Castle Island, Boston: Top Things To Do
Whether you are looking for a sunny beach or interested in American history, Castle Island in South Boston is a great destination for you.
Castle Island is ideal for people of all ages. You will find little kids playing happily, young couples strolling hand in hand, and elderly visitors soaking up the sun or chatting with their friends.
Keep reading to discover what and where Castle Island is, how to get there, what to do, and more.
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Castle Island, Boston: Basic Facts
Castle Island is located on the coast in South Boston, a quiet working-class neighborhood often called “Southie.” (South Boston should NOT be confused with the South End – that’s a totally different area of Boston.)
Despite the name, Castle Island isn’t an island, and there isn’t a castle there, either. But there is a centuries-old military installation, Fort Independence.
Castle Island also features lovely beaches, walking paths, a large playground, and a pier for fishing. Not to mention an excellent view of Boston Harbor!
I will talk more about the history of Castle Island and Fort Independence below, but for now I will just say: it was once an island. It was only in the 20th century that the island was connected to the mainland via a landfill.
Now Castle Island is a peninsula jutting out into Boston Harbor. Immediately to the south is Pleasure Bay, while to the north across the harbor is Logan International Airport.
How to get to Castle Island
You can easily get to Castle Island by car or by public transportation.
Getting to Castle Island by car
A free parking lot is available on Castle Island itself, right next to Sullivan’s. There is also street parking on William J. Day Boulevard along Pleasure Bay. There are many parking spaces, but they fill up quickly on weekends in the summer. Be prepared to drive around a bit to find a spot.
You may need to park further away on Pleasure Bay and then walk 10-15 minutes along the beach to get to Castle Island itself. But since the beach is one of the main attractions, this isn’t necessarily a problem.
Getting to Castle Island by public transportation
It is also quite simple to get to Castle Island via public transportation. Bus lines 7, 9, 10, and 11 will all drop you off within 15 minutes of Castle Island and 5 minutes of Pleasure Bay.
Here are the closest bus stops:
- On lines 7, 9, and 11, get off at Farragut Road opposite E 2nd Street
- On line 10, get off at E Broadway at Farragut Road
You can connect to these bus lines conveniently from the T. For example, my husband and I live in Somerville, so we took the Red Line to Broadway and then switched to the 7 bus. The total cost for subway + bus was $4.10 per person.
For people who don’t have cars, Castle Island is an amazing beach option. I was very pleased with how easy the whole process was.
PRO TIP: If you are new to Boston buses, note that you need to request your stop by pushing the red button. Upcoming stops will be announced over the intercom, so pay attention and hit that STOP button as soon as you hear your stop.
Top Things To Do at Castle Island
Relax on the beach
Next to Castle Island lies a small body of water called Pleasure Bay. A crescent-shaped causeway encircles the bay and shelters it from the main part of Boston Harbor. This creates an ideal place to swim and sunbathe.
There are two beach options: Pleasure Bay Beach and the smaller Castle Island Beach. Both beaches are maintained by the city in the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Life guards are on duty during this time to ensure the safety of beach goers.
Pleasure Bay has calm, clean water perfect for families with young children. We saw lots of toddlers happily splashing in the water as well as older children and adults relaxing on the sand.
Further out in the bay, past the buoys, you can use non-motorized boats. It is also a popular place for wind-surfers to hang out.
Stroll around the island
Locals and tourists alike enjoy the various paths on and near Castle Island. Walkers, joggers, bikers, and roller-bladers all share the space.
There are two main routes. Both are paved and accessible for wheelchairs and strollers.
The Castle Island Loop circles the entire “island”, but it is still only half a mile long. You walk around the fort along the harbor and enjoy the fresh sea breeze.
The Pleasure Bay Loop is just over 2 miles. It takes you around the island and around the causeway encircling Pleasure Bay. If you want to stretch your legs and get even MORE views of the harbor, then this is the route for you.
Both loops have plenty of scenic points as well as benches to sit and rest. There are also various monuments to admire such as the South Boston Korean War Memorial and the Monument to Donald McKay, the inventor of the swift clipper ships.
Take a tour of Fort Independence
One of the big attractions on Castle Island is Fort Independence, a star fort built in the 1800s. It dominates the landscape and you can’t possibly miss it.
For most of the year the fort is a mysterious, silent testimony to Boston’s military past. But in the summer you can go inside and take a free guided tour of the site.
It is definitely worth it – my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. For us the highlights of the tour were the historical commentary on Boston, the historical flag collection, and the cannons.
Free tours run between 12 and 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer. Each tour lasts at least 30 minutes, but may go longer depending on the guide. Our guide, for instance, gave us lots of fascinating information and our tour lasted a whole hour.
Tours leave a few times an hour; the exact schedule depends on the availability of guides. For more details and to make sure tours are running, check the website of the Castle Island Association.
Note that most of Fort Independence is not accessible. The tour involves multiple steep flights of stairs and you need to leave strollers by the entrance. Only the parade ground on the first level is accessible.
If you want to know more about Fort Independence, I give more details about its history below.
Watch planes take off and land from Logan airport
Just north of Castle Island, across the harbor, lies Boston Logan International Airport. Nothing but open water separates the two, which means that you can easily observe planes as they take off and land.
The best place to see the planes is from the Lt. John J. McCorkle Fishing Pier on the north side of Castle Island. There are lots of benches on the pier where you can sit and watch the airport.
The downside to the airport’s proximity is that Castle Island periodically has loud plane noises overhead. But this is just part of the unique location. Maybe it’s just me, but I have always found there to be something magical about planes taking off and landing.
Get a meal (or a snack) at Sullivan’s
Back in 1951, the Sullivan family opened a concession stand on Castle Island. Now, 70 years later, Sullivan’s is an iconic South Boston eatery.
Sullivan’s – affectionately known as “Sully’s” – has hamburgers, hotdogs, and, of course, lobster rolls and other seafood. You can also get yummy ice cream to ward off the summer heat. (I recommend the mint chocolate chip.)
Sullivan’s is open seasonally and is take-out only. But there are plenty of picnic tables nearby and all over the island, so you won’t have trouble finding somewhere to eat. The line can get quite long, but it moves quickly and you can also order online in advance if you don’t want to wait.
Play on the Castle Island playground
If you have children, then don’t miss the large playground just a few hundred feet away from the beach. When your kids are tired of the water, the swings and slides will cheer them up.
Enjoy some good old-fashioned people-watching
I loved the atmosphere at Castle Island. The area felt happy and bright, full of energy and promise. Everywhere we looked people were having fun.
It also seemed more sociable than other areas in Boston. Locals hanging out on the pier talked to us and boasted about the attractions of South Boston. We felt like part of the community, even though it was our first time there.
I could have sat on the beach or in the grass for hours watching people go about their lives. There were little girls flying kites, middle-aged men fishing on the pier, and twenty-somethings wind-surfing on Pleasure Bay. Elderly Bostonians sat in the sun and chatted with each other (and us).
All About Fort Independence
Up above I encouraged you to take a tour of Fort Independence. But what is this fort doing there in the first place?
Location is key. Even today, large ships have to pass between Castle Island and Governors Island (now Logan Airport) in order to reach the port of Boston. In the past, troops on Castle Island could control access to Boston with some well-placed cannons.
In the 1600s, Bostonians feared sea attacks from the Dutch in New York, the French in Canada, and even the British. Castle Island was the perfect place for a military stronghold, and the first fort on the site was built in the 1640s.
In the following turbulent centuries, when Great Britain was constantly fighting with either the French or the Dutch, the Massachusetts Bay Colony repaired and rebuilt the fort several times. In the early 1700s, a British architect designed the fifth fort, Castle William.
Castle William was a refuge for the British during the Siege of Boston at the start of the Revolutionary War. When the British eventually evacuated the city, they destroyed the fort.
The 6th and 7th forts were built by the new state of Massachusetts in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War and they were the first to be called “Fort Independence”. The current fort on Castle Island is the eighth, finished in 1851. It was retired in the late 1800s when military technology advanced and made its location useless.
For over 200 years, Bostonians looked to Castle Island as a source of defense and security. In actuality, the cannons never fired in combat. They saluted important visitors and, occasionally, frightened stubborn ship captains into paying taxes.
Now Fort Independence is a historical site cared for by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and the Castle Island Association. If you would like to read more about its history, I highly recommend William J. Reid’s Castle Island and Fort Independence.
This book is hard to find online, but they sell it for $5 at Fort Independence during tours. My husband and I picked up a copy when we were there and I have learned so much about Castle Island and Boston as a whole.
Castle Island: Frequently Asked Questions
Why is Castle Island called Castle Island?
The short answer is: we don’t know! Many people assume that the island took its name from the fort (or castle), but historical documents indicate that the island had its name before the first fort was built in the 1640s.
Historian William J. Reid speculates that perhaps the island looked like a castle to sailors approaching from a distance. But we will likely never know for sure.
Is there an entry fee for Castle Island?
No, entry to Castle Island is always free for everyone.
Are there bathrooms on Castle Island?
Yes, there are public bathrooms on Castle Island. They were messy when I visited, but this is hardly surprising with the beach nearby. At least there was soap and toilet paper.
Can I bring my dog to Castle Island?
Yes, you can! Note, however, that dogs are not allowed on the beach between Memorial Day and Labor Day. You can still take your dog(s) around the rest of the island, though.
Is Castle Island accessible?
Parts of Castle Island are accessible to wheelchair users and people with low mobility. There are some flat paved paths and you can get excellent views of the harbor.
Castle Island is a popular place for senior citizens to visit. We saw so many elderly people with wheelchairs and walkers out enjoying the sun.
The Fort Independence tours are not accessible, since they involve multiple flights of stairs.
Final Thoughts on Castle Island
Castle Island really is the best place to see Boston Harbor, whether you are looking for planes, watching sailboats, or simply enjoying the ocean. You can also visit Castle Island on July 4 to get an excellent view of the fireworks and to watch the U.S.S. Constitution sail around the harbor.
So what are you waiting for? Head out to Castle Island to enjoy the beach, the fort, and some good food from Sullivan’s.
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