Why you should care
Five Chinese tourists are struggling to drag their heavy suitcases up the steep street. With 2-inch-deep cracks between the cobblestones, the wheels are utterly useless. And the wonky red bricks mean the skinny sidewalk falls short of its intended purpose.
But really, who cares? Function isn’t exactly the point here. Look up, and a Civil War–era Union flag with gold trim and stars flutters in the wind, catching the angle of the sun perfectly, pretty much like always. All around is lush red brick, also catching the light, and glowing in different ways at different times of day. Breathtaking.
This is Acorn Street in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston, a street many believe to be the most photographed in the U.S.
Ironically, Acorn Street’s luxury apartments used to house the servants of people who lived in the bigger houses on neighboring streets, says local historian and Suffolk University professor Robert Allison. Most of the buildings date back to the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the wealthy residents of the cramped city wanted to build an elegant neighborhood around the new, gold-domed Statehouse. In order to build it, they had to chop off the top of Boston’s highest peak from which the neighborhood takes its name.
After posing for an obligatory selfie on Acorn Street, I move on. Because, unlike Instagram, I know where to find the greatest treasures of Beacon Hill. Take a turn away from the tourist -trodden path and head into the surrounding narrow streets, dead-end alleys and obscured public walkways squeezed between houses. Magic! There are the impeccably charming mini courtyards and the endearing 4-foot-tall doorways that used to lead to town-house coal cellars (I am about two feet too tall to enter), and more than 1,100 gas-powered lampposts that remain lit 24 hours a day.
And there is something indescribably pleasing about seeing a house with the number 34½.
When I was at college nearby, an architecture prof told me that the odd black stone among the red brick had been accidentally burned in the unruly Colonial furnaces. But the effect was so beautiful that it was intentionally replicated, subsequently becoming New England’s signature look. Every house in Beacon Hill complements this glorious brickwork with identical white-trim wooden window frames and jet-black wooden shutters. Indeed, the local architectural commission has to approve any changes that might be visible from the outside should anyone want to stray from the norm, says Beacon Hill Civic Association board chairman Mark Kiefer. With the area still synonymous with wealth, I get the feeling that even residents’ fancy black coupes are chosen to complement the local aesthetic. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” says Kiefer.
What’s the best time of year to visit Beacon Hill? In the spring and summer the flower-packed courtyards are in full bloom, in the fall the autumnal colors show off the neighborhood’s brickwork (and residents take Halloween seriously — it’s been named one of the best neighborhoods in the country for trick-or-treating) and in the winter residents decorate their porches once again for the holidays (in keeping with the area’s aesthetic, of course) — they clearly love the attention.
Just steer clear of those steep cobbled streets when they’re icy.