Founded in 1630, Watertown was one of the earliest Massachusetts Bay Colony settlements, and came about after a group of Puritan immigrants traveled up the Charles River.
In the early 1830s, the hilly easternmost part of Watertown was chosen for Mount Auburn Cemetery, a new and massively influential kind of burial ground, in a picturesque arboretum.
For 150+ years from 1816 the Watertown Arsenal on the Charles River manufactured ordnance for the armed forces.
Long brick structures at the old site now house offices and facilities like the excellent Mosesian Center for the Arts, while a big piece of the former arsenal site is today the Arsenal Yards mixed-use development, taking off as a dining, entertainment and shopping destination.
1. Armenian Museum of America
At the most recent count, Watertown had the third-large largest Armenian population in the United States, behind only Glendale and Fresno.
The town is a center for Armenian-language media in the country, which also makes it the obvious choice for the largest and most diverse Armenia museum in the United States.
The Armenian Museum of America has more than 20,000 items in its collections, taking in Ancient Urartu, religious art, Medieval illuminations, ancient and Medieval coins, hundreds of rare books, Armenian rugs and thousands of examples of Armenian textiles.
Browsing these galleries you’ll see pieces of breathtaking historical import, like a gospel book from 1207 during the Crusades, rare Armenian bibles printed in Amsterdam in 1666 and a prehistoric bronze archer’s belt.
2. Mount Auburn Cemetery
Opened in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery in Watertown was the first of a new kind of burial ground, known as a rural or “garden” cemetery.
Eschewing austere graveyards for a rolling, leafy landscape coursed with winding paths and littered with classical-style monuments, this project helped to kickstart the American parks movement.
The man behind the concept was the physician and botanist Jacob Bigelow (1787-1789), who was troubled by the unhealthiness of burials under churches and in dense urban areas.
As well as being the resting place of numerous Boston notables, including Bigelow himself, Mount Auburn Cemetery is an arboretum with ponds, specimen trees, profuse birdlife and something special to see every month of the year.
On 174 acres there are more than 5,000 trees here, from 670 taxa, with an excellent guide available on the cemetery’s website.
3. Mosesian Center for the Arts
In 2005, building 321 at the former Watertown Arsenal found a new purpose as the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
There had been plans to open a multifaceted arts center in the town for decades, and these were finally realized with a mix of community funding and a donation by the local entrepreneur, Charles Mosesian.
The center is home to prominent arts organizations, like the New Repertory Theatre (founded 1984) and the Watertown Children’s Theatre.
The main performance space is the 380-capacity proscenium theater, and there’s also a smaller black box theater, ample gallery space, classrooms and artists’ studios.
4. Watertown Square
Watertown’s main commercial and transport hub has a pretty setting, on the Charles River and anchored by the square next to Watertown Bridge.
The Charles River Greenway heads westwards, while the Dr Paul Dudley White Bikeway takes you east along both banks of the river. Downtown Watertown is pedestrian friendly, with rows of dining options, especially on Mt Auburn St, for Persian, Sichuan, Sushi, Mexican, Greek, burger, diner food and more.
Make your way along Main St and you’ll soon be at Saltonstall Park, which is where many community events like the Outdoor Summer Concert Series and Faire on the Square (September) are held.
5. Gore Place
A couple of miles west of Watertown Square is a fine country house, built as the summer residence of the prominent lawyer, politician and diplomat, Christopher Gore (1758-1827).
In the Federal style, Gore Place was constructed in 1804-1806, and welcomed some noteworthy figures including the Marquis de Lafayette, James Monroe and Daniel Webster.
The 45-acre grounds are open to the public all year for free, and you can also take a 45-minute tour of the house, regarded as one of the best examples of residential architecture from the Federal period in New England.
Among the highlights are the Great Stairs, the Great Hall, the Peacock Parlor, Gore’s office and library, the servants’ quarters, billiards room, the Gores’ Bedchamber, Mrs. Gore’s Cabinet and the separate carriage house.
The estate is the venue for a wide variety of events, like a summer concert series and a sheep shearing festival in spring, held for more than 35 years.
6. Charles River Greenway
Serving as Watertown’s southern boundary, the Charles River is one of Watertown’s many strong points.
Twenty miles of this watercourse is protected as a reservation, and in Watertown a long succession of riverfront parks are joined by a multi-use path that also passes through the downtown area.
If you’re in the mood for a leisurely stroll or bike ride you could head west along Pleasant St for three miles, cross the Bridge St bridge and then make your way back towards Watertown Square on the Newton side of the river.
7. Washington Tower
Included in Jacob Bigelow’s design for Mount Auburn Cemetery was this circular Gothic Revival tower, posted at the highest point, 125 feet over the Charles River.
Washington Tower is named for first president George Washington and is defined as a folly, which was a fashionable element of English landscapes at the time, evoking a Medieval castle.
April to October you can scale the spiral staircase, for a bird’s-eye panorama of the cemetery, as well Harvard and individual landmarks in the Boston cityscape, like the State House.
8. Watertown Dam
Part of the scenery around Watertown Square is the dam on the Charles River, a holdover from the town’s industrial days, but with a history reaching back much further to a fish weir in the 1630s.
Measuring 180 feet long and eight feet high, the Watertown Dam in its present form dates to 1900, and there’s ongoing debate about whether it should be removed to allow the river to return to its natural state, easing migratory fish passage.
As it is now, the dam is a favored fishing spot for several species of herons, gulls and cormorants thanks to the high numbers of alewife and blueback herring below the dam in the spring and early summer.
9. Abraham Browne House
At 562 Main Street stands the oldest surviving house in the town, built as an unusually grand farmhouse at the turn of the 18th century.
This structure was in a state of decay when it was acquired by the founder of Historic New England, William Sumner Appleton in 1919.
What followed was America’s first fully-documented restoration project, and this project brought to light a host of preserved details from the late 17th century.
The first floor consists of one room, for living, sleeping and cooking, while something rare upstairs is a three-part casement window frame.
The interior is presented as it might have looked when the house was completed, and you can visit on a limited basis in the summer.
10. Edmund Fowle House
The second-oldest house in Watertown is at 28 Marshall Street, and has belonged to the Historical Society of Watertown since 1922.
Constructed in the Georgian style, the Edmund Fowle House has a compelling early history, as the meeting place for the Massachusetts Provincial Congress during the first year of the Revolutionary War.
The house was last restored in the 2000s, and you can visit on the third Sunday of the month for a guided tour.
Changing exhibits can be found in the parlors and the house’s council chamber, dealing with various strands of local history, from important Watertown personalities to the Civil War.
11. Arsenal Yards
Downriver from Watertown Square is the site of the Watertown Arsenal, which produced ordnance for the United States military for close to 150 years up to 1968.
Later there was an army laboratory here, which eventually closed in 1995, after which the land was cleaned up and readied for its next roles.
Several historic buildings on the west side of the arsenal campus have been repurposed as offices or the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
On the east side is Arsenal Yards, a 250,000-square-foot mixed-use project, with dining, retail, entertainment, culture, a hotel and offices.
You’ll come across stylish eateries for sushi, Mediterranean, poke, Mexican and contemporary American, along with brands like Nike and Old Navy, and the Majestic 7 movie theater.
12. Arsenal Park
Between Arsenal Yards and the riverbank there’s a community park completely packed with amenities, especially for recreation.
Arsenal Park is on 14 acres, and is skirted on its south side by Greenough Blvd and the Dr Paul Dudley White Bike Path along the river.
As for things to do, there’s a skate park, a splash pad, two basketball courts, a bocce ball court, cross-country running course, softball field, soccer field, volleyball court, six tennis courts and a meandering walking/bike path.
On the west side is the arsenal’s palatial old Commander’s House, built in 1865 and today rented out for private events.
13. The Plumbing Museum
When we wrote this article, this beloved local attraction was looking for a new location.
Operated by the prominent construction firm, J.C. Cannistraro, The Plumbing Museum has a collection that was first assembled in the 1950s by one Charles Manoog, featuring claw-foot tubs, decorative sinks and antique commodes.
This has since grown to include ultramodern bathroom fixtures, a set of lead-working tools from 1910, an assortment of vintage toilet tissue and a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s iconic “Fountain”.
The museum was previously set in an historic ice house, blending these artifacts with information boards, photography and enlightening diagrams of various plumbing technologies.
14. Watertown Mall
Across the street from Arsenal Yards is a mall that has been around for a bit longer.
Watertown Mall is compact but well-appointed, with several national chains, like Target, Best Buy and Bath & Body Works, along with slew of locally-owned stores, a children’s play area, a Planet Fitness and branches of Starbucks and Pizza Hut.
As with Arsenal Yards the mall is served by the Watertown-Cambridge Greenway, which links with the Charles River Greenway close by and runs north, past Mt Auburn Cemetery as far as Fresh Pond in Cambridge.
15. Faire on the Square
Normally on the last Saturday in September, there’s an endearing community celebration at Saltonstall Park.
Faire on the Square is organized to appeal to all ages, so there’s an excellent variety of entertainment and activities.
For a brief overview you’ve got live music, dance performances, comedy, a beer garden, arts and crafts vendors, and tons of great local food, while for kids there’s a magic show, pony rides, face painting, balloon artists and a host of inflatables.