How to Plan a Trip to Cape Cod

June 5, 2010 at 5:54 pm 1 comment


nauset lighthouse

Nauset Light, Eastham, MA

Cape Cod is one of the most treasured spots on the East Coast for its amazing beaches, secluded bikepaths, and historic lighthouses that dot the shore. Each of the towns of Cape Cod have their own unique flavor. For example, Sandwich is a great town for those looking to experience the quaint, quiet New England backroad feel of the Cape. Just next door, the town of Barnstable contains many villages, most notably Hyannis, home of the Kennedy Compound, and the only designated “city” on Cape Cod. This page will help you plan a trip to Cape Cod, and find some of the best things to do, places to see, provide Cape Cod road trip tips, make suggestions on when and where to stay, and provide links to further information about the Cape.

If you’re looking to plan a trip to Cape Cod, first, you’ll need to find out what season you prefer. Cape Cod can get very warm in the summer (at least to New Englanders), with temperatures reaching the mid to high 80’s, sometimes into the 90’s for a few days stretch. The climate is usually humid on Cape Cod, but a sea breeze keeps most of the Cape slightly cooler than the rest of Massachusetts. If you’re looking for warm weather without the crowds, autumn is very comfortable on Cape Cod. Temperatures still stay in the 60’s and 70’s through most of October, and you’ll have the bonus of fall foliage. The winter is a beautiful experience as well, when snow blankets much of Cape Cod during parts of January and February (though driving can be stressful for those not used to it).

To summarize, those looking for very warm weather and warm beaches, come in the summer (though be warned, Cape Cod traffic can be insane in the summer). For thinner crowds and cooler temperatures, visit in autumn. For a wintery experience that has wreath decorated ligthhouses and Colonial homes lit for the holidays, visit in autumn. Spring, too, is often underestimated for its comfortable temperatures (and less bugs, too).

The next on your Cape Cod vacation planning checklist would be the place to stay. Cape Cod doesn’t have all too many large chain hotels, which is good and bad. It’s great because you don’t have to worry about the cheesy, cookie-cutter atmosphere and robotic concierge of chain hotels. On the other hand, you never know what to expect, that is, unless you read hotel reviews. Check Trip Advisor for honest reviews from people that have stayed there, and to get additional photos of the rooms. You’ll be surprised by some of the comments, sometimes disappointed, sometimes pleasantly surprised. It isn’t always the more expensive hotel that’s the better one! Cape Cod has many bed and breakfasts, inns, and motels. You won’t find many multi-story hotels. The bed and breakfast is a great route for Cape Cod travel, but can be a little expensive sometimes. Motels are often no-frills, and rely more on the surrounding attractions and beaches than they do on the amenities they provide (they can also sometimes be very overpriced). If you’d like to stay at a nice place on Cape Cod, you’re most likely going to spend over $100 night.

Next, you’ll want to plan out what time of week (and what week) you’ll want to stay. Weekends on Cape Cod, even in the early autumn, can be nuts. Traffic can back up the Bourne and Sagamore Bridge for miles heading to Cape Cod, and back. Typically Friday is the worst day for traffic heading over the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. Sunday night is often the worst coming back, but Saturday morning can be rough both ways. If the weekend is a holiday weekend, expect traffic on the holiday (like 4th of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Columbus Day). To avoid the traffic, avoid travel on the weekends. If you must travel on the weekends, try to plan your trip over the bridges early on Friday morning, early Saturday morning (before 7am), or Sunday morning (before 7am).

On your trip to Cape Cod, you’ll need the basic beach essentials: sunglasses, suntan lotion, a beach towel, and bathing suit, some changes of clothes – not much else. Like any road trip, you’re best off to pack light. If you run out of clothes, you can always buy a souvenir t-shirt or sweatshirt. Gas is slightly more expensive on Cape Cod than elsewhere in Massachusetts. Gas stations are located heavily along Route 28, and signs are designated for gas stations off of Route 6.

Now, which Cape Cod towns should you visit and stay at? The towns of Cape Cod all offer something different.

Bourne, MA

Bourne is the westernmost town on Cape Cod. While Bourne isn’t the most popular resort town, it is a beautiful stopping point on your trip for many reasons. The Cape Cod Canal, which runs from Cape  Cod Bay to Buzzards Bay, provides miles of bike riding, walking, and skating opportunities along the paved bike path. It also has some of the best fishing on Cape Cod. Bourne’s western beaches provide goregous views of the Elizabeth Islands and the Cape Cod Canal boat traffic. Along the canal, be sure to take a stroll on the bike path to view the Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge, a beautiful piece of architecture that looks great during sunsets.

Falmouth, MA

Falmouth is located on the southwestern corner of Cape Cod. Falmouth has been built up over the years, but still has some beautiful, quaint, New England style villages. Route 28 leads directly to the town of Falmouth, and eventually to Woods Hole. Woods Hole is a small village on the southern tip of Falmouth, and the home of the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry (which is a great day trip). It’s also one of the most popular towns on the Cape to stay at because of its many beaches and proximity to the bridges.

Mashpee, MA

Mashpee is a mostly residential town adjacent to Sandwich, Falmouth, and Barnstable. There aren’t too many hotels in the town of Mashpee, but the town does have some memorable coastline between Falmouth and Barnstable near Route 28. Explore the hidden harbors, marshes, and inlets on these scenic backroads and you won’t be disappointed.

Sandwich, MA

Sandwich is the oldest town on Cape Cod. Of all of the towns on the Cape, it probably has the most “old time Cape Cod” feel, especially along Route 6A. The town has a small stretch of shoreline between Barnstable and Bourne, right near the Cape Cod Canal. A drive down Route 6A in Sandwich is not to be missed! Also, check out the Sandwich Glass Factory, where glass makers handblow glass live, and offer works of art for sale in the gift shop.

Barnstable, MA

Barnstable is better known for its “village” of Hyannis and Hyannis Port. These two parts of the city have been made famous by former President John F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy as home of the Kennedy Compound. Besides the Kennedy connection, Barnstable has plenty to offer. Major villages like Cotuit, Centerville, Craigville Beach, and the busy town center of Hyannis along Route 28 are some of the most visited spots of Cape Cod. Barnstable is also where you can find Sandy Neck Beach, a long, dune-filled peninsula with unbelievable views of Cape Cod Bay.

Yarmouth, MA

Yarmouth, located right next to Hyannis/Barnstable, is a town that is very different from north side to south side. It is one of the few towns that has shores on both Nantucket Sound and Cape Cod Bay. The busy south side is much like Hyannis along Route 28, while the north side has calm waters and rivers at Bass Hole and Yarmouth Port. It also shares Bass River with its neighbor to the east, Dennis. Yarmouth is one of the most popular resort towns, which you can find many of along Route 28.

Dennis, MA

Dennis shares its school system and the Bass River with the town of Yarmouth. The two towns are interconnected in many ways, but Dennis offers its own beautiful coastline along both Route 28 and Route 6A. Like Yarmouth, many of the resort and motel areas are located along Route 28. Bass River is one of the most popular areas in town for fishing and boating.

Harwich, MA

Harwich, which is known for containing “seven villages and three harbors,” is further east along Route 28 on Cape Cod. Harwich contains the busy town center (in the summer, anyways) of Harwich Port, and has a ferry that leaves for Nantucket from its shores. Unlike Dennis and Yarmouth, Harwich doesn’t have a northern shore along Cape Cod Bay, but does have great beaches on the southern side on Nantucket Sound.

Brewster, MA

North of Harwich and east of Dennis is the unofficial most quiet town on Cape Cod, Brewster. This small town has serene, picture-perfect beaches at Paine’s Creek and other Cape Cod Bay beaches. Brewster has many of the best bed and breakfasts Cape Cod has to offer. Along Route 6A, you can find a stretch of antique shops and galleries to browse during your trip. Much of the town preserves its Colonial era charm through its antique homes and buildings.

Linnell Landing, Brewster
Linnell Landing, Brewster, low tide.

Chatham, MA

Chatham is located south of Brewster and Orleans, and east of Harwich. Chatham is one of the wealthiest towns on Cape Cod, and has some of the best views on the entire Cape. With stupendous shoreline along Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, you can find some great beaches in town. Unfortunately, many of them are private, but some aren’t. Try visiting Lighthouse Beach near the town center, and don’t miss a cruise along Pleasant Bay on Route 28. The views there are incredible.

Orleans, MA

Orleans, like Chatham, has incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean. It has the advantage of having some of the best Cape Cod Bay beaches on the northern side as well, like Rock Harbor. Much of Orleans’ eastern facing beaches are protected by the Cape Cod National Seashore, which stretches from Orleans to Provincetown.

Eastham, MA

Eastham is one of the most famous towns on Cape Cod, if we’re speaking in terms of iconic images. The famous Nauset Light which you can see on Cape Cod Potato Chips bags everywhere is adorned with the historic lighthouse. Just behind Nauset Light, you can find the historic Three Sisters of Nauset lighthouses. Also, don’t miss the beaches in Eastham. The ones on the Atlantic Ocean provide great surf, and dramatic views because of the high dunes behind you.

Wellfleet, MA

Of all of the towns on Cape Cod, Wellfleet could be the most dramatic. It has frequent whales that visit the Cape Cod Bay side, winding river marshes that can easily be seen from Route 6, and is home to the famous Marconi Beach and Marconi Station, both part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. As you head further north (or east, as Route 6 indicates), the hotels/motels because further apart. This makes the Outer Cape region one of the tougher places to find a place to stay, and one of the most expensive. However, the price is well worth the drive and the extra money, as you’ll see once you arrive in Wellfleet.

Truro, MA

This is probably the quietest and smallest town on Cape Cod. Located south of Provincetown and north of Wellfleet, Truro has some galleries in the town center, located off of Route 6, along with Highland Light, located on the Atlantic Ocean side of town. There are some homes that are available for rent in town by the week/weekend, but very few places to stay other than these. Right before the Provincetown town line, you’ll find the famous cottages along Route 6A, which offer some of the most desirable views on Cape Cod.

Provincetown, MA

Provincetown has a long history of being an artist colony, and tradition continues today. It has dozens of art galleries on Commercial Street, making it the busiest art community on Cape Cod. Provincetown also is a massive gay and lesbian tourist destination, with many gay friendly restaurants, clubs and inns in town. The coast of Provincetown is not to be missed. There are three lighthouses in town, a mile long jetty that leads the PTown spit, and one of the best Cape Cod beaches at Race Point. The town also has miles of paved bike paths leading from Race Point to Provincelands, to the downtown area. Most of the places to stay are located in downtown, which is only a few minutes from any part of town.

Which town will you choose for your vacation? The quiet appeal of Brewster and Truro, the busy atmosphere of Hyannis and Provincetown, or the easy to find/easily accessible beaches of Dennis and Yarmouth? Whichever town you choose, check the reviews of the hotel you’re booking through prior to committing. Once you’ve booked your hotel, you may want to read this guide on 50 things to do on Cape Cod, for recommended activities, trip planning, beaches, sightseeing, and other fun activities. For trip planning between Boston and Cape Cod, read our guide on the towns of the South Shore.

Do you have a favorite spot on Cape Cod that you recommend, or a travel tip you’d like to share? I’d like to hear from you in the comments section below, and so would our other travelers!

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Jason  |  August 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    I just returned from a weekend trip to the Cape and what is frustrating to me is the fact that so much of it is “private”. When exploring new places I love to just get a map and drive, but in the Cape you could be on a peninsula but never see water as everything is marked private. It’s not a Cape for the people, but for the elite.

    But luckily I didn’t find that these rules were enforced. I walked across all private beaches and went down some private drives without any confrontations.

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