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.
CONTENTS – In this article, you will learn what it’s like to tour Boston’s Old North Church and ways to maximize your visit.
- What is Old North Church?
- Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride
- Where is Old North Church?
- A Brief History of Old North Church
- Old North Church Today
- Tour Options for Old North Church
- Self-Guided Nave Tour
- Scavenger Hunt: Prince’s Pew Pursuit
- Guided Tour of Old North Church
- Tour of the Crypts
- Other Stops on the Freedom Trail
- Final Thoughts on Old North Church
- What’s Next?
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
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
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
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
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.
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!
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:
- Boston Common
- Massachusetts State House
- Park Street Church
- Granary Burying Ground
- Old State House
- King’s Chapel / King’s Chapel Burying Ground
- Boston Latin School / Benjamin Franklin Statue
- Old Corner Bookstore (former)
- Site of the Boston Massacre
- Old South Meeting House
- Faneuil Hall
- Paul Revere House
- Old North Church
- Copp’s Hill Burying Ground
- USS Constitution
- 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.
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While you’re in Beantown, here are some other activities and local information you might consider that will maximize your trip:
- Plan a Summer Day Trip to Salem That’s Beyond Halloween
- Hidden Gem: Romantic North End Seafood Restaurant
- Best Haunted Houses in Boston for Chills & Thrills
- Where to Stay in Boston: Review of Back Bay’s Mandarin Oriental
- Boston vs. New York: Which Has the Best Boutique Hotels?
- What to Pack for a Summer Trip to New England
With these tips and ideas, you can make the most of your trip to Old North Church and Boston!
All photos are by the author, with the exception of the feature photo, by Andy Creagan (Pixabay)
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