Old North Church: How to Maximize Your Visit to Boston’s Historic Landmark

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If you’re going to be in Boston, be sure to put Old North Church on your itinerary. You definitely won’t want to miss this historic site.

Find out why, below.

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CONTENTS – In this article, you will learn what it’s like to tour Boston’s Old North Church and ways to maximize your visit.

This includes:

What is the Old North Church, Boston?

Boston’s Old North Church is a historic landmark along the Freedom Trail. It’s also the oldest standing church building in Boston. 

You might know this church by its connection to Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride. On that fateful night, two lanterns shone from Old North Church’s steeple.

If you don’t, here’s the story.

Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride

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On the night of April 18, 1775, church Sexton Robert Newman and John Pulling quietly climbed 154 steps and eight stories to the bell tower of the Old North Church.

Outside, Thomas Bernard stood watch to make sure their secret mission went unnoticed.

The two men in the belfry placed lanterns in the church’s bell tower to warn fellow patriots of the direction from which British troops would arrive.

There were two possible routes.

If they were to arrive by land, the British soldiers would travel through the Boston Neck. If by sea, they’d come across the Charles River, a quicker route.

Paul Revere devised a system to communicate which route the red coats would take. Hence the saying, “One if by land, two if by sea.” 

That night, Newman and Pulling hung two lanterns near the belfry windows. The British would arrive by sea.

Old North Church was one of the highest points in Boston at the time.

It wouldn’t take long for those watching from Charlestown to get the message. The lanterns shone for less than a minute!

Newman and Pulling weren’t supposed to be in the church, so they quickly made their escape. But not before accomplishing the goal: alerting the militia and townspeople of the impending attack.

That night, a network of perhaps 40 riders set out to spread the warning. Paul Revere himself traveled to Lexington, with William Dawes arriving about a half hour later.

You might be familiar with the poem Paul Revere’s Ride, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It recounts the midnight ride of Paul Revere with some creative embellishments.  

According to The Journal of the American Revolution, the 12.5-mile route is estimated to have taken Revere just under an hour by horse.

This set in place the launch of the American Revolution at Lexington and Concord.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But even without that fateful night, Old North Church is a point of historic interest.

Old North Church History

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At the time of Paul Revere’s ride, Old North Church was known as Christ Church.

In fact, that is still the church’s official name. 

It was built in 1723 as an Anglican church, which (ironically) is part of the official church of England. Leading up to the American Revolution, the church community was divided between loyalists and the patriot cause.

From an architectural standpoint, Old North Church is especially noteworthy.

The design was inspired by the works of a famous British architect, Christopher Wren. Wren designed St. Paul’s Cathedral and 54 other churches in London, England.

And inside, it is indeed gorgeous.

You’ll see what I mean when you tour Old North Church for yourself. But I’ll point out the highlights below.

Old North Church Today

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Today, Old North Church is still a high point in Boston, figuratively and literally. 

It stands 191 feet (58 meters) tall and you can see its beautiful white steeple far and wide from points in the city.

Of course, the current steeple is no longer the tallest structure in the city of Boston.

After over 300 years of development, the Boston skyline is dotted with iconic skyscrapers like The Prudential, Hancock Tower, and other recognizable city landmarks.

Yet, Old North Church is iconic.

It’s hard to step into a building like this without stepping back into colonial Boston. 

On entry, you’ll immediately notice:

  • Beautiful Georgian architecture
  • Soaring ceilings
  • Turned railings
  • Ornate brass chandeliers
  • Named “family” pews
  • Elegant wood carvings
  • A working pipe organ
  • The intricate pulpit

It’s clear that you’ve stepped into the oldest church building in Boston

Old North Church remains a house of prayer, serving the Episcopal community. Worship services are open to the public.

As you might guess, it’s a stop on the Freedom Trail and a National Historic Landmark.

A Tour of Old North Church, Boston MA

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As someone who has lived and worked in the Boston area my whole life, this wasn’t my first visit to Old North Church. 

But I never really explored more than taking a quick stroll through on my kids’ class trips, or to take a quick photo on my way to the North End, Boston’s Italian neighborhood.

This time was different.

On this visit to Old North Church, my 24-year-old son joined me. It had been more than a decade since we last stepped foot through these historic doors together.

We learned so much more!

We were invited to take a guided tour:

  • Through the church sanctuary
  • Into the crypt beneath the nave
  • Into what was once the chapel for Italian-speaking Protestants

If you’ll be in Boston for any amount of time, find time for this tour. Old North Church is worth a visit. It’s an affordable, family-friendly, historic attraction in Boston.

Here’s what you can expect.

Where is Old North Church?

You’ll find Old North Church in Boston’s North End at 193 Salem Street. 

It’s one of 16 stops along the Freedom Trail, which tells the story of the American Revolution (and then some).

You can get to Old North Church on foot when you follow the red-painted bricks delineating the Freedom Trail. 

Or, you can take the subway, bus, or taxi/Uber.

Parking in this area is tough and expensive, so use public transportation when possible.

If you’d rather drive, opt for one of the parking lots along the water. Sergeants Wharf or Battery Wharf are good options. It’ll cost you, but you’ll be just a few blocks by foot to Old North Church.

When you visit, you can simply take a self-guided tour of Old North Church for $5 US per person. If you’re traveling with children under 5 years old, they are admitted free.

But I recommend you consider the upgrades to see the crypts and the gallery, too.

Tour of the Nave | Interior of the Church

A $5 self-guided tour generally takes about 15-20 minutes and allows you to browse the ground-level sanctuary, or “nave.”

This includes a walk through the box pews and the magnificent nave itself.

While you’re there, don’t forget to look up to notice the 17th-century angels alongside the massive pipe organ. The organ dates to 1759, but the angels may well be the oldest artifact in the church.

Keep your eyes open for the marble bust of George Washington, as well.

This beautiful work of art was crafted by Christian Gullager (or potentially by another artist in Gullager’s style), who sat with Washington in 1789. It’s the first bust of George Washington, says the National Park Service.

And it’s a good one, too. The sculpture is said to be the closest likeness to Washington, according to the Marquis de Lafayette, who knew him personally.

The Washington bust was donated to the church in 1815. 

Scavenger Hunt: Prince’s Pew Pursuit

School-aged children in tow will enjoy looking for clues in the free scavenger hunt, called “Prince’s Pew Pursuit.” The hunt’s namesake is a friendly cat who used to visit the church.

This activity is free with your admission ticket. 

Prince’s Pew Pursuit is geared toward children aged 6-12 but is a fun learning experience for anyone visiting Old North Church. It’s a more interactive way to experience Old North Church. 

Just ask for a copy of the scavenger hunt when you enter.

Tour Add Ons

For an additional $5, you can add on either a guided crypt tour or a gallery tour.

  • Crypt Tour: Takes you beneath the church to see where more than 1,100 bodies are buried in 37 tombs. Eek!
  • Gallery Tour: Guides you through the balcony for a bird’s eye view and to learn about the experiences of early Black congregants, both free and enslaved. You’ll also get a closer view of the huge pipe organ and 17th century angels.

If you do go with an add on, allow yourself a total of about 30-40 minutes for your visit.

Both add on tours are time and money well-spent.

That way, you’ll get a more intimate understanding of Old North Church, its history, and modern day reflections of the past.

A note about the tours: The summer and fall are busy tourist seasons in Boston, so you’ll want to purchase your tickets to Old North Church in advance here.

New Bell Tower Tours!

I was given a heads up that crypt tours will be on a temporary hiatus from mid-June through the fall, as the space will be closed for renovations.

However, I was excited to hear that Old North will be offering tours of the bell tower instead! 

This guided $5 tour will take visitors up the tower to the church’s archive room and then to the bell-ringing chamber.

Along the way, you’ll learn about:

  • Old North’s famous bells
  • Notable bell ringers
  • The art of change-ringing

Visitors will also hear the story of the church’s three steeples and the paradox that the steeple represents.

The Crypt Tour in Old North Church

We met our guide, Nikki, who was so knowledgeable and a great storyteller, too! She guided us through the nave, crypt, and gallery.

Honestly, we hung on her every word.

But the Crypt tour was most memorable.

Learn what to expect, below.

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As I said, the crypt tour was especially fascinating!

You’ll descend into a narrow staircase in the back of the church to reach the bowels of the church. Our guide, Nikki, told us interesting facts and anecdotes as we went along.

Your first stop is the Columbarium.

This elegant burial space provides a modern day option for cremated remains within a peaceful setting beneath the church.

Fun fact: You can still be buried in Old North Church today! You don’t even have to be a member of the congregation.

Moving on to the older section of the church’s lower level, you’ll see Old North Church’s rock foundation. A short maze of narrow paths winds through this space.

Underfoot, the floors are cement, but they were originally dirt. Like most basements, water and heating pipes run overhead.

But unlike other basements, these walls held remnants of the past.

As you walk along, you’ll see a mish-mosh of burial spaces and crypt doors.

Old Burial Plots and More

Some of the crypts have old slate markers with a family or individual name. Many buried here were important community members.

Over 1,100 bodies lie underneath the sanctuary, behind cemented doors.

It’s hard to imagine so many remains in a relatively small place.

This was possible because each crypt traditionally held up to 20 people. Then, remains were moved to a charnel pit (group tomb) after some time to make room for the “freshly” deceased.

The crypt in Old North Church was built in 1732 and continued to bury the dead here until the mid-19th century. That’s when the City of Boston stopped allowing burials beneath public buildings.

That does make one wonder how many Boston buildings have bodies in the basement!

Also, there was no embalming back then.

So think about that for a moment.

On the tour, you’ll learn all kinds of interesting cultural and historic facts. They’re interwoven with amusing, and sometimes spooky, anecdotes.

What made this tour even more mysterious and fun for us was that an organ player was practicing in the nave while we toured. So as we navigated the crypt, the haunting melody of the pipe organ filled the air!

So spooky!

More Stops Along the Freedom Trail

If you want to continue along Boston’s Freedom Trail, you’ll learn more about the story of the Revolutionary War. Visit each of these historic stops along the way:

  1. Boston Common
  2. Massachusetts State House
  3. Park Street Church
  4. Granary Burying Ground
  5. Old State House
  6. King’s Chapel / King’s Chapel Burying Ground
  7. Boston Latin School / Benjamin Franklin Statue
  8. Old Corner Bookstore (former)
  9. Site of the Boston Massacre
  10. Old South Meeting House
  11. Faneuil Hall
  12. Paul Revere House
  13. Old North Church
  14. Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
  15. USS Constitution
  16. Bunker Hill Monument

Here is a great 2.5 hour guided tour you can take that will provide you with guided insights. It’s affordable and you’ll visit all 16 historically important places, including Old North Church.

Final Thoughts on Old North Church

Even as a local, re-familiarizing yourself with Old North Church is a worthwhile day trip.

And if it’s your first time visiting this amazing slice of history, enjoy!

You will be amazed by this unique space, which is an iconic piece of United States history in the 18th century.

So, definitely plan a visit to Old North Church. It is such an important piece of the colonial era of American history, you won’t want to miss it.

And if you’re hoping to see the modern day New England Patriots while you’re in Boston, head over to Gillette Stadium for a visit!

What’s Next?

While you’re in Beantown, here are some other activities and local information you might consider that will maximize your trip:

With these tips and ideas, you can make the most of your trip to Old North Church and Boston!

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All photos are by the author, with the exception of the feature photo, by Andy Creagan (Pixabay)

18 thoughts on “Old North Church: How to Maximize Your Visit to Boston’s Historic Landmark”

  1. Thank you for sharing this! Will make sure to visit should we visit Boston. Happy to know that there are guided tours offered. The scavenger hunt sounds exciting. I am pretty sure the kids would love this.

  2. Boston’s Old North church is an iconic monument from American history. The church is an architectural marvel with its soaring ceilings, curved railings, ornate brass chandeliers displaying rich elegance. And the interesting history about the burial in the crypt and how on the night of April 28th Newman and Pulling placed lanterns in the church’s bell tower to warm fellow patriots about the British troops.
    I would love to visit the Old North church in Boston.

    • I can see you’ve gotten a good sense of the experience here! It truly is elegant. It would be great if you could come visit in person, too.

  3. I missed this spot when we were in Boston last summer. It was a day trip in Boston and we only got to do part of the Freedom Trail. I have read about the story of the lantern and I like visiting American history places like the Old North Church. I know I must go back for a longer visit and I will take the add on tours at the church. The Crypt and Bell Towers Tours sound really interesting!

    • Please do, Umiko! I hope you enjoy Boston on a return trip. It’s hard to see it all in one day. 🙂

  4. As someone who loves historic sites, Old North Church in Boston sounds like a place I wouldn’t miss. Oldest church in Boston and the place where American Revolution began at Lexington and Concord? Definitely top of my itinerary. The Gallery tour & Crypt tour both sound perfect. I’ll do them both!

  5. The church’s interior design is very stunning! If given the opportunity to tour Old North Church, I would jump at it! Knowing that I enjoy historical locations and would want to learn further about them. It’s a smart idea to have your tour add-ons if you want to know more of the church’s history. Although the aspect of burying bodies beneath Boston buildings seems horrifying!

    • It is a bit creepy, isn’t it Maria?! But then, that’s what they did back in those days. In a crypt, of course.

  6. Boston’s Old North Church is on my bucket list as I love historical landmarks. It’s also a very photogenic place with a beautiful white steeple far from points in the city. The inside with beautiful Georgian architecture, ornate brass chandeliers, and elegant wood carvings make this place worth a visit. I think a guided tour is a perfect idea as during such a tour we can learn much more about the site. So I would like to take this type of tour to learn more.

    • You are absolutely right about all of this, Agnes. I hope you get a chance to take a tour at Old North Church soon!

  7. If I ever make the trip to Boston I would have to add the oldest church to the list. I love the history, that I vaguely remember the story from my American history class in Canada.

    • I’m glad I was able to share the story again with you, Renee! Hope you get down to Boston some time. Old North Church is a great take.

  8. I have to admit that we went past Old North Church on our visit to Boston. But we never went inside or learned about the great history of this spot. I would hove loved to see the beautiful Georgian architecture inside. We will definitely plan to take a tour the next time we visit Boston. I would take the add on tours to see the Crypt and get a close up view of that organ.

    • Hi Linda, I hope you get a chance to see the inside and take one of the add on tours. It will give you a whole new perspective. It really is such a cool place!

  9. I like a good story, especially when it is what makes a landmark more interesting to visit. I have never been to Boston so it was nice to read about the history of the oldest church in town but also its role in history. I like that there is an interactive experience for children as well, to make their visit fun and enjoyable too.

    • Thanks, Joanna. Old North Church certainly has its share of stories – historic, ghostly, and legendary. I hope you get to Boston soon! No doubt, you would enjoy visiting this landmark. (I agree, the children’s activity is genius and fun for all!)

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