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Three ways to see a new city in half a day

One of the built-in frustrations of traveling is deciding how to use odd bits of time. Let’s say you have an afternoon flight on the day you’re scheduled to fly home. You’ll probably want to allow plenty of time to get to the airport, especially if you aren’t familiar with local traffic patterns in the city you’re visiting. That often mean nixing plans and arriving at the airport so early that you’re destined to stew over what you’ve missed.

On a recent trip to Boston, I used three simple (somewhat obvious) ideas to help me wring all I could from a day shortened by air travel. I hope these hints help you reimagine those truncated days coming or going on your next trip, whether it’s to Boston or another city.

Begin travel days with a firm foundation.

On travel days, you take thousands of steps, hoist luggage and burn calories, but access to food may be spotty. Start with a sturdy breakfast.

I used my last day in Boston as another chance to explore the city’s neighborhood food scene at City Feed and Supply, where I fortified myself with an egg and sausage sandwich served on a bakery-fresh bun.

The chalkboard menu has many vegetarian and vegan options. Over coffee and a sandwich, you can watch busy parents of toddlers chug coffee and get organized before heading out to work, babies in tow.

Look at the clever way they control access to their facilities. (Yep. The whole bucket!)

City Feed also has fresh produce, and natural health and beauty products. I perused the market, then found their clean-as-a-whistle public restroom.

Mine your hobbies.

Exploring your favorite hobby in a new city is a great way to spend small chunks of time. As an avid reader and collector of books, I love to visit bookstores wherever I go. Limited time to shop has a side perk: you can’t go crazy buying things.

After breakfast, I took the T (Boston’s public transit system) to downtown Boston in search of Brattle Book Shop, one of the oldest antiquarian bookstores in the United States. With three floors of used and/or antiquarian books, the Brattle could consume an hour or an entire morning or afternoon.

Eavesdrop on a book dealer negotiating a deal with the staff while you browse the shelves for a book to remind you of the historic city. I scored an early edition of Louisa May Alcott’s Aunt Jo’s Scrap Bag, the second volume in a six-volume series of 66 short stories for children. Alcott published this series from 1872 to 1882.

I’m ashamed to admit how few of these classics I’ve read.

The Brattle also has a beautiful outdoor courtyard for selling books in fair weather. Even on a rainy day, you can admire the courtyard’s murals—a feast of classics writ large on the side of the building next door.

Today’s great bookstores also play an unexpected role: interior decorator. Yes, some people buy old books simply for the way they look on a shelf. (Can you blame them?) Brattle touts this service on their website.

Do museum-y things.

Imagine waking up to this courtyard, as Isabella Stewart Gardner once did.

Museums. You either love them or you hate them. If you’re in the latter category, perhaps you’re simply spending too long in a museum to make it a positive experience. Why torture yourself? Shorten your museum experiences. Go straight to the things you’re interested in. Learn all you can and leave. You’ll have a lot more fun. This approach makes a museum visit an ideal way to fill in a morning or afternoon.

I toured the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with a Boston native who shared a mysterious backstory: several important works were stolen from the collection in a 1990 art heist that is still under investigation. (If you have any information about that, there’s a $10 million reward.) As you walk through the Gardner Museum, you’ll see blank spaces where works by Degas, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Manet and others were displayed before the theft.

A forerunner to today’s travel blogger, Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy Boston heiress who adored art, loved traveling and kept scrapbooks of her adventures abroad. On her extensive travels, Gardner and her husband acquired a massive art collection—big enough that their home was busting at the seams with art.

When she was a teen, Gardner visited Venice for the first time and saw rooms arranged to show art from distinct eras. She set her heart on having just such a home for others to enjoy. Her husband shared that dream, which probably influenced her decision to purchase land for a palatial home she built to display their collection just weeks after his death in 1898.

From the start, Gardner meant for the home to become a museum one day. Upon her death in 1924, Gardner left an endowment to support her goal. One of her stipulations was that the permanent collection could not be significantly altered. Consequently, the space you’ll see is pretty much exactly how she left it.

Love the forward motion in this dancer. Wouldn’t it be great in an office?

While you’re there, linger over El Jaleo, a famous piece by John Singer Sargent, painted after his journey through Spain. Will you just look at the flamenco posture Sargent captured in this dancer?

If you’re planning a trip to Boston, visit previous posts for more tips on what to do, where to eat and where to stay. What’s your favorite strategy for maximizing half-days when you’re traveling?