Visitors flock to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to frolic on the beaches, stroll through the parks and scope out historic lighthouses. And though parts of the Cape are secluded enclaves for the wealthy, it is possible to spend warm summer days exploring and spending little to nothing.

From heritage walks to lighthouse tours, here’s our guide to the best free or cheap things to do in Cape Cod.

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Walk through history on Barnstable's trails

Famously frequented by the Kennedy family, Barnstable, the Cape's largest town, is a wonderful place to explore on foot. Walking trails guide visitors through Barnstable's seven villages, covering more than 70 sq miles of Cape Cod.

Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P Kennedy, Sr, purchased a home in the village of Hyannis – just a few miles from Barnstable's Main Street – in 1928, cementing the Kennedy connection to Cape Cod. The Kennedy Legacy Trail is a free, self-guided tour that leads to the John F Kennedy Museum, the Hyannis Armory and other places of significance to the Kennedy family.

History buffs should check out the free Cotuit Walking Tour which highlights such historic structures as the Union Church (built in 1846), Ropes Beach (the site of the first wharf and store), and The Coop, the village grocery store, dating from 1863. 

Dip into Cape Cod’s engaging art scene 

The Cape Cod Cultural Center in South Yarmouth has been supporting Cape Cod’s arts community since 2007. A performance hall, five galleries and five residential artist studios provide a workspace for local artists from abstract painter Barry Margolin to mixed media artist Ric Haynes.

In addition to exhibitions, the center hosts music, health and wellness events, lectures, and film screenings. Admission to the museum and receptions with local artists are usually free, but there may be a fee for live music and other events. Check the cultural center’s website for more information. 

View of historic street in Nantucket, MA
Follow the Black History Trail from the center of Nantucket to discover more about the island's African American heritage © Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

Tour the Black Heritage Trail in Nantucket

Many historic structures remain in Nantucket and some hint at the early presence of Black Americans on the island. To help visitors learn more about the African Americans who lived and worked in Nantucket, the Museum of African American History has created a fascinating and free Black Heritage Trail.

The trail visits 10 sites that explore Nantucket's lesser-known Black history, from the Nantucket Atheneum, where social reformer Fredrick Douglass attended a convention, to Nantucket's Historic Coloured Cemetery, where prominent Black families were laid to rest.

Another important stop on the trail is the Anna Gardner House, where Black pupil Eunice Ross studied for the entrance exams for the local high school. Despite passing, she was denied entry to the school in 1840, leading to the passing of the first law in the United States guaranteeing equal access to education. The self-guided tour is free; reach Nantucket by ferry rather than by air to further conserve funds.

Slow down at the Lowell Holly Reservation

Holly isn’t just for hanging on doorways during the holidays. You can view these festive trees year-round on a visit to the Lowell Holly Reservation in Mashpee and Sandwich.  There are 250 native holly trees planted on 135 acres of largely undisturbed countryside.

Explore two ponds pulsing with fish, hike or run along forest trails or just take in the lovely views. The reservation, named after Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Harvard University's former president, is open all year and is free to all.

Visit the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 

The scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) travel around the globe studying the ocean and tackling issues such as climate change and ocean acidification. During July and August, WHOI offers free, guided walking tours every weekday.

Participants can tour the dock and facilities and learn more about the organization's history and the research at the institute. Tours start at the WHOI visitor center and last 1¼ hours.

Soft light illuminating the beach and small coastal village of Provincetown, Cape Cod
Historic Provincetown is a delightful place to wander © DenisTangneyJr / Getty Images

Stroll Provincetown’s alleys enjoying the artwork  

A much-loved Cape Cod destination, Provincetown – where the pilgrim-carrying Mayflower first landed in 1620 – is located at the very tip of Cape Cod's curled edge. Spending a day strolling streets peppered with galleries, bars and clothing stores is easy and free for all.

On Provincetown's main road, Commercial Street, the Bob Gasoi Memorial Art Alley is marked by an arch with two colorfully painted guards at the entrance. Inside, the alley's red walls feature metallic flowers that pop off the side of the building, metallic bugs, a "Spank the Monkey" painting, surreal eyes and teeth and other artworks created by Arnie Charnick and other local artists. 

Bask in the tranquility of Spohr Gardens

For a quiet respite, head to Spohr Gardens in Falmouth, a 6-acre slice of woodland tranquility that speaks to the efforts of the late Charles and Margaret Spohr, the garden's founders. This calm space is filled with soaring Japanese Cryptomeria and dawn redwood trees and thousands of flowers, including pink and red azaleas, golden daffodils and climbing hydrangea.

A map at the entrance will guide you through the grounds, and there are labeled anchors and millstones along the garden paths that wind throughout the property. Bring a lunch and sit on the pier by Oyster Pond. There’s also a tree where younger visitors can fill out index cards and make a wish. Entry to the park is free, but there's a donation box.

Hear live music at Tin Pan Alley

Music spills out into the street from the Tin Pan Alley restaurant in Provincetown in the evenings. The name is a nod to the famous New York music publishers' center, and the restaurant and piano bar’s signage proudly announces that there's never a cover charge, so head to the Commerical Street spot for an inexpensive night of live music.

There's no minimum spend for food or drinks, but resisting the lure of seafood by the water could be challenging. If staying outdoors is preferred, street musicians, from guitarists to accordion players, appear at dusk near Provincetown's Portuguese Square.

Marconi beach at Wellfleet on the Cape Cod National Seashore
There's more to see on the Cape Cod National Seashore than the beach © Ronald Wilson Photography / Getty Images

Hit the beach in the offseason 

Cape Cod comprises more than a dozen coastal towns and scores of beaches. The stunning Cape Cod National Seashore offers 40 miles of coast and six beaches, including handsome Marconi Beach in Wellfleet and Nauset Beach in Eastham.

Though the views are free, admission and parking during peak season are not. Daily fees can cost up to $25, making exploring these scenic salt-water locales an expensive proposition. To skip paying for parking stickers, visit the Cape after Labor Day and before Memorial Day. Parking fees for other beaches vary; High Head Beach in Truro does offer free parking.

Top 15 beaches in Cape Cod

Learn about the Wampanoag at the Salt Pond Visitor Center

On the Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastham's Salt Pond Visitor Center has a small gift shop with local finds such as cranberry jam and a free museum that delves into the history of the indigenous Wampanoag people who lived on Cape Cod for more than 10,000 years.

There are quahog (clam) shell necklaces, clay pipes and stone tools on display, along with information about the history of the salt industry, old furniture and maritime artifacts. One of the most exciting things at the museum is the storytelling feature, where you can pick up a phone and hear stories from Wampanoag people with the press of a button.

Take part in tradition at the Provincetown Portuguese Festival & Blessing of the Fleet

The late 1800s brought a wave of Portuguese settlers to Massachusetts, and these new arrivals laid down roots in several coastal towns, including Provincetown.

Every year in June, the Provincetown Portuguese Festival is marked by four days of food, live music, games and dances. The last day of the festival honors Portuguese traditions with the blessing of the fleet by the clergy, a tribute to the bravery of Portuguese fishermen. There are more than 20 free events during the festival. 

Brant Lighthouse on Cape Cod, Massachusetts
A lighthouse visit is an essential part of the Cape Cod experience © Thomas Mitchell / Getty Images

Visit a Cape Cod lighthouse 

With water surrounding Cape Cod and the Islands, there are plenty of lighthouses worth journeying to. Two of the most beautiful ones are the Nobska Lighthouse in Falmouth, built in 1876, which has stunning views of Nantucket and the Vineyard Sound even on foggy days, and the Nauset Lighthouse (which features on the packaging for the area's famous Cape Cod Chips) in Eastham.

Near the Nauset Lighthouse are the "Three Sisters" lighthouses, so named because they resembled women in white dresses in black hats when viewed from the sea. There’s a picnic bench beneath a tree that's a great spot to have lunch.

Lighthouse Beach is the site of the Chatham Lighthouse, an operational lighthouse under the supervision of the US Coast Guard. Tours of the Cape Cod lighthouses are typically free, but times vary, so check locally for information. Even if tours aren't available, you can still check out the views from ground level.

Go for a bike ride along miles of pristine pathways

The Cape Cod Rail Trail bikeway stretches for 25 miles through the towns of Yarmouth, Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham and Wellfleet. This gorgeous trail is a great way to spend time on the Cape, traversing the peninsula and checking out the towns along the way. A downloadable map points out features such as ponds, parks and restrooms.

The 7-mile Cape Cod Canal is a better option for shorter rides. This bikeway gives riders a view of the industrial waterfront, connecting several recreation areas along the Cape Cod Canal, including the Buzzards Bay Recreation Area, Herring Run Recreation Area, Bourne Recreation Area and Tidal Flats Recreation Area.

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