Learn About The Long History of Old Ironsides
As we know about Boston, history – and the water – can be found everywhere! Explore some of that history at the Charlestown Navy Yard, just across the Charles River from Boston’s North End. There you’ll find a wooden warship built in the late 1700s … still staffed by the U.S. Navy.
In the War of 1812, the USS Constitution, a wooden ship was the one to beat! Nicknamed Old Ironsides because of the bullets that ricocheted off her during battle as she won battles and captured ships, this vessel has been a treasured piece of US history in the centuries since. Because of this, she remains today, a fully commissioned U.S. Navy ship and museum. You might think a museum dedicated to one ship would be something to skip but we can truthfully say it was one of our favorite Boston attractions.
The USS Constitution Museum is independent of the USS Constitution warship, and their operating hours differ. The ship is free of charge (ID required for 18 and up), and the museum admission is a suggested donation. Learn more at their site.
As part of the Navy’s commitment to preserving the USS Constitution, the ship is currently in dry dock for 2 years. Seeing the ship lifted up out of the water is an experience in itself, something you can’t see all the time. It remains open for visitors, pending restoration activities. When you step onto the USS Constitution you can imagine what life was like in the War of 1812 – tight spaces, guns on the lower deck. There are no actors or tour guides on board – all staff are actual naval crew. and every morning and sunset the cannon is fired during the colors ceremony. The USS Constitution is a split between historical and modern, which makes it so unique!
Active U.S. Navy crew members are on each deck of the ship to discuss the ship and its history. The tour continues down narrow stairs to the gun deck with another crew member explaining how the cannons were used. Both discuss the past restorations of the warship, and visitors are welcome to tour the decks at their own pace. The weather wasn’t great during our visit, but we were still there at least a half hour, exploring and learning.
The visit to the USS Constitution was only enhanced by our time at the USS Constitution Museum. We were all impressed by the extent of activities and detail we experienced there and it ranked as my son’s favorite Boston memory. The museum has three major exhibits and a movie in its two floor restored shipyard building, as well as a gift shop with plenty of educational and unique items. The learning starts in the lobby, with a signal flag decoding game. Don’t miss it – it stumped us!
Be ready to spend a lot of time in the 1812 Discovery Center. Curators have done a great job of providing fun games and scientific challenges to engage kids in maritime skills and the history of the War of 1812. There’s even a puppet theater for imaginative play, and books with nautical themes. We were lucky to have come in before a crowd, and before we knew it we had been there for well over a half hour. There was something to learn at every table and perfectly geared toward school age children (the parents learned too though!)
As you make your way to the rear of the building, meet some historical characters who were a part of the making of the USS Constitution – even learn why Paul Revere shows up. The exhibit “Old Ironsides in War and Peace” documents life on the ship throughout the years with artifacts and photos. One of the youngest crew members was 9 year old David Debias, and his story is told throughout the exhibit. Kids will love to build their own ship though, and look at the huge model and the detailed cross section of the USS Constitution on display.
There’s also a 19 minute movie in the first floor theater that explores the ship, but we were so excited to see the displays we never got time to sit down!
Upstairs there’s more interactive fun. You can’t miss the goat hanging over the stairs as a demonstration of what sailors would eat while on board, but before you enter you need to be recruited! Do you have scurvy? Will you eat a biscuit as hard as a brick? (You’ll even see one of those hard biscuits which was saved by a sailor!) See how you measure up both with questions and with height (the average sailor was 5’6″) and get ready to explore how sailors lived on board. Scrub the deck, lay in a hammock, even try to manage a sail. After exploring the USS Constitution right next door, this exhibit will leave your children with a better sense of all it took to live – and fight – aboard the actual ship they just toured.
We spent about 2 hours at the USS Constitution ship and museum. It was such a memorable experience, to delve into the history of the ship that has survived centuries through unique interactive exhibits- little reading required! It kept our children actively learning and engaged. After exploring the Charlestown Navy Yard’s other buildings, continue on to Bunker Hill, just blocks away.
The USS Constitution Museum is at Charlestown Navy Yard, Building 22, Charlestown, MA.
The Museum is open daily 9:00 am – 6:00 pm. Winter hours vary
Ship’s Hours are Tuesday – Friday 2:30 pm – 6:00 pm, and Saturday – Sunday 10:00 am – 6:00 pm. Winter and Fall hours vary.
Admission to the USS Constitution is free, and admission to the USS Constitution Museum is a suggested $20- $25/family.
See more USS Constitution Museum photos in our Facebook Album. Here’s a preview.
Click over to see the rest of our Family Travel to Boston series for help in planning your Boston vacation.
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