethnic and familiar dishes, along with desserts of seemingly endless variety.

An alternative: Head under the highway overpass (the Central Artery), walk a couple of blocks, and you're in the North End, an Italian neighborhood. Here you'll find everything from pizza to sweet-cream cannolis to fine cuisine.

Afternoon: museum extravaganza

If you stay in the downtown area, a trio of museums is likely to satisfy just about any interest. The Museum of Science (tel. 723-2500) has fascinating permanent exhibits as well as changing shows at its Planetarium and Omnivision Theater. Two new shows take advantage of the giant screen and formidable sound system in the Omni theater: ``We Are Born of Stars'' features 3-D and computer-generated effects, and ``The Seasons'' is set to the Vivaldi piece of the same name. Stealing all the headlines, however, is ``Ramesses the Great,'' which runs through Aug. 30. The exhibit features more than 70 treasures from the reign of the celebrated Egyptian pharaoh, dominated by a 57-ton, 25-foot-tall statue of Ramesses II. This exhibit has proved very popular; make sure to phone ahead for reservations (ticket tel. 723-2505).

Also nearby: The New England Aquarium (tel. 742-8870) features a giant 200,000-gallon central ocean tank, and a dolphin and sea lion show. The only Computer Museum (tel. 423-6758) in the United States shows the history of the computer from early vacuum-tube models to today's, with lots of hands-on exhibits.

If your interests run more to the arts, you may want to desert downtown for the nearby Fenway area, home of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (tel. 566-7401), an entire Venetian palazzo filled with a mind-boggling array of 2,000 objects, including paintings by European masters.

An alternative: Nearby the Museum of Fine Arts (tel. 267-9300) offers its outstanding collection of European paintings, especially the French Impressionists. The Asiatic department's Japanese and Chinese collections also rate a must-see.

To top off the day, head for afternoon tea (generally 3 to 5 p.m.), a tradition at several of Boston's luxury hotels, including the Copley Plaza (tel. 267-5300) and the Ritz-Carlton.

Later, you may want to prepare for an evening on the town ... but that's another story!

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