Why Cape Cod is the perfect east coast destination - Lonely Planet (2024)

From zen moments of watching waves roll onto the beach at sunset to the summer excitement of an ice-cream-fueled family vacation, Cape Cod offers a wide range of diverse experiences for a variety of visitors.

The Cape is best known for its beaches and dunes, seafood and idyllic summer vacations, but there’s much more to discover along its 65 miles that jut into the Atlantic like a curled arm. Here are some favorite Cape destinations that won’t disappoint.

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Why Cape Cod is the perfect east coast destination - Lonely Planet (1)

Fill up on penny candy and fried oysters in Downtown Chatham

Located in the “elbow” of the Lower Cape, Chatham’s Main Street doesn’t roll up its sidewalk as early as some other Cape towns. Kids (and grown-ups) love the penny candy at Chatham Candy Manor and treats from Buffy’s Ice Cream.

Root for the Chatham Anglers at Veterans Field, part of the Cape Cod Baseball League, and Bunny Hop into the summer evening with the Chatham Band at Kate Gould Park, a summer Friday night Chatham institution since 1945.

Fried clams with Cape Cod Beer at the Squire and prosciutto-wrapped haddock at the Wild Goose Tavern are just a few of the dining options in downtown Chatham.

Experience the outdoors at the Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod National Seashore protects 40 miles of dramatic Cape Cod coast with crashing waves and quiet forest trails. Loved by Henry David Thoreau and declared a National Seashore by John F. Kennedy in 1961, the park has stretches of beach to explore and critical inland habitat with freshwater ponds dotting thick woods laced with hiking trails.

Throughout Cape Cod National Seashore historic lighthouses make for postcard-perfect photos and are open for tours.

The Highlands Center is a 110-acre campus that until 1994 was an Air Force facility that today hosts scientists, artists and educators that is open for special public events.

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Celebrate the arts in Provincetown

Long a favorite LGBTIQ+ getaway, Provincetown is arguably the Cape’s most vibrant community filled with art galleries, theaters, diverse restaurants and eclectic boutiques. Located at the tip of the Cape with Cape Cod Bay to its west and the open Atlantic to the east, P-town is a year-round destination when other parts of the Cape have closed up for the season.

It’s where the Pilgrims first landed in 1620 before sailing on to Plymouth Rock, and was a major whaling center. When that industry waned, its remote fishing shacks were discovered by artists, writers and bohemians looking for quiet escapes to concentrate on their work.

Over the past centuries, whale hunting has given way to whale protection, with several whale-watching companies including Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet taking guests near Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to view humpback, fin and right whales feeding in this rich area between Proviencetown and Boston.

Learn about Cape Cod’s aquatic wildlife at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration-funded Woods Hole Science Aquarium is the oldest marine aquarium in the nation, founded in 1885. This free aquarium and research center houses marine species found in Cape Cod waters and includes exhibits showcasing ongoing environmental research being conducted throughout Cape Cod.

Docents answer questions about the ecology of Cape Cod, and injured animals such as sea turtles are rehabilitated at this facility. Those that can not be safely released back into the wild have found permanent homes here.

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Catch a double-feature at the Wellfleet Drive-In

After an afternoon at the beach, an evening at the Wellfleet Drive-In Theater is the perfect way to cap a Cape Cod day. A local staple of Cape Cod summer nights since 1957, the drive-in shows current movies but the experience is either nostalgic or completely new for movie-goers.

Vehicles align in rows and radios are tuned to 89.5 FM for the film’s audio as families and couples settle in for the night’s double-feature of new releases. The walk-up snack bar sells popcorn and other bites. Cape Cod Red and other local beers are available as well.

Dive into history at the Whydah Pirate Museum

This fascinating museum in Yarmouth contains artifacts of the Whydah, the only fully authenticated pirate shipwreck that was discovered off the Cape Cod coast near Wellfleet in 1984.

The three-masted British ship was captured by pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and used to plunder upon the high seas until its sinking in a 1717 storm in Cape waters.

Tons of silver, gold and cannons sank into the sea and were buried in the sand. When the ship’s bell was recovered in 2013, the wreck was identified beyond a doubt. Continuing research of this archaeological site and its recovered artifacts are explained and displayed alongside a reproduction of the Whydah.

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Learn about the Cape’s first people

For millennia before the arrival of the Pilgrams Cape Cod was – and still is – the home of Algonquin-speaking people. Many Cape Cod place names are Algonquin in origin including Nantucket (far-away land), Monomoy (lookout place) and Mashpee (great water).

Today, the Mashpee Wampanoag is a federally recognized tribe headquartered in Mashpee. Visit the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum to learn more about the Cape’s oldest and longest inhabitants, and the first weekend of July attend the Mashpee Wampanoag Powwow that features traditional drumming and dancing competitions, food vendors and other events that celebrate Mashpee Wampanoag culture.

Tour the big city of Hyannis

Hyannis is Cape’s “big city”. The mile-long Main Street is lined with local shops, galleries and restaurants including Flashback Retro Arcade, Bar & Grill. The Cape Cod Maritime Museum highlights the Cape’s sailing heritage with interactive exhibits, and the Kennedy family’s long-association with the Cape is explored at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

The Zion Union Heritage Museum celebrates the contributions of people of color to the Cape’s whaling and agricultural past, and showcases the art, literature and social activism undertaken by BIPOC residents today.

Daily ferries travel between Hyannis and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and whale-watching excursions to the Cape Cod Bay depart from Hyannis. National acts perform year-round at the Cape Cod Melody Tent, while Cape Cod Beer and Barnstable Brewing are favorite local hangouts with craft beer and food trucks.

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Enjoy a slower pace of life at Martha’s Vineyard

There’s Cape Cod laidback, and then there’s Cape Cod Islands laidback. Secluded and romantic, the island of Martha’s Vineyard is known for its pristine beaches, sparse crowds and relaxed “Old Cape” lifestyle.

Flying into its airport or taking a ferry from Woods Hole of Hyannis are the only public ways to reach the island, adding to its appeal. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown are the two main tourist destinations on Martha’s Vineyard, each with grand Victorian whaling captain homes and historic lighthouses.

The 1876 Flying Horses Carousel in Oak Bluffs is the oldest continuously used carousel in the United States complete with a golden ring to grab. In Edgartown explore the lush Mytoi Japanese Gardens on nearby Chappaquiddick Island.

Go for a hike at Nickerson State Park

Cape Cod is loved for its pristine beaches, but its interior is beautiful as well. Nickerson State Park is 1,900-acres of wooded trails and glacial freshwater ponds for hiking, swimming and camping.

Come October it becomes a riot of color as leaves change and flutter to the ground. The 28-mile-long paved Cape Cod Rail Trail bike path passes through the park, making this a favorite destination for cyclists.

Visit Cape museums

While most visitors plan to spend their time outside on beaches or sipping Cape Codders on verandas, ducking inside and checking out the Cape’s many museums is well worth the effort.

Some of the Cape’s many museums include the Atwood House in Chatham that preserves the 1750s home of sea captain Joseph Atwood and explains life on the Cape from the pre-colonial Wampanoag through the 1940s.

The Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth celebrates the life of the artist and writer who lived here from 1979 until his death in 2000. The Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis showcases the work of the Cape’s prolific creatives, and the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum in Mashpee details the lifeways of Cape Cod’s first inhabitants.

On the island of Nantucket, the Nantucket Whaling Museum examines the history and impact of whaling with historic whaling tools, boats and humans' evolving relationship with whales over the past centuries. The Cape Cod Children’s Museum in Mashpee is part playground, part STEM classroom for kids and parents, too.

Why Cape Cod is the perfect east coast destination - Lonely Planet (2024)
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