A western suburb of Boston, Waltham was founded as long ago as 1636 and has a rich history, especially when it comes to industry.
From 1814 seminal Boston Manufacturing Company mill changed the way textiles were manufactured in the United States, while later in the century the Waltham Watch Company pioneered the mass production of watches and other timepieces.
Waltham continues to be known as The Watch City, and the top-notch Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation chronicles those manufacturers.
There’s a more refined side to Waltham, where several grand houses are folded into large estates that are open to the public. One of the highest points in the suburbs can also be found here, for one of the great views of the Boston skyline.
1. Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation
If you had to pick a setting for a museum about industry in the 19th and 20th century, you couldn’t do better than the riverside Boston Manufacturing Company mill.
Established in 1814 by Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817), this innovative, integrated textile mill housed the technology for every step in the process to turn raw cotton into finished cloth.
The museum inside opened in 1980 and brims with machinery, tools and manufactured products documenting the Industrial Revolution in America.
You’ll see detailed profiles of pioneering industrialists, and many ingenious machines, from early automobiles to a groundbreaking device for making paper bags.
One manufacturer that features prominently is the Waltham Watch Company, which was a fixture in the city for more than a century, and you can peruse a large collection of timepieces as well as the world’s first machinery for mass producing watches.
2. Gore Place
One of a few historic estates in Waltham is the summer residence of the lawyer and Federalist politician Christopher Gore (1758-1827).
On 50 acres, Gore Place was completed in 1806 and counts the Marquis de Lafayette, James Monroe and Daniel Webster in its long list of notable guests.
Touring Gore Place you’ll get to see the largest and finest collection of Boston-made Federal-period furniture on public show in the country, including beds, bookcases and an extremely rare billiards table from c. 1805.
Gore Place is also noteworthy as an early example of Federal architecture and for the key role that Rebecca Gore, Christopher’s wife, played in the design.
Families visiting Gore Place should make time for the working farm on the estate, keeping several chicken breeds and sheep, while there’s also a nature playscape and a story trail through the grounds.
3. Downtown Waltham
Concentrated almost entirely on Moody Street, Waltham has a central commercial area that is attractive, easy to visit on foot and loaded with shopping, restaurants and entertainment.
This strip stands out most of all for its awesome choice of eateries, and in the space of five blocks there are spots for tapas, sushi, pho, Indian, East African, Mexican Salvadoran, Asian fusion and contemporary American.
You can do a meal-movie one-two, as the Embassy Cinema is just off Moody Street downtown (more later).
June through October, the Waltham Farmers’ Market takes place on Saturday mornings near the riverbank, and has live music pretty much every week. Across the river is the charming Waltham Common, hosting free outdoor concerts in the summer.
4. Rose Art Museum
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, this excellent free museum on the Brandeis University campus is free and open to the public.
Renovated just over a decade ago, the Rose Art Museum was founded in 1961 and has a reputation for groundbreaking exhibitions going back to the first exhibition for video art in the United States, held in 1970.
The collection comprises more than 9,000 items, with works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Yayoi Kusama, Henri Matisse, Yoko Ono, Paul Gauguin and Jasper Johns.
Recent exhibitions have featured pieces by Frida Kahlo, Mark Dion and Raida Adon, while Light of Reason, a permanent installation by Chris Burden, greets new visitors at the front of the building.
5. Stonehurst, the Robert Treat Paine Estate
The summer home of social reformer Robert Treat Paine (1835-1910) is in Waltham just west of the Bentley University campus.
In 1883 Paine, the great-grandson of the signer of the Declaration of Independence, hired two preeminent names to design the property in a unique collaboration.
The architect for the house Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), famed for his Romanesque Revival style, while Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) laid out the grounds.
Stonehurst is perched atop a rocky ridge with magnificent vistas to the southeast, while the interior is filled with handcrafted details signaling the arrival of the Arts & Crafts movement in America.
You can see the interior on a guided tour, while Olmsted’s naturalistic grounds and the beautiful encompassing woodland can be discovered on trails.
6. Charles River Greenway (Charles River Bike Path)
In Waltham much of the Charles River is traced by a continuous bike path, often on both banks. This is the 23-mile Charles River Greenway, connecting the western suburbs with Boston at the Museum of Science.
Waltham is towards the western end of the path, and was part of a multimillion-dollar project to extend the greenway from Watertown Square to Newton in the mid-00s.
As well as using the greenway to visit nearby communities, this is an excellent way to get to downtown Waltham, attractions like the Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation and verdant riverside spaces like the Riverwalk Park.
7. Lyman Estate
In the care of Historic New England, this refined country house dates to 1793, and was built for Boston merchant Theodore Lyman. Once on 400 acres, the Lyman Estate was enlarged in 1882 and then given a Colonial Revival facelift in 1917.
Thanks to its rare state of preservation, the house has been used as a shooting location several times, most recently for Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019).
The grounds are open to the public, and can be visited for free. You can take in several specimen trees, sublime rhododendron and azalea collections, planted by the Lymans in the 19th century, along with a carriage house and historic greenhouse complex (now home to a nursery).
The house is rented out for private events, but opens for public tours on the first Saturday of the month.
8. Prospect Hill Park
One of the highest points within a 12-mile radius of downtown Boston is in this wooded municipal park in Waltham.
The main summit here is Big Prospect at an elevation of 485 feet, but there’s also Little Prospect at 435 feet. Both offer inspiring views of Boston and the surrounding basin.
On a clear day you can see as far as Mount Monadnock, more than 50 miles to the northwest.
Prospect Hill Park has been open to the public since 1893, and at 273 acres is a rugged, natural space for brisk and surprisingly stiff hikes. Head here in June and July when the meadows are dappled with wildflowers, and in fall to see the leaves turn.
9. American Waltham Watch Company Historic District
Since 1989 the seat of the Waltham Watch Company (1850-1957) has been designated a U.S. Historic District. It’s worth making the short stroll southwest from downtown Waltham to check out some of this architecture.
The Romanesque Revival complex has remarkable dimensions, continuing for almost 1,000 feet along Crescent St.
It even resembles a palace, with its many rows of arched windows, along with the rooftop towers, turrets and finials, and the protruding streetfront blocks that resemble corps de logis.
After being purchased by General Electric in 2004 the complex has been brought back to life as a mixed-use site, with residences, offices and dining.
10. Embassy Cinema
Waltham is one of those fortunate cities to have a multiplex movie theater downtown, a few steps from the many restaurants on Moody St.
The Embassy Cinema first opened in 1998, and belongs to the Landmark Theatres chain, with 35 locations across the country at the time of writing.
In keeping with the brand, this six-screen theater shows first-run Hollywood releases, along with foreign and independent films. The convenient setting is a big part of Embassy Cinema’s appeal, as are the $7 movies on Tuesdays.
11. Charles River Canoe and Kayak
The dams that were built for the textile mills on the Charles River in Waltham have given rise to the Lakes District of the Charles. For more than six miles upstream there’s tranquil flatwater with practically no current.
The serene banks meanwhile have sparse and leafy residential neighborhoods or parkland, so paddling along this stretch of the Charles River feels like escaping the city.
Charles River Canoe and Kayak (Paddle Boston) has a riverside location at Moody Street Dam in Waltham, renting out a range of canoes, kayaks and paddleboards for anything from 90 minutes to a whole day.
12. Beaver Brook Reservation
On the line between Waltham and Belmont more than 300 acres of parkland, sprinkled with interesting sights both natural and manmade.
The reservation was created in 1893 to preserve the Waverly Oaks, a stand of 22 ancient white oaks that were eventually lost to old age.
There’s a monument to these trees, along with the administrative building for the former Metropolitan State Hospital (1927), the 19th-century home of landscape architect Robert Copeland (1830-1874) and the vestiges of a fulling mill from the 1800s.
Out in the reservation’s open meadows and woods, you can check out Beaver Brook Falls, which has a 30-foot drop, while a favorite walk is Lone Tree Hill in Belmont.
In the South Section along Trapelo Rd in Belmont there’s a spacious playground, with a spray deck adored by kids in summer.
13. Mass Audubon’s Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary
A short way east of Waltham is a landscape of mixed forest, meadows and vernal pools in the hands of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Habitat has long been devoted to wildlife education, with an indoor gallery and a diversity of programs all year.
There are three miles of trails, around the ponds and into the meadows, with constant opportunities for birding, and identifying turtles and frog species in summer.
To continue your walk, the trail system is connected to a further seven miles along the Western Greenway Trail.
There’s always something happening at Habitat, with programs for all ages, whether you want to go on an informative nature walk, learn how to identify birds of prey or learn skills like illustration and nature writing.
14. Mighty Squirrel Brewing Co.
The sleek brewery and taproom for this craft beer brand is on the east side of Waltham by the Beaver Brook Reservation.
One of the neat things about Mighty Squirrel Brewing Co. is how the brewhouse is integrated with the taproom, with shiny fermentation tanks behind glass panels in the center of the hall.
There were 13 beers on tap when we wrote this list, among them Lotería Lime (Lager) the flagship Cloudy Candy (IPA), Cosmic Distortion (IPA), Volaré (Pilsner) and a selection of fruity sours like Mango Lassi.
The taproom is a great space for live music, and there’s someone booked most weeks, Tuesday to Thursday. There’s also a different food truck outside every day, serving anything from porchetta to smash burgers, grilled cheese, curry, tacos…the list goes on.
15. DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
Worth the trip, New England’s largest sculpture park is within 15 minutes in Lincoln. The Sculpture Park has a changing exhibition of more than 60 works of modern and contemporary sculpture and installations, all in idyllic landscaping next to Flints Pond.
Most of these works are on loan, but this institution also has a rich collection, with sculpture by luminaries like Nam June Paik, Dorothy Dehner, Jaume Plensa, Antony Gormley, Beverly Pepper and Sol LeWitt, for just a handful of names.
The museum also has extensive indoor gallery space, for groundbreaking contemporary art exhibitions and family-friendly learning spaces.