Throughout its history, Massachusetts has always been intimately tied to the sea, with merchant vessels, whaling ships and fishing boats departing from its ports to destinations across the globe.
Playing an essential role guiding mariners safely through treacherous waters into safe harbors, many lighthouses dot the state’s shores. For much of their history they were tended by on-site keepers, but nowadays these beacons are automated. Here’s our selection of the 18 most scenic and historic lighthouses to visit across the state.
Boston Harbor Light
Established in 1716, Boston Harbor Light is the oldest light station in the United States and the only one with an official keeper. Situated on Little Brewster Island, the light was partially destroyed by British troops during the American Revolution and rebuilt in 1783. Today its light is visible from up to 27 miles away.
See Boston Harbor Light up close on sightseeing cruises operated by Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, which also pass by Long Island Head Light, nearer the city, and Graves Island Light, on the outermost island in the harbor.
Eastern Point Light, Gloucester
Built in 1890 on the foundations of an earlier lighthouse, Eastern Point Light is a classic New England beacon with red-roofed white ancillary buildings, located on a rocky peninsula at the entrance to Gloucester Harbor.
Despite signs reading “Private Road”, visitors are allowed to drive to the parking lot near the lighthouse maintained by Mass Audubon’s Eastern Point Wildlife Refuge.
From here you can view the lighthouse up close and walk out to the smaller Dog Bar Lighthouse along the long breakwater, which provides sweeping views of Gloucester Harbor and Massachusetts Bay. You'll spot seabirds and possibly seals, or with a little luck, migrating whales.
Derby Wharf Light Station
This cute little lighthouse (20ft high and 12ft along each side) sits at the end of the half-mile-long Derby Wharf in downtown Salem, part of Salem Maritime National Park, which preserves locations related to the city’s rich seafaring heritage.
Historically one of the most important seaports in the Americas, Salem had declined in importance by the time the light station was established in 1871, but the beacon still plays an important role in guiding vessels into the harbor.
One of only five square lighthouses in Massachusetts, it’s not open to the public, but it’s worth the trek along the wharf to see it and the harbor views up close.
Winter Island (Fort Pickering) Light
Built at the same time as Derby Wharf Lighthouse, Winter Island Light – also known as Fort Pickering Light – sits just offshore at the mouth of Salem Harbor.
Built of iron and brick, with a concrete base, the lighthouse is easily seen close up from the rocky shore in Salem’s Winter Island Park. Nearby are the remnants of Fort Pickering, which was established in the mid-17th century and served a strategic defensive purpose for more than 300 years.
Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Winter Island operated as a Coast Guard air station from 1935 to 1970, during which time the lighthouse keeper’s house was used as the officers’ club. The park also has a sandy beach and campsites for tents and RVs.
One of the oldest surviving original lighthouse structures in the United States, Scituate Lighthouse was built in 1811 on the north side of the entrance to Scituate Harbor. During the War of 1812, two young daughters of the first keeper famously warded off a British attack by loudly playing a fife and drum, tricking the invaders into thinking the local militia was on its way.
The octagonal granite tower is connected to the weathered gray keeper’s house, now a private residence. Though the lighthouse is only open to the public on a few summer open house days, its picturesque setting is worth visiting at any time.
If you have sturdy shoes and steady feet, take a walk on the long, rocky breakwater for great views back towards the lighthouse and the harbor.
Race Point Light, Provincetown
A sea of sand and the actual ocean surrounds Race Point Lighthouse, which has helped mariners navigate the treacherous sandbars around Cape Cod’s northern tip since 1816. One of the most remote mainland lighthouses in Massachusetts, it’s an exposed and starkly beautiful spot that epitomizes the magic of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The current tower and keeper’s house were built in 1876.
The lighthouse is normally open for tours twice a month from June to October, though getting there takes some effort. It’s a two-mile walk across the dunes from the nearest parking lot at Race Point Beach unless you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with the proper sand permit. If you’d like to stay for a while, there’s overnight accommodation available in the Keeper’s House and the nearby Whistle House.
Cape Cod’s second-oldest light station, established in 1808, Chatham Lighthouse sits on a bluff at the southeastern corner – or elbow – of Cape Cod. Originally built as twin wooden towers, the light station has been rebuilt and modified numerous times as a result of storm damage and beach erosion. The present lighthouse is 48ft tall and was originally one of a second pair of matching towers built in 1877; its twin was moved up the coast to Eastham in 1923.
Chatham Lighthouse is easily viewed from the street and the beach below, but you’ll need to take a guided tour to visit the property. Tours of the grounds take place weekly in summer and every other week in shoulder seasons. Occasional open houses provide access to the interior.
Nauset Light, Eastham
If you’ve ever opened a bag of Cape Cod potato chips, you’ll recognize the iconic red-and-white Nauset Light, whose image adorns every package. The light station has gone through various incarnations since its establishment in 1838, but the present beacon was originally one of the twin lighthouses erected in Chatham in 1877.
The tower that became Nauset Light was moved to Eastham and reassembled about 200ft from the edge of the cliff. By 1996, erosion left the lighthouse less than 35ft from the precipice, necessitating another move to a new site about 300ft further from the shore.
You can climb the 45-ft cast-iron lighthouse tower in summer during free public open houses; dates are listed on the Nauset Light website.
Highland (Cape Cod) Light, North Truro
Commissioned by George Washington in 1797, Highland Light Station was Cape Cod’s first and just the 20th in the United States. Located within the Cape Cod National Seashore, the current 66-foot brick lighthouse dates from 1857 and is connected to the keeper’s house by an enclosed walkway.
Threatened by severe cliff erosion, Highland Light – also known as Cape Cod Light – was painstakingly moved to safer ground 450ft from its original location in 1996.
The lighthouse is under extensive structural repairs, but is scheduled to reopen to visitors for the 2022 season. It’s a 69-step climb to the top of the tower, from which the views of Cape Cod and the Atlantic Ocean are spectacular. The grounds remain open to the public during construction.
Nobska Light, Falmouth
One of the most iconic lighthouses in Massachusetts, Nobska Light is located at the southwestern tip of Cape Cod on a rocky promontory near the entrance to Woods Hole Harbor. Commanding sweeping views of Vineyard Sound, it’s a picturesque spot with a red-roofed keeper’s house, white picket fences and a 40-ft cast-iron tower built in 1876, replacing a wooden lighthouse from 1828.
The grounds are open during daylight hours year round, and the tower is open twice a week for tours in summer and fall, weather permitting; see the schedule on the website. To climb the tower you must be at least 45 inches tall and able to ascend spiral staircases and a ladder.
Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse, Gloucester
Picturesque Annisquam Harbor Lighthouse sits on a rocky point overlooking a small beach on the west side of Cape Ann.
One of the oldest light stations in Massachusetts, it has helped mariners navigate the sandbars and rocks along the Annisquam River since 1801.
Unfortunately, the lighthouse and grounds are closed to the public, and the nearby beach and road are both private, with no public access path for close-up views.
However, you can see the lighthouse across the Annisquam River from nearby Wingaersheek Beach and get closer by walking out onto the riverbed when the tide is out. Alternatively, take to the water with Cape Ann Harbor Tours for a lighthouse cruise that includes excellent views of Annisquam.
Ned’s Point Light, Mattapoisett
Perfectly situated for both sunrise and sunset, Ned’s Point Lighthouse overlooks Buzzards Bay and the entrance to the harbor at Mattapoisett, a major shipbuilding center during the 18th and 19th centuries. The surrounding Veteran’s Memorial Park is a popular spot for picnics, kite flying, fishing, swimming and other recreational activities.
Open to the public once a week in July and August, the distinctive 39-ft white stone tower has been in operation for all but nine years since it was first lit in 1838. The keeper’s house that once stood on the site was transported across Buzzard’s Bay in 1923 to the now decommissioned Wing’s Neck Light Station.
Edgartown Harbor Light, Martha’s Vineyard
Situated on a sandy spit that was originally an artificial island, Edgartown Harbor Light – often called simply Edgartown Light – has guarded this historic port town, the largest on Martha’s Vineyard, since 1939. It was transported by barge from Crane’s Beach in Ipswich, north of Boston, to replace an earlier lighthouse damaged in a hurricane.
Forty-five ft tall, the cast-iron lighthouse is typically open to visitors from late May to mid-October, daily in summer and on weekends during the shoulder seasons. It's a 10-minute walk from downtown Edgartown from North Water Street by way of a stone causeway.
Cape Poge Lighthouse, Chappaquiddick
Located on a seven-mile barrier beach on the eastern edge of Chappaquiddick Island, Cape Poge Light Station was established in 1801 to guide ships into Edgartown Harbor. The current lighthouse is the third one on the site, erected in 1893 after two earlier lighthouses were lost to storms and erosion. Even the present white-painted wooden tower with its 63-ft-high lantern has had to be moved four times because of erosion.
The lighthouse stands within Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, home to a wide range of birds and fish. Open to the public year round, the refuge is managed by the Trustees of Reservations, which runs tours of the lighthouse by reservation from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah
Dramatically positioned atop a red-clay cliff at the westernmost point on Martha’s Vineyard, Gay Head Lighthouse dates from 1799. It’s the first lighthouse constructed on the island and built to guide ships past the dangerous underwater rocks just offshore.
Severe erosion of the cliffs necessitated the movement and eventual replacement of the original tower. Fifty-one feet tall, the current lighthouse was built in 1855 and has not escaped the continuing threat of cliff erosion. In 2015, the structure, weighing 400 tons, was moved 134 feet further inland.
Though the light station formerly included a keeper’s house and other buildings, only the red-brick lighthouse tower remains. The surrounding park is open year-round, and lighthouse tours are available in summer.
Sankaty Head Light, Nantucket
Built in 1849, the lighthouse was moved 405ft from its original site in 2007 and has already lost a third of that distance from the edge due to the crumbling of the cliffs. Painted with red and white stripes, its 70-ft brick-and-granite tower can be reached by road, but the more scenic option is to walk from the nearby town of Siaconset along the public footpath known as the Sconset Bluff Walk.
The interior of the lighthouse is only open on very limited open days, but the grounds are open from dawn to dusk year-round.
Brant Point Lighthouse, Nantucket
Pretty Brant Point Lighthouse is not only the second-oldest light station in the United States (established in 1746), but also has the less illustrious distinction of having been moved and rebuilt nine times, more than any other lighthouse in the country.
Of its eight predecessors, three were destroyed by fire and two by storms; the other three were discontinued or replaced for various reasons.
Erected in 1901, the current lighthouse is a small (just 26ft tall) wooden tower situated by the water’s edge on the north side of Nantucket Harbor. Though the lighthouse is not open to the public, you can walk right up to it on the beach and via a raised wooden walkway.
A short walk from downtown Nantucket, it’s a delightful spot to watch boats coming and going, enjoy a picnic or simply admire the beautiful views of the sand, ocean and harbor.
Great Point Lighthouse (Nantucket Light)
It takes a fair bit of effort to reach Great Point Lighthouse at the remote northern tip of Nantucket Island, but if you can manage the seven-mile hike or drive across the seemingly endless sand, you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous whitewashed tower in an equally stunning setting.
The present lighthouse is a 1986 replica of a stone tower destroyed in a storm two years earlier, itself a replacement for the original wooden lighthouse, built in 1784 and devastated by fire 32 years later.
Officially named Nantucket Light, the lighthouse is situated within a wildlife refuge managed by the Trustees of Reservations, which runs seasonal natural history tours that include the opportunity to climb the 60-ft lighthouse, except when piping plovers are nesting nearby.