Five Free Family-Friendly Places To Visit in Massachusetts During April Vacation (and Beyond)

Printed from:

1. Castle Rock, Marblehead

The first time you approach Castle Rock on Marblehead Neck you’re liable to think a security guard is going to come running after you at any moment. It’s hard to believe that there’s free public parking on the street and a public right-of-way to the ocean among multi-million-dollar mansions that look plucked out of Gated Community magazine.

But just past the French chateau named after a place in the south of France, there’s a giant rock outcropping that may have inspired the name of the town it’s in. Early English sailors who came by this place thought the rock was marble, so they called the place “Marblehead.” (“Head” refers to an outcropping of land into the water.) It’s actually a form of granite, not marble, but when the sun shines on it you can see the sailors had a point.

Castle Rock, as it’s known, offers one of the best views in Massachusetts, and some of the best air to breathe anywhere. (There’s almost always a breeze (at least!) up top.)

Climb to the top of the rock — it’s not that hard if you go slow. The view includes a small island to the south with about a half-dozen homes; a series of islands to the north, including one where a leper hospital once stood; and the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re feeling particularly spry, venture out to the outer parts of the rock, which extends much farther out into the ocean than you would think by looking at it from the landward side.

When you’ve had enough explore downtown Marblehead. Its tight fisherman’s cottages, winding lanes, and unusual elevations make every byway fun to walk.

Castle Rock

Castle Rock Lane

Marblehead, Massachusetts 

2. Scargo Tower, Dennis

One of the best views on Cape Cod is minutes from the Mid-Cape Highway in Dennis, but it’s also a little off the beaten path.

Scargo Tower has a commanding view of the fish-shaped Scargo Lake beneath but also of Cape Cod Bay beyond.

And it’s an easy climb up the 30-foot-tall 1901 cobblestone tower.

The tower is nearly always open, and there is no charge.

The excursion won’t take long once you’ve gotten there, so use the opportunity to poke around Old Kings Highway. A side trip to one of the ancient cemeteries in the area — particularly Barnstable Village’s on Route 6A, where Captain Mad Jack Percival is buried — would be interesting and educational.

Scargo Tower

152 Scargo Hill Road

Dennis, Massachusetts

3. Battle of Bunker Hill Museum, Charlestown

Thousands of people visit the site of the Battle of Bunker Hill every year, but far fewer spend much time on the third floor of the little museum across the street from it.

More’s the pity, because pound for pound it may be the most informative museum in the United States. In about 10 minutes you can not only learn reams about the most important battle the United States ever fought, but you can also learn a lot about the history of land-making in Boston, which has more made land (that used to be under water) than any other place in North America.

The museum, run by the National Park Service, is free. But don’t just stop at the gift shop on the second floor — make sure you go up to the third floor for the exhibits, including an exquisite hand-made cyclorama of the battlefield with a narrated sounds-and-lights rendition of the battle. The circular map of colonial Boston and the environs is almost as educational. And the images and short descriptions of the characters on the walls are riveting — especially the reproduction of the 360-degree view of the third charge of the British at Breeds Hill (which is where the action actually took place).

On-street parking in visitor parking spaces is free. Make sure you read the parking signs around the battle site, though, to avoid the daytime street-sweeping parking tickets and a possible tow.

Bunker Hill Museum

43 Monument Square

Charlestown, Massachusetts

4. Great Blue Hill, Milton

It’s a longish trek through moderately challenging rocks and roots, but the view at the top of Great Blue Hill more than makes up for the time and effort. To the north you can see Boston, while in other directions you see enough trees and hills to wonder if you really are in the industrial Northeast.

The Blue Hill Observatory Science Center, not far from the peak, is worth visiting, as you can learn about the history of the hill and the area.

The connected trails around the area could easily take up the rest of your day with fun and interesting sights.

Free parking is available at various approaches.

Blue Hill Reservation Headquarters

695 Hillside Street

Milton, Massachusetts

5. Mount Auburn Cemetery, Watertown

If you were visiting America during the 19th century from somewhere else, Mount Auburn Cemetery was considered one of the places you had to come.

The first in the Rural Cemetery Movement, Mount Auburn was founded in 1831. Organizers bought a farm (not the farm, but a farm) that was mostly in Watertown but partly in Cambridge and hired what today would be called landscape architects to transform it into a garden cemetery.

You could easily spend a half-day traipsing through portions of the 110-acre cemetery, but here are some highlights you might otherwise miss:

—  The observatory tower, built in 1851 in honor of George Washington. Don’t just look at it, climb it. The 360-degree view at the top is hard to describe, but it includes the skyline of Boston, the towers of Boston College, the Mormon Temple in Belmont, and the vast array of trees below.

—  The dell, which is just across from the observatory tower. Take the path as it bends to the left and eventually corkscrews down to a little green pond. The gravesites along the side of the hill are worth visiting, as are the ones at the bottom.

—  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s grave, along a ridge. You have to walk three minutes or so to get to it, but the ridge itself is pretty and fun.

Or just stop at any work-of-art grave sculpture that catches your eye. Or stop at any tree that you like and read the tag on it with the species and date it was planted.

It’s free to enter the cemetery, but make sure you pay attention to the cemetery’s parking rules.

Mount Auburn Cemetery

580 Mount Auburn Street

Cambridge, Massachusetts