12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Cape Cod and the Islands
Southeast of Boston, the Cape Cod peninsula reaches out into the Atlantic, curving northward to partially enclose Cape Cod Bay. The gently undulating landscape has long been an area of small farms, and today, many of these still specialize in growing cranberries. With its beautiful sandy beaches and laid-back atmosphere, Cape Cod is a popular summer vacation destination for nearby Boston and New York. But although its popular tourist attractions may be crowded in July and August, even then you'll find uncrowded, peaceful corners, especially on the quieter north shore along Route 6-A and the long beaches of Cape Cod Bay. Reached by ferries from the southern shore of Cape Cod are the idyllic islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.
Come here to relax in the sun, and bring your camera to join the photographers and artists who've immortalized the region's lighthouses, windmills, white sand beaches, sea captains' homes, dunes, surf, and weathered shingle cottages. Come in June to see the Cape decorated in pink roses or in the spring to find roadsides - especially on Nantucket - splashed with daffodils. In the fall, whole landscapes turn bright crimson with cranberries.
1 Cape Cod National Seashore
Almost the whole East coast of Cape Cod, a stretch of about 40 miles, is protected as Cape Cod National Seashore, remaining almost unchanged since Henry David Thoreau walked its sands. Its marvelous beaches, beautiful woodlands of Atlantic white cedar and other conifers, bird nesting grounds, and miles of attractive hiking trails draw thousands of visitors, year round, but especially in the summer. Information about the area can be obtained at the Salt Pond and Provincetown Visitor Centers.
Founded by colonists in 1659, the town of Nantucket is the main settlement of Nantucket, a 15-mile-long island 30 miles south of Cape Cod. Quaker missionaries settled here in the 18th century, and from 1740 to 1830, Nantucket was the center of the world's whaling industry, with more than 125 whaling ships. Today, the island has a well-established and well-heeled summer population and is popular with tourists for its beaches and miles of cycling paths, as well as its sea captains' mansions and other historic attractions. In April, the roadsides are bright with daffodils, which local residents have been planting for several decades and celebrate with a colorful festival. Don't bother to bring a car here; hotels will meet the ferry, and you can rent a bicycle or walk to attractions. Among these are sites relating to America's first female professional astronomer, Maria Mitchell, including her home, an observatory, and an aquarium of local marine life. The Nantucket Life Saving Museum houses a collection of marine artifacts and Hinchman House Natural History Museum concentrates on Nantucket's flora and fauna with bird, wildflower, and marine ecology walks.
Nantucket Whaling Museum
The Nantucket Whaling Museum features ship models, scrimshaw, whaling equipment, portraits, logbooks, and the skeleton of a 43-foot sperm whale, all housed in a restored 1847 candle factory with a rooftop observation deck.
Nantucket Historical Association
Along with offering guided walking tours late May through October, the Nantucket Historical Association maintains a number of attractions that are open to visitors, including a 19th-century firehouse; the 1845 Hadwen House; the 1745 Macy Christian House; the Old Gaol from 1806; the oldest working windmill in the country; and the 1686 saltbox, Jethro Coffin House, the island's oldest residence and only surviving structure from the original English settlement.
At the very tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown is known for its thriving art and music scene. In 1620, the Pilgrims landed here in the Mayflower, before moving on to found Plymouth. With plenty of beaches, miles of walking and cycling paths, kayaking, and boat excursions, Provincetown is a lively and popular resort. Exhibits in the Provincetown Heritage Museum document its history as a whaling and fishing port, with a 66-foot model of a Grand Bank schooner and racing yacht. It also holds a collection of paintings by notable artists that have worked in Provincetown, including Jackson Pollock and Hans Hoffman. Another museum at the base of the 252-foot Pilgrim Monument -- the tallest all-granite structure in the US -- displays more from the town's rich history: ship models, whaling equipment, and maritime artifacts. Climb to the top for spectacular views.
4 Martha's Vineyard
The island of Martha's Vineyard lies only five miles south of Cape Cod, and you can get there by car and passenger ferries from Woods Hole on Cape Cod or from New Bedford. A bit more laid-back than Nantucket, "The Vineyard" has six small towns, each with its own distinct character and miles of beaches, some of which lie beneath high bluffs. More varied and rolling in its landscapes than either Nantucket or Cape Cod, the island has a relaxed, casual air despite its high-end antiques and art galleries and its trendy boutiques.
Originally a Methodist church camp meeting place, Oak Bluffs is an unabashed beach holiday town, but still retains the rows of cute "gingerbread" cottages built by the 19th-century campers to replace the former tents. This is one of the rare places where you can see such a collection of Carpenter Gothic style buildings, and their candy colors seem a good fit for the ice cream parlors and saltwater taffy shops. Be sure to stop for a ride on the Flying Horses Carousel, one of the country's oldest. You can visit one of the cottages, which is furnished from the late 1800s.
An important whaling center, this is the site of the oldest European settlement on Martha's Vineyard. It is now a pretty town of tree-shaded streets lined by white clapboard homes, among them Vincent House, the oldest and now a museum. Vincent House was built in 1672, and has been restored and furnished in period style to offer a glimpse of life in Martha's Vineyard over the past 400 years.
5 Cape Cod Whale Watching
It would be a shame to leave Cape Cod without taking a boat trip to spot whales and other sea life - or just to get a view from the sea. Various boat tours depart from different harbors. Boats leave frequently from the MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown for whale watching excursions to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, from mid-April through October. Trained naturalists are on board to help passengers observe finback, humpback, and minke whales on tours lasting two-and-a-half to four hours. Similar whale watching cruises leave from Hyannis and Barnstable harbors.
Cruises from Chatham can take you to watch seals in their natural habitat, as well as get a sea view of Chatham's famed beaches and picturesque harbor. From Harwich Port, you can board a high-speed catamaran for a narrated seal cruise around the island of Monomoy. Narrated tours from Orleans are family oriented with stories of Pilgrims, pirates, and shipwrecks. In Woods Hole, you can learn about oceanographic science on a cruise aboard a research vessel. As boat excursions vary, be sure to ask what the theme of each trip is before signing up.
Sandwich is an attractive little town at the west end of Cape Cod, and was a major glass-making center in the 19th century. Sandwich glass is still highly prized by collectors, but don't expect to find much of it for sale in the town's many antique shops. The long beaches of Sandwich on Cape Cod Bay are often less crowded than others, but equally beautiful. You can watch as Dexter's Grist Mill, built between 1640 and 1646, grinds corn flour using authentic grindstones powered by a water wheel, and you can buy the cornmeal with authentic recipes. Glimpse into the past at the 1669 Nye Family Homestead, a saltbox house furnished in period style with hand woven sheets, spinning wheels, and cooking utensils, all well interpreted by volunteers.
Heritage Museums & Gardens
Allow at least two hours to tour this complex of Americana museums set in a 100-acre garden. The automobile museum, inside a reproduction Shaker Round Stone Barn, contains about 35 antique cars, including a 1930 Duesenberg Tourster once owned by movie star Gary Cooper and an original 1913 Ford Model T. An art museum with American folk art; collections of antique weapons; miniature soldiers; Native American artifacts; and gardens filled with shrubs, trees, and flowers could easily fill an afternoon.
Sandwich Glass Museum
Of particular interest to collectors and those interested in the history and techniques of glassmaking, this museum features more than 5,000 pieces of glassware produced here in the 19th century, as well as a furnace for glass-blowing demonstrations, a multi-media theater, and a gallery of contemporary glass works. The museum shop sells fine reproductions of Sandwich glass.
7 Chatham and the Atwood House
One of Cape Cod's most appealing beach towns, Chatham has a gracious air, as well as a scenic white sand beach, a lighthouse, superb beaches, summer band concerts, and even its own baseball team. For a look at old Cape Cod, tour the Atwood House, built in 1752 and occupied by the same family until 1926. The house is furnished with collections of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, paintings, glassware, china, and tools.
Address: Atwood House Museum, 347 Stage Harbor Road, Chatham, MA
The ferry port of Hyannis, on the south coast, is the busy hub of Cape Cod life, and the town is a favorite with sailors who anchor their yachts in Lewis Bay. Yachts and boats are blessed during the annual Harbor Festival in early June, when there are boat races, live performances, clam-shucking contests, and children's activities. Hyannis is where you can board the Cape Cod Central Railroad for excursions past cranberry bogs, woodlands, the Great Salt Marsh, and picturesque villages. A monument near Lewis Bay commemorates President John F. Kennedy, whose family has a retreat in Hyannis Port, and at the John F. Kennedy Museum, you can enjoy photos, oral histories, and multi-media exhibits about JFK's time here with his friends and family.
Popular as a beach resort and for water sports, Falmouth also has a lively music, art, and theater scene, with its own opera company. Rent a kayak to explore Great Salt Marsh or a bicycle to ride along the shore on the ten-mile Shining Sea Bike Path. The Falmouth Museums on the Green includes two 18th-century houses displaying period furniture, fine art, textiles, and temporary exhibits, as well as a colonial-style flower garden and a herb garden. You can picnic in the gazebo here.
You'll find more than a dozen beaches off Route 6A and Lower County Road in Dennis, and the Cape Cod Rail Trail offers 22 miles of former railroad line between Dennis and Wellfleet. When culture beckons, enjoy a performance at the Cape Playhouse, the oldest professional summer theater in the United States. Or visit the Cape Cod Museum of Art, dedicated to preserving and exhibiting the works of Cape artists, to see works by Thomas Hart Benton, Childe Hassam, Hans Hofmann, and others who have worked here.
With beaches facing both the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay, Orleans offers something for everyone - warm or cold ocean beaches and picture-perfect beach views of both the sunrise and sunset. The Meeting House and Museum, housed in a Greek Revival style building, displays historic photographs, paintings, china, clothing, and toys. The French Cable Station Museum houses some of the original equipment used to lay the transatlantic cable, which allowed for telegraph communication between North America and Europe. During World War I, General Pershing communicated from France through this cable station, and in 1927, the message that Charles Lindbergh had landed in Paris came to the US through this station.
Although it has nine beaches on Cape Cod Bay and two freshwater beaches, Brewster is among the quieter cape towns, with art and antiques galleries. Built in 1751 and still working today, Stony Brook Grist Mill uses the adjacent stream to grind grains into flour and corn into cornmeal. The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History sits on an 80-acre tract with three nature trails that pass a saltwater marsh, woods, and a major herring run. In its exhibits and aquarium, you can learn about whales, birds, fish, shellfish, frogs, and turtles, as well as the Cape's archaeology.