Nicknamed The Garden City, Newton is a prosperous western suburb of Boston, composed of 13 villages instead of a central downtown area.
Many of these villages, like Newton Centre, are well worth visiting, with pedestrian-friendly streets endowed with locally owned stores, restaurants and other services.
Each village developed at a different time, most around a railroad station, and so each one has its own character and townscape.
One uniting thread is Commonwealth Avenue, which is famously on the route of the Boston Marathon in April and comprises a challenging stretch known as Heartbreak Hill.
The main campus for Boston College is in the Chestnut Hill village, and as well as the world-class McMullen Art Museum it has a fine ensemble of Gothic Revival architecture.
1. Newton Centre
The perfect starting point, Newton Centre is the largest downtown area in the city, with upscale shopping, a slew of dining choices and abundant greenery.
The Newton Centre green forms a long and wide strip up the west side, and at the northernmost point is Newton Centre Playground, the city’s largest public park.
You could write a whole article for Newton Centre’s assortment of independent retailers but, for a taste of what awaits you, there are galleries, jewelers, a toy store, artsy gift stores, a book shop, homewares, an Italian food market, a pet care store and boutiques for women’s and men’s fashion.
Food-wise, the choice is massive, running the gamut from pho to sushi, Thai, bagels, diner classics, farm-to-table New American, French, Chinese, pizza, falafel, authentic Mexican, and that’s just an intro.
2. Jackson Homestead and Museum
The headquarters for Historic Newtown are located at this Federal house in Newton Corner, dating to 1809. The Jackson Homestead was the seat of several generations of the Jackson family up to 1932.
One noteworthy resident was William Jackson (1783-1855), a prominent businessman and United States representative, whose ties to abolitionists led to the homestead becoming a station on the Underground Railroad.
The Newton Historic Museum here has rotating and permanent exhibits about all aspects of Newton life across four centuries, as well as the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts.
When we compiled this list there were exhibitions about slavery in the north, the evolution of hairstyles, 19th-century childhood portraits, and the Great Curve (1852) a pastoral landscape of Newton’s Lower Falls by Samuel Adams (1813-1894).
3. Charles River Canoe & Kayak (Paddle Boston)
Newton is on a green stretch of the Charles River, known as the Lakes District, with six miles of calm water and almost no current.
The river bends through forest and past sparse residential neighborhoods and pristine parks, and at times it will be hard to believe you’re in an urban area.
Based at the historic Newton Boathouse in the west and Nahanton Park in the south, Charles River Canoe & Kayak offers hourly and daily rentals for a variety of vessels, including paddleboards.
The company also provides paddleboard classes and special experiences like peaceful moonlight tours.
4. Boston College Campus
The wealthy village of Chestnut Hill is home to the main campus for Boston College (BC), founded in 1863. Famed for its Gothic Revival stone architecture, this is an historic district, on the National Register of Places since 1990.
The main structures here were designed by Charles Donagh Maginnis (1867-1955) and built in the 1910s. Gasson Hall (1913) is the linchpin, and inspired the Gothic-style towers that now dominate several university campuses.
The McMullen Art Museum has a first-rate collection, from Medieval and Baroque tapestries to Modigliani and Frank Stella. In the last 20 years the museum has hosted important exhibitions for Munch, Paul Kee, Jackson Pollock and Roberto Matta.
Finally, a word on Boston College Eagles football, who compete in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision and have sent dozens of players to the NFL, including 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie.
5. Hemlock Gorge Reservation
This state-owned recreation area protects a beautiful stretch of the Charles River, with steep banks wooded with hemlocks.
The main landmark at the Hemlock Gorge Reservation is Echo Bridge (1876), carrying the Sudbury Aqueduct across the river, but also open to foot traffic for a satisfying view along the river and gorge.
At the time of construction this was the second-longest masonry arch in the United States, and there’s a path leading to the base of the structure where you can find out where the name Echo Bridge comes from.
6. Hammond Pond Reservation
Between the Shops at Chestnut Hill shopping center and the Boston College campus there’s a large natural park encompassing the state-owned Hammond Pond.
There are a few things to love about this place, one being the striking formations of Roxbury puddingstone and conglomerate, which are popular for rock climbing and bouldering.
Another is the delightful Houghton Gardens, where paths weave through azalea and rhododendron, and past a stream and little pond.
Framed by those formations to the west, Hammond Pond is a haven for waterfowl like swans and geese and has a trail that carries you over wetlands via a boardwalk.
7. Newton Highlands Historic District
Another of Newton’s 13 villages to keep in mind is Newton Highlands, which mostly developed after the 1870s.
The leafy commercial area here at the intersection of Walnut Street and Lincoln Street is as pretty as they come.
There’s a sprinkling of shops and local services including a patisserie, cafe, old-time candy shop, clothing boutiques and diverse restaurants for vegetarian, Mediterranean, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese and American food.
The Gothic Revival Newton Highlands Congregational Church (1906) adds to the quaint scene, while surrounding streets are lined with ornate Queen Anne and Colonial Revival houses.
8. Chestnut Hill Reservoir
Right next to the Boston College main campus is the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, built on former marshland in 1870 to help provide Boston’s water supply.
The reservoir and its accompanying water works structures are now an historic district, testifying to one of the first metropolitan water systems in the United States.
There’s a 1.5-mile paved trail around the reservoir’s green banks, with some gorgeous views, especially looking across to the Richardsonian Romanesque waterworks buildings.
On the east side of the Chestnut Hill Reservation are recreation facilities, including ballfields, tennis courts and the Reilly Memorial Rink.
9. Metropolitan Waterworks Museum
For more background on Boston’s trailblazing water system in the 19th century you can visit the Metropolitan Waterworks Museum, housed in the fine Richardsonian Romanesque complex by the reservoir’s southeast edge.
This attraction blends themes like social history, public health, architecture and engineering. A highlight is the three mammoth steam-driven water pumps still in situ in the Great Engines Hall, each more than three stories tall.
The museum also puts on worthwhile temporary exhibits, and when we wrote this article there was an excellent display about the Great Fire of Boston (1872) and its lasting impact on the city’s fire department and water system.
10. Newton Cemetery & Arboretum
Within walking distance of Newton City Hall and the Newton Free Library is this sprawling garden cemetery dating back to 1855 and set on a rolling landscape.
Newton Cemetery is held as one of the prettiest historic burying grounds in the Boston area, and is a place for gentle walks infused with history and nature.
The cemetery website has published maps highlighting some of the notable people laid to rest here, including the stage actor Georgia Cayvan (1857-1906), Broadway and Hollywood star Josephine Hill (1877-1957) and baseball star Dom Dimaggio (1917-2009).
You can also download a map for the cemetery’s many specimen trees, from Japanese zelkova to black tupelo.
11. The Rose Art Museum
The Brandeis University campus is just across the Charles River from Newton in Waltham. A great reason to make the trip is for the Rose Art Museum, founded in 1961 and holding one of the largest collections of modern and contemporary art in New England.
The museum has a reputation for its forward-thinking exhibitions, going back to Vision & Television (1970), the first show for video art in the United States.
Among the artists represented in the large collections are Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Helen Frankenthaler, Yayoi Kusama, Yoko Ono, Mona Hatoum, Jasper Johns and Henri Matisse.
The Rose Art Museum features important thematic exhibitions and surveys of prominent contemporary artists, and has long served as a springboard for emerging artists, staging their first ever solo museum shows.
12. Crystal Lake
At 33 acres this natural “great pond” in Newton is owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and enclosed by impressive mansions.
Despite the upscale location, there’s decent public access here. Sidewalks, public parks and a paved path trace the pond at various spots around the lakefront.
On the south side there’s a beach and swimming area that opens during the summer months, and this is linked by trail to Levingston Cove, a small park on the southwest side.
To the north is Cronin’s Cove, where there’s a ribbon of grassy bank, with benches and a fishing pier.
13. Gore Place
The sumptuous Federal-style country retreat for the prominent politician and diplomat, Christopher Gore (1758-1827) is moments away in Waltham. Gore Place (1806) is on a 45-acre estate that is open daily free of charge.
You can stroll around the picturesque parkland, and bring younger members of the family to the 10-acre farm, which keeps a variety of chicken breeds, as well as sheep.
For a fee, mansion tours take place Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, identifying unusual architectural features inside and out.
During the summer there are special themed experiences like a Jane Austen tour, as well as regular concerts at the 1790s Carriage House.
14. Durant-Kenrick House and Grounds
There’s almost 300 years of history at this preserved late First Period house in Newton Centre.
The Durant-Kenrick House was built in 1734 by Edward Durant II (1695-1740), whose son Edward Durant III (1715-1782) was a protagonist in Newton during the events leading up to the American Revolution.
The Kenrick family purchased the property in 1790, and in the 1830s established one of the largest plant nurseries in New England here.
The house, with a modern educational space constructed in 2013, offers interesting titbits about life in the Thirteen Colonies, the Revolution slavery, abolition, 19th-century horticulture and the historic preservation movement.
15. Upper Falls Greenway
An old railroad line running through Newton Highlands has recently been converted into a linear park.
The line used to connect with the MBTA Green Line D, across the Charles River, and has been transformed since the mid-2010s, with benches, kiosks and annual public art displays.
The Upper Falls Greenway is around a mile long, and is open to walkers, joggers, bicyclists, concluding at a picturesque spot on the river. There’s also a short spur along South Meadow Brook, offering access to the trail along Needham St.