Quaint fishing villages, kitschy tourist traps and genteel towns – the Cape has many faces. Each attracts a different crowd. Families seeking calm waters perfect for little tykes favor Cape Cod Bay on the peninsula's quieter north side. College students looking to play hard in the day and let loose after the sun goes down set out for Falmouth or Wellfleet. Provincetown is a paradise for art lovers, whale-watchers, LGBTIQ+ travelers and…well, just about everyone.
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These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Cape Cod.
Cape Cod National Seashore extends some 40 miles around the curve of the Outer Cape and encompasses the Atlantic shoreline from Orleans all the way to Provincetown. Under the auspices of the National Park Service, it's a treasure trove of unspoiled beaches, dunes, salt marshes, nature trails and forests. Thanks to the backing of President John F Kennedy, this vast area was set aside for preservation in the 1960s, just before a building boom hit the rest of his native Cape Cod.
All roads lead to the National Seashore's Coast Guard Beach. The main road from the Salt Pond Visitor Center deposits you here, as do cycling and hiking trails. And it's for good reason: this grand beach, backed by a classic coast guard station, is a stunner that attracts everyone from beachcombers to hard-core surfers. Bird-watchers also flock to Coast Guard Beach for the eagle-eye view of Nauset Marsh.
The Salt Pond Visitor Center is the place to start exploring the National Seashore – and it has a great view to boot. Here you'll find exhibits and short films on the Cape's ecology, history and ever-changing landscape. Helpful staff can provide maps to the park's trails, both hiking and cycling, some of which begin right at the center. Ask about the daily schedule of ranger-guided walks, talks, open houses at historic buildings, canoe trips and more (reservations often required).
Founded in 1914 to celebrate the town’s thriving art community, this vibrant museum showcases the works of hundreds of artists who have found their inspiration on the Lower Cape. Chief among them are Charles Hawthorne, who led the early Provincetown art movement, and Edward Hopper, who had a home and gallery in the Truro dunes.
Swimmers favor the relatively calm (though certainly brisk) waters of Herring Cove Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The long, sandy beach is popular with everyone. Though technically illegal, nude sunbathers head left to the south section of the beach; families usually break out the picnic baskets closer to the parking lot. The entire beach faces west, making it a spectacular place to be at sunset. Parking costs $20 in summer (the National Seashore fee).
Provincetown is the perfect launch point for whale-watching, since it's the closest port to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the summer feeding ground for humpback whales. Some 17 species have been seen at one time or another; many of the estimated 350 remaining North Atlantic right whales, one of the world's most endangered whale species, frequent these waters. Take a whale-watching boat tour to scour the sanctuary waters for life.
On the wild tip of the Cape, this Cape Cod National Seashore beach is a breathtaking stretch of sand, crashing surf and undulating dunes as far as the eye can see. Kick off your sandals, kids – the soft, grainy sand makes for a fun run. This is the kind of beach where you could walk for miles and see no one but the occasional angler casting for bluefish. Parking costs $20 in summer (the National Seashore fee).
Climb to the top of the country's tallest all-granite structure (253ft) for a sweeping view of town, the beaches and the spine of the Lower Cape. The climb is 116 steps plus 60 ramps and takes about 10 minutes at a leisurely pace. At the base of the c 1910 tower is an evocative, but quite Eurocentric, museum depicting the landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims and other Provincetown history.
Overlooking Race Point Beach, this Cape Cod National Seashore visitor center has displays on dune ecology and a rooftop observation deck with an eye-popping 360-degree view of the outermost reaches of Cape Cod. The park stays open to midnight, so even after the visitor center closes you can still climb to the deck for sunset views and unobstructed stargazing.