The 10 Strange Things You Have to See in Boston

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By Leigh Harrington for

There's something about the peculiar, the unusual and the fantastic that we as humans find appealing.

From turn-of-the-century circus sideshows to kitschy roadside attractions, we'll go out of our way to gawk, wonder at and experience things that go beyond the norm, that we've never quite seen before.

While visiting Boston, devote a day to exploring places and things that may not be listed in a guidebook or on a tourist map. To get you started, we've got 10 of this city's strangest attractions. We hope you love them as much as we do.

1.) The Hidden Alley of All Saints Way

This fascinating hidden alley off of Battery Street in the North End is curated and cared for by Peter Baldassari. He has affixed hundreds of images, figurines and tokens of saints in this impromptu shrine-like space. It is private property, but when the door to the alley is open, do venture in and look up to the heavens.

(All Saints Way)

2.) The Skin Book

Boston Athenaeum, Boston's oldest independent library, is an absolutely stunning place to visit, with its architecture, fine art and ornate galleries. But what will stun your more perverse sense is the 1837 memoir "A Narrative of the Life of James Allen: Alias George Walton, Alias Jonas Pierce, Alias James H. York, Alias Burley Grove, the Highwayman: Being his Death-Bed Confession, to the Warden of the Massachusetts State Prison." The titular highwayman and thief was a real local person. He had his life story recorded and then bound in his own skin post-mortem before gifting the whole package to one of his victims. Today, visitors can make an appointment to see the rare book.

(See James Allen's human skin-bound memoir at Boston Athenaeum.)

3.) The Mummy Padihershef

A tucked-away spot on the fourth floor of Mass General Hospital may seem like an odd place for a tourist attraction, but that's where The Ether Dome holds court. The National Historic Landmark was the site of the first public demonstration of the use of ether during a surgical procedure, a staggering innovation in 1842. In the quiet of this diminutive "operating theater" where you'll likely be sightseeing alone, check out the Dome's other claim to fame: Padihershef, an authentic Egyptian mummy that has been on-site since 1823.

4.) The Scarlett O'Hara House

This is one of those situations where you shouldn't believe your eyes, even though you'll really, really want to. A two-story Greek Revival-style home opens onto Rollins Place, a private way off Revere Street in Beacon Hill. With its gleaming white facade and stacked ionic columns, it stands out starkly from surrounding brick structures and looks like something straight out of "Gone With The Wind" (hence, its name). But here's the catch: this place doesn't really exist. The building is actually an optical illusion, a three dimensional painting created to cover an eyesore of a wall in one of Boston's poshest neighborhoods.

(The "Scarlett O'Hara House" on Rollins Place in Beacon Hill)

5.) The Museum of Modern Renaissance

Over the last decade, Russian artists Nicholas Shaplyko and Ekaterina Sorokina have transformed their Somerville home--a former Masonic lodge--into one kaleidoscopic piece of art. Vibrant murals and individual works featuring Russian cupolas, celestial objects, mystical beings, birds and flowers cover nearly every inch of the place. The artists are currently petitioning to have the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can tour the museum by appointment set in advance, or attend one of the frequent events.

6.) The Skinny House

Copp's Hill Burying Ground affords a great view of the North End's notorious Skinny House, the passion project of Joseph Euestus after he learned his brother had built a mansion on more than half of the land they had jointly inherited from their father while Joseph was away fighting in the Civil War. Euestus' revenge stands four stories tall and a mere 10 feet wide, just large enough to block the adjacent mansion's sightlines of Boston Harbor. Today, visitors can rent it out for the night.

(The Skinny House in Boston's North End neighborhood)

7.) "Neighbors" at Forest Hills Cemetery

Christopher Frost's decade-old mini village of houses at Forest Hills Cemetery is one example of the many works of contemporary art sprinkled throughout this historic green space. According to the artist, each elfin dwelling in this permanent display represents the former home of a well-known person buried nearby. From the entrance, head toward Lake Hibiscus and stop along White Oak Avenue to seek out the abodes of architect John A. Fox and temperance leader Mary Hunt, among others.

95 Forest Hills Ave., Boston, MA, 617.524.0128

(Christopher Frost's replica of Temperance leader Mary Hunt's home is one of many on display at Forest Hills Cemetery.)

8.) Chunk of the Berlin Wall

Catch sight of a Communist Era relic in front of EF Education headquarters the next time you're in Cambridge's North Point neighborhood (it's pretty close to the Museum of Science). This particular piece of Deutsche barrier rock was donated by the German government to the international company's founder and now sits out front for curious passersby to examine.

9.) Hood Milk Bottle

In spring and summer, you can order an ice cream or a sandwich from the landmark Hood Milk Bottle that has stood for nearly four decades on the wharf outside the Boston Children's Museum, although the 40-foot-tall structure is actually 80-plus years old. Thirsty? It would take more than 58,000 gallons of milk to top off this popular photo opportunity.

(Boston's iconic Hood Milk Bottle)

10.) The Mapparium

This three-story, stained glass spherical map of the Earth is frozen in time--1936, specifically--the year Chester Lindsay Churchill built it. Newcomers to Boston often don't know it's at The Mary Baker Eddy Library, since it can't be seen from outside. Its lighting has just been updated with LED fixtures--sounds boring, but really, it's a treat because it allows for brighter and deeper color tones. Visitors can take a guided walkthrough to learn about the world as it was and experiment with its quirky acoustics.

(Mary Baker Eddy Library's hidden gem, the Mapparium)

Loving Boston's weird attractions? Keep reading for 10 more weird and strange attractions in Boston.

Not all of Boston is strange. Read on for more of our

Author Leigh Harrington serves as Boston editor for Where.

Photo credits, from top: ©Boston Athenaeum; ©Anna Hanks/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©Leigh Harrington; ©Eric Odeg/Flickr, Creative Commons; ©Where; ©Scott Edmunds/Flickr, Creative Commons; Courtesy of The Mary Baker Eddy Library, Boston, MA