First-Timer's Guide To Cape Cod, Massachusetts | Plan A Perfect Trip! (2024)


This First-Timer’s Guide to Cape Cod is full of absolutely everything I know about Cape Cod, and what you should know before you visit to plan the perfect trip.

I’ve lived on Cape Cod for most of my life. Born and raised in the town of Barnstable, I’ve always known that Cape Cod was a special place to live and grow up, and I love sharing this place with everyone.

So, I hope this guide helps you plan your trip to Cape Cod for the first time!

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Preview Contents

Guide to Cape Cod: Things to Know Before Your Visit

Cape Cod is an arm-shaped island (yes, an island – see more on this below) that extends 65 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts. It’s a very unique and recognizable shape that dons many decorations in the homes of those that live here.

It’s known for clambakes and bonfires on the beach. Saltwater taffy, ice cream trucks, and bread bowls overflowing with creamy clam chowder. You may also think of the Kennedy family and lobster rolls, sailing, and multi-million dollar oceanfront homes when you think of Cape Cod. It’s all of those things, and more!

Basic Facts About Cape Cod

  • Geographic size: 339 square miles
  • Population: 215,888 (as of 2010 census)
  • Time Zone: Eastern Standard Time or Eastern Daylight Time

The 15 Towns of Cape Cod

Many people believe that Cape Cod is a town in and of itself. Alas, it’s an area comprised of 15 different towns, which are grouped into four regions. Each region and town is unique and offers visitors something different and special.

  • Upper Cape: Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth, Mashpee
  • Mid Cape: Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis
  • Lower Cape: Harwich, Brewster, Chatham, Orleans
  • Outer Cape: Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, Provincetown

At first, the region names will seem counter-intuitive. Like, why is the Upper Cape not assigned to Provincetown, the most northern part? Also, when you hear locals say things like “down Cape” remember they’re referring to driving from the bridge “down the Cape” towards Provincetown.

Most towns are also divided into villages, a nod to colonial beginnings. Let’s say you’re headed to Hyannis, which seems like it would be a stand-alone town based on the population and development, but it’s actually one of the seven villages of the town of Barnstable.

It’s well worth it to visit each town but that can’t really be done in just a weekend visit. So, it’s best to focus on one region (maybe two) if you’re short on time.

Remember to Say ON Cape Cod, Not IN Cape Cod

This is a personal pet peeve of mine, so bear with me.

Cape Cod is separated from the rest of Massachusetts by the Cape Cod Canal, which was completed in 1914. Technically surrounded on all sides by water and only reachable on land by crossing a bridge, Cape Cod is an island.

As an island, can we all agree to stop saying IN Cape Cod? Think about it, are there any other islands in the world that you would say you were IN? If you come up with any, please comment below.

Remember: You can be IN a town, ON Cape Cod.

How Cape Cod Got Its Shape

I think this is important to include because what draws most visitors to the Cape is its unique shape and ecosystem.

The shape of Cape Cod was masterfully created over thousands of years by debris (boulders, rocks, sand, etc) that was pushed, mangled, and left behind after the 2-mile thick ice sheets from the last Ice Age began to recede. It was further refined by ocean currents and changing tides sweeping sand along the coastline. In fact, the shape of Cape Cod changes every passing day as a result of the surrounding water.

A great place to learn more about this is the Salt Pond Visitor Center in Eastham. They’ve shown a film called “The Sands of Time” since I was a little kid. This short film actually had a big influence on my decision to study Environmental Geography in college!

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Cape Cod Transportation

Getting to Cape Cod

By Air | The closest airports are Boston Logan International Airport and T. F. Green International Airport in Warwick, Rhode Island (near Providence) which both service all major airlines. To fly from Boston to Cape Cod, choose CapeAir, which flies to Hyannis, Provincetown, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard.

By Bus | Bus lines servicing Cape Cod are Plymouth & Brockton or Peter Pan Bus Lines.

By Car | Arriving by car or getting a rental when you arrive will give you the most flexibility for traveling around Cape Cod. For reference, Hyannis is about 73 miles from the airport in Boston and about 82 miles from the airport in Warwick. It would take about 1.5 hours driving time on a good traffic day from either airport. Also, from the Sagamore Bridge in Sandwich to Provincetown (the whole length of Cape Cod) is about 62 miles and takes over an hour to drive (again, with no traffic).

By Train | The Cape Flyer is a seasonal commuter train that services Cape Cod on weekends from the end of June to Labor Day. Hop aboard in Boston and ride the train all the way to Hyannis.

By Ferry | Get from Boston to Provincetown in 1.5 hours on a Bay State Cruise Company or Boston Harbor Cruises ferry in the summer.

Getting Around Cape Cod

If you don’t drive yourself, here are your options.

Car Rental | As I mentioned above, having a car during your time on Cape Cod will give you the most flexibility during your stay. If you don’t drive here, plan to pick up a rental at the airport you fly into or any rental company across the Cape.

Ridesharing | Both Lyft and Uber are available during the summer months across the Cape. They may stop altogether or just have fewer drivers during the shoulder and winter seasons.

Taxis | Most taxi companies are pretty reliable. There are many to choose from depending on where you are on the Cape. Do a quick Google search for the nearest company. Just don’t read the reviews.

Public Transportation | The Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA) is the bus line on Cape Cod. To be honest, it’s not the most reliable or connected transit out there. There are very few stops and it takes several connections to get anywhere across the Cape.

I highly recommend having a vehicle (yours or a rental) while visiting Cape Cod!

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Weather on Cape Cod

Since the Cape is surrounded by water, the weather is mild compared to the rest of Massachusetts. It’s relatively cooler in the summer months and slightly warmer in the winter. Come prepared, though, because you can experience all four seasons in a single day here just like in the rest of New England!

Spring on Cape Cod | Spring is very short. It seems like winter drags on until all of a sudden, in about mid-May, the sun shines and warmer temps hold strong. Then humidity and heat hit, and just as suddenly, it’s summertime. High/Low temperatures in spring: 60°/30° F

Summer on Cape Cod | Summer can be hot and humid, but relief comes in the form of a sea breeze. Pack layers because nights can feel cool, especially by the water. High/Low temperatures in summer: 75°/57° F

Fall on Cape Cod | Like spring, autumn on Cape Cod shows up a little later. Summer continues on into September Fall foliage doesn’t peak until late October into November. High/Low temperatures in fall: 70°/40° F

Winter on Cape Cod | Winter can be mild, as I explained above. It does snow on the Cape but temps have to remain on the low side for it to stick. For the most part, if it’s snowing in New England, it’s only raining on the Cape. High/Low temperatures in winter: 42°/24° F

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Best Time to Visit Cape Cod

Deciding when to plan your trip to the Cape will depend on a number of things. Budget, weather, activities you want to do, sights you want to see, the size of crowds you want to endure, and maybe even the type of food you want to eat.

In my humble opinion, the best time to visit Cape Cod is during the spring or autumn shoulder seasons. So, from mid-May to the end of June. Or anytime after Labor Day to mid-October.

Skip over July and August completely. Those are the months that everyone — and I mean e v e r y o n e — visits Cape Cod. I know it’s the ideal time for beach days and everything but it’s just too crowded for my taste!

Keep reading for what it’s like to visit Cape Cod at different times of the year.

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Early Shoulder Season: May + June

Many seasonal restaurants and shops that close for the winter begin to open again by early May. Most are open as early as mid-April, but the weather can still be quite cold and unpredictable at this time of year. Historically, it has snowed in April and even as late as May!

Memorial Day weekend (the last weekend of May) is a summer teaser for the Cape. Visitor numbers surge over the three-day weekend, especially if the weather is great. However, that buzz dies down until the kids are out of school at the end of June.

Visitors who come to the Cape in May and June are usually owners of second homes who come to open them up for the summer. Or they live within a 3-4 hour drive of the Cape and came for a weekend getaway.

Peak Season: July, August + Labor Day Weekend

Cape Cod will be the most crowded from the Fourth of July through the Labor Day weekend (the first weekend of September). However, now that school starts the day after Labor Day, or sometimes even before the holiday, in many regions of the country, that holiday weekend is not as busy as it used to be.

This is the time of year that parking fees at beaches will be $20-$30 per day and traffic will be a headache – especially over the bridges on Fridays and Sundays, and around town on Saturdays. I’ll be honest, as a year-rounder, it’s not my favorite.

However, there’s a palpable energy in the air provided by all the people on the island in the summertime. For the most part, people are enjoying their time away from home and are high in spirits, and you can feel that positive energy coursing through you.

Most visitors in the summer months are families, sometimes intergenerational, usually with young children. The Cape in the summer is also a popular destination for girls’ or guys’ trips or bachelorette and bachelor parties. Plus, many international travelers like to see the Cape in the summer months.

Late Shoulder Season: September + October

In my opinion, the fall shoulder season is the best time to visit Cape Cod. From Labor Day to the second weekend in October (Columbus Day weekend), things around the Cape slow down.

Weekends are still busy but not crowded. Warm, dry weather typically keeps up through the first few weeks of October, although it can be cooler at night. Most importantly, summer restaurants and businesses remain open until mid-October, if not slightly longer.

You can expect a different crowd of tourists in the fall. This is the time when tour buses make their way through New England with groups here to see the fall foliage, and many of them stop for a day or two on the Cape and Islands.

Off-Season: November thru April

It’s relatively quiet on Cape Cod in the winter but still worth visiting for special events or a secluded getaway.

Even though many seaside businesses and restaurants close down, there are still lots to choose from – and not just chain restaurants either! Plenty of businesses cater to the year-round population, which is much larger than most people assume.

Plus, the weather on Cape Cod stays relatively mild compared to the rest of the state, so outdoor activities are still doable. And when the weather is too cold to bare, there are lots of museums, coffee shops, gift shops, and restaurants to explore.

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Things to Do on Cape Cod

Of all the things you can choose from, here is a sampling of my favorite things to do on Cape Cod.

  • Bike (or walk) the bike paths
  • Spend a whole day at the beach
  • Catch a double feature at the Wellfleet Drive-in
  • Visit the Cape Cod Natural History Museum
  • Go hiking at Massachusetts State Parks or town conservation land
  • Visit all the breweries on Cape Cod
  • Watch the sunset over the water
  • Drive along scenic Rt 6A
  • Learn about the local shark population at the Chatham Shark Center
  • Taste test stuffed quahogs and clam chowder
  • Walk along Main Street in Hyannis and pop in all the adorable gift shops
  • Walk the boardwalks in Sandwich and Yarmouth

Town Guides

For complete guides on the best things to do in each town, check out my dedicated and detailed town guides.

  • Chatham
  • Falmouth


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Day Trips From Cape Cod

Nantucket + Martha’s Vineyard

Spend a day exploring Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, both an easy day trip from the Cape. There is plenty to do and see to fill a whole day on either island. Leave your car behind and save money by opting to walk on the ferry.

You can catch the ferry to Nantucket in Hyannis. Hop off the ferry right in the thick of historic downtown where you can visit the Whaling Museum or walk the streets to admire the beautiful captain’s houses. Or take a ride on the WAVE (Nantucket’s regional bus system) to Madaket Beach or Siasconset Beach.

The fastest ferry to Martha’s Vineyard is in Woods Hole, which will drop you off in either Oak Bluffs or Edgartown. Check the schedule if you have a preference, but both towns are worth exploring. I also suggest taking a Vineyard Transit Authority bus out to Aquinnah to see Gayhead Light and the beautiful red clay cliffs.


Spend the day exploring the historic sites you learn about in middle school. The Mayflower II and Plymouth Rock are right on the waterfront, alongside historic homes like the Howland House, the last standing pilgrim home. Learn even more about colonial and Wampanoag history at Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly called Plimoth Plantation), a recreation of a 1627 pilgrim village and Wampanoag homesite with actors portraying characters of that time.

Plymouth also has a growing restaurant and craft beer industry to explore. Or you can go antique shopping or whale watching.

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Where to Stay On Cape Cod

Thankfully, there are many places to stay on Cape Cod. There is a place for every budget, ranging from campgrounds and hostels to oceanfront resorts.

Budget Accommodations

Mid-Range Accommodations

High-End Accommodations

Find Your Perfect Cape Cod Accommodation

Connect with Cape Cod Travel Tips on Instagram.

We hope you enjoy your dream trip to Cape Cod! Please consider contributing to our ice cream habit.

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First-Timer's Guide To Cape Cod, Massachusetts | Plan A Perfect Trip! (2024)
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