Cape Cod  is an arm-shaped peninsula located on the Easternmost portion of Massachusetts. It is a well-traveled tourist and vacation area, featuring miles and miles of beaches, natural attractions, historic sites, art galleries and many four star restaurants. The area is also very popular amongst antique enthusiasts and people who enjoy bed and breakfasts. Many opportunities exist here for golf, fishing and other outdoor activities. The town of Provincetown, at the very tip of the peninsula, is the site of the first landing of the Pilgrims.
According to the most common way of dividing Cape Cod, it is composed of four regions: the Upper Cape, Mid Cape, the Lower Cape, and the Outer Cape. The Outer Cape is a somewhat modern division, however, since historically it was considered part of the Lower Cape. Also note that the islands of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and some smaller islands such as Gosnold are often included with Cape Cod in a grand region known as Cape Cod and the Islands.
The area nearest the mainland has long been referred to as ""upper"" and the area furthest from it as ""lower"", but the reason for this terminology is a matter of dispute. The most likely explanation seems to be the use of nautical terms concerning the prevailing winds, which blow from west to east. The western cape was ""upwind,"" while the eastern cape was ""downwind"". This theory is backed up by the same terms used on Martha's Vineyard: the western half of the island is called ""the upper island"" and the eastern half, ""the lower island"".
The Upper Cape
Of the Cape's 15 towns, 4 are in the Upper Cape: Bourne, Sandwich, Falmouth, and Mashpee. The Upper Cape borders Plymouth County on the west, and the Cape Cod Canal passes through its eastern extremity. It is bounded on the north by Cape Cod Bay, on the southwest by Buzzard's Bay, on the southeast by Nantucket Sound, and on the east by the Mid Cape.
Three towns make up the Mid-Cape region: Barnstable, Yarmouth, and Dennis. The Mid-Cape lies between Cape Cod Bay and Nantucket Sound.
The Lower Cape
Four towns compose the Lower Cape: Brewster, Harwich, Chatham, and Orleans. The Lower Cape is the easternmost point before the Cape turns sharply north, and Monomoy Island, part of Chatham, divides Nantucket Sound from the open Atlantic.
The Outer Cape
The four towns that make up the Outer Cape are Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. The Outer Cape lies between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic and includes the peninsula's tip.
Cape Cod is made up of diverse towns and many villages:
Cape Cod is a long, narrow, ""arm-shaped"" peninsula that projects itself prominently out from the southern Massachusetts mainland and into the Atlantic Ocean. It is easily the most distinctive geographical feature along the New England coast, and it is also unique in other ways, such as its climate, history and people.
Cape Cod is entirely taken up by Barnstable County and lies adjacent to Plymouth County on the mainland. Since the construction of the Cape Cod Canal between Cape Cod Bay and Buzzard's Bay, the peninsula ""technically"" became an island, but it is well connected to the mainland by a light rail line and by US Highway 6, also called ""the Mid-Cape Highway"".
The weather in Cape Cod is milder all around, being warmer during winter and cooler during summer, which is one reason its many beaches draw such crowds during the hot season. This difference in climate is often mistakenly thought to arise from the Gulf Stream, but that current does not actually come near the Cape. Instead, it is a matter of the surrounding ocean efficiently retaining heat or cold, and ocean breezes then affecting the temperatures on-shore. This relationship with the water, however, can also turn fierce, exposing Cape Cod to hurricanes and sudden Nor'easters.
The history of Cape Cod is as colorful as you will find anywhere. It has been the site of the Pilgrims' first landing, the abode of the native Nauset Indians, a booming fishing and whaling zone, and one of the biggest summer tourist attractions on the Atlantic Coast. The population, at first, hailed mostly from England, but later, waves of Irish, Italian, French, German, and Brazilian immigrants added to the mix. Artists, novelists, retirees with summer homes, fishermen, farmers, factory workers, and those in the tourist industry make for a ""motley"" group, and the summertime population is three times that of year-round ""Cape Codders.""
The First Inhabitants
The earliest known inhabitants of Cape Cod were the Nauset Indians, who occupied the entire cape at the time of European discovery and were closely related to the neighboring Wampanoags, who often subjugated them. Proximity to the coast brought the Nauset into early contact with Europeans, and unfortunately, this led to abductions into slavery, the spread of foreign diseases, and the decimation of the population. At times, the Nauset resisted colonization, but they also joined with the colonist's as allies against the Wampanoag in King Philip's War and intermarried with the settlers. Today, their lineage continues in the Mashpee band of Wampanoags, a federally recognized group.
The First Explorers
Most historians agree that the first explorer to sight the cape was Giovanni da Verrazzano, who sailed past it in 1524 while in the service of France. He was followed by Estevao Gomes in 1525, who sailed for Spain. In 1606, Frenchman Samuel de Champlain charted Cape Cod's harbors, and in 1609, Englishman Henry Hudson made landfall. By 1614, John Smith had already printed Cape Cod on a map, and it was a common landmark used by explorers.
The First Colonists
The Pilgrims entered Cape Harbor in 1620 and made landfall near what is now Provincetown on November 11th. They sailed on to found Plymouth just north of Cape Cod, but others soon settled the cape itself. Sandwich was founded in 1637, Barnstable and Yarmouth in 1639, and the process continued until the final town, Bourne, was established in 1884.
Development, however, was slow. The Cape was intensively farmed early on, but crops like wheat grew poorly in the thin, glacier-deposited soil. To make matters worse, cattle were grazed on the grassy coastal dunes until the sand overspread adjacent land, and the forests were systematically chopped down for firewood until the now-barren soil eroded and silted up the harbors. By 1800, firewood was imported from Maine, and by 1860, many Cape farmers had left for more promising lands in the American West.
Recovery and Progress
Ironically, the exodus of farmers allowed the forests to begin a recovery process that was complete by about 1950. The 1800's also saw Cape Cod become a summer vacation area for big-city dwellers, and this tourist industry continues strong to the present day. A 19th Century railroad soon opened up the whole length of the cape to visitors, and the Cape Cod Canal, built in stages from 1870 to 1914, was also a huge step forward. Although the industrial revolution did not come early to the cape, due to lack of hydro-power, the result was a burgeoning fishing and whaling industry instead.
In 1961, the east end of Cape Cod, with its abundance of beaches, was declared by President John F. Kennedy to be part of the new Cape Cod National Seashore. The area is protected from development, but much of it is open to the public and is now one of the major tourist attractions.
According to the 2010 Census, the population of Cape Cod (Barnstable County) was 215,888 and was projected to slide to 215,000 by 2014. Historically, the population has grown relatively slowly, from 17,000 to 36,000, between 1790 and 1860. It then declined across the next six decades to a low ebb of 26,670 in 1920. From 1920 to 2000, it exploded, peaking at 222,230 before beginning to decline once again.
The population density in 2010 was 548.3 people per square mile. The county had 147,000 residences, 95,755 households, 61,000 family units, and 372 houses per square mile. 24% of households had children under 18, 52% were married couples, 30% were single, and the average household size was 2.3. The median age in Barnstable County was 45, with 20% being minors and 23% being senior citizens, and there are 90 male residents for every 100 females. The median household income is $46,000, and the per capita income is $25,000. About 7% of the population lives below the poverty line.
Racially, Cape Cod is 94% White, 2% Black, 0.5% American Indian, 0.5% Asian, 1% Pacific Islander and 1% Latino. The White Cape Codders further break down as follows: 24% Irish, 16% English, 9% Italian, and 6% German. English is the first language of 94%, Portuguese of 2%, Spanish of 1% and French of 1% of the population. The presence of a sizable Brazilian immigrant community and the existence of the local Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, descended from the original Nauset Indians, in the Town of Mashpee are of special note.
Occupations and Industries
Tourism is easily the most prominent industry in Cape Cod though construction and light manufacturing operations are also very important. Tourism, particularly in the summer, has been a mainstay in Cape Cod ever since a rail line was run through the Cape in the 30's and the Mid-Cape Highway was built in the 50's. Today, there are so many who own summer homes in Cape Cod that the summer-time population swells to half a million, 2.5 times the size of the regular population.
There are still, however, those who keep to the traditional occupations. Many year-round residents of Cape Cod still run farms, catch fish, lobsters, scallops, raise oysters, or are involved in outfitting the local fishing industry, which sees profits of about $24 million a year.
Fun Facts about Cape Codders
Aside from the tourists and summer-only residents, Cape Codders are well known for certain traits and activities, such as the following:
The beautiful and unique natural surroundings of Cape Cod, as well as the people of the Cape, have long served to inspire authors of all kinds to write. Some of the most notable writers with a ""Cape Cod connection"" include the following:
Mercy Otis Warren
A Cape Cod native, Warren was one of the few women who were published and prolific writers during the Revolutionary Age. She authored poetry and plays, the collection of which was published in 1790, and her voluminous History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution was published in 1805. She also authored political propaganda in favor of the War for American Independence that urged resistance to the colonial governor of Massachusetts for his infringements on the colonists' liberties.
In 1788, Mercy Otis Warren also authored an anti-Federalist pamphlet under the pseudonym A Columbian Patriot, which demanded a Bill of Rights before ratifying the new Constitution.
Henry David Thoreau
Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau made four trips to Cape Cod. While this famous transcendentalist author wrote many books on naturalist topics, his work entitled A Yankee in Canada, Cape Cod, and The Maine Woods gives his thoughts on geographical, historical and philosophical subjects as related to the Cape.
Joseph C. Lincoln
In the first half of the 20th Century, Joseph Lincoln was famous for writing numerous novels, short stories and poems that used the summer-vacation environment and local color of Cape Cod as a setting. These works were reminiscent of ""Old Cape Cod,"" and they were rooted in the fact that the Cape was Joseph Lincoln's birthplace. He admitted that he gave a fiction version of the Cape that amounted to entertaining yarn-spinning, but he preferred that style to the philosophical aims of many of contemporary writers. Many of his works were published in the Saturday Evening Post and the Delineator, two magazines that were wildly popular in his day.
Norman Mailer was a Cape Cod resident who became a popular novelist in the latter half of the 20th Century. He helped innovate the new ""creative nonfiction' genre, which used the style of fiction on journalistic subject matter. His most famous work was The Executioner's Song, which won a Pulitzer Prize, but his works Armies of the Night and The Naked and the Dead are also well known.
Kurt Vonnegut was a novelist who resided in Barnstable from the 1950s through the 1970s. He wrote for 50 years, up till his death in 2007. His most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, was very controversial, being a 1969 anti-Vietnam-war contribution. It was viewed as ""darkly satirical"" and topped the New York Times Best Seller List for many months.
Barnstable County, the boundaries of which coincide with those of Cape Cod, is divided into 15 ""towns,"" including the Town of Barnstable, which is the county seat. The county was originally formed as part of Plymouth Colony in 1685, but that colony was merged with Massachusetts in 1691.
The County Political System
Unlike most modern Massachusetts counties, Barnstable County has a fully functioning county-level political system, which includes both a legislative and executive branch.
The legislature is called the Cape Cod Assembly of Delegates, and is made up of only 15 delegates- one from each town. This would make the assembly the equivalent of a ""county-level senate,"" but instead, the delegates do not cast an equal vote. The weight of a delegate's vote is based on the percentage of the county population that resided in his/her town according to the last U.S......... Census. Interestingly, the assembly's existence only dates from 1989, when county voters approved the Barnstable County Home Rule Charter.
The executive power is vested in a board of three county commissioners who are elected by a county-wide vote to a four-year term. The terms, however, are staggered so that no two commissioners are elected the same year. While the assembly passes ordinances and resolutions, the commissioners propose ordinances and budgets to the assembly, direct county agencies like the Cape Cod Commission, appoint the County Administrator, and otherwise watch over the financial and property concerns of the county.
The Town Political Systems
The 15 towns of Barnstable County, which are really more akin to townships, are as follows: Bourne, Falmouth, Sandwich, and Mashpee in the Upper Cape; Barnstable, Yarmouth and Dennis in the Mid-Cape area; Brewster, Harwich, and Chatham in the Lower Cape; and in the Outer Cape, Orleans, Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown.
Each town also includes various villages within its bounds, but these are subject to the town government and have no legal status aside from their identification by the U.S......... Census Bureau. The towns, however, are legally incorporated under Massachusetts law.
The county seat of Barnstable is actually a city, but it retains the word town in its official name. It does, however, have a city-style government, electing 13 councilmen to its legislature. The other 14 towns retain a more traditional, New England township arrangement, having a five-member Board of Selectmen in the executive branch and the whole enfranchised citizenry as the legislature, which assembles at official town meetings.
Political Party Affiliation
By voter registration, the political breakdown of Barnstable County, according to the 2010 Census, is as follows: 56% Unaffiliated, 26% Democratic, 17% Republican, and 0.5% for all other parties.
In the last four U.S......... Presidential elections, however, Barnstable County has voted Democratic by margins of between 51% and 56%. This is much more competitive than Massachusetts at large, which averaged a 60% vote for Democratic Presidential Candidates during the same period.
The Cape Cod Canal is about an hour and a quarter from both Boston and Providence. Traffic on the two vehicle bridges over the canal is often backed up during peak travel times on summer weekends.
The Cape Flyer Starting on Memorial Day weekend of 2013, the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (CCRTA), in collaboration with the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), opened the first passenger rail service between South Station in Boston and Cape Cod since 1959. Service will continue through Labor Day, running in the evening on Fridays and during the day on Saturdays and Sundays. More info about the Cape Flyer can be found on the Cape Flyer Wikipedia page.
Regional affiliates of US Airways and United Airlines formerly served Hyannis, although today scheduled service is provided by two locally based airlines:
Cape Air codeshares with JetBlue Airways, with connections at Logan.
The easiest way to get around is by car. The main East-West routes around Cape Cod are:
These routes are supplemented by several busy North-South surface routes, usually linking an exit on the Mid-Cape Highway to Route 28 and 6A. Some of these that might be useful to tourists include include:
Taxis are plentiful on Cape Cod, albeit very expensive, fares of $20-$30 for trips even within the same town are not uncommon. Also, apart for a handful of locations with taxistands such as the airport and ferry terminals, you will need to call ahead for your cab. While most companies prefer you call a few hours in advance, outside peak times (such as last call in downtown Hyannis), they can usually have a car to your location in 20 minutes or less.
Public transit bus service is offered through the Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority (+1 800-352-7155, ) and Pylmouth and Brockton Street Railway.
Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority
CCRTA's bus system was known as "The Breeze" until a few years ago and some bus stop signs and publicity material still refer to it as this. You can reach every town on the peninsula with CCRTA, although bus routes primarily serve the main tourist areas (beaches, Route 28's "motel alley", the Cape Cod Mall, etc...). Reaching places that are more off the beaten path may require some creativity (for example, all buses feature free bike racks). The backbone of the CCRTA network is comprised of three long distance lines:
CCRTA also has local bus routes:
All routes have a flat cash fare of $2 per trip except when disembarking or boarding off-route on The Flex, when it is $4 and the Hyannis Trolley which is free. There are no free transfers (except between the Flex and the Provincetown Shuttle) - purchasing a day pass for $6 from the driver makes sense if you need to take more than one bus to get to your destination. You can also purchase a 20 ride punch card for $30 (20 rides for the price of 15). Drivers do not make change, and the bill acceptor on busses is painfully slow, so it helps to bring some quarters or dollar coins. Seniors (65+) and those with disabilities get half off with proof of age, a medicare card or a Commonwealth of Massachusetts Transit Access Pass.
In the summer, service is typically hourly on the three main routes, and every half hour on the local routes during the main part of the season (June to Labor Day). The Hyannis Trolley runs every 20 minutes during the day. Unlike local bus service on the two Islands, CCRTA does operate year round, although service in May, September and early October is reduced, and service the rest of the year is very sporadic with only a handful of buses each day.
Plymouth and Brockton
In addition to their off-Cape service to Boston and Logan Airport, Plymouth and Brockton also offers four round trips daily from Hyannis to Provincetown and several other lower and outer Cape towns during the summer. Round trip fare from the Hyannis Bus Terminal to P'Town is $18. After Labor Day, this is cut to two trips past Hyannis per day, and the timings of said trips are primarily geared towards down Cape residents heading to Logan Airport.
Cape Cod Central Railroad offers a 2 1/2 hour scenic tour from Hyannis to the Cape Cod Canal, as well as evening dinner trains and family brunch trains on the weekends. Kids under 12 ride free on the 2:30pm narrated train. Scenic daily trips only operate during the summer and fall, but holiday trips for Thanksgiving and Christmas are available in the winter. +1 888-797-RAIL
Sightseeing in Cape Cod is difficult in only one respect - there are so many sights to see, that you may not be sure where to start. While any selection is, of necessity, subjective, there are some tourist stops that stand out for their popularity, uniqueness or intrinsic value.
Some of the most notable sites to visit and peruse when touring Cape Cod include the following:
Asking "What is there to do on Cape Cod?" is a little like asking "Where can I find fine French cuisine?" while in Paris. Among the many options, there are several activities that are popular with both tourists and the natives. The list of activities is as diverse as it is large, so everyone can find something they enjoy.
Some of the most notable things to do while visiting Cape Cod include:
Swim at any of the 100 or so beaches that line Cape Cod's 560 miles of seacoast. The summertime water temperature is typically around 70º F, and there are plenty of amenities nearby. Beaches range from tiny, secluded strips of sand to huge swathes with plenty of room for beach volleyball and picnicking. Four of the most popular beaches are:
Bike on one or more of the many Cape Cod bike trails. If you did not bring your own bike, that is no problem, since there are many places where you can rent one. Three of the most frequented trails are:
Other activities to consider while vacationing on Cape Cod include:
Colleges and Universities
Food and vacations seem to be synonymous in American culture, and so it's not surprising to find that Cape Cod, a place heavily frequented by tourists, has abundant dining opportunities. Long famous for its local seafood, there are many traditional ""clam shacks"" where customers can enjoy fried clams, buttered lobsters, grilled fish, steamed mussels in garlic broth, and Nantucket scallops. Visitors also won't want to miss having a bowl of creamy, white New England clam chowder, trying a lobster roll — which is essentially cold lobster on a hot dog bun with mayo and lettuce — and treating themselves to a ""quahog"", a kind of baked, stuffed clam.
Food prices are generally higher on the Cape, and a 15% to 20% tip is generally expected, although it's sometimes already included on the bill. While many diners are open all day, many others serve only particular meals. Breakfast is typically served between 7 am and 11 am, lunch from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm and dinner from 5 pm until 10 pm.
Some of the most popular places to eat on Cape Cod, town by town, are as follows:
Also, look for ""steamers"" (steamed clams) at ""raw bars"" in their most famous locations - Wellfleet and Cotuit. Stop by the farmer's market for fresh, local produce and don't disdain the cheaper ""street food"" in Provincetown, like burritos at The Aquarium Mall',' or burgers at Mojo's.
There is no shortage of places to grab a drink on Cape Cod. Bars, pubs and alcohol-serving restaurants abound, and most of them are open at least between June and August when the big tourist rush arrives. If traveling to Cape Cod during the off-season, it would be wise to call ahead and make sure the establishment will be open.
The legal drinking age is 21 years old, and visitors can expect to have their IDs checked frequently during the tourist season. Bars and liquor stores will be very wary of selling to someone with an out-of-state ID, and they may request a second ID or a passport. Some are more lenient, however, to residents of the nearby states of New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and restaurants tend to accept those IDs more readily. One way around the ID problem for Massachusetts residents is to obtain a Liquor ID from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. The card is only $25 and lasts for 5 years.
A small sampling of the many places to sit down for a drink on Cape Cod are as follows:
There are also several wine and beer tours available on The Cape, conducted by Cape Cod Winery, Truro Vineyards and Cape Cod Beer. "
"If you're visiting Cape Cod for more than a day trip, you will need to find accommodations, and the choices are quite varied, from the most basic lodgings to plush, upscale living. The three main resort towns are Chatham, Hyannis, and Provincetown, conveniently spaced in the west, central, and east part of the Cape, respectively. Seasonal establishments are generally open April through October, although prices can rise dramatically during the summer high season or festival days.
The Upper Cape
In Sandwich, on the north end of the Cape Cod Canal and right on U.S. Highway 6, you may wish to lodge at the entrance of the Cape. For an upscale resort, try the Dan'l Webster Inn & Spa with its refined, 18th Century decor. For a simple room, a pool, and shady woods, try Shady Nook Inn.
On the south side of the canal in Bourne, you can camp at Bourne Scenic Park. This popular site allows both tents and trailers, and it sits right on the canal and near to a bike trail.
Falmouth, on Cape Cod's southwestern tip, is a great jumping off point for Martha's Vineyard. Try The Palmer House Inn, a romantic bed and breakfast just a short walk away from diners, shops, and the beach.
In Mashpee, you may wish to explore the culture and history of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, which resides there. You could stay at the Santuit Inn, an 18-unit, boutique motel or at the Alexander Hamilton House Cape Cod, an exquisite, private-suite home.
In Hyannis, consider the Hyannis Harbor Hotel’’, with its nautical-themed building, dining area, and pools. Just off the harbor, it is just a 10-minute walk from Veteran's Park Beach and Main Street. Nearby attractions include the JFK Hyannis Museum, the Cape Cod Maritime Museum, numerous waterfront restaurants, and a ferry port to Nantucket or Martha's Vineyard.
Three resorts to try in Hyannis are The Resort and Conference Center at Hyannis’’, Courtyard Resort’’ with its kitchenettes and pool, and Green Harbor Resort for a casual stay on a private beach. Anchor In Hotel offers flat-screen TVs, a heated pool, and a continental breakfast.
In the Cape's capital, Barnstable, consider the bed and breakfast Ashley Manor’’, the ""Lamb and Lion Inn"" with its sparkling pool, or the beautiful ""Beechwood Inn.""
The Lower Cape
At the Cape's ""elbow"" is the town of Chatham. Here, try the Wequassett Resort and Golf Club for luxurious lodging on the scenic coast, ""Pleasant Bay Village"" for a relaxing stay and an outdoor pool, ""Chatham Inn at 359 Main"", or ""The Chatham Tides Waterfront Lodging"".
The Outer Cape
In Provincetown, Provincetown Inn is a private beach resort overlooking the harbor and is a two-minute walk from Pilgrims' First Landing Park. Crowne Pointe Historic Inn and Spa offers a free breakfast and evening wine and cheese. Revere Guest House has beautiful suites, a hot tub, garden and a continental breakfast. Surfside Hotel & Suites has both a private beach and an outdoor pool."
"As you explore the many tourist sites on Cape Cod and take part in some of the myriad activities offered to visitors, you will be focused on enjoying the mild weather, learning all you can about the Cape, and having as much fun as possible. Safety, however, must still come first - even on vacation.
Some of the most notable dangers and safety hazards you need to be aware of in Cape Cod include:
Martha's Vineyard can be reached via ferries from several Cape Cod harbors:
With one exception, all ferries to Nantucket depart from Hyannis.
Monomoy Island is actually two islands. The larger South island was inhabited with a lighthouse until a hurricane wiped the town out in the 1860's. Today, Monomoy is a national wildlife refuge.
Traffic is heavy on summer weekends. Try to get over the bridges before noon or after 7PM if leaving on Sunday during the summer. Use SmarTraveler® to see traffic conditions: .