Just hearing the name Cape Cod immediately conjures images of a classic New England coastal escape: lighthouses, beaches bordered by wispy dunes, houses with wooden shingles, and local stands selling saltwater taffy and soft-serve.
While those hallmarks are undoubtedly present in Cape Cod, there’s also much more. From the vibrant culture of Provincetown to historical landmarks and educational marine life tours, we’ve rounded up the top sights and several tips for planning a dream trip to this bucket list place. Read on to learn the best things to do on Cape Cod, how to get there, and where to stay.
Where is Cape Cod?
Massachusetts’ iconic peninsula, often referred to as its “arm,” juts into the Atlantic Ocean at the state’s southernmost end, just 70 miles from downtown Boston.
Best Times to Visit
The summertime high season is June through August, with optimal beach and boating weather and lively festivities. But, of course, summertime is the most crowded time to visit Cape Cod, with heavy traffic and limited accommodation availability.
Consider visiting in the “shoulder season” in May, early June, September, or October. The weather is still pleasantly warm, but the crowds have all but disappeared, and you’ll find that hotel and vacation rental prices are far more reasonable.
Cape Cod Weather
Due to its coastal geography, the Cape experiences a milder climate than mainland New England. In the summer, temperatures typically hover in the 80s, while fall and spring usher in ever-so-slightly warm highs in the 60s and 70s.
December and January are the Cape’s coldest months, with temperatures a few degrees above freezing and the ever-present possibility of snow and winter storms. Rain and wind can seemingly come out of nowhere in any season (though they often disappear just as quickly as they came on!), so a light jacket is essential in Cape Cod.
Best Things To Do on Cape Cod
Nobska Lighthouse, Wood’s Hole
Opened in 1829, this picturesque lighthouse offers sweeping views of Martha’s Vineyard, Elizabeth Island, and Buzzards Bay. Tower tours are available on select Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer; best of all, they’re free! Visit the Friends of Nobska Light Facebook page for the most up-to-date tour information.
Insider tip: Time your visit during sunset for jaw-dropping ocean scenery and optimal photography lighting.
Old Silver Beach, Falmouth
Situated on Buzzards Bay in Falmouth, Old Silver Beach is a wide swath of powdery white sand with notoriously calm waters. Interestingly, the beach here is separated into two by a rock jetty. One side is designated for locals, and the other is for visitors; truthfully, neither is “better” than the other — both are fantastic.
With plenty of spots for umbrellas and a tasty snack bar, Old Silver Beach is one of the Cape’s most popular beaches, especially with families. Arrive early during the peak season to secure a $20 parking spot.
Vibrant Provincetown is unlike any other town on Cape Cod. It’s a life-loving, energetic LGBTQIA+ safe haven with a rich artistic history and quaint cottages, art galleries, and bustling eateries. “P-town” is as much a destination as the surrounding scenery, which is stunning in its own right.
Start your day with a tasty breakfast sandwich and coffee at Relish, strolling to the causeway to take in the postcard-worthy landscape. Then stop into Tim’s Used Books for an impressive selection from the town’s storied literary heritage, and finish with a drink at Old Colony Tap, a welcoming sailor’s dive bar.
Cape Cod National Seashore
This 40-mile stretch is the premier location to enjoy the Cape’s tranquil coastal scenery year-round, a federally-protected area of forests, dunes, salt marshes, and pristine beaches. Hike the Great Island Trail for an excellent overview of the preserve’s diverse ecosystems. For beaches specifically, head to Cahoon Hollow and Longnook Beach for lofty dunes, soft sand, and relaxing ocean waves.
There’s a per-vehicle daily admission fee, or you can use a Cape Cod National Seashore Annual Pass or an America the Beautiful annual national parks pass.
Part of Cape Cod National Seashore, this beach is the ideal setting for sunny summer days. Crowded but not overflowing, the long stretch of unspoiled sand is bordered by towering dunes and sizable waves ideal for surfing. Campfires are permitted here, making it a great setting to watch the moonrise with friends and family.
Nearly synonymous with John F. Kennedy’s legacy, Hyannis is a bustling, charming town on Nantucket Sound. The JFK Hyannis Museum is front and center on Main Street, with a collection of vintage photographs detailing the president’s time spent on the Cape. In addition, the Cape Cod Maritime Museum highlights the area’s sailing legacy. Don’t leave town without trying shellfish at the Naked Oyster Bistro, which manages its local oyster farm painstakingly.
Sandy Neck Beach
6-mile-long Sandy Neck Beach is dotted with pebbles, tide pools, and dunes. Located on the Cape’s bayside, temperatures tend to be warmer and the waves less formidable.
For outdoor enthusiasts, self-contained vehicle camping is allowed near the parking lot, and there are walk-in campsites, a challenging but doable 3-mile hike from headquarters. With so much space, it’s easy to find solitude during an overnight beach excursion.
Whydah Pirate Museum
Featuring gold coins, swords, and pistols from authentic recovered pirate ships, the Whydah Pirate Museum provides insightful exhibits for the whole family and is open year-round. Learn fascinating details about nautical archaeology while the little ones explore a reconstructed pirate ship.
Small-town Chatham is home to tranquil beaches with a touch of historical Americana. Scenic photo ops include the Chatham Lighthouse and the 18th-century Godfrey Windmill. The Atwood Museum showcases life on the Cape over centuries, and don’t miss Harding Beach, a locals’ favorite beach escape.
At 253 feet, the nation’s tallest granite tower provides expansive vistas of Cape Cod’s sandy coastline, where the pilgrims arrived aboard the Mayflower in 1620. In addition to the views, don’t miss the museum at the tower’s base.
Race Point Beach
A breathtaking strip of sand near Provincetown, Race Point Beach is ideal for long strolls, with its seals, dunes, and abundance of interesting rocks and seashells. Two miles from the entrance is Race Point Lighthouse, which, while typically closed to the public, is a gorgeous photo spot.
Insider tip: To avoid competing for a parking space, cycle the Race Point Bicycle Trail from P-town.
Provincetown Art Association and Museum
This enthralling museum highlights Cape Cod’s centuries-old artistic legacy. There’s a thoughtful collection of work with continuously-rotating exhibits, so you never have the same visit twice. Enjoy live jazz on Tuesdays and pop-up workshops demonstrating techniques in every artistic medium imaginable in the summer. Admission is $10.
Whale-watching at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
An 840-square-mile ocean preserve off the coast of the Cape, Stellwagen is a rich ecosystem home to an immense variety of fish, turtles, seals, and most famously, whales. More than 15 species, including humpbacks and the critically-endangered Atlantic Right Whale, congregate here from April through October.
To learn more about this unique marine environment, embark on a quintessential summer activity for visitors and locals: a whale-watching tour from Provincetown or Hyannis. Several outfitters operate tours, with Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises being a longtime local favorite.
Where To Stay on Cape Cod
As Cape Cod’s most storied town, you’ll find ample accommodation in P-town, including boutique hotels, oceanfront resorts, and private vacation rentals. The competition is stiff, particularly in the summer — the town of 3,000 welcomes up to 60,000 visitors a day during July and August!
Especially for Airbnb rentals, book far in advance for the peak summer season and be aware that daily rates double (and sometimes even triple) compared to the off-season. Plus, most rentals have a 7-day minimum rental period! If you snag a property, your efforts will be rewarded with an excellent base camp for beaches, restaurant hotspots, and cultural attractions. During the off-season, options are far more abundant and affordable.
Hyannis has many budget-friendly accommodation options, including chain hotels, motels, and even a hostel. As a perfect jumping-off point to explore Cape Cod, Hyannis is ideal for travelers looking for a no-frills overnight experience. The Airbnb market is smaller, with mainly larger cottages for rent by groups and families. There aren’t many waterfront options, so those looking for a beach house or resort stay may want to look elsewhere.
For a well-rounded selection of accommodations, consider Dennis Port. Everything from quaint cottages and affordable inns to resorts and more luxury options catering to every type of traveler. The town sits right on the Atlantic, with pleasant beaches within walking distance from most rental properties. Since the beaches are smaller here, they don’t tend to attract many out-of-town day-trippers, mainly catering to locals and renters.
For Airbnb rentals right on or close to popular Cape beaches, consider the Falmouth peninsula. A range of homes is available, from luxury getaways to simple studio spaces. Hotels tend to be more upscale in Falmouth, with private rooms in a shared Airbnb often one of the most affordable options.
How To Get to Cape Cod
A bus from Boston offers a cost-effective, no-hassle option for most travelers. A bus from Boston to Hyannis can cost as little as $19. While the lack of a car does impede mobility getting around Cape Cod, it also saves on beach parking (which can reach $20 per beach, adding up quickly) and helps fight the infamous summer traffic. Rideshares are also available on the Cape once you’re there. Additionally, many towns are bike-friendly.
Driving to Cape Cod
Driving your vehicle or renting one to make the trip to the Cape is also feasible, although you should be prepared for traffic and limited parking — even at hotels. However, having access to your vehicle does make it easier to access harder-to-reach areas, particularly within the national seashore.
Driving is much more pleasant around Cape Cod in winter, with no congestion.
Things To Do on Cape Cod: Final Thoughts
Cape Cod is an absolute must while visiting Boston, with its picture-perfect scenery and quaint, frozen-in-time vibe. Miles and miles of sandy beaches, rustic towns, museums, historical attractions, and delicious seafood will surely satisfy the itch for a coastal escape.
Although only 65 miles long, don’t expect to cover much ground in one day on the Cape. For everything from dining to driving, disregard a schedule and settle in with a laid-back “island time” mindset that matches the rhythm of the waves.
This post originally appeared on Savoteur.
Featured Image Credit: CheriAlguire /Depositphotos.com.