15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Cape Cod & 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.
Although its beaches and 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. At any season, you'll find plenty of places to visit and things to do. For ideas, see our list of the top tourist attractions in Cape Cod and the islands.
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, a wild area that has remained 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.
One of the most unusual environments in the park is the Atlantic White Cedar Swamp in Wellfleet, which you can explore via a boardwalk. Information about the area can be obtained at the Salt Pond and Provincetown visitor centers, where you can also sign up for one of the park ranger programs; these include hiking, canoeing, snorkeling, and visiting the park's historic buildings. For an up-close look at the massive dunes in the park and a glimpse into their history and nature, Art's Dune Tours from Provincetown are a highlight of any trip to the Cape.
Address: 99 Marconi Station Site Road, Wellfleet, Massachusetts
Official site: http://www.nps.gov/caco/index.htm
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cape Cod: Best Areas & Hotels
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.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Nantucket: Best Areas & Hotels
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.
Towering above the town's narrow streets and lanes is the 252-foot Pilgrim Monument--the tallest all-granite structure in the US, completed in 1910. You climb to the top for spectacular views. A museum at its base explores the town's rich history with informative displays, ship models, whaling equipment, arrowheads, and tools of the local Wampanoag people, and maritime artifacts.
To see the works of artists who have lived and worked in the area, visit the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, first established to support the many artists who were refugees from Europe after World War I. The arts are still an important part of Provincetown life, as you can tell from the number of galleries that line the busy shopping area along Commercial Street.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Provincetown
4. Martha's Vineyard
The island of Martha's Vineyard lies only five miles south of Cape Cod, and you can get here 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.
Official site: http://stellwagen.noaa.gov/visit/whalewatching/wwcompanies.html
6. Race Point Beach and Lighthouse
One of the most beloved tourist attractions on Cape Cod is Race Point Beach, with its iconic lighthouse surrounded by dunes and seagrass. Race Point Lighthouse, a stone structure 25 feet tall, was first lighted in 1816, with one of the earliest revolving lights. In 1876, the original stone tower was replaced with a 45-foot cast-iron lighthouse that's now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Still an active navigation aid, the lighthouse is sometimes open for tours in the summer, and it is possible to book overnight stays in the keeper's cottage. You can also visit the adjacent Old Harbor Life-Saving Station.
Race Point Beach is a wide sand beach at the mouth of Cape Cod Bay on the northernmost point of Cape Cod. The beach gets full sun all day due to its northern exposure, and although it faces open sea, there are shallow areas that are good for children, without heavy surf. The beach has changing facilities and a paid parking area, or you can park free at the Province Lands Visitor Center and bike or walk half a mile to the beach.
The lighthouse stands at the far end of Race Point, a walk of about 45 minutes along the path through the spectacular dunes.
Address: Race Point Road, Provincetown, Massachusetts
Official site: https://www.racepointlighthouse.org
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 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 1678 Benjamin Nye Homestead, furnished in period style with hand woven sheets, spinning wheels, and cooking utensils, all well interpreted by volunteers.
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 glassworks. The museum shop sells fine glassware and reproductions of Sandwich glass.
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 Tourister, 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. An original carousel sits inside an enclosed pavilion, so you can enjoy riding it even on a rainy day.
The gardens are especially known for the rhododendron and hydrangeas. Children delight in Hidden Hollow, an outdoor learning and discovery center, where they can climb, balance, splash, build, dig, and experiment.
Green Briar Nature Center
In East Sandwich, Green Briar Nature Center & Jam Kitchen honors local author Thornton Burgess, whose stories of Peter Rabbit and his friends have charmed generations of children. The famous briar patch that features often in Peter Rabbit's adventures is preserved in the Green Briar Conservation Area, a 60-acre reserve of wildflower gardens and walking trails through the forest. The Jam Kitchen, a living museum at the Nature Center, has made fruit jams the old-fashioned way since 1903.
8. Chatham and the Marconi Maritime Center
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.
Chatham Marconi Maritime Center is the site of the former Marconi/RCA Wireless Receiving Station, a major World War II military installation and once the East Coast's busiest ship-to-shore station. In the museum are interactive exhibits that tell the story of wireless communication here, from its beginning with Marconi through the 20th century.
The station was a vital military listening station during World War II and an entire section is devoted to code interception and the Enigma machine. The museum engages young people with demonstrations of telegraph equipment and Morse code, and with exhibits on how cellphones and other contemporary electronics work.
Address: Chatham Marconi Maritime Center, 847 Orleans Road, North Chatham, Massachusetts
Official site: https://www.chathammarconi.org
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, and children's activities.
The Cape Cod Maritime Museum features the marine traditions of the Cape and Islands, with marine artifacts, exhibits on boat building, shipwrecks, and other maritime subjects. A highlight is the Cape's largest collection of scrimshaw that's open to the public.
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. A Kennedy Legacy Trail leads to sites of significance to the family, including St. Francis Xavier, the Kennedy's church.
Hyannis is where you can board the Cape Cod Central Railroad for excursions past cranberry bogs, woodlands, the Great Salt Marsh, and picturesque villages.
10. Riding the Cape Cod Rail Trail
A paved recreation path, the Cape Cod Rail Trail extends 25 miles from South Dennis to Wellfleet, through the towns of Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet. The mostly flat terrain has only a few minor grades around Orleans and Wellfleet, and provides a wide variety of scenery and natural landscapes.
Although heavily used by cyclists, the paved trail has a wide unpaved shoulder on one side for horseback riders, as well as walkers and runners who prefer a natural surface. There are plenty of places to get off the trail for a beach stop or for food and water, and bike rentals are available at bike shops directly on the trail in Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster, Orleans, and Wellfleet.
The trail follows much of the route used by the Old Colony Railroad Company, which opened in 1848, connecting Boston and Sandwich. By 1873, Old Colony extended the route all the way to Cape Cod's outermost point in Provincetown. Rail service ended about 1960, and the tracks were torn up, but you can still see some relics of the former rail line alongside the trail.
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 10-mile Shining Sea Bike Path. The Falmouth Museums on the Green include 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.
The magnificently restored 1878 Highfield Hall & Gardens opened in 2006 after nearly falling to the wrecking ball a decade earlier. The house and two restored gardens host indoor and outdoor art exhibitions that have covered a wide range of mediums and styles, including fiber arts, ceramics, prints, quilts, sculpture, watercolors, photographs, and fairy houses.
Address: 56 Highfield Drive, Falmouth, Massachusetts
Official site: https://highfieldhallandgardens.org
Yarmouth sits mid-Cape, northeast of Hyannis, and has several beaches, the largest of which is Seagull Beach. Two of the Cape's more unusual attractions are here. The Edward Gorey House was the home of the 20th-century artist, known for his often macabre pen-and-ink illustrations and stories, and reflects not only his art but his own distinctive personality. Devotees of PBS Masterpiece Mysteries can see the original plates for the introductory sequence created by Gorey for the series.
Whydah Pirate Museum offers Cape Cod's only chance to see and touch real pirate treasure. The fully rigged galley ship Whydah had been captured by pirate Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy and used to pirate 53 vessels of their treasures before sinking in a storm in 1717. The interactive museum tells the story of the ship and its recovery in 1984 off the coast of Wellfleet, and displays the treasure found with it.
The Judah Baker Windmill was built in 1791 at Grand Cove in North Dennis, and moved repeatedly before being authentically restored at South Yarmouth. In the summer, you can go inside and see the original mechanisms.
You'll find more than a dozen beaches off Route 6A and Lower County Road in Dennis. The most popular is West Dennis Beach, on Davis Beach Road, more than a mile of beach and shoreline with parking for 100 cars; it's good for windsurfing and kite flying, as well as collecting shells brought up by the surf. There's also a children's playground.
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.
Where to Stay on Cape Cod for Sightseeing
Cape Cod has a wide variety of lodging for every taste and budget, so you'll find one close to all the best places to visit and things to do. These are some of the most highly rated.
Where to Stay Mid-Cape:
- A century-old landmark, Chatham Bars Inn sits on 25 landscaped acres overlooking the sea. Along with the beautifully restored main inn, the resort encompasses cottages, a spa, an award-winning dining room, and an eight-acre farm.
- The unfussy, minimalist décor and fine-art photography sets the Sea Street Inn, in Hyannis, apart from other Cape B&Bs, but it's the food that guests remember longest. The owner, a highly skilled chef, welcomes arriving guests with a fresh-made seafood roll, then wows them at breakfast with substantial and beautifully presented dishes, such as smoked trout, Croque Madame, or a seafood BLT.
- At Brewster's award-winning Candleberry Inn on Cape Cod, a multi-course gourmet breakfast awaits guests each morning. Also included are afternoon refreshments, beach towels, chairs, and umbrellas to use on the beach, which is a short walk away. Also in Brewster, The Mansion at Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club sits right on the ocean with a private beach, luxury spa, and Nicklaus-designed golf course.
- Within walking distance of the Sandwich Glass Museum, Belfry Inn & Bistro occupies a brilliantly converted former church and an adjacent high Victorian home. Guest rooms and public areas retain beautiful architectural details, including oak paneling and magnificent stained-glass windows.
Where to Stay in Provincetown:
- Set high atop a hill with panoramic ocean views, Lands End Inn offers luxurious and lavishly decorated rooms with private decks and patios. Individual rooms have distinctive architectural details-cedar-beamed ceilings, spiral iron staircases, carved pillars, and stained-glass windows-and are furnished with antiques, fine art, and an outstanding collection of Art Nouveau glassware. The sunset views are spectacular.
- The luxury Crowne Pointe Historic Inn & Spa is only a few steps away from shops, restaurants, and galleries. Also close are the beach and the pier for whale-watching cruises, but the inn's beautiful pool and courtyard, and the rooms with private decks and views, will tempt you to stay right there. Made-to-order breakfast is included.
- Close to Commercial Street, Brass Key Guesthouse is made up of several historic buildings enclosing a courtyard with a heated infinity pool and English garden.
Where to Stay on Nantucket:
- The Nantucket Hotel & Resort is within walking distance of beaches, and the shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions of downtown Nantucket. With a range of accommodations that include rooms, suites, and cottages, the resort has plenty to keep families and couples busy: two heated outdoor swimming pools, a fitness center, and spa.
- The Wauwinet overlooks the sea, its 33 adults-only guest rooms furnished with antiques and with private sundecks. The landscaped grounds have access to two beaches-one on the Atlantic Ocean and one on Nantucket Bay.
Where to Stay on Martha's Vineyard:
- The Hob Knob is a 17-room luxury boutique hotel set in beautiful grounds in the heart of Edgartown. The farm-to-table breakfast is included, as is afternoon tea with fresh-baked scones.
- The 48 rooms at Mansion House bring back the aura of its 19th-century origins, but with 21st-century luxuries. Some have fireplaces and balconies with views of Vineyard Sound, and the wraparound porch is meant for relaxing and enjoying the views.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Cape Cod & the Islands
If you plan to visit Cape Cod by car, be aware that weekend and holiday traffic on both bridges over Cape Cod Canal can be backed up for miles. There are several other options, including flights on Cape Air to all three destinations. Various bus services connect Boston and Providence to the Cape, and in summer, you can go by rail from Boston's South Station on the Cape Flyer. The fastest way to get from Boston to Provincetown is on the Boston to Cape Cod High-Speed Ferry, a 90-minute ride in a comfortable catamaran, landing right in the heart of Provincetown. A bonus of the trip is the view of the Harbor Islands and Boston skyline from the water.
- Getting to Nantucket: Ferries to Nantucket depart regularly from Hyannis, Harwich Port, and New Bedford, and you can get to Hyannis by bus or train (seasonal) from Boston.
- Getting to Martha's Vineyard: You can reach Martha's Vineyard by year-round daily ferry service from Woods Hole on Cape Cod or from New Bedford, Massachusetts. Buses from Boston connect to the Steamship Authority ferry terminal in Woods Hole. Cape Air flies year-round, connecting Boston to both islands, and seasonally from New York JFK. On a Boston to Martha's Vineyard day trip with optional Island Tour you will have six hours to explore on your own, plenty of time to hop the transit bus and see the Victorian cottages in Oak Bluffs, take a ride on the Flying Horses Carousel, and visit the 1672 Vincent House in the former whaling port of Edgartown, using the island discount card that's included with the tour.
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Where to Go in Massachusetts: For more information on what to see and do in the state, read our articles on the Top Tourist Attractions in Massachusetts and Top Tourist Attractions in Boston and Cambridge. If you are traveling through the area in summer, don't miss our piece on the best beaches. For any time of year, use our guide to the best weekend getaways to plan a short break.
Exploring Nearby States: On the coast south of Cape Cod is Rhode Island, with the magnificent Gilded Age mansions of Newport. Our article on the Top-Rated Resorts in Rhode Island can help you find places to stay there.