Charlestown Navy Yard & the USS Constitution in Boston, MA

Charlestown, Massachusetts, located on the north end of Boston directly on the Harbor, is considered the oldest neighborhood in the city.  The Navy Yard was established in 1800 and over 200 warships were built and maintained there until the yard’s closing in 1974. Today, the 130 acre complex includes parks, museums, visitor centers, and two ships on display. On a busy summer weekend, over five thousand people visit in one day.

On a recent trip to Boston, we spent the morning at the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, which was a lot of fun for the whole family. You can read all about adventures here. After a quick walk to the New England Aquarium, we took a ten minute water taxi, administered by Boston Harbor Cruises, to Charlestown. There are plenty of private water taxi options, but the water taxis administered by Boston Harbor Cruises travel all over the area and are very reasonably priced. Bonus: Children ride free with a paid adult.

Traveling with Kids:

  • If you drive to the complex, consider parking in the Nautica Parking Garage. Have your ticket validated at the Visitor Center for a discount.
  • Plan on spending three to four hours to explore the complex, not including time at the playground. It should take about a half hour to explore each ship, close to an hour to explore the Visitor Center, and at least a full hour or more to explore the museum.
  • The Visitor Center and ships are free to explore; There is no set admission price to explore the museum, but donations are strongly encouraged.
  • The complex is part of the Freedom Trail. Follow the painted red line on the ground to continue on the Freedom Trail. Check here for the full list of sites on the trail.
  • Strollers are allowed in the buildings, but not onboard the ships. Hold on to little children carefully, as there are steep drop off into the water with only a single rope as a barrier. Wear sturdy shoes/sneakers while explore the ships- the staircases are very steep.
  • Restrooms are located in the museum and Visitor Center.

Five Kid Friendly Spots in the Charlestown Navy Yard:

1. Right off the boat launch for Boston Harbor Cruises is Shipyard Park, which includes the Massachusetts Korean War Veterans Memorial, a great playground, and smaller sprinkler park for children. There is plenty of green space for picnicking and ball tossing, and in the summer of 2018, an art installation of barking dogs  

2. The National Parks Visitor Center is a great place to start. After going through security, you can collect six National Parks Passport stamps, use the restroom, and check out the gift shop. Children can also pick up a Junior Ranger booklet for the entire Boston National Historic Park (the Navy yard is on pages 16-19). There is a twelve minute introductory video that runs on a loop and provides a good overview on the history of the park.  There is a great exhibit on the history of the shipyard, with many hands on activities and audio clips from the opening of the yard, and an emphasis on World War I and World War II. My children especially enjoyed posing in front of the “Rosie” poster and trying to make a rope.

3. The USS Constitution, one of the original six ships of the US Navy is a massive, 500 crew ship which won three battles during the War of 1812. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides” (find out why in the museum),  the ship was in use from 1797 until 1853, and still sets sail eight times a year for special events You can explore three decks of the ship on your own, but there are also tours provided . Be very careful going down very steep staircases to the second and third floors below deck and watch your head, the ceilings are less than six feet in some spots. There are sailors stationed throughout the vessel to answer questions. See if your children can count the cannons on board (hint: there are 44 in total). Children will also want to pretend to steer the ship and check out the sleeping arrangements for various ranks of sailors. See whether they prefer a hammock or bunk bed. 

4. The USS Cassin Young launched in 1943 and was an important part of WWII battles. Visitors can explore the top deck on their own, and guided tours are offered down below deck. Children will enjoy going below deck and seeing the officers’ quarters. Check out the manual typewriter.  If you visit both ships, have kids compare the shape, layout and living quarters of the ships. Tours are offered throughout the day; check online for times.

5. The USS Constitution Museum just completed a three year restoration project. The two floor museum (there are elevators) includes many hands on exhibit halls; classrooms for field trips, workshops, presentations; a gift shop; and restrooms located on the first floor. Make sure you child picks up a “ Guerriere Hide and Seek” challenge from the front desk and try and find the disguised dog throughout the museum. There’s a Shipwright Guild, where real life ship modelers work on model ships and the Old Ironsides Discovery Center, with many hands on challenges. But, by far, my children's favorite part was the second floor “All Hands on Deck” exhibit.  Children can experience what daily life is like for a sailor. Start by taking a test to determine you “seaworthiness” and figure out whether you’d make a better sailor or marine; there are big differences! You can decide which work shift and jobs you’d prefer, test out a hammock for a bed, try hoisting up cargo like a cow, and check out the daily menu onboard ship.

Bonus: If you have more time to explore Charlestown, head over the to the Bunker Hill Monument, another site on the Boston National Historic Park. It’s free to visit, and you can climb the 221 foot structure and learn more at the exhibits in the museum across the street. It’s located about a mile from the Navy Yard.

Eating Nearby: Right next to water taxi launch ramp is the Style Cafe, which serves very reasonably priced salads, sandwiches and smoothies. It’s tight quarters with only about seven or eight tables, but on a nice day, you can bring breakfast or lunch to one of the benches near the water.