Genteel streets lined with elegant brick town houses, acres of public greens and gardens, more colleges than are found in many states, and a church on almost every corner: Boston serves up slices of history and culture at every turn. Savvy spin-doctors of centuries past have made the town that cradled independence our nation's history and myth capital. More than ever, America's mother city serves up the bold and new with the old and true -- reflecting skyscrapers mirror Colonial steeples, and expressways zip around buildings whose hand-etched look recalls the scrimshaw era. Few places in America display their history so lovingly. Like a multitiered wedding cake, the city of Boston consists of discrete layers. The deepest layer is the historical base, the place where musket-bearing revolutionaries vowed to hang together or hang separately. The next tier, a dense spread of Brahmin fortune and fortitude, might be labeled the Hub. The Hub saw only journalistic accuracy in the hometown slogan «the Athens of America» and felt only pride in the label «Banned in Boston.» Over that lies Beantown, home to the Red Sox faithful and the raucous Bruins fans that crowd Boston Garden. This is the city whose ethnic loyalties -- Irish, Italian, Asian, and African-American -- account for its many distinct neighborhoods. Crowning these layers are the students who throng the city's universities and colleges every fall, infuriating not a few but pleasing the rest with their infusion of high spirits and dollars from home. The best part for a visitor is that Boston can be experienced within a day or two. This is a remarkably compact city, whose labyrinthine streets will delight the walker, although they can -- and often do -- push drivers over the edge. An hour's stroll will take you from sites in the North End -- where bewigged icons from dusty high school history books are transformed into flesh-and-blood heroes -- to Beacon Hill's mansions where the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots and the Cabots spoke only to God. You can explore the country's oldest public park, the Boston Common, in the morning, tour a Back Bay Victorian in the afternoon, and in the evening dine on Szechuan seafood in Chinatown or gnocchi in the North End. Even following the Freedom Trail -- a self-guiding walking tour of famous American historic sites -- traverses the layers: historical, Hub, and Beantown. Boston has been first too many times -- the first public library, the first public schools, and the first subway system -- to concede an inch of civic pride to bigger and bolder cities. It still sees itself as a pioneer in culture -- both popular and rarefied. In 1858, Oliver Wendell Holmes -- philosopher and author of The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table -- called Boston «the hub of the solar system«; social inflation, however, soon raised the ante to «hub of the universe.» For Bostonians that still feels about right.