Few people are as familiar with the Boston waterfront as Vivien Li, who has been executive director of the advocacy group The Boston Harbor Association for 16 years. She also knows a bargain when she sees one.
"There are a lot of treasures off the beaten track that you can do without spending a lot of money," Li said recently.
If you're an early riser, Li suggests you attend the morning fish auction. "It really gives you a flavor of the waterfront," she said of weekday mornings at 6:30 on the Fish Pier, when fishermen sell their catches to restaurants and wholesalers. "Make sure you're on time, though. It rarely lasts more than an hour."
But don't be in a hurry to leave. Take time to visit the boats along the wharf and chat up the fishermen. "They lay over for three or four days to restock and take on provisions," Li said. "Most of the fishermen are kind of quiet, but if you approach them in the right way, they'll discuss their work."
Li also proposed a stop at the Dunkin' Donuts at Seaport World Trade Center Boston . "The Trade Center used to be called Commonwealth Pier; it's where the Queen Mary and other ocean liners used to tie up. It's now where the Spirit of Boston and other tour boats depart and the donut shop serves as a waiting room." Grab a cold drink and watch the boats come and go.
A little farther down Northern Avenue is the Seaport Bar and Grille . "On the top level is a patio where anybody can sit, bring a sandwich and binoculars and enjoy the view. It's open to the public for free as part of a development deal," Li said.
Li is partial to the park on the water side of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse . "It's a lovely space with picnic tables, benches, and historical displays on the Fan Pier . It's a great place to watch the tankers come into the harbor or just read a book and relax."
And don't pass by the courthouse without stopping in. "It's a federal courthouse so you have to pass through security and have two forms of ID, but it's worth it," Li said. "Have breakfast or lunch at the cafe on the second floor. It's one of the great bargains of the waterfront."
She also suggested visiting the law library on the ninth floor. "It's open to the public," she said, "and it offers a wonderful panoramic view of the harbor."
Another great gull's-eye view of the harbor is from the observation deck on the 14th floor of 470 Atlantic Ave. "It's open to the public from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. On a clear day, you can see the Harbor Islands," Li said.
Visitors will also be rewarded by a visit to James Hook & Co. , the funky waterfront seafood store with the big red and white sign that has been on the Fort Point Channel since 1925. "Many think of them for live lobsters," Li said, "but they also make lobster rolls that are excellent and don't cost very much. You can bring them over to the park at the courthouse and have a picnic."