Things to do in Cape Cod: Beaches, history, and the arts

Quick notes

  • The Massachusetts peninsula is surrounded by beautiful beaches.

  • It’s made up of various towns that have vibrant main streets.

  • Besides outdoor activities, there’s much to explore in the way of museums and the arts.

Philosopher and writer Henry David Thoreau praised it and even published a book describing his trips there. The Kennedy family vacationed there, and the Pilgrims first landed there. With all this history, it’s clear that Cape Cod, a peninsula on the southern coast of Massachusetts, has much to offer. It is located about 70 miles from Boston, and juts about 65 miles into the ocean. From sandy beaches to distinct towns to explore, there are many things to do in Cape Cod.

Enjoy the beautiful beaches and hiking trails of Cape Cod National Seashore 

Perhaps one of the most obvious things to do in Cape Cod is to enjoy the beaches throughout the peninsula, both on the ocean and the bay.

Six of these beaches are part of the 40-mile-long Cape Cod National Seashore. It stretches from north to south on the eastern coast of the cape. It’s comprised of six sandy, natural ocean beaches, with the various lighthouses to visit. Race Point Beach, on the northern tip, is popular for its picturesque location and ample shoreline.

Once you get tired of relaxing on the beach, there are also twelve hiking trails throughout the seashore. One notable option is the 1.2-mile Atlantic White Cedar Swamp trail, near Marconi Beach. The path winds through a swamp and forests and can give visitors an idea of the diverse environments that exist in the cape. The Nauset Marsh Trail provides beautiful coastal views, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

KIYOTO_K/Pixabay

Eat, drink, shop and relax in Cape Cod’s 15 beach towns

Some of the most enjoyable places to see in Cape Cod are its quaint but vibrant coastal towns. Part of the charm of visiting the peninsula is simply exploring the downtown areas that each have their own vibes, from quintessential New England to eclectic and artsy.

Provincetown, located on the northern tip of the cape, is known for its art scene. (Its Provincetown Art Association and Museum was started in the early 1900s by local artists and community members.) Commercial Street has boutiques, art galleries, antique stores and more.

The claim to fame for the town of Hyannis is that it is home to the Kennedy Compound, where John F. Kennedy and his family vacationed. Located on the southern coast of the cape, its charming, historic Main Street has restaurants, live music, shops and more.

On the southwestern coast of the cape, Falmouth is also known for its enjoyable main street and strong tradition of music and art—it even has its own opera company.

Get your fill of New England history at various museums 

The New England region is rife with history that you can learn all about during a visit to Cape Cod.

In Provincetown, the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum commemorate that the Mayflower first landed there before the Pilgrims went on to Plymouth. Its 252-foot tall tower was built in the early 1900s, and visitors can go up to get views from the top.

Part of the charm of visiting the peninsula is simply exploring the downtown areas that each have their own vibes, from quintessential New England to eclectic and artsy.

The Atwood Museum in Chatham guides visitors through a mid-18th century home that contains various exhibitions about local history. In the same town, the Chatham Marconi Maritime Center displays the history of wireless communication and the role of the old receiving center through history, including World War II.

The Heritage Museums and Gardens, in the town of Sandwich, contains more than 100 acres of gardens, along with diverse exhibits related to American history.

The John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis honors the late president and his family and their influence in the town.

Go for a bike ride on scenic trails 

Popular with bikers, the paved, flat Cape Cod Rail Trail spans about 25 miles along a former rail line. From South Dennis to Wellfleet, this trail winds its way through town centers, ponds, a state park, beaches and more. There are bike rental shops available on the trail. It can also be used for running or walking.

Another good spot for riding a bike, with a paved and flat path, is the Shining Sea Bikeway along the bay in Falmouth, on the western edge of the cape, closest to the mainland. This 10-plus-mile trail goes through forests, marshes, beaches, bogs, the Salt Pond Bird Sanctuary and more. Like the Cape Cod Rail Trail, it follows the path of old train lines.

Note that there are also three shorter bike trails that are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, connecting to its beaches and going through marshes, forests and bogs.

Watch wildlife from the sea or the land

Whale watching is a popular activity at Cape Cod from April through October (but the best months are June through September). Whale watching boat tours take visitors to find humpback, minke, and right whales. Dolphin and seal sightings may occur, too. Various companies offer tours that leave from different towns throughout the cape. Whale watching tours usually occur during the day.

Birdwatching enthusiasts can head to the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, which features 7,600 acres of feeding and nesting grounds for migratory birds. The Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary also offers a beautiful natural setting with woodlands and marshes overlooking the bay. The sanctuary offers birding walks to help them spot the animals, and hosts other events. Both sanctuaries also offer a beautiful setting to relax and admire the scenery.

A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:

5 Budget-friendly U.S. vacations to plan this summer | Finance 101 

Cape Cod is one of the vacation ideas that won’t break the bank.

Beach safety tips you need to learn before your next vacation | Living 101 

If you’re headed to Cape Cod, review these tips.