The Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the New England region of the north-eastern USA offers fantastic experiences for family holidays, ranging from the natural (mountains, woods, water and land activities, ocean beaches) to the cerebral (museums, fine and performing arts, historic sites) and the gustatory (local seafood).
We focus on the three areas offering the most for families: Boston, nearby Cape Cod (including the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard), and the Berkshires and western Massachusetts. In a week, you might choose to stay in one area and really get to know it, or crisscross the state and hit some (but not all) of the highlights. Because of its small size, you can drive from the Berkshires (western Massachusetts) to Boston (or vice versa) in 2.5hrs (though not during rush hour or on a summer weekend). The trip from Boston to Cape Cod is 1–2hrs, depending on your destination.
Things to do with kids in Massachusetts
Explore Boston, the largest city and state capital, as well a major port and hub of business, learning and culture. Intellectualism has thrived here for three centuries. With kids 8 and older, join a guided tour to walk the 4km Freedom Trail, passing 16 significant historic sites – museums, burial grounds, churches, parks and historic markers – for an overview of the American Revolution and beyond. The riverfront Boston Children’s Museum has been delighting kids 3–10 for more than 90 years with interactive exhibits, live performances and hands-on activities. The Franklin Park Zoo has the usual furry, fuzzy and feathered suspects, plus a farm, while the New England Aquarium is the place to say hello to four species of penguins, watch northern fur seals cavort in an open-air pavilion, and go on a museum-sponsored whale watch. The Museum of Science has dozens of exhibits, plus a 3-D digital cinema simulating a swim with whales, a 5-storey IMAX screen, the Hayden Planetarium and a simulator. Lastly, board a Boston Harbour Cruise and take to the water for a cruise, whale-watching trip or high-speed ferry ride to Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod (see below).
For more on what to do in Beantown (so-called because beans baked in molasses were a staple during colonial times), see BostonUSA (bostonusa.com) and HelloBoston (helloboston.com).
Head for Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth (best reached by car on your way to or from Cape Cod) to visit an authentic Wampanoag homesite, come aboard the Mayflower II, stroll through a re-creation of a 1627 English village and get a real feel for the challenges faced by the Pilgrims.
Disover Cape Cod southeast of Boston, linked to the mainland via two bridges. This landscape of gently rolling hills, woods and marshes is great for family holidays, offering biking, fishing and boating, beautiful ocean beaches, and singular clam shacks and seafood restaurants that draw summer visitors in droves (if possible, visit in late Aug–mid-Oct). Note that a ferry runs from downtown Boston to Provincetown if you want to avoid driving. Family highlights are the Cape Cod Children’s Museum in Mashpee, with hands-on experiences for ages 1–10, including a pirate ship, a submarine simulator and a clam shack, and the Cape Cod Rail Trail from Denis to Wellfleet (you can hire bikes from Brewster Rail Trail Bike & Kayak). May–Oct, observe whales and dolphins on a 4hr Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruise from Barnstable Harbor, with a naturalist spinning tales for kids 6 and up (tip: dress in layers, even in summer, and stock up on Bonine, a mild over-the-counter motion-sickness pill).
Head for Cape Cod’s beaches. The powdery sand and calm waters of the Cape’s south side on Nantucket Sound are especially kid-friendly, but the east side’s dunes, open water and heavy Atlantic surf are also a must-see. Come to the latter to hike the trails, stroll the beach, make sandcastles and take pictures. Turn off Route 6 between Eastham and Provincetown for the magnificent Cape Cod National Seashore with its numerous facilities. Alternatively, on your way to Provincetown (and preferably on a weekday), stop at the Province Lands Visitor Center for information, then explore the Beach Forest Trail and ooooh and aaaah over the panorama of dunes and ocean at Race Point before shopping and dining in quirky, colourful, gay-friendly Provincetown.
With kids six and up, take a ferry to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard with the Steamship Authority or Hyline Cruises, cruising on open water, lunching on an island and taking a bus or taxi tour, returning late afternoon. The water can be rough, so take a Bonine or homeopathic elixir an hour before departure.
For more on the family-friendly Cape, see Mass Vacation (massvacation.com) and Kids on the Cape (kidsonthecape.com).
Head for the Berkshires and western Massachusetts, but don’t expect the Alps or Rockies – these are mini-mountains. The area – picturesque, polished and civilised – offers opportunities for biking, hiking, boating, skiing in winter, and cultural enrichment. At Animagic, the Museum of Animation, Special Effects and Art, in Lee, kids can find out how special effects were created in such movies as ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’, then make their own animated movie in a 2hr workshop. The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield has ‘The Berkshire Backyard’ (samples of local plant- and animal life with related activities), aquariums and terrariums with local and exotic creatures, artifacts from ancient and Native American cultures, art from the Hudson River School, galleries of dinosaurs, archaeology, rocks and minerals, and some push-and-pull toys by Alexander Calder. Also in Pittsfield, families flock to Hancock Shaker Village (Apr–Oct) with its Discovery Room where kids can weave or spin on a loom, try on Shaker clothing, milk a life-size replica of a cow then roam the herb and veg gardens, pet farm animals, watch artisans creating crafts and furniture, chat with the interpreters and attend a class in the Shaker schoolhouse. (Hancock was one of 19 Shaker communities in the USA). On summer weekends and holidays, you might also take a ride on the Berkshire Scenic Railroad, and, in Pittsfield, ski Bousquet Mountain in winter or visit in summer for the waterslides, zipline, climbing wall and mini-golf.
If you fancy venturing further afield, the Dr Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden an hour east of the Berkshires in Springfield is worth a detour for fans of the prolific children’s author who, as Theodor Geisel, called Springfield home. Pay your respects to the Lorax, Grinch and other Seuss characters in the grounds of the Springfield Museums, an art, history and fine arts complex. Just 13km away at the Children’s Museum in Holyoke, kids up to 8 can mount a curvy climber, present a show in the TV studio or theatre, drive a paramedic’s vehicle or forklift, and explore a kid-size city street.
Cape Cod © Rachel Neathey
There’s a wide range of restaurants throughout Massachusetts, from diners to purveyors of haute cuisine, including plenty of homely, family-friendly eateries that are great back-ups for family holidays.
The area is best known for its seafood – New England-style (milk- or cream-based) chowders and bisques, fresh fish and shellfish. Be sure to try some local delicacies: fried full-belly clams (not the tough and tasteless clam strips), lobster with drawn butter, a lobster roll (cold lobster meat on a buttered, toasted hot-dog roll), steamed clams (served with dipping broth and drawn butter), fried clams on a roll with tartare sauce, oysters (raw, roasted, stewed, fried), and fish and chips.
Cranberries are big business in southeastern Massachussets and the Cape, where glaciers created the growing conditions vital to these little fruits, and some farms are open to visitors. Harvesting usually takes place Sept/Oct, and there’s an annual Cranberry Harvest Festival the 2nd weekend of Oct.
Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod © Rachel Neathey
When to go to Massachusetts
Late June to mid-Oct is ideal for family holidays in Massachusetts. Average daily temperatures in the Boston area and Cape Cod range from –2°C in winter to 25°C in July and August.
Coastal weather is fickle: fog, rain and cool snaps are the rule. It is usually several degrees warmer in the central and western parts of the state. Rain averages 7-10cm per month (think London with more sun).
None of this explains why nearly 2m of snow were dumped during the 2010-11 winter season. If you insist on visiting in winter, pack as if you’re going to the North Pole.
Each summer, Tanglewood in Lenox and Jacob’s Pillow in Becket are the country’s preeminent venues for music and contemporary dance. The Boston Symphony (considered the best in the USA) makes Tanglewood its summer home, and local resident James Taylor and other well-known artists perform regularly. Many programs are suitable for kids 7/8 and up. If you’re planning a summer visit, book in advance (there’s seating in the shed and on the lawn at Tanglewood; kids 17 and under can sit on the lawn for free).
Expect to pay $200-$400 for daily lodging for a family of four in Massachusetts. Flight-hotel packages will generally save you money on family holidays overall, but read the fine print.
Figure on paying $5-10pp for breakfast. Lunch and dinner will start at about $12pp for a burger, fried-fish sandwich or bowl of hearty soup plus a drink. As everywhere, staying in a place with a kitchen or kitchenette will help costs, letting you breakfast at home and make sandwiches for a picnic lunch.
A GoBostonCard covers admission to 78 attractions in Boston and Cape Cod over 1, 3, 5 or 7 days.
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Flying time6.5hrs All flight times are based on flights from UK London airports, to the capital or nearest destination airport.
Carbon footprint CO2 Estimated tonnes of CO2 produced for return flights for a family of four.
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