With an expansive 40 miles of national seashore, Cape Cod is one of New England’s premier beach destinations. But there’s more to do here than lay in the sand: Thriving summer theater scenes draw out the best of Broadway while miles-long bike trails and well-protected wildlife showcase the one-of-a-kind Cape Cod environs. You can’t miss a chance to hop aboard one of the best whale watching tours in Cape Cod, and don’t forget to visit lively Provincetown, where boutiques, bars, restaurants and souvenir shops abound.
Cape Cod Rail Trail
Popular with bikers, rollerbladers and horseback riders, this 25-mile paved trail is a breezy ride through the Lower Cape’s diverse ecosystems. Previously known as the Old Colony Railroad corridor, the Cape Cod Rail Trail is considered one of the best bike trails in New England.
Many outdoor enthusiasts highlight the trail as one of the best ways to experience the natural attractions across the Cape. They also praise how well-marked and clean the trail is, and report that it’s mostly flat and easy to navigate. Some of the Cape’s best beaches and ponds are scattered throughout the area, especially in Orleans and Wellfleet. Unique snack shacks and lunch spots are perfect pit stops when your stomach starts to grumble. And don’t forget to explore the area’s smaller villages for a taste of the Old Cape.
Cape Cod Nation Seashore
In 1961, summer native President John F. Kennedy designated the east shore of the Outer Cape a national park. Today, the 40-mile stretch of coast is recognized as having some of the best beaches on Cape Cod, including Nauset Beach in Eastham, Marconi Beach in Wellfleet and Race Point and Herring Cove beaches in Provincetown.
Beyond the shores, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails for you to explore, and two helpful visitor centers that are worth a pit stop. Plus, the seashore is a great place to attend lecture series and take in the spectacular scenery along the beach. Past visitors called sunsets along the shore “magical,” and recommend stopping at the visitor centers to learn more about the area.
Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
With more than 7,600 acres of protected dunes, salt and freshwater marshes and a decommissioned lighthouse, the gorgeous Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge will make you feel like a trailblazer. But there’s more than rugged scenery; the encompassing islands of Morris, Minimoy and North and South Monomoy are a nesting habitat for hundreds of species of migratory seabirds. Off the coast of South Monomoy, a large harbor grey seal population congregates to mate, play and sun themselves on the shore.
You can opt to take a guided tour in the summer season or stroll along the beach on your own with the help of self-guided maps. Recent visitors praised the staff at the welcome center and say that it’s a beautiful area to walk.
Edward Gory House
Edward Gorey’s name might not ring a bell immediately, but his drawings sure will. His more recognizable works include the macabre alphabet in “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” and the illustrated edition of T.S. Eliot’s “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” as well as illustration and design credits on Broadway and PBS. So if you love this distinct illustrator, you’ll enjoy a tour of his home in Yarmouth Port, located along the Mid Cape.
According to past visitors, if you are a Gorey fan, this quirky museum is must-see. Travelers say that the museum offers a glimpse into the life of Gorey, along with eclectic personal items and informative tour guides.
Towering over the quaint Provincetown skyline, the Pilgrim Monument – modeled after the Torre del Mangia in Siena, Italy – is a must-see for history-loving travelers. The 252-foot-high tower is the tallest all-granite structure in the United States. Commissioned in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, this monument commemorates the site of the Mayflower Pilgrim’s first landing in Massachusetts. It takes about 10 minutes to climb up the tower, but most visitors say the trek is worth it; describing the vantage point from the top of the Pilgrim Monument as one of the best on the Cape. Many agree the museum is quite informative, too.
The Provincetown Museum, which features permanent exhibits highlighting the arrival of the Mayflower pilgrims, the town’s maritime history, the early days of modern American theater in Provincetown and the building of the monument. There is also a recreation of a 19th-century sea captain’s parlor at home and his quarters at sea, a diorama of the Mayflower Compact being signed aboard the Mayflower in Provincetown Harbor and more.
With more than 90 seasons under its belt, the Cape Playhouse is the country’s oldest professional summer theater. Complete with the original – and somewhat uncomfortable – pews serving as the venue’s seats, the interior makes for a quaint theater experience. But don’t let the shabby-chic atmosphere fool you: The playhouse boasts quite an impressive alumni base, including Gregory Peck, Betty White and Bette Davis.
Though tickets can be pricey, many theatergoers say the productions are well worth the cost, praising the production quality and the ambiance. Many past visitors described the venue as beautiful and the atmosphere as welcoming, though some do lament the stiff seating and lack of strong air conditioning.
Cape Cod Museum of Art
From the outside, this museum looks like a classic Cape Cod-style house, complete with the region’s signature gray shingles. Inside, visitors will find a thoughtfully curated art museum featuring a permanent collection of paintings and murals inspired by the natural beauty of the surrounding area. There are also rotating exhibits that touch on a variety of topics and provide social commentary. Past visitors said the collection of art was much more diverse than they expected from a small museum, and they raved about the friendly staff members. The sculpture garden is another favorite attraction among museumgoers. Depending when you visit, you may even be able to catch a live music show, bid at an art auction or take a pottery class.
This museum is centrally located in the town of Dennis. It’s open all year, though hours may vary by season. Admission costs $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, and $7 for students and children ages 13 to 19. It’s free for those under 12. If you’re looking for a bargain, visit on the first Thursday of the month from 4 to 7 p.m. for free. The museum is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and on Sundays from 12 to 4 p.m.
If you can’t make it to Nantucket during your Massachusetts vacation, stop in downtown Chatham where upscale boutiques, art galleries, antique stores and fine dining establishments stretch for a mile along Main Street. The Atwood Museum, the Mayo House and the Chatham Railroad Museum give visitors a taste of Cape Cod history. After you work up an appetite browsing Main Street, head to one of downtown Chatham’s top-rated restaurants such as sushi joint Bluefins or seafood spot Del Mar Bar & Bistro. There are also more casual restaurants, cafes and ice cream shops. The Chatham Pier Fish Market is worth a stop if you want to pick up the fresh catch of the day to cook at home later. There are also a few nightlife spots here including The Squire – a favorite among locals and visitors.
The town of Chatham is located in the southeastern corner of the Cape, meaning it’s about midway between the mainland and Provincetown. The area is also home to acclaimed beaches and the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge. There are plenty of free and paid parking lots near the downtown area. Popular lodging options include bed-and-breakfasts or rental homes in the nearby neighborhoods.
Cahoon Hallow Beach
Cahoon Hollow Beach is backed by massive sand dunes, making beachgoers feel they have found a hidden gem. That is, until the sand gets inevitably crowded with visitors itching to experience one of the Cape’s best strips of shoreline. The beach sits on the Outer Cape, so waves are suitable for surfers or boogie boarders. There is plenty of space in the sand for kids to play and run around. Cahoon Hollow is just as fun after dark as it is during the day. The Beachcomber Restaurant – a Cape Cod staple – sits high on the dunes overlooking the ocean and draws visitors with its fresh seafood, live music and fun nighttime atmosphere. Bonfires are also allowed at this beach, as long as you obtain a permit from the Beach Department beforehand. Plus, Cahoon Hollow – and neighboring beach Newcomb Hollow – is consistently rated one of the best spots for stargazing in Massachusetts, thanks to the Outer Cape’s dark skies.
The parking lot fills up quickly during the summer months, so travelers advise getting a spot early in the morning. Or, if you’re staying nearby in Wellfleet, consider biking to the beach. Note: Because of the steep sand dunes and lack of stable walkways, physically disabled people may have some difficulty accessing the beach.
This vibrant town at the tip of Cape Cod offers much in the way of shopping, dining and nightlife. Commercial Street, the main throughway, is lined with boutiques, cafes, seafood restaurants, bars, ice cream shops and souvenir stores. Trolleys carrying sightseers run along the road, and rainbow flags celebrating the town’s prominent LGBTQ population flutter in the breeze overhead. Nearby streets are lined with quaint homes and bed-and-breakfasts. Visitors can also explore the pier, where they can enjoy the ocean air and browse the small stands run by local artisans. While Provincetown’s beach area isn’t the best for sunbathing, there are opportunities for kayaking and paddleboarding in the summer. (Plus, popular Race Point Beach is located a quick drive away.)
While most Cape Cod towns are quiet after dark, Provincetown comes alive at night. Of course, the town offers its fair share of bars, but there are plenty of other unique nighttime activities to choose from such as karaoke spots, drag shows and dance clubs.
You’ll be hard pressed to find street parking, especially in the busy summer months, but there are many lots near Commercial Street with reasonable prices. Note: While some things close during the winter months, many lodging options and stores stay open. For more information, check out Provincetown tourism board’s website.