date published: August 1, 2005

It’s summer in the city and the sidewalk is hotter than a match head. The sweltering month of August brings with it soaring mercury levels and the horrors of high humidity. Though you can always keep cool in your hotel pool, nothing fights a heat wave quite like an ocean wave. But for those averse to getting sand in unmentionable places, there are also plenty of public pools and fountains in which the heat-oppressed masses can dip their toes. So, if you want to soak in the sights of Boston, and achieve that coveted summer tan while schmoozing with the locals, why not check out some of Hub’s coolest spots for getting wet?

Over the last decade, making Boston Harbor a pleasant place to take a swim has been a civic priority. The “Back to the Beaches” program—a sort of “Extreme Makeover” for the Boston shoreline—began in 1993 when then-Governor William Weld and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino unveiled aspirations to get locals back in the water by correcting years of pollution and neglect.

Since then, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority and the Boston Water and Sewer Commission have united to dramatically improve harbor water quality, while the Boston Harbor Association has teamed up with the now-defunct Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) to restore landside facilities. Approximately $420 million has been allocated to scrub area beaches clean and to eliminate sewer overflows by the year 2008, and many seaside spots have already reaped the benefits of Boston’s beach-building bonanza.

East Boston’s Constitution Beach, a short jaunt away on the MBTA Blue Line (take the subway to the Orient Heights Station, then transfer to the 120 bus and get off at Bennington and Trident streets), is a family-friendly waterfront spot featuring a large playground, picnic area, tennis and handball courts and foot showers. The beach itself has benefited from 8,000 tons of fresh new sand. If you’d rather soak up sun than salt water, Winthrop Beach (Blue Line to Orient Heights, and then take the Winthrop Beach bus service) boasts a 1-mile long sea wall ideal for sunbathing and seaside socializing.

Nearby South Boston also supplies several seaside spots, including Castle Island (MBTA Red Line to Broadway station, then take City Point buses #9 or #11, and walk right across Marine Park) and Carson Beach (take the Red Line to JFK/UMass station). On Castle Island, take a dip or explore Fort Independence, a granite fort dating back to 1834, or enjoy brand new sand, walkways and benches. Carson’s recently renovated Edward J. McCormack Bathhouse features restrooms, changing rooms, showers and fountains, plus chess tables and bocce courts for non-swimmers. Also located in South Boston is Pleasure Bay (485 East Broadway). This enclosed lagoon is perfect for the low-key swimmer looking for a lazy dip.

While these beaches are well-regarded and maintained, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), the successor to the MDC, takes great pains to ensure they remain so. The DCR takes weekly samples at most beaches and daily samples at inner city harbors to assure water quality maintenance, and they’ve developed a system to clearly designate the results for bathers. “Pay attention to water quality flags,” urges Gary Brier, chief of recreation for the DCR. “They are there for [your] safety.” Red flags are posted at beaches with insufficient water quality for swimming. If you ever have any doubts about a beach, DCR also has a hotline (617-626-4971) to check water quality.

If you’ve developed thalassophobia (fear of the ocean) from seeing Jaws a few too many times, there are still cooling options available throughout the city. Throw on some swim trunks and swing by the Colonnade Hotel (120 Huntington Ave., 617-424-7000). Go up 11 flights and, for $40, you can relax, unwind and feel like you’re on top of the world at the Colonnade’s Rooftop Pool. The pool is open daily from 7 a.m.–7 p.m. and there is always a lifeguard on duty. Don’t fret if you’ve forgotten to pack a lunch, for there’s also a rooftop snack bar. To mingle with the locals, check out one of the more than 20 municipal pools, wading pools and spray decks in urban Boston, open daily from 10 a.m.–7 p.m. The DCR has made it a breeze to cool off anywhere from Mirabella Pool at North End’s Puopolo Park (475R Commercial St.), which has a spray pool perfect for kids, to the Allston-Brighton Pool on North Beacon Street, which has both a swimming and wading pool. To find other pools, visit DCR’s website at

If a quick spray, rather than a full body immersion, is what you’re looking for then sail on over to Christopher Columbus Waterfront Park in the North End. Renovated in 2003, the park includes a play lot, lovely rose garden and a fountain with spray showers perfect for little (or big) kids on a hot day. And it doesn’t take a genius to find a summer cool-down at Harvard University. Besides being a fountain of knowledge, Harvard University is also host to a fountain of water—Tanner Fountain, which was created in 1987 by landscape architect Peter Walker. Rest on any of the 159 stones that litter the 60-ft diameter circle and enjoy the refreshing mist of 32 spray nozzles.

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Revere Beach (Revere Beach Boulevard, 617-727-4708), the oldest public beach in the U.S. (circa 1896), is a former resort area now best known for the legendary Kelly’s Roast Beef, but beachgoers, lifeguards and well-fed seagulls are there all summer. The beach was recently closed for a brief time, so call before jumping on the MBTA Blue Line to Revere Beach or Wonderland stations.

A trip to Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod promises exposure to funky shops and one of the country’s most vibrant gay communities. But even if you’re just going for the lovely beaches, you won’t be disappointed. Round-trip ferry service to P-Town aboard Bay State Cruise Company’s ferry the Provincetown III departs three times daily.

Those with cars at their disposal can head north up Rte. 128 to lovely North Shore beaches like Plum Island (978-465-5753) in Newburyport, known for its hiking and great birdwatching; popular Good Harbor Beach (Thatcher Road, Gloucester, 978-281-9790, pictured above); and the unique Singing Beach (Masconomo Street, Manchester-by-the-Sea, 979-526-2000, accessible via the MBTA Commuter Rail’s Rockport line), named for the squeaking created by walking across its sand.

Those preferring fresh water can journey to Walden Pond (915 Walden St., Concord) by taking Rte. 128 North to Rte. 2 West then Rte. 126 South. Made famous by Henry David Thoreau’s classic treatise Walden, Walden Pond is a treasure hidden in the woods, just 30 minutes from Boston.
—Christopher Wallenberg and Josh Wardrop