Weaving its way through the city of Boston and the neighboring town of Brookline, The Emerald Necklace is a series of Victorian Parks linking together almost 1,100 acres of green space. Its location, on an aerial map, appears as if it’s a hanging necklace on the “neck” of the Boston peninsula, hence its lush-sounding name. The brainchild of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the parks date from throughout the 1860s, featuring some 20th updates, and each park along the route has its own timeless charm.
Overall, twelve parks are connected via the Emerald Necklace; they are valued recreational respites for locals and visitors alike, but they also prove to be important ecological reserves in an otherwise built-up city. Get a taste of each park below and explore them in depth when you’re in Boston. From bicycling to sailing to art to iconic ducks, you’ll find an adventure for you.
The Boston Common
The Boston Common is actually America’s oldest park, originally preserved as “open land” – for cows—in the 1630s. Its long history lends itself to its historical activities. Marking the official start of the Freedom Trail, the Freedom Trail Foundation’s Visitor Center is located on the Common and is where you can get a starting to peek into the history of the American Revolution.
Throughout the Common, there are historical monuments to discover, a 300-year-old burying ground to (carefully) stumble upon, and an idyllic frog pond to ice skate on in the winter. During the summer, catch concerts and Shakespeare on the Common.
The Public Garden
Right across Charles Street, to the west of the Common, lies the Public Garden. Filled with sumptuous florals and perfectly manicured hedges and trees, the Public Garden is an idyllic green space with another beautiful reflecting pool and Victorian boathouse.
Though it has multiple bird-themed sites—like the iconic swan boats and the famous “make way for the ducks” bronze—the Public Garden is actually home to some of Boston’s most brazen squirrels. Don’t let that deter you from having a picnic here, though; the weeping willows and bright flowers make you feel like you’re in a Renoir painting.
Looming over the end west entrance of the Public Garden is a massive bronze of George Washington, seated on a horse. A quintessential Bostonian image, George either welcomes you into the Garden or bids you farewell as you cross the street further along the Emerald Necklace.
The Commonwealth Avenue Mall
Beginning at Arlington Street, this grassy boulevard separates the two directions of Commonwealth Avenue and stretches the length of the Back Bay neighborhood. Surrounded on both sides by beautiful 19th-century brownstones, the length of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall is dotted with a variety of historic trees and commemorative statues celebrating famed figures in Boston’s history.
A highlight among these bronzes is that of Phillis Wheatley Peters, the celebrated poet who was the first African-American to publish her book of poems in 1773. You can learn extensively about the cluster of statues of which Wheatley Peters is a part by following Boston’s Women’s Trail.
Despite having the same ominous name as the dark backdrop of Beowulf, The Fens are a staple of the vibrant Back Bay community. Here, you’ll find a combination of a community garden, formal gardens, baseball fields, and walking paths.
A great place to picnic, this park is particularly child-friendly with a playground area called, most appropriately, “Mother’s Rest.” Other historical treats in the Fens include a Japanese bronze bell dating from the 17th century and a Victorian footbridge designed by famed architect H.H. Richardson. The Keheller Rose Garden is also a photographer's favorite in the summer as well.
Marking the border between Boston and its neighbor, Brookline, the Riverway runs alongside the Muddy River. While the river has been around for centuries, this particular stretch is the result of some re-directing, landscaping, and bank-sculpting to make this an idyllic park.
Dubbed a “recreational corridor” by the city of Boston, the Riverway is a mostly linear stretch of parkland in the Emerald Necklace that serves as a fantastic bike route or walking path exiting the busier areas of the city.
Olmsted Park is where the water starts becoming a significant feature of the Emerald Necklace and is home to two ponds, Leverett Pond and Ward’s Pond. While the former was landscaped (down it its islands!) by Olmsted, the latter is a kettle pond formed by glacial movements during the last ice age.
Dotted with large open spaces and meadowland, this park is the perfect spot for a summer Sunday concert or some athletic competitions throughout the year. These open spaces are surrounded by luscious forestland as well, so it’s a great place to relax in the shade while listening to some tunes.
Across the street from Ward’s Pond, another kettle pond dominates the next park. Jamaica Pond is the largest water feature in the Emerald Necklace and is a crowd favorite for recreational activities throughout the year.
During the summer, there is never an absence of sailors, fishermen, and joggers enjoying the pond. The fall is also a fantastic time to visit Jamaica Pond, as the canopy of trees surrounding the water turns bright orange and red. Residents of the local neighborhood hold annual fall festivities as well, like a lantern walk around the pond after nightfall.
You can check out a sailboat or a row boat if you are up for going on the water from the picturesque Victorian boathouse; otherwise, it’s a perfect place to take your canine friend for a swim or to sit on the banks and people-watch.
The Arnold Arboretum
Operated by Harvard University, the Arnold Arboretum is the oldest arboretum in North America and is one of the more expansive parks included in the Emerald Necklace (it’s over 200 acres!). Formerly the country estate of Bostonian merchant and scientific farmer Benjamin Bussey, the Arnold Arboretum is now home to over 14,000 individual plants.
Walking through the Arboretum is like walking through different parts of the world; every region is represented horticulturally (including bonsais!), and there is always something new to discover. This is a great place to picnic, bike, or engage in moderate hiking since there are taller hills with great views of the city. There’s also some interesting Revolutionary War history hidden in the corner of the Arboretum near the Walter Street border (spoiler alert, it’s a burying ground with a story).
The final link in the Emerald Necklace, Franklin Park, is the “jewel” of this string of parkways. The largest park—at over 500 acres—Franklin Park is home to a zoo, a cross-country track, a golf course, various athletic courts, ponds, and historic structures.
The Franklin Park Zoo is over a century old and a great family-friendly activity if you’re making your way as a group down to this park. There are also some large picnicking areas in this park so expect, especially on weekends, big parties, or gatherings in the park!