New England is blessed with hundreds of miles of coastline and many popular coastal destinations — but which coastal towns are the best “beach towns”? Yankee’s 25 Best Beach Towns in New England, first compiled by longtime contributor Steve Jermanok in 2012, is based on an extensive 14-category ranking system that includes scenic charm, accessibility, kid-friendly activities, average summer water temperature, and proximity to fried clams and ice cream. Heading to the Bay State for some seaside fun? Here are the 12 best Massachusetts beach towns, each with an expanded list of don’t-miss things to do.
12 Best Beach Towns in Massachusetts
At the tip of Cape Cod, P-town has it all: Cape Cod National Seashore beaches where, if you’re willing to walk, you can always find a strip of sand all to yourself; stunning sunsets; a vibrant gallery and restaurant scene; popular whale-watching cruises; and the most eclectic (and at times electric) people-watching of all. (When rain threatens to put a damper on your outdoor activities, check out P-town’s shops, too.) Devotees are passionate about Provincetown; an inspired place to visit off-season, its narrow streets can barely hold the cars in midsummer.
- Province Lands Bike Trail — This route can take you through nearly eight miles of scenic dunes and pine forests of the Cape, presenting beautiful ocean views along the way.
- Pilgrim Monument — At 252 feet, the Pilgrim Monument is the tallest granite monument in the country. Built between 1907 and 1910 to commemorate the landing of the Mayflower in 1620, it rewards those hardy enough to climb its 116 steps with panoramic views.
- See also: Provincetown Restaurants and Provincetown Hotels & Inns
This is an incomparable beach town. The restaurants are surprisingly sophisticated for a beach destination, the mix of shops is intriguing, and bike paths branch off in every direction to a variety of beaches. Just remember that it takes some organization to get to this island destination (but it’s worth it).
- Nantucket Whaling Museum — The museum’s impressive collection of scrimshaw is housed in a former spermaceti candle factory, recalling the gritty days when Nantucket whalers roamed the world.
- Cisco Brewers — It’s a nonstop party at this dog-and-kid-friendly mini village, where Nantucket’s only craft brewery and its winery and distillery sisters showcase their liquid artistry. Bike the 2.5 miles inland or catch the free seasonal shuttle from downtown, and join locals and tourists who know they’ll find live music and the island’s best food trucks here.
- ’Sconset Bluff Walk — More than just gorgeous ocean views, this admission-free scenic stroll is one of the best ways to admire the island.
- See also: Everything You Need to Know About Nantucket and Nantucket Hotels & Inns
Carol M. Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons
Amble along the sidewalks of this Martha’s Vineyard town, laced with whaling captains’ homes from the 18th and 19th centuries, then take your bike on the two-minute ferry ride over to Chappaquiddick and its Cape Poge Wildlife Refuge, a long coastal stretch that you can call home for the rest of the day. If you feel like getting even closer to the sea, the Trustees of Reservations offers guided kayaking tours on Cape Poge and Wasque Reservation waterways.
- Mad Martha’s — Great beach towns need great homemade ice cream, and this is the go-to place for that double-dip cone to enjoy during your stroll over to the docks.
- Cape Poge Natural History Tour — Experience Chappaquiddick Island’s 4-mile barrier beach up close on this three-hour journey by over-sand vehicle, from wave-swept shores populated with oystercatchers and plovers to cedar-covered expanses that shelter small mammals. The highlight? A remote 1893 lighthouse whose history of relocation mirrors the ever-changing landscape.
- See also: Favorite Things to Do on Martha’s Vineyard and Martha’s Vineyard Hotel & Inns
Neighboring Gloucester boasts two of the finest beaches on Cape Ann, Good Harbor and Wingaersheek, but you’ll want to spend most of your evening hours in Rockport. Bearskin Neck, with its collection of boutiques, ice cream shops, and restaurants, juts out into Sandy Bay, ending at a rock jetty. Front Beach, a two-minute walk from Bearskin Neck, will suffice for building sand castles and swimming.
- Shalin Liu Performance Center — For sheer drama, it’s hard to top this classical-music venue whose floor-to-ceiling stage window overlooks the Atlantic.
- Roy Moore Lobster Company — Housed in a diminutive shingled building on the Bearskin Neck waterfront, this may be the friendliest lobster shack anywhere. Order a fresh-made local lobster roll or thick, creamy clam chowder, and dine atop wooden lobster crates on the back deck.
- Motif No. 1 — No visit to Rockport is complete without snapping a photo of this iconic red structure, billed as “the most famous fishing shack in the world.”
You’ll find a quintessential village green here, replete with gazebo and bands playing concerts in summer, surrounded by a good selection of restaurants and shops. Note that parking at some of Chatham’s fine beaches is limited, so go early.
- Chatham Bars Inn — The c. 1914 inn has changed gracefully with the times and is the Cape’s sole surviving (now year-round) grand beachside resort. Book yourself a luxury getaway or enjoy a meal at one of its four restaurants, whose menus are invigorated by produce from the resort’s own eight-acre farm.
- Chatham Pier Fish Market — This busy market on a working pier serves up a chowder — rich with brine and clams, just creamy enough, and never gummy — that’s worthy of a day’s journey from wherever you are. And the lobster roll, which made our list of the 10 Best Lobster Rolls in New England, is also delicious.
- Cape Cod Baseball League — There is no summer league in the world as good as the Cape Cod Baseball League, where collegiate players on the cusp of stardom play on picturesque town fields for free admission. And in the Cape League, there’s no better place to watch a game than in Chatham, no better seat than a lawn chair directly behind the backstop, no better day than the traditional Fourth of July game against Orleans.
One of the larger communities on Cape Cod, Falmouth has both its busy and picturesque sides. If you’re looking for affordable lodging, restaurants that grill fresh seafood perfectly, a fun town center to stroll, an array of beaches, a great bikeway, and easy access (via Route 28 and the Bourne Bridge), follow the Bostonians who have a second home in Falmouth.
- Old Silver Beach — The pearly-white sand and the warm water of Buzzards Bay (OK, warm by New England standards) make Old Silver Beach one of the highlights of the northern Cape.
- Conant House — Operated by the Falmouth Historical Society, Conant House dates to the mid-1700s and features a collection of sailors’ valentines, scrimshaw, and old tools, as well as an entire room devoted to Falmouth native Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”
If we were judging beach towns solely on the variety and quality of their beaches, Wellfleet would earn top honors. Its mix of Cape Cod National Seashore beachfront, freshwater ponds, and bayshore and harborside walks is unparalleled. It’s all worth the drive from the small town center.
- Wellfleet Drive-In — Catching a first-run flick at this c. 1957 drive-in is the best kind of old-fashioned summer fun.
- Great Island Trail — Spectacular views highlight this “most difficult” of the Cape Cod National Seashore trails, which is roughly four to nine miles round-trip. Check tide tables, as some sections are submerged during high tide.
The famous gingerbread houses of this Martha’s Vineyard town are set among family-friendly environs packed with T-shirt shops, restaurants of every stripe, and one of the oldest carousels still in operation. If you feel like a dip, grab a bike and head three miles to Joseph Sylvia State Beach, halfway to Edgartown. There, you’ll find the bridge featured in the movie Jaws, now popular with kids who make the plunge to the deep water below.
- Flying Horses Carousel — Carved in 1876, the mighty steeds of this Vineyard institution have manes and tails of real hair, yet the real joy for children is the chance to lean over and snag a brass ring.
- Back Door Donuts — If you follow a delicious bakery aroma to a long line of people on a warm summer night, you’ll likely find yourself at the back door of Back Door Donuts. The front bakery-café is open regular hours from mid-April to mid-October, but its “back door” opens from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. The pastries are made fresh in classic flavors as well as more adventurous ones (e.g., maple bacon, butternut crunch). And while you’re at it, pick up a few of the perfectly fried, equally sinful apple fritters.
- Camp Meeting Grounds — In the quiet world of whimsy officially known as the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association Campground, 19th-century homes outlined in painted filigree trim are set within a few feet from one another, looking for all the world like a dollhouse village. Most of the 300-plus “gingerbread” cottages are shuttered during winter, but in warm weather this enchanting community springs to life with walking tours, concerts, visiting speakers, family movie nights, and the famous Grand Illumination lantern festival.
- See also: Favorite Things to Do in Oak Bluffs and Martha’s Vineyard Hotel & Inns
With a five-mile drive to the beach on Plum Island (most of which lies within neighboring Newbury’s boundaries), Newburyport isn’t normally considered a beach town. Yet it’s hard to resist the intriguing collection of bookstores, boutiques, and top-notch restaurants in town after a day at the ocean.
- Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift — This shop carries binoculars so that you can see those piping plovers and other Atlantic Flyway birds at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.
- See also: Favorite Things to Do in Newburyport and Newburyport Hotels & Inns
Spend the morning on Nauset Beach’s exquisite length of dune-studded coastline along Cape Cod National Seashore, the afternoon biking on the Cape Cod Rail Trail north past the ponds of Eastham, and the early evening watching a Cape Cod Baseball League game, with many players who’ll soon find their way to the major leagues.
- Cape Cod Rail Trail — Following a former railroad right-of-way for 22 miles through the towns of Dennis, Harwich, Brewster, Orleans, Eastham, and Wellfleet, this path makes for easy biking with its paved surface, minimal hills, and well-marked automobile crossings. An unpaved shoulder on one side accommodates horseback riders, walkers, and runners.
- Nauset Beach — One of the most popular beaches on the lower Cape, you’ll find body-surfing waves, some big enough to tumble you back to shore.
If all you want is one of Cape Ann’s beloved sandy strands (Crane Beach) and arguably the best clam shack in New England (the Clam Box), you don’t have to go farther than Ipswich. The rolling country byways outside the town center also offer great road biking past orchards and along creeks.
- Russell Orchards — Pick your own berries and apples at this favorite family farm, then shop for gifts and visit the farm’s bakery and winery in an 1800s barn.
- The Clam Box — Whimsically shaped like its namesake container, this local institution — one of our picks for the 10 Best Fried Clams in New England —has been serving deep-fried seafood since 1935. You won’t find a crispier or more honest-tasting fried clam, so don’t be put off by the long lines.
- Crane Beach — For sheer scenic beauty, no strand in New England can top Crane Beach’s four miles of soft white sand set against a backdrop of undulating dunes, part of a 2,100-acre historic estate overseen by the Trustees of Reservations. Shallows and tidepools call to the kids, while five-plus miles of trails traverse the sand dunes and salt marsh, opening up even more vistas.
- Wolf Hollow — Established in 1990, this nonprofit organization offers a rare opportunity to view gray wolves in as natural a setting as possible. Come see how they interact with their pack members and live in a social unit very similar to that of human families.
With a thriving town center and historic sites galore, including Plimoth Plantation and the Mayflower II, Plymouth has all the makings of a premier beach town, though you’ll need to do a little driving to get to the beach part. A few miles southeast toward the village of Manomet lie the soft white sands of White Horse Beach; head out there early, as public parking is limited and you might have to grab a spot on a side street. Plymouth Long Beach is closer to town, but a bit rocky.
- Plimoth Plantation — Thanks to its re-creation of a 17th-century English village and its Wampanoag Homesite (populated not by reenactors but by members of the Wampanoag Nation and other Indigenous peoples), Plimoth Plantation provides an immersive, 360-degree view of history. And there’s no better time to experience it than 2020, as the museum celebrates both the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing and the return of the Mayflower II after a landmark multiyear restoration.
- Native Plymouth Tours — An interesting companion to a Plimoth Plantation visit, these tours present the Native American slant on New England’s first English colony from a guide steeped in the ways of the Wampanoag.
- See also: Favorite Things to Do in Plymouth
What Massachusetts beach towns would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below!
10 Prettiest Coastal Towns in New England
10 Best Summer Road Trips in New England
10 Best Seaside Inns in New England