While not classified as a museum, the Boston Public Library is brimming with awe-inspiring paintings, tapestries, intricate architectural elements, and sculptures. Moreover, an exquisite gallery on the third floor showcases remarkable murals by the renowned artist John Singer Sargent.
Even before stepping foot into the Renaissance Revival edifice constructed in 1895, which offers a captivating view of Copley Square, visitors find themselves surrounded by magnificent sculptures and architectural marvels. Once inside, a splendid spectacle awaits at every turn.
However, the library’s collection of artistic treasures is only the tip of the iceberg. Countless captivating encounters and activities await you here.
The Boston Public Library’s main branch, aptly named the “Central Library,” situated in the Back Bay neighborhood, consists of two distinct buildings. Both structures are architectural marvels in their own right, each providing a unique experience.
Did you know?
Established in 1848 and officially opened in 1854, the Boston Public Library holds the distinction of being the first large-scale free municipal library in the United States. (Boston is also home to the venerable Boston Athenaeum, a membership-based library on Beacon Hill, which predates the public library and houses its own remarkable collection of art and rare books.)
Annually, the library welcomes more than 2.2 million visitors, including researchers, enthusiasts of art and architecture, and Boston residents seeking a serene haven for reading or borrowing books to enjoy at home.
In this guide, we present a curated selection of must-see attractions, finest dining spots within the library where you can relish delectable meals and beverages, as well as complimentary tours you can partake in.
10 Exceptional Activities and Sights to Explore in America’s Most Majestic Public Library
10. Top Attractions and Activities at the Boston Public Library
The Exquisite McKim Building: A Marvelous Architectural Gem
Standing proudly on the western side of Copley Square, across Dartmouth Street, the original McKim Building is an opulent and awe-inspiring structure named after the esteemed architect, Charles Follen McKim. Within its walls lie a myriad of renowned artworks, sculptures, rare books, and invaluable treasures.
McKim envisioned his creation as a “palace for the people” upon its grand opening in 1895. Constructed from pale pink granite, this jewel of the Back Bay receives accolades from architects for its impeccable classical proportions.
Adjacent to the McKim Building on Boylston Street, the modern and minimalist Johnson Building, designed by Phillip Johnson in 1972 and renovated in 2016, pulsates with the activities and resources befitting a 21st-century library.
Both of these architectural marvels are brimming with captivating sights and delightful experiences. Allow us to present our top ten recommendations of unmissable wonders:
1. Architectural Marvel – The Exterior and Entrancing Doors of the McKim Building
At first glance, the McKim Building appears imposing from the outside, owing to its size; however, stepping within reveals a warm and inviting ambiance.
As you approach the edifice, take a moment to admire the gently sloping red tile roof, adorned with verdant copper edging along its copper gutters. The facade, crafted from stone quarried in Milford, Massachusetts, showcases its grandeur.
Gaze upwards to the second story, and you’ll be captivated by the names of eminent artists, scientists, philosophers, religious figures, and leaders adorning the arched windows.
The building’s facades exhibit sculptural masterpieces by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (whose magnificent bronze relief Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment can be admired on Boston Common) and Domingo Mora.
Three majestic arches serve as the entrance, accompanied by clusters of intricately designed wrought-iron lanterns.
Prominently positioned in front of the library, two grand statues sculpted by Bela Pratt depict the embodiment of Art and Science.
Before entering, take a moment to closely examine the ornate bronze doors, meticulously crafted by Daniel Chester French. These doors depict representations of Music, Poetry, Truth, Romance, Knowledge, and Minerva, the revered Goddess of Wisdom.
Upon stepping into the entry hall, you’ll be greeted by imposing bronze statues adorning both sides. Among them, one captures the likeness of Sir Harry Vane, the esteemed governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony from 1636 to 1637.
2. Entrance Foyer and Staircase
Take a leisurely stroll and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring murals and mosaics, the grand vaulted reading rooms, and the exquisite painted ceilings. The realms of art, architecture, and engineering seamlessly merge in this magnificent space.
Once inside, prepare yourself for an overwhelming visual feast. Adorning the white marble floor of the entrance foyer are intricate inlays of zodiac symbols and inscriptions. Cast your gaze upward, and you’ll discover the names of 30 renowned Bostonians gracing the vaulted ceiling.
Now, ascend the staircase and take note of the fossilized shells embedded in the marble, sourced all the way from France. At the point where the staircase divides into two distinct sections, marvel at the sight of two colossal lions meticulously carved from single blocks of marble. These majestic creatures pay tribute to the Massachusetts Civil War infantry regiments.
On both the second and third floors, you’ll encounter galleries showcasing a treasure trove of rare books and fine art.
3. Puvis de Chavannes Gallery Murals
As you ascend the stairs, passing by the marble lions, you’ll be captivated by a series of exquisite murals adorned in delicate hues of pale blue, pale green, and ivory. These masterpieces were created by the French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, marking his only murals on public display outside of France.
Although Puvis de Chavannes may be unfamiliar to many today, 19th-century Europeans held him in high esteem as a preeminent French painter and muralist. His works seamlessly blended elements of Romanticism and Symbolism.
Each mural eloquently portrays a facet of science or literature that is embodied within the library, including poetry, history, science, and philosophy.
4. Bates Hall
The awe-inspiring Bates Reading Room, named in honor of the library’s esteemed benefactor, dominates the entire front section of the second floor, bathed in radiant light streaming through its towering arched windows. Amongst the busts of prominent late 19th-century literary figures scattered throughout the room, you can spot a tribute to the benefactor himself, and a portrait of him adorns the southern end.
The elaborate barrel-vaulted ceiling, meticulously crafted with intricately molded plaster, soars to a height of 50 feet. Spanning a length of 218 feet and a width of 42.5 feet, the room boasts a magnificent terrazzo floor, an exquisite replacement dating back to 1931, meticulously fashioned from Italian and Belgian marble in shades of yellow, white, and black.
The room’s English oak bookcases and sturdy oak tables remain original, providing a timeless ambiance, although the chairs are modern reproductions.
If you happen to have a book with you, find a cozy spot to settle down and indulge in some quiet reading time.
5. Sargent Gallery: Masterpieces in Mural Form
The third floor of the Boston Public Library houses a magnificent room adorned with the mesmerizing murals crafted by the esteemed American painter, John Singer Sargent. As you enter, your gaze will be captivated by these masterpieces that embellish the walls and grace the vaulted ceilings, illuminated by skylights.
Considered the pinnacle of his artistic achievements, Sargent dedicated an impressive 29 years, spanning from 1890 to 1919, to bring these murals to life. Entitled “The Triumph of Religion” and executed in the style reminiscent of Italian Renaissance frescoes, these artworks depict the evolution of various world religions that fascinated Sargent: Paganism, Judaism, and Christianity. Remarkably distinct from his refined society portraits, which can be admired in the Museum of Fine Arts, these murals were intended to redefine his public perception.
Sargent had long yearned to shed his reputation as a mere “society painter” and believed that these murals would present him in a fresh light. However, they accomplished this goal in a manner unforeseen by the artist himself.
Prominent art critics, including Bernard Berenson, vehemently criticized his new creations. Others objected to the portrayal of religious scenes within a secular setting. The most significant opposition, though, arose from his attempt to illustrate a “progression” of beliefs, starting from pagan ignorance and culminating in increasingly liberal forms of Christian faith. In 1919, he incorporated what is now known as the “synagogue” panel, wherein he employed a medieval motif portraying Judaism as an aged woman, blindfolded, with a falling crown, clutching a book and a broken scepter. This portrayal, reminiscent of depictions found in European cathedrals from the Middle Ages, conveyed the notion that Christianity had superseded a “broken” Judaism.
The controversial nature of these murals triggered outrage and demands for their removal, despite Sargent’s assertions that he had no intention of demeaning or defaming Judaism. Unfortunately, Sargent passed away in 1925 with the final mural, intended to depict the Sermon on the Mount from the Christian New Testament, still unfinished. Consequently, the designated panel for this masterpiece remains blank.
Visitor Information: Boston Public Library
- Monday to Thursday: 9am–9pm
Friday and Saturday: 9am–5pm
Sunday: 1pm–5pm (October through mid-May)
- Admission: Free of charge
- Entrances: 700 Boylston Street, Copley Square, Back Bay, Boston, MA
- Nearest T station: Green Line/Copley
- For further details: Contact 617-536-5400
- Guided Tours: Check the Boston Events Calendar for scheduled free tours.
6. Extraordinary Books and Manuscripts at Boston Public Library
Boston Public Library boasts an expansive collection of more than 1.2 million rare books and documents, alongside its vast assemblage of more contemporary works. These remarkable literary treasures, steeped in history, offer an incredible glimpse into the past.
Visitors have the opportunity to view a selection of these rare books and manuscripts on a rotating basis. No matter when you visit, you may encounter awe-inspiring medieval manuscripts, first edition folios penned by the illustrious William Shakespeare, invaluable records from Colonial Boston, centuries-old maps, and exquisite Old Master prints of the utmost quality.
Among the library’s esteemed holdings, you will discover John Adams’ personal library, which finds its home here. Additionally, original music scores composed by renowned maestros such as Mozart and Prokofiev grace the collection, further enhancing its cultural significance.
7. The Abbey Room: A Place of Literary Deliverance at Boston Public Library
Within the confines of the Boston Public Library lies the Abbey Room, widely regarded as the most ornate space within the establishment. In days gone by, it was fondly known as the “Delivery Room,” serving as a space where patrons patiently awaited the arrival of books they had requested from Bates Hall.
Today, this resplendent chamber pays homage to the illustrious American-born artist Edwin Austin Abbey. Adorning its walls are fifteen magnificent murals, each depicting Sir Galahad’s Quest of the Holy Grail—a tale familiar to the library’s 19th-century visitors, who would have discerned the symbolic significance behind the scenes.
While the references may be less evident to a 21st-century visitor, the Abbey Room still offers a splendid setting to be cherished and admired.
8. The Enchanting Courtyard Garden at Boston Public Library
After immersing yourself in the grandeur of the library’s cultural treasures, make certain to seek out the serene inner courtyard designed in the style of an Italian arcade, reminiscent of the Palazzo della Cacciatella in Rome. Its charming ambience, adorned with columns and arches, creates a tranquil haven within the bustling city.
Take a few precious moments to savor the tranquility while indulging in the sight of the fountain and the statue of Bacchante and Infant Faun. However, it’s worth noting that the statue present in the garden is not the original Bacchante sculpted by Frederick MacMonnies and generously donated to the museum by its architect, McKim. The original statue sparked controversy among the “proper” Bostonians of the time, who took issue with its nudity and perceived endorsement of wine consumption. Eventually, McKim, likely exasperated, had the statue removed and bestowed it upon New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remains on display to this day.
Nevertheless, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston also houses a replica of the original Bacchante. The statue you currently see in the garden is a cast of the Museum of Fine Arts’ copy, meticulously crafted and installed in the 1990s.
The tables nestled beneath the arcades of the courtyard are highly sought-after spots for enjoying a leisurely lunch or indulging in a captivating book. So, if you manage to secure one of these coveted spots, take pleasure in the experience!
9. The Johnson Building of Boston Public Library: A Contemporary Masterwork
In the middle of the 20th century, the library faced a challenge as its space became insufficient. Expanding the McKim Building proved to be a daunting architectural task.
The question arose: should a new adjacent building imitate or harmonize with the McKim? If it followed suit, would it always be deemed less beautiful, like the proverbial less-attractive younger sibling of a globally renowned beauty queen? If not, how could a new structure be distinct without appearing discordant and out of context?
In 1972, a modern extension designed by the renowned architect Phillip Johnson was unveiled. Interestingly, one might not immediately notice it when facing the library from the front. For the most captivating vantage points, one must stroll down Boylston Street and perhaps even cross the road to fully appreciate it.
At first glance, known as the Johnson Building, it appears strikingly dissimilar.
However, upon closer examination, one would discover that it is constructed from the same pink granite and possesses the same grand scale as the McKim Building—despite its square lines, angled walls, and unadorned facade, which undoubtedly present an unmistakable contrast from the late 20th century.
While strolling along Boylston Street beside the library, you might overlook the arches or fail to fully appreciate them. Yet, it is strongly advised to cross the street, take a closer look, and marvel at how the arches somewhat echo those found in the McKim Building.
Investigate further—preferably without the McKim Building obstructing your line of sight—and you will discern the commanding proportions of the Johnson Building. Throughout the day and across different seasons, light gracefully interacts with its angles and curves, accentuating its sculptural attributes.
In contrast to the McKim Building’s extravagant carvings and embellishments, the Johnson Building might not seize our attention in quite the same manner. Nonetheless, it possesses its own unique beauty.
The Johnson Building accommodates circulating materials and serves as the headquarters for the Boston Public Library’s 28 branch libraries.
Conversely, the McKim Building houses the non-circulating research and reference collection, as well as a substantial portion of the library’s remarkable art.
10. Exploring BPL’s Johnson Building: Children’s Library, Teen Central, and More
To fully grasp the magnificence of the Johnson Building’s architecture and immerse yourself in the visitor experience it offers, it is essential to step inside and wander around. The interior boasts luminous, spacious areas that accommodate the circulating book collection, providing an enchanting setting for book enthusiasts.
The Johnson Building houses a dedicated Children’s Library, easily identifiable by the multitude of parked strollers outside the entrance. It also features a section called “Teen Central” specifically designed for teenagers, and a “Movies & Music” section that showcases an extensive collection of CDs, DVDs, and digital music and movies. Additionally, visitors can explore a vast assortment of periodicals, a business library, and a variety of engaging daily and nightly events and programs, all of which make the Johnson Building an irresistible destination.
Did you know that when the Boston Public Library first opened its doors in 1854, the minimum age requirement for entry was 16? In other words, only individuals aged 16 and above were granted access.
Today, the BPL offers an array of exceptional children’s activities. If you are visiting with children, be sure to visit the BPL website to discover the exciting children’s programs available during your stay in Boston.
Witness the Jim and Margery Show Broadcasts at BPL
Ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a live radio broadcast? Drop by the WGBH 89.7 radio broadcast studio, located in a cozy corner on the first floor of the Johnson Building, on weekdays between 11am and 2pm to witness the recording of the Jim and Margery show in action.
In addition to their insightful commentary on Boston events, the hosts engage in interviews with local politicians, scientists, educators, and an impressive array of special guests, including musicians who often treat the audience to captivating performances.
Where to Dine at the Library
Boston Public Library currently offers several delightful dining options:
- Newsfeed Cafe (Johnson Building): This vibrant café serves an assortment of beverages, pastries, sandwiches, snacks, and salads.
- Tea Room Lounge (McKim Building): Indulge in tea-infused cocktails such as the Ginger Lemony Snicket, alongside a selection of wine, beer, and upscale bar food. Their menu includes cheese and charcuterie boards, smoked salmon tartines, and pecan tarts.
- Courtyard Tea Room (McKim Building): Experience the elegance of Afternoon Tea (Wednesday – Friday) or Copley Tea (Saturday – Sunday) at this charming establishment. Modeled after the traditional English-style High Tea, their seasonal prix-fixe menus feature a first course of soup or salad, fancy sandwiches (such as lobster, smoked salmon, and chicken salad), scones accompanied by Devonshire cream, lemon curd, and orange preserves, and delightful petits fours.
Moreover, along Boylston Street, just outside the library, you will often find a food truck serving lunch on weekdays. Additionally, Boylston Street and the nearby Newbury Street are lined with a multitude of exceptional dining establishments, offering a plethora of culinary options to satisfy every palate.
Discover the Fascinating Boston Public Library through Guided Tours
Immerse yourself in the captivating world of the Boston Public Library by joining our enriching guided tours, offered daily by our knowledgeable volunteer guides. Embark on a captivating journey through both buildings as you delve into their remarkable architecture, intriguing history, and exquisite decorative details. Along the way, you’ll have the privilege of witnessing renowned masterpieces, including captivating art and awe-inspiring murals by the talented artists John Singer Sargent and Daniel Chester French. Each tour lasts approximately one hour, providing ample time to soak in the library’s cultural treasures.
If you’re eager to participate in one of these remarkable tours, simply make your way to the front entry, specifically the vestibule located at the Dartmouth Street entrance of the McKim Building (the main entrance opposite Copley Square). Arriving a few minutes prior to the scheduled start time is all it takes to begin your captivating journey.
The current schedule for the tours is as follows:
- Mondays at 2:30 pm
- Tuesdays at 6:00 pm
- Wednesdays at 11:00 am
- Thursdays at 6:00 pm
- Fridays at 11:00 am
- Saturdays at 11:00 am
- Sundays at 2:00 pm
Please note that the schedule is subject to change. To ensure accuracy, kindly verify the tour schedule on the Boston Public Library’s official website before your visit. You can easily find the relevant information by searching for “free tours.” Additionally, we advise you to review the list of scheduled holiday observances, as tours are not available on those dates.
Surprisingly, there are more holidays than one might anticipate. For further details, simply click on the provided link.For those seeking a more personalized experience, we offer fee-based private tours designed for small groups. If this piques your interest, please allow a minimum of two months’ advance notice to arrange your exclusive tour.
Embark on an unforgettable exploration of the Boston Public Library, where knowledge and beauty unite to create an extraordinary experience.