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Every year, for 18 years, Sara and I have a girlfriend getaway tradition of shopping in Boston. She drives up from Philly, I tool up from Connecticut, and we spend three days popping into shops and stopping for meals from one end of Newbury to another.
Eighteen years brings change to commercial city streets and to people – especially to women in and out of marriages, who are well into middle age. So it’s no surprise that our lives have paralleled the ups and downs of “Boston’s most enchanting street with eight blocks filled with salons, boutiques, and fabulous dining,” as the district touts itself.
Shopping In Boston – The Ups and Downs
And, as Boston revives other neighborhoods, we’ve been exploring other, developing shopping districts – like the recently dubbed “SoWa Arts and Design District.”
Shopping in Boston is just an excuse to catch up, to talk, to “get real” and break bread together. It’s never been just about shopping. We try to solve problems, we gossip, we celebrate each other’s achievements and suffer each other’s sorrows. We cheerlead and talk sense into each other while pounding the pavement, trying on clothes, getting our nails and hair done, meeting shopkeepers, and drinking wine, or specialty martinis, or craft cocktails (as each came into vogue).
Our first year celebrated Sara’s new (second) marriage. Our kids – each of us has two boys – were pre-teens. This year, one son is married and lives in Chicago, one is in the Air Force, one lives and works in Boston and another lives and works in New York City. They are grown. As they’ve changed, so have we, and so has Newbury St.
Restoration Hardware now occupies the 1862 Boston Society for Natural History building. The museum became Bonwitt Teller and then Louis Boston, where we once ogled designer fashions and purchased cutting edge cosmetics, before it was transformed into its latest incarnation as that upscale furniture store known by its monogram – RH.
Through all this change, though, artist Charlie Wang, has been selling his prints and watercolors of Boston landmarks without fail for years on the corner of Dartmouth St. A constant in the constantly changing face of Newbury St., Wang has himself become a Boston Landmark.
Of course Sara and I have our favorites. A few are still here, but many have closed or decamped for cheaper areas (like the cool new South End, aka SoWa Arts District). One of those is the couture fashion boutique, OKW, which became our number one preference by virtue of its friendly owners and incredible, unique clothing. We could not ignore OKW when it moved, so, every year now, we get to Boston Friday mid-day and start there.
Boston Shops in the SoWa Arts and Design District
A new shopping/gallery/artist hotspot, SoWa was originally derived from a shortening of “South of Washington.” It now spans the area from Mass Ave to Herald Street and from Shawmut Ave to Albany Street. L’Attitude Galleries – a terrific art gallery that features a phenomenal selection of ceramic, metal, glass, textile and discarded flip-flop crafts and jewelry – also moved from Newbury to 260 Harrison (SoWa).
New finds there include Dahlia – named for owner/hand-weaver, Dahlia Popovits, who also sells the work of other innovative clothing artisans and designers…
….and the beautiful Zainab Sumu, whose “Primative-Modern” African designs might soon be found at Museum of Fine Arts Boston. (But who also sells eye-catching t-shirts for $50).
Shopping On Newbury Street In Boston
Newbury St., which runs eight blocks from Arlington St. to Mass Ave., can be divided into two realms, shopping-wise. The top half bordering Boston Public Garden– alphabetically, Arlington to Essex– is mostly the “high rent” district, where you’ll find the Taj Hotel, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Armani, and the like. The lower half – Essex to Mass Ave., tends toward smaller boutiques, start-ups (like Ministry of Supply), and chains like North Face and Diesel.
There are several places we’ve tried once and determined not for us. We are not into fairies, unicorns, or hemp, so we’ve passed on The Fairy Shop and Hempest almost since day one. And we’ve been puzzled by the staying power of Johnny Cupcakes, a purveyor of $30 pop-culture t-shirts.
And, of course, there are those places we’ve outgrown. Urban Outfitters, on Newbury at Mass Ave. had incredible summer deals on teen boy furnishings, so every year I’d stock up on lighting, collapsible chairs and desk knickknacks for my kids’ rooms. Over the years, as prices increased and inventory appealed more to the pierced and tattooed, we’d spend less and less time there. Now, next door neighbor, MUJI, is our go-to for design-forward home goods, modern clothing, and my favorite pens.
Favorite Boston Shops
Though some stores have closed, others pop up in their place. Our new favorites in 2019: Credo a clean, organic, toxin-free beauty store with everything from cosmetics to sunscreen and underarm deodorant; Fat Face, a UK import, has casual, fun, outdoorsy clothing for men, women, and kids; and The Tie Bar – trend-forward ties, novelty socks, and affordable cuff links for the men we adore.
Perhaps due to the historic Boston Tea Party (which happened right in this harbor), the city is tea obsessed. Two, count ’em two, high end tea shops, one local, one based in Australia, opened on Newbury Street within the last year. T2, an Australian brand, has branched out in the Americas starting here, with walls of loose tea bins, and plenty of proprietary blends.
Tea Forte, a company based in Concord MA, sells only organic tea in unique pyramid shaped bags. Easy to mix and match, the vibe is more Nespresso-user friendly than your friendly neighborhood tea shop.
MIT textile geniuses opened the first Ministry of Supply men’s clothing shop where they sell moisture-wicking, anti-microbial, breathable, wrinkle-free shirts for just over $100 – a bargain given that a runner completed the NY Marathon wearing the Men’s Archive Dress Shirt and, at the finish line, looked and smelled like he had just put it on.
Over the years, costume jewelry stores have come and gone. Colorful plastic designer, Lalo, closed (boo hoo), but Alexis Bittar opened a stand-alone shop much to my unique-jewelry buying pleasure. I just love those 50% off sales.
Speaking of a first bricks and mortar shop, Fresh opened in Boston in the early 1990’s – and has been going strong ever since. I buy my favorite makeup remover – Fresh Soy Face Cleanser – and the no-tint Sugar Lip Treatment every year.
And every year, we save some time for the sale racks at Betsy Jenney (not Betsy Johnson, another favorite, that sadly closed). This year, however, I made a special purchase – the perfect Mother of the Groom dress that Betsy herself picked out for me! Betsy Jenney is crammed with funky, fashion-forward dresses, shirts, skirts and accessories. Stay long enough and something is bound to speak to you.
Dining On and Near Newbury Street
We’ve tried most of the dozens of restaurants on and around Newbury St., but a couple of new ones struck our fancy. Tatte Back Bay (on Boylston) serves up the best Israeli and Middle Eastern food this side of Tel Aviv, and it’s our go-to for incredible Shakshuka.
And the brand new (as of June ’19) Jonquil’s Cafe and Bakery has the most geometrically and theatrically designed baked goods in New England (which are every bit as delicious as they look), plus fantastic sandwiches, and teas that bloom dramatically. An artistic “Living Wall” at the cafe’s entrance provides a good idea of the eye-popping treats within. A meal or mid-day treat here is an experience unlike any other on Newbury St.
Other stalwarts include Stephanie’s – the traditional long-standing salad spot, Dirty Water Dough for fresh pizza by the slice, and The Met Bar, with its cool artsy vibe, the perfect stop for chopped salads and other midday fare.
Best Hotels Near Newbury Street – Boston
Initially, in 2001, we looked for 4 and 5-star hotels nearby with summer weekend rates under $200, and found them. We could score a room at The Lenox, The Elliot, Park Plaza and others for a song. By the mid ‘aughts, the only place to find those kind of rates was at the Newbury Guest House right on Newbury St – and we were amazed with our large room’s classic beauty.
But over time, even those rates increased. By 2011, we were hard pressed to find rooms under $300, but we did, at the Fairmont (when Adam Sandler was shooting a movie there).
STAY: The Colonnade Hotel, Boston: Roof Deck Pool Extraordinaire
We’ve stayed at the wonderful Colonnade Hotel; a Maven Favorite, and the best place to stay in summer as it’s the only hotel in Boston with a roof deck pool.
Across the street from the Prudential Center in Back Bay, The Colonnade has been hosting businesspeople and tourists for decades. Every now and then a hotel of this caliber needs to update, and so the Colonnade has, to beautiful effect. Pleasant rooms have been redone in handsome earth tones, and the lobby impresses with vivid art, but it’s the roof-deck pool that elevates The Colonnade Hotel to standout status in Boston.
First Impressions of The Colonnade Hotel
If you’re driving in, you’ll be guided to the self-park garage from the front entrance by a bellman who will also offer to take your bags. An elevator to the lobby is inside the garage – so no need to walk outside. On the first floor, the contemporary lobby is lightly stylized with colorful modern art and furnishings. Check in is courteous and swift.
Rooms at The Colonnade Hotel
Modernized rooms feature white soft duvets punctuated by brown throws, ergonomic chairs around a small table, flat screen TVs, Keurig coffee makers, white marble baths with rain showers, and upscale Thyme amenities. Bedding is marvelously downy, and floor to ceiling windows reveal constantly moving “city life” views of Back Bay Boston.
Dining at The Colonnade
Do you prefer French cuisine indoors or omelets served “en plein aire?” Try both.
White linen covered tables illuminated by unique low-lit bulb chandeliers sit in the foreground of a 20’s era full-wall mural, evoking an out-of-time European feel at Brasserie Jo a classic French restaurant that serves, bar none, one of the best baguettes in the country (the world?).
Warm from the oven, crusty exterior, perfect moist chewiness within, a loaf slid inside a bread bag comes to the table along with deliciously seasoned al dente carrots as prequel to the meal. I’d be happy with the bread, a glass of wine, and the sweet and bacon’y Shaved Brussels Sprouts ($11.95) alone. But other dishes – Cauliflower Steak ($20), Chicken Pallard ($20) among them – are fine as well.
If it’s a nice day, order breakfast or lunch beside the Roof Top Pool (RTP). The food is decent, but who really cares when you’re surrounded by the Boston skyline. Views like this make everything taste exemplary. At night, the roof deck turns into a huge bar scene. The pool is just an added bonus.
The RTP (Roof Top Pool)
This is why you book a room at the Colonnade in the summer. Guests of the hotel can access this rooftop resort for free, while all others must pay $45. And yes, I call it a resort because people actually pay good money to tan and dip and shower and drink up here for the day.
Just recently, I met a family of three from a New Hampshire beach town (yes a beach town), who booked the RTP to celebrate their son’s first birthday (and teach him to swim in a safe place). By day, the pool attracts a mix of families with kids, bikini-clad teens, businessmen and women on break, empty nesters enjoying adult life – in other words, the whole of humanity seeking relief from the heat of the city.
At night – the place turns into an illuminated wonderland. Floating balls in the water glow with ever-changing colors. There’s a “beautiful people” element to the crowd at the bar: 20 and 30-somethings capturing themselves and surrounding views on their cellphones, getting progressively boisterous as the drinks pour. It’s a party crafted nightly by weather and personalities – a good deal of fun, even more so for hotel guests since it’s just an elevator ride (and a two-level staircase) away.
Just the Facts
Room rates start at $225 in cold season, $349 in summer, includes free wi-fi. Parking an additional $48 per night.
STAY: Loews Boston: Ghosts of Boston’s Men in Blue
Jury’s – which became Loews Boston, was our preferred hotel in the summer of 2018. In the former Boston Police Headquarters, its nostalgic, luxurious, and quirky enough to be a Maven favorite.
There are reminders everywhere of Loews Boston Hotel’s original identity: as Boston Police Headquarters from 1926 until 1997. In 2004, the Irish hotel company, Jury’s, purchased and repurposed the “last major Italianate Renaissance Revival building erected in the city” into a luxury hotel. It became a Loews Hotel in 2009.
Two large blue lights flank the former front door of the Police Headquarters, there’s a plaque commemorating the history of the building in the entryway, and you’ll find black and white photos of men and women in uniform sprinkled throughout the hotel.
As a nod to its former occupants, each meeting room is named after a Boston Police Chief or officer– including Dorothy Harrison (Harrison Room), the first African American woman Detective, who studied Opera at Boston University but felt that her race would “keep her from a full professional music career.” Harrison was employed from 1944-1972, and, as with all women police officers back then, was not allowed to carry a firearm – relying only on her badge and intelligence to protect and serve.
First Impressions of Loews Boston
The reception area is modern and minimalist – punched by a large cherry blossom photo behind three mirrored desks. The welcome is friendly and efficient, with starkness of the room offset by a comfy “living room” area complete with a Loews trademark: a full wall TV screen.
There’s an espresso/cappuccino/coffee machine at the ready 24/7, a communal work table with plenty of outlets for laptop computers, lots of seating, and a fireplace.
The outdoor patio just off the downstairs pub, the only recessed hotel patio in town, thrums with patrons each evening, no matter the weather – from steam bath to deep freeze. In January last year, locals celebrated a Game of Thrones “Winter Is Coming” pop-up event that lasted all month. Even without heaters, the patio was crammed with fans clad in fur and other GOT get-ups. In summer, you’ll never know what to expect – last weekend, baby goats intermingled with patio guests. It seems that hotel staff are getting increasingly creative.
Rooms at Loews Boston
Larger than average standard rooms (300-345 sq. ft), renovated in 2014, are handsomely designed “like a fine tailored men’s suit.” Navy throws on white duvets top cloudlike beds that sport dark wood and cream-colored leather headboards, and sturdy armchairs are upholstered in a tweedy houndstooth fabric. Streamlined to the max, Keurig coffee makers and small refrigerators are concealed inside contemporary bureaus, and electrical outlets can be found on walls just above bedside tables.
Marble and granite bathrooms feature warming towel racks and generous bottles of Julien Farel Anti-Aging Haircare Treatments and Products. “Doe-Skin” Chadsworth and Haig robes have proven so popular; guests ask where to buy them.
Dining at Loews Boston
Precinct Kitchen and Bar, called Cuff’s until 4 years ago, serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner – with a concentration on tweaked comfort food – what restaurant copywriters call “Classic Boston Cuisine” (whatever that means…. a little Irish? A smattering of Seafood? Yep – all those things). Try the gluten-free Protein Pancakes in the morning, made with oats, bananas, blueberries, and egg whites. Healthy never tasted so good.
As is customary in any “New American” upscale eatery, there’s a Charcuterie (2 items for $21, 4 for $36) – but this one is like a open-kitchen-butcher so you can get a clear look at the source of your ordered meats and cheeses.
The bar, generally packed after work hours on weekdays, stands next to the police station’s Gun Safe, left in place as another reminder of what was once here. Craft cocktails are terrific – and tend to be potent – thanks to mixologists who know their stuff.
Just the Facts
Room rates start at $199 off-season up to $745 in season, plus tax. Parking $53 per day.
STAY: Boston Park Plaza
In 2019, our hotel choice was the newly renovated (in 2017) Boston Park Plaza. It’s amazing how $100 million can perk up a place.
Built in 1927 as the Statler Hotel, the newly renovated Boston Park Plaza stands on Arlington Ave. a block from Boston Common and the Public Gardens, and two blocks from the top of famous Newbury St.
Over the years, the Park Plaza has welcomed US Presidents, foreign dignitaries, and Hollywood celebrities. But, as with any shining star, the hotel lost its luster in the later 1900’s.
For its 90th anniversary in 2017, the Park Plaza went through a $100 million top to bottom renovation, and judging by the crowds checking in on a sweltering July Friday, the luster is back.
First Impressions of Boston Park Plaza Hotel
How did I like walking into the lobby on a very hot summer day and encountering a friendly guy peddling an old-fashioned ice cream cart? Incredibly much, thank you! Especially since the gourmet ice-cream bars were free for guests checking in on “Ice-Cream Fridays” in the summertime.
Memorable perks and experiences like this form a positive opinion of a place before you even have a minute gauge your surroundings. But the Park Plaza’s new two- story lobby is a stunning room, anchored by a large bar, and full of tables, couches, and smaller nooks in which to wait for friends and family, have a drink or bite, or open a laptop.
Reception is friendly, efficient, and quick – even in my case, when pilots and flight attendants from Italy (Air Italia) were all checking in at the same time I was. Apparently, the Park Plaza is a favorite among airplane crews flying in and out of Logan Airport.
Rooms at Boston Park Plaza
Guest rooms, with new patterned grey carpeting, contemporary grey valances, and several pieces of furniture along with beds clad in white duvets, are rather minimalist. Bathrooms have been updated with modern tile and raised ceramic sinks.
No art adorns the walls; there are no colorful throws or pillows for punch. But when it’s 100 degrees outside, air conditioning turns each room into a bright cool sanctuary.
Dining at Boston Park Plaza
There are three opportunities for grabbing a bite without having to exit the property.
Off The Common encompasses the Bar and most of the lobby interior. Best to order craft cocktails, and appetizers like great fried calamari, Buffalo “Chicken Pops,” and artisanal Flatbreads.
TRIP By Strega – a tony steakhouse with fantastic cuts of meat, fish, and chicken dishes. Steaks range from $38-$65 and more for Japanese Waygu, but it’s worth it for a special night splurge.
Starbucks – this is not your average hotel Starbucks. This is a full-service, takes-your Starbucks-card, has everything property. And, it’s right off the hotel lobby.
Just the Facts
The Boston Park Plaza is a dog-friendly hotel: up to two dogs of any size are allowed in each room (but cannot be left alone). Rooms start at $120 midweek in Winter, and average in the $300’s per night during the summer months. Wi-Fi is an additional $12.95 per night, valet parking $58 per 24 hours, and there’s a $75 pet cleaning fee.
Weekend Getaways In Boston
- American History; Boston Style (With Martinis)
- Boston MA: Dark, Spooky, and Delicious
- Boston MA On The Water; Two If By Sea
- Boston MA: A Terrific Girlfriend Shopping Getaway
- Boston MA: Immersed In Art–Good, Bad, and Yours