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The crescent-shaped peninsula known as Cape Cod is a favorite destination in Massachusetts for outdoor enthusiasts with its miles and miles of unspoiled beaches and sand dunes, charming waterfront cottages and B&Bs, lighthouses, art galleries, and museums. If you’re planning to visit, here is a look at this comprehensive list of what we think are the best things to do on this scenic cape island.
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What Is It? The Cape Cod National Seashore is a beloved nature destination in Massachusetts, spanning for miles along the north end of the Cape.
Why Do It? It’s a must-visit for those who love nature, with the opportunity to take a stroll across the sand through high cliff dunes passing tidal flats, salt marshes, ponds, vernal pools, and more. You can also bike on one of the many self-guided trails.
Good to Know: There is a wide range of other activity options too, with outfitters offering kayak tours, surfing lessons and yoga workshops, along with ranger-guided programs like guided walks, talks, performance and music-based programs, campfires, open houses at historic buildings, canoe trips, and much more.
What Is It? One of the cutest beach towns in New England, Provincetown is located at the very northern tip of Cape Cod.
Why Do It? It boasts narrow cobblestone streets lined with restaurants, cafes, bars and unique shops as well as offering great people watching. There are almost always some interesting characters here, and it’s been that way for decades. Over a century ago, in 1914, it became an artist colony when artists and business people formed the Provincetown Art Association and Museum to show and collect works created by local figures.
Good to Know: In the 1920s and ‘30s, gays and lesbians, along with plenty of socialists, radicals, artists, writers, playwrights and poets were drawn here for freedom of exploration, the chance to let loose without fear of judgment, as well as to enjoy the unique scenic beauty of the area. And, its fun, open-minded attitude has remained, making for lively streets and plenty of excitement.
What Is It? Cape Cod is home to 16 lighthouses, some of which you can even climb to the top to take in phenomenal vistas of the shoreline the ocean beyond.
Why Do It? The Highland Light, sometimes referred to as Cape Cod Light, is the oldest and tallest on the cape. It was first constructed out of wood in 1797, to warn ships about the dangerous coastline between Cape Ann and Nantucket as it was usually the first seen by ships approaching from Europe. In 1857, the lighthouse was declared dangerous and demolished, so the current 66-foot brick tower was constructed. Located in North Truro, the grounds are open year-round, and the light is open to the public from May through late October, with guided tours available.
Good to Know: There are four other lighthouses open for tours, including Nobska Point, Chatham, Nauset and Race Point.
What Is It? Heritage Museum and Gardens, formerly known as Heritage Plantation, is a 100-acre public garden located in Sandwich.
Why Do It? Southern New England’s largest public garden, it hosts an impressive collection of plants, shrubs, and trees native to Cape Cod, as well as an excellent Norman Rockwell collection in the museum. It features his most notable works with 150 pieces, along with an in-depth look at the photography that inspired his pieces and the process he used to create them.
Good to Know: The museum’s antique auto collection is a definite must-see as well, with classics on display like a 1909 Steam Car and a 1919 Ford Model T.
What Is It? This scenic drive is one of the best in Massachusetts.
Why Do It? If you want to skip the often nasty traffic on 6, take 6A and you can enjoy a much more pleasant, tree-shaded route that passes magnificent historic homes and stretches with blue inlets with Cape Cod Bay on one side, and white picket-fenced houses on the other. Jonathan Kandell of the Smithsonian Museum called it the “most appealing stretch of America I know.”
Good to Know: It passes through some of the country’s oldest villages too, including Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster and Orleans, with many of the homes and churches listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
What Is It? The Beachcomber in Wellfleet, originally built in 1872 as a lifesaving station, has been an institution here for decades.
Why Do It? It’s often found on lists of the best places to have a drink on the Cape, and overlooks the dunes on Cahoon Hollow Beach, providing a panoramic view of the Atlantic. It’s one of the few “grandfathered” properties allowed to remain within the protected Cape Cod National Seashore, and numerous beach bums head here in the summer to enjoy the sun, the sand and drinks like the house specialty, Goombay Smash.
Good to Know: It’s the place to be if you want to feel the salt-air breeze, drink a cold beer or sip a cocktail while dining on littlenecks, cherrystones, Nauset steamers and sweet Wellfleet oysters. On the weekends, great live music is added into the mix.
What Is It? Summer theater offers the chance to get swept away to experience other cultures and countries around the world through dramatic performances, lighthearted musicals and comedy.
Why Do It? The Cape Playhouse, located in a 19th-century meeting house in Dennis, was declared by the Actors’ Equity Association to be the “Oldest Professional Summer Theatre” in America. It opened in 1927 with a play starring Basil Rathbone. Bette Davis, a former Playhouse usher, made her acting debut here, Humphrey Bogart performed here before winning Oscars, and theater-goers can still see productions there today, complete with the original pews serving as the venue’s seats. The summer season runs from June through September and ticket prices vary by show type, showtime and seat section.
Good to Know: You can also enjoy theater at the Chatham Drama Guild and the Monomoy Theater, both in Chatham.
What Is It? At Race Point Beach in Provincetown, you’ll have incredible views of the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay and miles of sandy shoreline to enjoy.
Why Do It? The beach has a wide swath of sand offering all sorts of things to do after the sun comes up, with gorgeous dunes, sailboats passing by and even surfing. You may even spot a whale in the distance, depending on the time of year.
Good to Know: If you want to enjoy a nice bike ride, Province Lands Bike Trail nearby leads to fellow beach, Herring Cove.
What Is It? Cape Cod even offers a vineyard for wine enthusiasts.
Why Do It? Truro Vineyards hosts tours and tastings as well as the opportunity to picnic on its well-manicured grounds. If you’d like some lobster to dine on, a “lobstah” truck sits out front. You can also buy everything from wine and accessories to gourmet foods at the gift shop and occasionally enjoy live music too. The vineyards’ wines are made from Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cayuga, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Vignoles and Zinfandel grapes, as well as from Cape Cod cranberries.
Good to Know: You can also visit the house at Truro Vineyards, a stately Federal-style house built in 1813 as the farmhouse of John and Hannah Hughes. It was once a farm that sold a variety of fruits and vegetables; today it produces grapes.
What Is It? If you want to get away from the crowds and enjoy a peaceful summer swim, there are lots of ponds across the cape for a secluded dip.
Why Do It? Cape Cod is home to more than 300, but finding them is a bit tricky. Unlike the bay and ocean beaches where signs will point you in the right direction, many of the best freshwater swimming holes are truly “hidden gems.” One of the secret springs leftover from the Ice Age, hidden deep in the Wellfleet and Truro woods is Gull Pond, with exquisitely clear, silky waters.
Good to Know: Jenkins Pond, in Falmouth, is one of the area’s cleanest ponds and it also offers great fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, white and yellow perch, and occasionally trout.
What Is It? The village of Sandwich is the oldest community on Cape Cod, and it’s also known for its long history of glassmaking.
Why Do It? The Sandwich Glass Museum, located in a red brick building on Main Street, is largely focused on the works of the Boston Sandwich Glass Company which operated between 1825 and 1888. This gem is filled with history and fascinating exhibits like glassblowing demonstrations. The museum’s collection is made up of nearly 6,000 glass items, including perfume bottles, vases, lamps, candlesticks and tableware.
Good to Know: An onsite shop sells contemporary as well as reproduction glassware.
What Is It? The Sandwich Antiques Center is often named as the best place to shop for antiques on the Cape.
Why Do It? This is a spot for bargains as well as high-priced, rare treasures. Some say it’s one of the best antique centers in the entire country.
Good to Know: The sprawling space features everything from furniture painted by Peter Hunt to vintage firearms and even a unique rocking pig – after all, who wants an ordinary rocking horse when you can get a pig?
What Is It? You can’t visit Cape Cod without enjoying the area’s mouth-watering lobster at some point.
Why Do It? The Lobster Roll Cruise leaves from Sesuit Harbor in Dennis and offers the best of both worlds, with spectacular views and glorious sunsets paired with this delectable treat. You can relax on the deck while gliding through the calm harbor waters and into the tranquil beauty of Cape Cod Bay, dining and sipping on a cocktail, wine, beer or frozen beverage from one of the two bars.
Good to Know: If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind missing the sunset, take the lunch cruise and you’ll pay less – it’s just as scenic as the evening trip.
What Is It? If you’re looking for the most authentic experience that allows you to feel as if you’re one of the lucky Cape Codders who live here, go to a Cape Cod Baseball League game.
Why Do It? There is no amateur baseball league that’s more prestigious, and there are more than 200 active Major League players that have spent time in the Cape Cod League – in fact, one in seven major leaguers has spent at least a summer here. For the 250 young players in the league, the majority of which are still not able to legally buy alcohol, it’s the most crucial summer of their baseball career, and it can make, or break, their big league dreams.
Good to Know: Teams are located in Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans, Wareham and Yarmouth-Dennis.
What Is It? Four-wheeling on the beach is a favorite pastime on Cape Cod, and Nauset Beach in Orleans is one of the best spots for an off-road adventure.
Why Do It? It’s also ideal for those who are short on time as it’s easily accessible, located at the lower end of the Cape. The shoreline all along the Cape Cod Coast provides the opportunity for off-roading with hard-packed and soft sand terrain. Nauset Beach offers seven different trails for miles of riding around the dunes, and riders gain trail access from the main beach area, which hosts a number of services like a snack bar serving food and beverages.
Good to Know: You will need to pick up a free Nauset Beach sticker for your vehicle before hitting the trails – the bad news is that if you don’t have your own four-wheel drive with you, rental vehicles are prohibited.
What Is It? Cape Cod is an amazing destination for whale watching.
Why Do It? Fin and humpbacks whales are regularly spotted between April and October, and experts have discovered that Cape Cod Bay is an important breeding ground for the extremely rare North Atlantic right whale. If you can visit in the spring or early fall, you’ll not only enjoy watching the whales but the quieter, off-season ambiance in Provincetown, where a number of whale watching excursions are based, leaving from MacMillan and Fisherman’s Wharf in the town center.
Good to Know: In addition to whales, seals and dolphins can be seen too. Most trips last for three to four hours and are guided by expert naturalists.
What Is It? Fishing is also very popular on Cape Cod.
Why Do It? It’s permitted from many of the docks and bridges, though the abundant shoreline at Chatham is renowned for some of the best striped bass fishing on the planet.
Good to Know: Breaking stripers, bluefish, bonito, and false albacore are all caught along the shoreline here too.
What Is It? There are nearly three dozen public golf courses on Cape Cod.
Why Do It? Enjoy the scenic nine holes that await at the Chatham Seaside Links course, the popular Cranberry Valley Course in Harwich which offers PGA pros for lessons, and the par-3 golf course at the Cotuit Highground Country Club, which is an inexpensive way to enjoy the day.
Good to Know: For the avid golfing enthusiast, Ocean Edge Resort & Golf Club is the cape’s only Jack Nicklaus-designed course. If you stay and play, you can take advantage of the opportunity to reserve tee times six weeks in advance of arrival and also enjoy golf vacation workshops.
What Is It? This museum is well worth a visit for the chance to learn about the local ecology and wildlife.
Why Do It? Set on pristine grounds, the spacious museum includes a shop, a natural history library, and an array of exhibits, like the working beehive and a pond- and sealife room with live specimens. It also hosts walking trails that wind through 80 acres of forest, marshland, ponds, and along Cape Cod Bay, all with the opportunity to spot an abundance of birds and other wildlife.
Good to Know: An exhibit hall upstairs features a wall display with aerial images that document the process by which the famous Chatham sandbar was split in two, while the popular Butterfly House offers the chance to get up close to these beautiful winged creatures – and, during the summer you can even feed them!
What Is It? The Cape Cod Rail Trail is a paved path named after the former railroad and stretches for 25 miles through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet.
Why Do It? The terrain is relatively flat with some minor grades in certain sections in the Lower/Outer Cape areas, mainly at Orleans and Wellfleet. It offers the greatest variety in scenery and natural landscapes of all the regional bike paths, with the chance to enjoy lush forests, kettle ponds, sandy lake beaches and salt marshes while you pedal. The route also branches off into the National Seashore, ending at the scenic Coast Guard Beach in Eastham. Bring a picnic along and enjoy it at one of the many idyllic spots along the way.
Good to Know: If you don’t have a bike with you, there are a number of shops that rent them, including the Rail Trail Bike Shop in Brewster. The trail has a wide shoulder that can also accommodate horseback rides.
What Is It? Taking a trip to the diverse towns of Martha’s Vineyard on a short ferry cruise is a great way to spend the day.
Why Do It? This island located just seven miles from the Cape Cod coast has been a popular east coast getaway for locals and visitors alike for many years. Bounded by the Atlantic, Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Sound, it also serves as the summer home for a number of celebrities, like news anchor Diane Sawyer and singer Carly Simon. Menemsha, a picturesque little fishing village, is a great place to head for watching the draggers come in with their nets and lobstermen and fishermen unload their catches. Of course, with that, it’s also a fabulous place for dining on super-fresh seafood, available at several colorful seafood shacks along the harbor.
Good to Know: Horseback riding, boating and other water sports, culinary classes, and the chance to watch art glass created by Island artisans are popular activities here too.
What Is It? The Woodshed is a Brewster staple, and while the town may seem sleepy, there’s quite a bit going inside here.
Why Do It? This small bar is a bit cramped, but it’s a local’s favorite, so if you’re looking to mingle with Cape Codders, this is the place. And while it doesn’t offer any frills, except some dust among the rafters along with a few bras that have been tossed up, it does have plenty of character.
Good to Know: Patrons hang out inside the barn, sipping fantastic drinks at the tables, enjoying a candlelit atmosphere and frequently, great live music.