Boston is the most populous city in New England – and for good reason. This Massachusetts metropolis may host modern shopping, dining and cultural attractions, but Boston is built upon a rich American tapestry created over the centuries that’s still visible in its quaint neighborhood streets and stone houses. The city’s historic harbor along the Massachusetts Bay set the scene for a significant portion of Boston’s story; once the site of Revolution-era protests like the Boston Tea Party, this body of water is now primarily used for revelry. No visit to Massachusetts’ capital city would be complete without some time on Boston Harbor.
If you’re planning to spend some time in Beantown during the warmer months, consider boarding a schooner for an hour or two of sightseeing, or head out on a boat you can pedal or sail yourself. Cruises on the harbor offer a range of historical tours, romantic dinners on the water, unique brunches with friends or even the chance to spot some endangered whales. Whether you opt for a tall ship or a smaller, more eco-friendly vessel, soak in city views and enjoy your time on the water with the following top Boston Harbor cruises.
Boston Harbor City Cruises by Hornblower
Hornblower’s City Experiences brand offers a wide variety of land-based and on-the-water tours, which includes City Cruises. While the brand has greatly expanded over the past century to 125 U.S. cities and more than 100 countries, it all began with Boston Harbor Cruises, founded in 1926.
Today, Boston Harbor City Cruises encompass a range of ways to see the city from the water. You can book a brunch, lunch or dinner cruise on a dining vessel like the 600-passenger Boston Odyssey; time your sailing for sunset; or plan a big outing for a holiday such as the Fourth of July. Dare to ride Codzilla, a thrilling speed boat designed to leave slow-paced sightseeing tours in its wake. Zoom around the harbor for around 45 minutes at up to 40 miles per hour – and since you likely will get wet, ponchos are available on board. This 70-foot harbor boat, complete with a toothy paint job, also boasts an original soundtrack.
If you’re looking for a different kind of enjoyment with a little less aquatic adrenaline, Boston Harbor City Cruises partners with the New England Aquarium for a series of spectacular whale watching trips. From Boston’s Central Wharf, you’ll head to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, one of the world’s most active marine sanctuaries. Whales in the region include humpbacks, minke whales, the endangered right whales and more. You can also try to spot sea birds, dolphins and other marine life – but if you don’t see whales on your cruise, a free ticket will be offered to you for a future whale watching trip.
Classic Harbor Line Boston
(Courtesy of Classic Harbor Line Boston)
With a fleet that includes schooner Adirondack III and motor yacht Northern Lights, Classic Harbor Line is a great choice for a Boston Harbor cruise. Join a guided sightseeing tour or charter your own yacht for the day; the schooner is designed for 40 people or less, while the motor yacht can accommodate just under 150 guests. Classic Harbor Line offers themed cruises, if your interest is piqued by either an adults-only nighttime City Lights sailing (perfect for couples) or a cruise that pairs a day of harbor islands and lighthouses – including the country’s oldest – with a picnic lunch. The two-hour sunset cruise aboard Northern Lights is accompanied by the nightly cannon fire from the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides” – the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat, built in 1794.
If you want to sail Boston Harbor with a cold beer, you can’t go wrong with Sails & Ales, a special themed cruise created in partnership with the local favorite Harpoon Brewery. Sail along the waterfront at sunset past sights like Independence Fort as your Harpoon representative explains beermaking techniques. You’ll sip four flagship or seasonal beers plus one cider. A ticket for a future free tour of the brewery is included, and you’ll know exactly where it is because this cruise sails right past it.
Boston Green Cruises
Right on Rowes Wharf behind the Boston Harbor Hotel, Boston Green Cruises has a fleet of three vessels: the 350-passenger Sir Winston and two low-emissions boats known as Beach Cat, a 44-foot catamaran that seats 30 people, and Zulu. Boston Green Cruises, which calls itself Boston Harbor’s first eco-friendly fleet, offers a 60-minute, fully narrated sightseeing tour for all ages that covers the city’s marquee waterfront sights. A 90-minute sightseeing cruise is also on offer on one of the company’s smaller ships and includes time passing the historic locks along the Charles River. If you’re looking for the ultimate intimate Boston Harbor cruise, consider a private charter, which can run anywhere from two to eight hours. Be aware that in the event of inclement weather, cruises will be rescheduled but not refunded, per company policy. Past Boston Green Cruise participants have said the captain they sailed with was friendly and knowledgeable, providing a great history lesson on the harbor.
Massachusetts Bay Lines
(Courtesy of Massachusetts Bay Lines)
Massachusetts Bay Lines, referred to locally as Mass Bay Lines, offers sightseeing tours and private charters in Boston Harbor – but also floating concerts and DJ sets you can experience with up to 379 of your closest new friends. Beyond traditional sightseeing tours and music cruises, Mass Bay also hosts a handful of themed options. Once per month from May through October, you can take part in a two-hour Full Moon Cruise, which sets sail under the lunar light of a full moon and the city lights of Boston in the background. Passengers 21 and up may choose to celebrate New Year’s Eve or Independence Day by cruising in the city known as the birthplace of the American Revolution: The adults-only sailings on Dec. 31, July 3 and July 4 mark the occasions with a cash bar, dancing and a prime place to watch the fireworks. Dog owners will be happy to know Mass Bay even welcomes one four-legged friend per each adult ticket on its Dog Days of Summer sailings – but you’re not required to bring a pooch, so if you’re simply a dog lover looking to see the sights, head down to Rowes Wharf.
(Courtesy of Cycleboat Boston)
If you’ve walked around Beantown but still want to get some steps in – even on the water – consider booking a sightseeing harbor cruise that you can pedal. Cycleboat Boston lets you ride on bike seats and cycle your way through Boston Harbor to help propel the boat, but it’s not required if you’d rather relax in the lounge. Tours focused on U.S. history cover the Boston Tea Party Ships, Bunker Hill Monument and the Charlestown Navy Yard, among other local sites. Pedal along during the day, by night or at sunset; the morning cruises encourage mimosas, but you must provide valid ID and bring your own beverages (with coolers and ice provided). Recent reviews rave about the captain and first mate and say if you’re not looking for much of a workout you can just sit back and have fun.
Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships
(Courtesy of Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships)
Board a schooner from the Liberty Fleet of Tall Ships and sail Boston’s historic harbor in fitting style. Your two-hour tour begins by embarking the 125-foot Liberty Clipper at Long Wharf, or you can opt for a more intimate, 90-minute experience on the Liberty Star, which is less than half the size of the Liberty Clipper. Tickets and drink tickets can be purchased ahead online or during your cruise; otherwise, you can bring your own snacks and bag lunches.
The fleet sails Boston Harbor from June through September, offering sunset cruises, history sailings and evening cocktail cruises where the rum never stops flowing (with group discounts available for parties of four). Sailing enthusiasts may want to join the Sail Through Time Cruise, which documents the history of some of Boston’s most famous sailing ships, as well as the people who lived and worked on them; you can enjoy this fact-filled day on the water with a docent from Boston by Foot as your guide and even help hoist the sails. Passengers appreciate the serenity of seeing the city from a new perspective.
Boston Electric Boats
(@urbanophoto/Courtesy of Boston Electric Boats)
India Wharf was one of the largest commercial wharves in the Port of Boston during the 19th century, and today the India Wharf Marina, just a short walk from the aquarium, hosts boats for rental or charter through Boston Electric Boats. Those seeking a self-guided Boston Harbor cruise will be pleased to take advantage of the Be Your Own Captain Rental, available for two hours at a time. No experience or boating license is necessary to pilot the boat – though the company will make sure you’re comfortable before you set off – and up to 11 people can sail along with you.
If you’d rather leave the steering to someone else, a Captain Provided Charter accommodates up to six passengers, allowing you to take in the breeze and enjoy any refreshments you may have brought. The boat’s canopy provides shade, while the open deck is perfect for basking in the sun; the enclosure windows can be opened or closed to adjust for the weather. These electric boats are more eco-friendly with no fuel odors and a quiet motor. Boaters have commented that preset GPS routes make piloting the boats much easier, and a top speed of 6 miles per hour keeps the ride safe and relaxing.
Boston Harbor Islands Ferry
Beginning in May, a ferry service provided by Boston Harbor City Cruises connects downtown Boston to the Boston Harbor Islands. This transport gives a unique chance to experience some of the wilder elements of Boston’s seaways, with ferries that run to Spectacle Island, Georges Island and Thompson Island during the warmer months.
On Thompson Island, accessible only on weekends, you’ll get a brief orientation to start your visit; on Saturdays, a National Park Service ranger hosts a guided walk to explore the island ecosystems, including salt marsh, beaches, meadows and forest. Spectacle Island is a 114-acre island perfect for a day of hiking and swimming, with an accessible lifeguarded beach and occasional weekend jazz concerts. Georges Island offers up the history, as it houses the Civil War-era Fort Warren; ranger-led tours are available.
Charles Riverboat Company
The Charles Riverboat Company was founded in 1990 and remains a family-run business whose five vessels now carry more than 50,000 passengers per year. The company believes that whether you’re a visitor or a local, seeing the city from the water is a spectacular experience that all will enjoy. Guided historic sightseeing cruises feature Harvard University, modern skyscrapers like the Prudential Building and more. Learn about the architecture and building design of landmarks along the harbor and Charles River on the two-hour Architecture Cruise.
As you might expect, many of the Charles Riverboat offerings focus on its namesake river, which flows into Boston Harbor, whether you want to see fall foliage, hear haunted tales or simply enjoy a cocktail at sunset with live music on the Charles River. The company also has a booming charter business for graduations, engagements, retirements and other special celebrations, with recent customers citing extraordinary service from staff.
Boston Duck Tours
If you can’t choose between tours on land and boat, you don’t have to. It’s nearly impossible to visit Boston and not run into one of its renowned duck tours. This type of amphibious automobile was originally created as a military vehicle under the code name “DUKW,” and now these boat-bus hybrids can transport tourists in and out of the water. To cap off your city visit, venture slightly beyond Boston Harbor with this cruise along the Charles River.
The vehicles used today by Boston Duck Tours are uniquely designed to roll past city sights like Boston Common, the Old North Church and the Fanueil Hall Marketplace before or after launching into the Charles River for views of the Cambridge and Boston skylines. This Boston boat experience is unlike any other, led by beloved “conDUCKtor” guides: You might meet Duck Tracy, Florence Waters or Professor Quackenstein, who will regale you with their own take on Boston’s top attractions. A lighthearted but thorough excursion through city history, Boston Duck Tours has won many accolades. Past customers remember these unique tours as one of the best parts of their visit – and as a special draw for kids, the tour guides may allow children to briefly steer the boat in the water for a particularly memorable experience.