The crescent-shaped peninsula known as Cape Cod is a favorite destination 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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Walk the dunes at Cape Cod National Seashore
The Cape Cod National Seashore is a beloved destination, spanning for miles along the north end of the Cape. 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. 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.
Provincetown is located at the very northern tip of Cape Cod. 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. 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.
Visit the lighthouses
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. 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 for 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. There are four other lighthouses open for tours, including Nobska Point, Chatham, Nauset and Race Point.
Stroll through Heritage Gardens
Heritage Museum and Gardens, formerly known as Heritage Plantation, is a 100-acre public garden located in Sandwich. 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. 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 Model T Ford.
Take a scenic drive on 6A
If you’re up for a scenic drive, or just 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.” 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.
Drink and dine at the Beachcomber
The Beachcomber in Wellfleet has been an institution here for over 50 years. 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. 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.
Catch a play at the Cape Playhouse
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. The Cape Playhouse, located in a 19th-century meeting house in Dennis, was declared by 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, show time and seat section, starting at a fairly affordable $36 a ticket. You can also enjoy theater at the Chatham Drama Guild and the Monomoy Theater, both in Chatham.
Watch a sunset and a sunrise at Race Point Beach
At Race Point Beach in Provincetown, you’ll have the chance to watch the sun rise and set over the water in the course of 24 hours – it’s the only place in the country where you can do this as it’s the spot where the Atlantic and Cape Cod Bay converge. The beach has a wide swath of sand offering all sorts of things to do after the sun comes up or before it goes down, with gorgeous dunes, sailboats passing by and even surfing past the protected area. If you want to enjoy a nice bike ride, Province Lands Bike Trail nearby leads to fellow Seashore beach, Herring Cove.
Enjoy a picnic and wine tasting at Truro Vineyards
Cape Cod even offers a vineyard for wine enthusiasts. 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. 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.
Take a secluded dip in one of the many ponds
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. In fact, 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 left over from the Ice Age, hidden deep in the Wellfleet and Truro woods is Gull Pond, with exquisitely clear, silky waters. 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.
Sandwich Glass Museum
The village of Sandwich is the oldest community on Cape Cod, and it’s also known for its long history of glass making. 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. An onsite shop sells contemporary as well as reproduction glassware.
Shop for antiques at the Sandwich Antiques Center
The Sandwich Antiques Center is often named as the very best place to shop for antiques on the Cape – and some say it’s one of the best in the entire country. This is a spot for bargains as well as high-priced, rare treasures. It’s one of the most comprehensive antique centers, with the sprawling space featuring 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?
Listen to live music at The Woodshed
The Woodshed is a Brewster staple, and while the town may seem sleepy, there’s quite a bit going inside here. This small bar is a bit cramped, but it’s a local’s favorite if you’re looking to mingle with Cape Codders. 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. Patrons hang out inside the barn, sipping fantastic drinks at the tables, enjoying a candlelit atmosphere and frequently, great live music.
Take a Lobster Roll Cruise
You can’t visit Cape Cod without enjoying the area’s mouth-watering lobster at some point, and the Lobster Roll Cruise, which leaves from Sesuit Harbor in Dennis, 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. If you’re on a tight budget and don’t mind missing the sunset, take the lunch cruise and you’ll pay just $30 per person rather than $42 – it’s just as scenic as the evening trip.
Catch a Cape League baseball game
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 League baseball game. 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 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. Teams are located in Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans, Wareham and Yarmouth-Dennis. In 2015, the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox took their 5th title.
Go four-wheeling on Nauset Beach
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. 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. 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.
Watch for whales
Cape Cod is an amazing destination for whale watching. 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. 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.
Catch a fish
Fishing is also very popular on Cape Cod. 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. Breaking stripers, bluefish, bonito, and false albacore are all caught along the shoreline here too. First Line Fishing in Chatham hosts over 20 local fishing guides and also offers destination hotel packages for those who plan to spend most of the trip fishing, with a wide range of excursions offered, including offshore tuna trips; striped bass and bluefish from the shore, beach surfing and kayak fishing.
Play a round of golf or two
There are nearly three dozen public golf courses on Cape Cod. 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. 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.
Visit Cape Cod Museum of Natural History
This museum is well worth a visit for the chance to learn about the local ecology and wildlife. 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 sea-life 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. 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!
Cycle the Cape Cod Rail Trail
The Cape Cod Rail Trail is a paved path named after the former railroad and stretches for 22 miles through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet. 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. 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.
Take a day trip Martha's Vineyard
Taking a trip to the diverse towns of Martha’s Vineyard on a short ferry cruise is a great way to spend the day. This island located just seven miles from the Cape Cod coast has been a popular 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. 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.