Cape Cod brings visions of sandy beaches, lighthouses and quaint New England villages. Its history dates back to the explorations of Giovanni da Verrazano who sailed here in 1524. However, it was Bartholomew Gosnold who in 1609 gave the geographic cape its name, Cape Cod. The area has served many purposes as an early British settlement, a sailing and whaling community and now a summer vacation haven.
In this post I will talk about some of the places I have had the opportunity to visit on Cape Cod. Cape Cod is officially separated from the mainland by the Cape Cod Canal, but I have also included a few destinations that lie outside of the geographical cape. While Cape Cod is known as a summer destination, I have found visiting in the early fall preferable. Most businesses are still open, the crowds have lightened significantly, and you may be lucky enough to enjoy some of the beautiful New England fall foliage.
Just north of Cape Cod is Plimoth Plantation. This attraction was built in 1947 to recreate a living history of the Pilgrims who settled the Plimoth Colony and of the native Wampanoag people. The site is made of two locations and features the Mayflower II, the Plimoth Rock, the English village, the Wampanoag Homesite, the Hornblower visitor’s center, the craft center, the Maxwell and Nye barns, and the Plimoth Grist Mill. Both children and adults can immerse themselves in the 1600s and learn about what was life for the English settlers and the Wampanoag tribe.
Chatham is a quaint seaside town located on the southeastern tip, or the ‘elbow’, of the Cape. It began as a shipping, fishing and whaling town, but has been transformed into a summer resort destination with distinctly New England charm. It has an enchanting main street lined with boutique shops and eateries.
Chatham Bars Inn and Resort Spa – A luxury hotel, located just steps from the ocean. This hotel succeeds in being both charming and lavish. Guests have access to a private beach, pool, activities and on-site dining.
Chatham Wayside Inn – Located on Main Street, the Chatham Wayside Inn is the perfect place to make your home base while exploring the Cape. The hotel strives to preserve its Old Cape Cod charm while providing convenient and comfortable accommodations.
The Wild Goose Tavern – Inside the Chatham Wayside is the popular Wild Goose Tavern. The menu is inventive, yet familiar.
Chatham Lighthouse – Cape Cod is known for its lighthouses, and with Chatham’s location on the ‘elbow’ of Cape Cod, it is an important geographical landmark for sailors. Chatham lighthouse was established in 1808 by Thomas Jefferson to protect ships navigating the tricky waters around the Cape. The lighthouse that stands today is not the original structure from 1808, but dates from 1877. A Coast Guard station also sits next to the lighthouse.
Sandwich Glass Museum
Sandwich is the oldest town on Cape Cod, settled in 1637. A visit here is not complete without stopping at the Sandwich Glass Museum. Here you will find a working glass furnace, a museum dedicated to the story of glass in Sandwich, and a shop filled with beautiful glass artifacts.
Cape Cod National Seashore
A 43,607 acre stretch of land along the eastern arm of the Cape makes up the Cape Cod National Seashore. It was designated a National Park by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. This natural treasure includes beachfront, marshes, woodlands and ponds, and was originally made famous by Henry David Thoreau during the 1800s. He once wrote “A man may stand there and put all America behind him”. A stop at one of the multiple visitor centers offers travelers a chance to view historical artifacts, talk to a National Park Ranger, and learn more about the history of the seashore.
Marconi Site – Marconi Beach is located within Cape Cod National Seashore and offers guests the opportunity to enjoy the beach-life while simultaneously standing on a piece of history. This was the site where Guglielmo Marconi successfully completed the first transatlantic wireless communication between the United States and England in 1903. Erosion has destroyed the original structure, but you can still visit the surviving Marconi Wireless Station Site, a short distance away in Chatham.
This colorful town is located at the northern tip of Cape Cod. It was on the shores of Provincetown that the sailors on the Mayflower drew up the Mayflower contract. Though the Pilgrims would choose to settle across the bay in Plimoth, it was here in Provincetown where they first set anchor. Today, Provincetown is a small, coastal town whose population swells in the summer months. Provincetown is best known for its beaches and harbor, artists community, and its reputation as a vacation destination for the LGBTQ community.
Pilgrim Monument – This 252 foot granite tower, built in 1907, offers those fit enough to climb to the top, stunning views out over the Cape. At the base there is also a museum and gift shop.
Provincetown Public Library – This former church was built in 1860 and today houses the town’s library. Inside is a surprise half-scale model of a 1905 schooner.
Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch – This company owns multiple vessels that were designed specifically for whale watching. The boats leave the harbor at multiple times during the day, and guests should anticipate spending about 3 to 4 hours at sea. The naturalists onboard will give commentary throughout the experience. I’ve been on multiple excursions with this company and I have seen whales every time!
Arts Dune Tours – If you would like to add a little more action to your visit to Provincetown, consider a dune tour. The company will take you out on the dunes in SUV vehicles. While on the 1-hour tour you will see the protected lands of the National Seashore, the famous ‘dune shacks’ and have some fun traversing the majestic, yet bumpy dunes.
New Bedford is known as “The City that Lit the World”, and it is located just a few miles west of Cape Cod. The historic section of town is now a National Park because of its historical buildings, and connection to the whaling industry. New Bedford was once the epicenter of the whaling industry, and people flocked from all over the world to be a part of this lucrative, yet dangerous, business.
New Bedford Whaling Museum – This fascinating museum focuses on the industry that dominated this part of Massachusetts for nearly a century, whaling. The museum aims to teach the public about the history of whaling, its importance to the development of the area, and to protect the whales of today. The docents who work here are fantastic, and they are proud to share their local and historical knowledge with visitors.
Seamen’s Bethel – Located a short walk away is the Seamen’s Bethel, a chapel that local whalers visited before setting sail. The Bethel was immortalized in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.
Cape Cod is filled with historical charm and natural wonders. The Cape invites visitors to relax on its beaches, explore its history, and absorb its laidback seaside New England atmosphere. This area will simply make you happy.