Sitting on the Mystic River, about three miles northwest of Boston, Medford is a city incorporated in 1892 but with a history going back deep into the 17th century.
Medford is home to Tufts University, classed as a Research I University and producing numerous Nobel Prize laureates and Pulitzer Prize winners.
The august hilltop campus merits some exploration, while Medford is blessed with a lot of outdoor public space, along the Mystic River, its lakes and in at the majestic Middlesex Fells Reservation.
Medford Square, the main commercial area, has a ton of independent eateries, from old-school Italian to sashimi, as well as a top performing arts venue at the Chevalier Theatre.
1. Royall House and Slave Quarters
This historic house museum confronts a difficult aspect of New England’s history, preserving the residence of the largest slaveholding family in Massachusetts.
Royall House and Slave Quarters opens to the public on weekends, May through October. There’s a lot to process at the opulent Mansion House. The property features the only surviving separate quarters for enslaved people to be found in Massachusetts.
This is an extension of an “out kitchen”, constructed in the 1730s to keep heat away from the main residence, and was expanded in 1760. More than 60 enslaved Africans lived here across 40 years.
There’s also revolutionary history, as a number of patriot generals like John Stark, Charles Lee and John Sullivan used the property during the Revolutionary War.
The Royall House was later visited by George Washington who is rumored to have interrogated British soldiers here.
2. Middlesex Fells Reservation
A big chunk of Medford is taken up by a giant recreation area on hilly wooded land, encompassing several active and inactive reservoirs.
The largest of these is the beautiful Spot Pond, a destination for water activities in summer, with rowboats, canoes and paddleboards for rental at the boathouse.
The reservation is traversed by a seemingly endless network of trails, some carrying you to magnificent vantage points like Wright’s Tower for a panorama of the Boston skyline, and others providing rugged terrain for mountain bikers.
If you’re here with your pup, Sheepfold Meadow is a world-class dog park, with ten acres of open fields to play in.
3. Medford Square
Medford’s main downtown commercial area first cropped up in the 17th century at the intersection of several main roads, including High Street, Salem Street and Main Street.
Modern Medford Square has plenty to love, with a major live performance venue at the Chevalier Theatre, and a nearby riverside park, home to the Medford farmers’ market and hosting a slew of outdoor events in summer.
Arguably the best thing about this area is its dining scene, with 20+ eateries within a few hundred feet, whether you’re up for sushi, Korean BBQ, pasta, Sichuan, Middle Eastern, Mexican, patisserie, roast beef, the list goes on.
Ebisuya Japanese Market at 65 Riverside Ave is a local star, serving ramen, bento and sushi fresh from the pier, and also stocking a wealth of imported Japanese ingredients and home goods.
Finally for some history, give yourself a moment to visit the Salem Street Burying Ground. The earliest stone here is dated 1683, and the most recent 1881.
4. Mystic River State Reservation
Something special about the Mystic River is that almost the entire riverbank along its seven-mile course is publicly owned.
This means there’s a long belt of accessible riverfront bending through Medford, for relaxation, working out, walking, bicycling, picnics and more.
The reservation was founded in 1893 at the same time as Middlesex Fells, by the newly formed Metropolitan Parks Commission, and came through a renovation in the 2010s.
Within a few steps of Medford Square there’s a riverside park, home to the Medford Farmers’ Market on Thursdays, mid-June through mid-October.
All through the summer the Condon Shell (1956) here hosts other events, including a popular live music series and outdoor movies.
5. Wright’s Tower
Hiking in the Middlesex Fells Reservation, be sure to set a course for this lookout tower, set atop Pine Hill in the southeastern corner.
Wright’s Tower was a depression-era Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, completed in 1937 and dedicated to Elizur Wright (1804-1885).
Wright had worked for years to safeguard Middlesex Fells as a public park, laying the groundwork for the Metropolitan Park System.
With a square footprint, and interior stairway, Wright’s Tower gives you a spectacular panorama, encompassing the Boston skyline around six miles to the southeast.
6. Chevalier Theatre
One striking landmark in Medford Square is the Greek Revival-style Chevalier Theatre, a New Deal project, constructed in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), part of the Medford High School complex.
Still going strong, this venue can hold 1,900, and houses a rare Mighty Wurlitzer theatre pipe organ, built in 1922 and relocated here from Dayton, Ohio.
There’s a rich calendar of performances at the Chevalier Theatre, with concerts by famous music acts, dance, stand-up and sketch comedy, evenings with important cultural figures and live podcast tapings.
A few people booked here around the time we wrote this list were Boy George, Wanda Sykes, Beres Hammond, Amy Schumer, Ben Schwartz, Ron White and Paul F. Tompkins.
7. Paddle Boston
In summer, the paddlesports company Paddle Boston has a location at the Condon Shell in Medford, renting out a range of vessels for an adventure along the Mystic River.
There are rowboats, canoes (for up to five adults), kayaks and paddleboards, available for anything between 90 minutes and a whole day.
Given how much of the Mystic River’s banks are open to the public, this is the perfect watercourse for a paddling trip.
From this spot in Medford you can head downriver to the Blessing of the Bay Boathouse in Somerville, or head upstream to Shannon Beach (more below), with stirring vistas of the Boston skyline over your shoulder.
8. Tufts University Campus
A great way to spend some time outdoors in Medford is exploring the beautiful campus of Tufts University, founded in 1852.
Laid out on a scenic hill overlooking Boston, the Medford-Somerville campus is on the farm inherited by the founder, Charles Tufts (1781-1876).
The older, “Uphill” portion of the campus is contained by a wrought-iron fence, with some stunning 19th-century buildings to check out around the academic quad.
The main access is the Memorial Stairs, designed by Olmsted Brothers in the 1920s. Ballou Hall (1854) continues to be the university’s main administrative building. This was followed by Packard Hall (1856), easily identified by its Gothic elements and high-pitched roof.
Later constructions include the pedimented East Hall (1860), West Hall (1871), Goddard Chapel (1882), Goddard Hall (1883), and Eaton Hall (1908).
Barnum Hall (1884) originated with a museum established by showman P. T. Barnum to display taxidermied animals from his circus. That collection was lost to a fire in 1975, and the Jumbo statue was unveiled in 2015 as a monument to the former museum.
9. Tufts University Art Galleries
The Alex Aidekman Arts Center on the Tufts University campus in Medford has an exhibition space, staging around four shows a semester and showcasing the university’s extensive art collection.
This is made up of 2,000 pieces, spanning thousands of years, from ancient Mediterranean and pre-Hispanic American cultures to contemporary art.
Some of the many important names in this inventory are Dürer, Rodin, Picasso, John Singer Sargent, Dalí and Warhol.
For a taste of up-and-coming talent, in spring you can catch thesis exhibitions by graduating master of fine arts students from the SMFA (School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University).
10. Mystic Lakes State Park
On Medford’s western boundary are two bodies of water, the Upper And Lower Mystic Lakes. Between the two lakes is the Mystic Dam, built in the mid-1860s and more than 1,500 feet in length.
Mystic Lakes State Park here is part of the Mystic River Reservation, and is a prime spot for rowing and sailing, home to the Medford Boat Club and a boathouse for Tufts University.
The Mystic River Path runs along the eastern shores, and on Upper Mystic Lake brings you to Shannon Beach, for freshwater swimming and lounging in the sun in summer.
11. Grandfather’s House (Over the River Poem House)
The house mentioned in the famous poem, Over the River and Through the Wood (1844), by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1900) is still standing in Medford, fronting the Mystic River on South Street.
Passing by, you can pause at the lawn to admire the facade and read the historical marker. Even without the association with the poem, the residence would be noteworthy as the best example of Greek Revival residential architecture in the city.
The house originated as a small farmhouse at the beginning of the 19th century, but the current design, with a stately Ionic portico, was commissioned in 1839 by the prominent Medford shipbuilder Paul Curtis (1800-1873).
Curtis is noted for having launched close to 30 vessels, including a number of famous clipper ships, at his shipyard on the north shore of the Mystic River between 1839 and 1852.
12. The Brooks Estate
Next to Oak Grove cemetery in the very northwest of Medford is a rare example of a 19th-century estate that has survived to the present day undeveloped.
On more than 80 acres and now owned by the city, the Brooks Estate centers on a Queen Anne-style manor house built for Shepherd Brooks, a member of an important local family.
When we compiled this list there were long-term plans to renovate the manor and its accompanying carriage house, but some 50 acres of the ground were open to the public.
Trails meander through mature woods, and around the Brooks Pond, which is a haven for migrating birds in spring and fall.
13. Stone Zoo
On the northern shore of Spot Pond there’s a medium-sized zoo that has been here since 1905. An accredited member of the AZA, Stone Zoo has some 60 different species across 11 different exhibits, many of which have been opened or updated in the last few years.
Take Caribbean Coast, with its walk-through aviary keeping a variety of macaws and Caribbean flamingos, or the Animal Discovery Center, with terrariums for a host of exotic spiders, amphibians and snakes.
The Barnyard is home to domestic breeds like Nigerian dwarf goats and Guinea hogs, while the zoo’s headline residents are surely the snow leopards in the Himalayan Highlands exhibit.
Before you visit it’s worth checking the zoo’s website for details of daily animal encounters and feeding sessions.
14. Tufts Park
This 10.6-acre urban park in South Medford warrants a mention for its public pool, open late June to the end of August.
There’s an L-shaped main pool, with a neighboring kiddie pool, two foot deep and equipped with an entry ramp. The Tufts Outdoor Swimming Pool is open daily, charging a small fee for residents and non-residents.
Elsewhere, Tufts Park has four ballfields, a playground, basketball courts, several acres of open space and a perimeter trail, partially shaded by trees.
15. Jingle Bells Marker
If you keep your eyes peeled in Medford Square, you’ll come across a historical marker at 21 High St. This commemorates the site of the Simpson Tavern, where, in 1850, James Pierpont (1822–1893) is thought to have composed the Christmas song, Jingle Bells.
As the plaque verifies, this was corroborated by one Mrs. Waterman, while the song was copyrighted as One Horse Open Sleigh a few years later by Pierpoint in Georgia.
The story goes that Jingle Bells was inspired by the sleigh races that once took place on Salem Street in Medford.
Now it’s one of the most performed American songs in history, and became the first song in space when it was broadcast by Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra in 1965.