Oldest Library in Boston: Guide to the Boston Athenaeum

The very instagrammable fifth floor reading room of the Boston Athenaeum, with tall, white arched ceilings and rows of colorful books

I was enamored with the Boston Athenaeum as soon as I stumbled across photos. For such a stunning library, I was surprised that it wasn’t a common tourist attraction.

The Boston Athenaeum is an independent library that opened in 1849 at its current location, in the heart of the city. It houses a wide variety of texts, from modern photography collections to rare books and manuscripts. What first caught my eye, however, were photos of the iconic 5th floor reading room (first photo). I’d say that the layout and colors rival the historic libraries at the University of Oxford.

If you’re looking for something a little more offbeat to do in Boston, I highly recommend taking a tour of this hidden gem. Here are my tips for a smooth (and inexpensive!) visit.

Boston Hidden Gem: The Boston Athenaeum

The Boston skyline from the fifth floor patio of the Boston Athenaeum on a gray day with a patio table in the foregroud
The view from the 5th floor.
city skyline from the fifth floor of the Boston Athenaeum on a cloudy day

General information:

Address: 10 ½ Beacon St, Boston, MA 02108, USA
Nearest T stop: Park Street (red and green line) or State Street (blue and orange line)
Phone: (617) 227-0270

The private library is just a hop away from the iconic gold-domed Massachusetts State House, right next to the Boston Common. Membership starts at a hefty price of $220/year for patrons under 35, or $315/year for those over 35. Children under 18 are included, and it costs $25-30 extra to add a second adult in the household.

For non-members, the public visiting hours are 12-8pm on Tuesdays, and 10-4pm Wednesday through Saturday. Admission costs $10 for adults, and $8 for students.

*Note: Due to Covid-19, the Athenaeum is restricting non-member visitors to 5 per day, and you must buy a day pass for $40 for access to the entire library. This differs from their non-Covid admission, which only gives you access to the first floor (kind of boring), and is much cheaper.

The very instagrammable fifth floor reading room of the Boston Athenaeum, with tall, white arched ceilings and rows of colorful books
The iconic 5th floor reading roomSpiral staircase with white marble floors

How to Visit The Boston Athenaeum for Free

*This advice only applies to non-Covid times.*

There are unfortunately some major caveats to general admission. For one, you are only allowed to visit the first floor, which pales in comparison to the stunning 5th floor reading room. Entry fees are also not cheap. I would not recommend paying full price, unless you also sign up for a tour that takes you through the entire library.

Tours cost $2 plus admission and are Tuesdays at 5:30pm, Thursdays at 3pm, and Saturdays at 11am. These fill up pretty quickly, so reserve your spot at least a couple weeks in advance (I would say even a month, to be safe). The tour lasts about an hour and is pretty informative and engaging.

If the $12 total price tag is a little too pricey for you, the Boston Athenaeum offers free admission every second Saturday of the month (this was true as of August 2018). This free entry will still only get you access to the first floor, but if you sign up for a $2 tour on a free day, you can see the entire library for $2. If you do go this free route, definitely call a month or so ahead to save your spot on the tour.

a row of books and green hanging lamps

Reading room with a statue of a thinking woman and rows of books and chandeliers in the background

A reading nook near the window with a desk and bookshelf

Overall Impressions:

Access is pretty restricted, and admission is pricey, but you get a pretty good deal if you can snag a $2 tour spot on a free day.

The 5th floor reading room remains my favorite spot in the library, and I wish that we could’ve actually walked through it on the tour. We were only allowed to ooh and aah at the entrance of the room so that we wouldn’t disturb the members working there (it was disappointing, but I would also not want to be distracted by tourists if I was paying $220/year for a membership).

Once the tour is over, you can also hang around the first floor and browse their book selection. I particularly enjoyed a photography book on endangered species, if you can find it haha.

If you’re looking for more unusual things to do in Boston, I also recommend the Mapparium, a stained-glass, 3-story globe from 1935 that you can walk inside. If you’re a fan of escape rooms, I also loved Boda Borgin Malden. You might also like my post on best vegan ice cream spots on Boston.

Have any other suggestions for cool spots to visit in Boston? Let me know, as I’d love to check them out.

More local travel guides:

6 Day Trips from Boston by Train
Hidden Gems in Salem, MA
Berkshires, MA Travel Guide: An Outdoorsy Weekend Itinerary


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4 thoughts on “Oldest Library in Boston: Guide to the Boston Athenaeum

  1. Karina says:

    Thank you so much for all the info and tips! Do you know if they allow doing photoshoots inside? 🙄 i couldn’t find any info on their website regarding their photography policy

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