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Boston Public Library - Copley Branch (hours, parking, tea)

A view of the gorgeous interior of the BPL Central BranchBoston Public Library - Copley Branch

Boston Public Library's Central Branch is located in historic Copley Square. The interior is stunning, and quite Museum-like, full of impressive works of art, a gleaming marble foyer, a peaceful interior courtyard and hidden gems like the Tea Room, map Room, kids corners, puzzle room and lots more.

Constructed between 1888 and 1895, the McKim building at the Central Library in Copley Square is the masterpiece of its architect and namesake, Charles Follen McKim of the McKim, Mead & White firm.

In designing the new building, architect McKim and library trustees sought to create a veritable “palace” to inspire and elevate its public.

photo courtesy of Boston Public Library


photo credit: BostonCentral

As you enter the library, you are greeted with an arched hallway, lit with golden-hued globes that leads you to a marble foyer with a dual grand staircase, lined with the art of French painter Pierre Puvis de Chavannes considered one of the greatest muralists of the 19th century.

One of the more striking features of the main staircase is the pair of lions that memorialize two Massachusetts volunteer infantries in the Civil War: the Second and the Twentieth. 

In contrast to the rest of the Foyer, each marble lion remains unpolished at the request of the regiment survivors, who thought that the effect of the raw carved marble was ideal. Since the building’s opening in 1895, patrons have rubbed the lions’ tails for good luck, revealing their yellow Siena marble tones.

Grand Staircase (from the landing)

photo courtesy of Boston Public Library

The McKim Lobby, clad with its Georgia marble floor inlaid with brass designs continues a grand procession into the heart of the building. The ceilings, clad in mosaic tile by Italian immigrant craftsmen living in Boston’s North End, bear Roman motifs and the names of thirty famous Massachusetts statesmen.

The staircase leading from the Lobby to the building’s second floor invites patrons to ascend its ivory gray Echaillon steps, which are embedded with discoverable fossils. The staircase hall is formed of yellow Siena marble; McKim ordered roughly ten times the amount of marble needed to construct the stairs in order to select pieces with ideal patterns of variegation.

Bates Hall - The Reading Room

photo credit: BostonCentral

The Central Library’s main reading room was named after the institution’s first major benefactor, Joshua Bates. Bates, who had grown up without a public library, recognized the institution’s importance and offered to fund the purchase of books for the library upon its founding in 1852. 

photo credit: BostonCentral

Bates' conditions for the donation were that the new library be “an ornament to the City,” provide room for at least 150 patrons, and be “free to all.”

photo credit: BostonCentral

The John Singer Sargeant Gallery

photo credit: BostonCentral

Artist John Singer Sargent (Yes, THAT John Singer Sargeant), spent 29 years of his career adorning an impressive hall on the third floor  between 1890 and 1919.

While Sargent was born to an American family in Italy and lived most of his life in Europe, he held close ties to Boston.  Sargent's work also has a presence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the Fenway district of Boston.  

Known primarily for his portraits, he considered his commission at the new Central Library an opportunity to create a masterwork.  And quite a work it is!

photo credit: BostonCentral

His chosen theme, Triumph of Religion, incorporates a broad range of moments and iconography from early Egyptian and Assyrian belief systems, Judaism, and Christianity, as he had come to know them through study.

Drone Tour

Take flight with this brand new footage, featuring sweeping shots of Copley Square and the Boston Public Library’s 1895 McKim Building, a National Historic Landmark in the heart of the city’s Back Bay neighborhood.

The Abbey Room

Edwin Austin Abbey had comparatively little experience working in oils and had never painted a mural before accepting the library commission in 1893. In 15 panels encircling the Book Delivery Room, he depicted Sir Galahad’s Quest of the Holy Grail, combining multiple versions of the Grail legend.

photo credit: BostonCentral

The McKim Courtyard

Charles Follen McKim designed the Central Library’s courtyard after that of the Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome. Its covered arcade surrounds an open plaza skirted by white marble and low greenery, at the center of which lies a pool and fountain.

photo credit: BostonCentral

The map room is a favorite spot for kids and teens, with small nooks for young kids to sit and explore books about maps and map crafts.

photo credit: BostonCentral

One of our favorite destinations is the puzzle room, located at the end of the map corridor. There are always several puzzles to work on, and it's fun to add a few pieces in to the community effort.

photo credit: BostonCentral

Wherever you look, you are sure to see something impressive.  Be in architectural, historical, or just plain beautiful - the McKim building of the Boston Public Library's Central Branch in Copley Plaza is a sight to behold.

photo credit: BostonCentral

The Map Room Tea Lounge

With its indicative architectural heritage, this industrial revolution vibe with cozy décor is a popular place to visit.  Drawn from the inspiration of great classic novels, writers, and the innovation of the 1800s, this unique space has become a salon for the modern world within the historic McKim Building of the Boston Public Library. 

Featuring literary inspired cocktails taken from the authors who mentioned spirits in their novels, drank spirits while writing, or inspiration sparked from the classics on the shelves. 

photo credit: BostonCentral

Just outside the McKim Building sits Copley Square Plaza, home to a popular urban park with fountains and food vendors, as well as Trinity Church and views of the John Hancock Building.  The hustle and bustle of Newbury Street is just a few blocks away. 


photo credit: BostonCentral

Just across the street sits the Church of the Covenant  - which houses America's largest Tiffany stained glass adorned Church interiors.   

Occasionally the church will be open to the public and it is well worth a visit.  The nave is a powerfully quiet and peaceful space.  The surprisingly high vaulted ceilings and the masterful stained glass and tile work is stunning. 

photo credit: BostonCentral


All in all, the Boston Public Library's Central Branch is a museum-like venue that will surely inspire you to visit many times over.  That such a building could be free and open to all is a true gift to all who pass through it's doors.

photo credit: BostonCentral

Visit the Boston Public Library website for more information about the McKim Building and helpful services, library to-go, and library card perks that the BPL provides for Boston residents and visitors every day. 

There is certainly so much more to explore in Boston - be sure to check out our Boston Events Calendar here, or our Rainy Day guide.  For more ideas about Free Things to do in Boston, visit our handy guide to saving money in Boston without sacrificing fun! 

Stacey Sao~
Stacey Sao has been the Managing Director of the family-friendly events and activities website, BostonCentral for almost 20 years.  She continues to enjoy discovering and exploring new places to visit in the Greater Boston area.