As far as we're concerned, there are three very good reasons to visit Cape Cod. Its historic windmills, which tell of the region's rich past, its picture-perfect beaches, and its mouthwateringly, mind-blowingly, life-change-ingly delicious lobster rolls. Obviously, there are loads of lighthouses to visit, but being honest, windmills are a little bit cooler, and a lot harder to find. And while we love the many ice cream stands and parlors dotting the Cape, we can get ice cream pretty much anywhere. Lobster rolls are a delicacy, and when you're visiting, you're going to want to eat as many as possible. Lobster rolls for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Okay, maybe that's a bit extreme, but still. Try more than one. Of course, we can't forget the beaches, which are special in that they often feature warm, calm water, wide expanses of sandy dunes, and killer sunsets. Here's our guide to Cape Cod and all of its windmill-y, beachy, drenched-in-butter glory.
Nantucket is an experience all its own. With its many historic homes, lighthouses, and beaches, the whole island is a historic district worth exploring. But, we're here to talk about its mill. The Old Mill. The name, while generic, is accurate. It's the oldest functioning mill in the country. It was built in 1746 by a sailor named Nathan Wilbur who was inspired by his time in Holland. In 1828, it was sold to Jared Gardner "for firewood" as it was considered to be in "deplorable" condition. Rather than chop it up and burn it, he refurbished it and used it to grind corn. It's been owned by the Nantucket Historical Society since 1897, which is pretty wild.
There's a lot to see at Sandwich's Heritage Museums and Gardens, like the adventure park with ziplines, the old carousel, the largest public garden in Southern New England, and the museum, which features folk art, old cars, and rotating exhibits. It also has a windmill, the Old East Windmill, which was built in Orleans in 1800 and moved to the gardens. Its location among the landscapes flowers and greenery make it particularly photogenic.
Yarmouth's Judah Baker Windmill is set in a little park right by the beach. It was built in 1791 and has moved location several times. It's even survived storms, although it no long functions. It was restored using old-school, authentic methods in the 1970s and 1990s. The town cares for it and offers seasonal tours. Or, you can just take a stroll around the park and snap a few photos.
Yarmouth is a cool town with some pretty rad things to do. Check out the Edward Gorey House (once owned by the famed illustrator known for his dark, Victorian/Edwardian pen-and-ink drawings), or head to the nearby JFK Hyannis Museum, dedicated to the president's love for Cape Cod, and the Whydah Pirate Museum.
If you're not itching to get your toes in the sand by now, then you're crazy. Corporation Beach boasts a wide sandy beach that's perfect for swimming at high tide and for strolling and exploring tidepools at low. It's got lifeguards, restrooms, a snack bar, and all the amenities that you want for an afternoon at the shore.
By now, you've earned a lobster roll. Sesuit Harbor Cafe makes one of the best on the Cape. Local fishermen bring fresh seafood to their back door daily, and they use it for their raw bar, in their platters, for their chowder and on their "overstuffed" lobster rolls. And don't forget an order of thin 'n' crispy onion rings. The food is only outdone by the perfect atmosphere. Order at the window, snag a seat at a picnic table overlooking the water, and enjoy the ocean breezes and the grub. Two things to note: It's cash only, and it's BYOB.
The Old Higgins Farm Windmill has been standing strong since 1795. It last ground grain in 1900, but its journey wasn't over then. It was moved several times, and was placed at this location in the 1970s. Though it's no longer functional, the equipment inside has been preserved, and its location in an open field is serene and picturesque. It's just off the Old King's Highway, aka Route 6A, which is one of the best scenic drives through the Cape, hugging the harbor and offering great views and charming culture.
Another great stop just off the Old King's Highway is Breakwater Beach. Like most beaches on the harbor, it's got calm and warm water, and offers lots of sand. The seashelling and wildlife spotting are great here, making it a must-visit if you're with kids. The breeze keeps it from getting too hot while you enjoy the water and scenery. Just remember to get a parking pass from the town of Brewster if you want to use the lot, or plan to do a bit of walking.
It's hard to imagine now, but in the 1700s, the small town of Chatham had eleven wind-powered gristmills. The only one still standing and open to the public in the town is Chatham's Godfrey Windmill. It was operational until 1907, when a gale destroyed the arms. It survived a lot of storm damage, actually, and was even struck by lightning at one point. It was first renovated and opened to the public in the 1950s, and has been an icon for the town ever since, getting touchups in the 70s and 80s.
The Jonathan Young Windmill is notable in that it's almost entirely intact with its original machinery; an impressive feat, considering that it was built in the early 1700s. The historical society that cares for the Jonathan Young Windmill notes that famed thinker and writer Henry David Thoreau was captivated by Cape Cod's windmills: "Being on elevated ground, and high in themselves they serve as landmarks - for there are no tall trees."
Skaket Beach is most famous for its jaw-dropping sunsets. In fact, it's a tradition for many to bring a wine and cheese picnic or even just a blanket to watch the nightly show put on by Mother Nature. During the day, the beach offers the gentle waves, cool breezes (which make for awesome kite-flying) and perfect temperature that mark most bay-facing beaches.
First Encounter Beach is another popular spot for watching the sunset, but it also features some unique history, too. This is where historians theorize that the pilgrims on the Mayflower first met Native Americans from the Nauset tribe. If you plan to spend the day here before the sunset, enjoy the grassy dunes, shallow water, and wild ocean creatures, from turtles to clams to horseshoe crabs.
The Eastham Windmill is the oldest on Cape Cod, having been built all the way back in 1680. Its been in this location since 1808. Each year, on the weekend following Labor Day, the town holds a Windmill Weekend. The celebration features a sand art competition, road races, an arts and craft show, a tricycle race, live music, and more.
There's a good reason there are so many windmills on Cape Cod. Firstly, the ocean breezes make wind power super practical. Many windmills grew out of a need for salt. Windmills were used to pump salt water into evaporators to create salt, which was used to preserve the many fish caught in the area before they were shipped to further-off cities like Boston. The more you know!
Another local favorite for lobster rolls is Arnold's Lobster & Clam Bar. You can get your roll cold (lightly dressed with mayo) or warm (and drenched in melted butter); you can't go wrong with either. They also offer platters of fried seafood classics (whole belly clams, clam strips, wellfleet scallops, oysters, shrimp, calamari, fish 'n' chips... I could go on all day) and "world famous" onion rings. And as if that wasn't enough, they make a mean chowder and offer a raw bar, too. And non-seafood eaters, fear not! Hot dogs, burgers, fried chicken, and even salad are on the menu, too. After your lunch, enjoy some ice cream, or burn off the calories with a round at their mini golf course.
The Cape Cod National Seashore preserves 43,607 acres of New England beachy beauty. That's nearly 40 miles of shoreline! It was set aside by JFK (duh) in 1961 and has been a go-to for visitors and locals alike ever since. You can't go wrong with any of the beaches run by the NPS, but popular destinations include Coast Guard Beach, Nauset Light Beach, and Race Point Beach. The National Seashore also runs several lighthouses, including Highland Light (open daily during the season), Nauset Light (open twice a week during the season), and a few others that open for tours periodically. The Salt Pond Visitor Center is a great place to start exploring, as its got a little museum, trails right outside, and is a short walk from the Nauset Light Beach.
Pro tip: while there's a fee to enter and park during the summer season, it's free to visit during the off-season.
End your adventure in the quirky community of Provincetown. It's filled with beaches, art galleries, one-of-a-kind shops, lighthouses, historic sites, and, of course, great seafood. The Lobster Pot is an icon, thanks to its neon sign and menu that features all lobster everything. Lobster egg rolls, lobster ravioli, lobster bisque, lobster grilled cheese, lobster baby kale Caesar salad, baked stuffed lobster, and even classic preparations like Lobster Primavera and Lobster Newburg. And they make a really good lobster salad roll too, naturally. Dining here in their location overlooking the harbor is a totally classic experience, and makes for the perfect end to the trip.
Summer is probably the best time to visit, as many restaurants and tours don't operate during the offseason. However, winter is not a bad time for a weekend getaway. Many of the beaches will be far less crowded, and might even be free to visit!