Added to Boston’s  long list of firsts in 1848 was the nation’s first municipal public library. The Boston Public Library (700 Boylston St., 617/536-5400, www.bpl.org , 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Fri.–Sat., closed Sun., free), which fills two city blocks on the south side of Back Bay’s  Copley Square, consists of two buildings. The original, designed by Charles McKim and opened in 1895, is now the research library, with a more modern building next door holding the circulating collection.
Aside from its collection of hundreds of thousands of books, magazines, and videos, the Boston Public Library is full of art and architectural flourishes that make the building as much of an attraction as its contents. The exterior is built in pleasing classical proportions and covered with names of great thinkers down through the ages; twin female statues of Art and Science keep guard outside.
One of the best-kept secrets of the city is the Boston Public Library’s central courtyard, an Italianate plaza accented by a fountain that makes a peaceful asylum from the busy streets around.
Inside the McKim Building, you can feel smarter just by stepping into the impressive Bates Reading Room, a 200-foot-long testament to scholarship, with a 50-foot-high barrel ceiling, high arched windows facing Copley Square, and long tables full of scholars sitting at green banker’s lamps and thinking great thoughts.
Those in need of further inspiration can step into the 80-foot-long Sargent Gallery, which features painter John Singer Sargent’s fantastical mural sequence “Triumph of Religion,” a sensual, often tempestuous journey through the gods, goddesses, and prophets of the ancient world.
Other artistic works in the Boston Public Library are a mural sequence dedicated to the story of the search for the Holy Grail by American artist Edwin Austin Abbey, and a painting of George Washington at Dorchester Heights by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (who also did the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware).
Free hour-long tours of the Boston Public Library’s art and architecture are offered at various times daily; call for times.