This small but remarkable island, located just 30 miles south of mainland Massachusetts, will make you feel like you have stepped back in time and are millions of miles away from the hustle and bustle of the big city life in the larger New England cities. If you’re planning on visiting here, you can use this guide to learn about the best attractions and things to do in Nantucket.
The name Nantucket means “faraway land” in the language of the island’s original inhabitants – the Wampanoag tribe.
The rugged island has a rich history. The earliest settlers arrived in the 1600s. In the mid-1700s to late 1800s, Nantucket was considered the leading whaling capital of the world. Today, Nantucket is one of the top-preferred summer vacation destinations and has some of the most expensive properties in New England.
Luckily, you can rent a local house, cottage, mansion, or other accommodation for your stay at a reasonable price in just about any neighborhood and part of the island.
With unmatched beaches, an abundance of perfectly restored historical buildings, miles of untouched nature and wildlife, and some of the best restaurants, Nantucket has everything you need to have an unforgettable vacation.
- 1. Take a stroll down Main Street
- 2. Enjoy the view at Sconset Bluff Walk
- 3. Brant Point Lighthouse
- 4. Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge
- 5. Whaling Museum
- 6. Spend time on the beach
- 7. Join the fun at Cisco Brewers
- 8. Enjoy fresh seafood
- 9. Whale watching
- 10. Go kayaking
- 11. Explore the island via bike trails
- 12. Go fishing
- 13. Bartlett’s Farm
- 14. Stargazing at Loines Observatory
- 15. Go Antiquing and Shopping
- 16. Attend Local Festivals
1. Take a stroll down Main Street
This cobblestone-paved street, lit by gas-powered lanterns and decorated by flower pots, window flower boxes, and blooming hydrangeas at every step, is one of the most magical places to explore in the historical Downtown of Nantucket.
Main Street has some of the most remarkable historic mansions and stately buildings, which were built by wealthy and successful whale ship owners, captains, and local whale oil producers.
The buildings are excellent examples of American pre-civil war architecture, including Greek Revival, Federal, and Mid-Victorian styles.
This postcard-like street is also home to some of the iconic shops, galleries, and restaurants on the island, including the famous Murray’s Toggery Store, where one can buy a pair of Nantucket Reds pants.
2. Enjoy the view at Sconset Bluff Walk
This is a walking path that passes through the most picturesque area of Nantucket – Siasconset Village. It is an enchanting neighborhood with world-famous rose-covered cottages with gray weathered shingles and stunning gardens and lawns.
The mile-long walkway is the only way the average tourist can get close enough to admire these beautiful historic summer homes from right outside their white picket fences.
The path was created over 100 years ago and passes beside the picturesque and dramatic cliffs above the island’s eastern shore, the nearby Siasconset Beach, the seal colony, and the red-and-white historic Sankaty Head Lighthouse.
3. Brant Point Lighthouse
This small lighthouse has been showing the way of all arriving ferries, boats, and ships at the Nantucket Harbor since 1746, which was before the USA became an independent country!
It has been destroyed and rebuilt ten times through the years, and today’s tower, built in 1901, is the second oldest still-working lighthouse in the states and a National Historic Landmark since 1975.
Brant Point Lighthouse is one of the top-preferred photo-op spots. Not only does it have a remarkable history, but this lighthouse offers a superb view of the entire harbor, all the mega yachts, and the blue waters of the Nantucket Sound.
Plus, it is within walking distance from the historic Downtown and an excellent place for a picnic or watching the sunset.
In the spring, the iconic tower is adorned with a daffodil wreath, and on Christmas, the locals decorate it with a giant Christmas wreath, making it even more Instagram-worthy.
4. Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge
This is the largest and possibly the most beautiful wildlife refuge and conserved territory on the island.
The Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge is located on the northern coast of the island and includes hundreds of acres of sandy dunes, the most prominent New English red cedar savannah, one of the most stunning barrier beaches separating the Nantucket Sound from the open Atlantic, and a wide array of wild animals and birds.
Also on its territory is the brightest of all lighthouses in New England, the Great Point Lighthouse, set on the northeasternmost point of Nantucket.
There are guided tours of the refuge which you can sign up for, or you can visit and explore it on your own by foot, bike, or drive there with a beach driving permit and a 4×4 vehicle.
Keep in mind that the hike there is about 7 miles and is mostly on sandy terrain, so it is not the most accessible walking trail on the island. But it is undoubtedly one of the most stunning ones to explore.
5. Whaling Museum
Since whaling has played such a massive role in the history, prosperity, and overall lifestyle on the island of Nantucket, you should visit this famous museum if you want to delve into the essence of whaling and understand the history and psychology of the locals.
The Whaling Museum is easily the top-rated attraction in Nantucket, suitable for adults and children alike.
It is set in a beautiful historic building that used to be a factory for producing candles made of whale oil.
The museum contains thousands of artifacts, works of art, historic treasure, and exhibits from the whaling years, collected for over four centuries.
The centerpiece is most certainly the 46-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, but you can also see the first Fresnel lens used in a lighthouse in the USA, as well as genuine artifacts from the whaling ships, including the Essex whaleship and its captain who inspired Herman Melville to write the great American masterpiece “Moby-Dick, or the Whale.”
Don’t forget to pop up to the viewing deck on the roof of a museum for a panoramic view of Downtown, the harbor, and the Nantucket Sound.
6. Spend time on the beach
Even if you are not a particular fan of sunbathing and lounging on the beach all day long, you can still enjoy spending time on one of the many stunning beaches of Nantucket, at a picnic, on a romantic date, watching the sunset, or engaging in your favorite water sport and activity.
Nantucket has over 80 miles of beaches, all of which are entirely free to access and open to the public.
There are beaches suitable for families and small kids, as well as others that are more popular among youngsters and water sports lovers.
Of course, you can find quieter and less crowded beaches for a more relaxed and private experience, to collect seashells and sea glass treasures, spot seals, enjoy some beach or SUP yoga, as well as spend a wonderful afternoon or evening sipping a chilled mixed drink or rose directly on the beach, or at one of the many fantastic waterfront restaurants and bars.
Some of the best places to go and enjoy watching the famous Nantucket sunsets include Madaket Beach, Cisco Beach, Boat Basin, 40th Pole, Galley Beach, and Washing Pond Beach.
Fun fact, recently, a bylaw for gender equality on the beaches was passed in Nantucket, allowing all people, regardless of gender, to be topless on the beaches, starting this summer. How this new liberating rule will be accepted by the locals and by vacationers remains to be seen as the peak of the summer season approaches.
7. Join the fun at Cisco Brewers
This popular establishment was once named “the happiest place on Earth” and is the perfect spot to spend a leisurely and fun afternoon with friends and other guests.
It comprises the local craft beer brewery and Nantucket’s Triple Eight Distillery and Vineyard.
So, there is a beverage suitable for every taste and preference. Some of the local brews to try include the goldens, IPAs, and wheat ales, as well as unique seasonal specials such as Summer Ray Golden Ale and Pumple Drumkin Pumpkin Ale.
You can enjoy some of the best local mixed drinks at one of the three bars and sit on one of the many inviting tables in the beer garden.
During the high season, there is live music every day at Cisco Brewers. The casual spot is child and dog friendly. There are also some top-notch food trucks where you can order snacks and more elevated dishes made of fresh seafood and produce.
8. Enjoy fresh seafood
You can’t visit Nantucket without trying out fresh seafood. With its coastal location and emphasis on local ingredients, Nantucket provides a wonderful culinary experience for seafood lovers. Enjoy dishes like oysters, lobster rools, raw bar selections, and fresh fish.
Galley Beach is situated right on the beach and offers a breathtaking oceanfront dining experience. Straight Wharf Restaurant is a waterfront restaurant on the Nantucket Harbor, known for their exceptional seafood dishes, as well as a raw bar and creative cocktails. At the same harbor, you can find Slip 14, which offers a more laid-back atmosphere.
You will also find plenty of seafood restaurants in Nantucket Town including Cru, The Nautilus, Dune, and Lola 41. Brant Point Grill, located at The White Elephant Hotel, is also not to be missed.
9. Whale watching
One of the best things to do in Nantucket that you shouldn’t miss is whale watching!
Several companies on the island offer whale watching tours, giving you the unique opportunity to see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. These tours typically depart from Nantucket Harbor and can last from a couple of hours to a half-day excursion. Some tours may include additional activities like bird watching or seal spotting.
With a boat tour, you can spot various species of whales, including humpback whales, finback whales, minke whales, and sometimes even the rare North Atlantic right whale. In addition to whales, you may also spot other marine animals such as dolphins, seals, sea turtles, and a variety of seabirds during your excursion.
The peak season for whale watching in Nantucket is from mid-April to October. During this time, you have a higher chance of spotting the whales.
10. Go kayaking
Kayaking in Nantucket offers a wonderful way to explore the island’s scenic coastline, peaceful harbors, and abundant marine life.
The most popular spot for kayaking and paddleboarding is the Nantucket Harbor. It is beginner-friendly, and the water is usually calm and sheltered. You can admire the view of the coastline, the yachts, and the iconic Brant Point lighthouse. For a bit more adventure, make your way to Nantucket Sound and Jetties Beach.
The freshwater ponds in the island are also great spots for kayaking and perfect for inexperienced kayakers. From Popis Harbor, paddle to Coskata Pond located in the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge where you can enjoy the panoramic views and bid watching. Other freshwater ponds you should see include the Long Pond, Hummock Pond, and Sesachacha Pond.
11. Explore the island via bike trails
Biking is a great way to explore Nantucket! Nantucket has approximately 30 miles of paved trails that wind through various parts of the island, offering you a fantastic way to explore charming villages like ‘Sconset or visit landmarks such as lighthouses and nature reserves.
You can find plenty of bike rental shops offering a wide range of bike options, including cruisers, mountain bikes, and hybrid bikes. A lot of hotels in Nantucket also offer complimentary bike rental. And don’t worry about getting home – public buses in Nantucket come with bike racks.
Here are some popular biking trails in Nantucket:
- Polpis Road Path: A popular biking trail that stretches from Nantucket Town to the village of Siasconset, also known as ‘Sconset. This picturesque trail takes you through peaceful countryside, offering scenic views of moors and meadows along the way.
- Surfside Bike Path: The Surfside Bike Path is another notable trail that leads from Nantucket Town to Surfside Beach. This path is great for beach lovers, as it takes you through the dunes and coastal landscapes, offering glimpses of the ocean as you ride.
- Madaket Bike Path: The Madaket Bike Path runs from Nantucket Town to Madaket Beach on the western side of the island. This trail provides stunning views of the harbor and Nantucket Sound, and it takes you past beautiful salt marshes and rolling hills.
- ‘Sconset Bluff Walk: While not specifically a bike path, the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk is a scenic route that can be traversed on foot or by bike. This trail runs along the picturesque bluffs of ‘Sconset, offering panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.
- Biking to Great Point: If you’re up for an adventure, you can bike to Great Point, located at the northeastern tip of the island. This off-road biking experience takes you through the sand along the shorelines of Coatue and offers a chance to spot wildlife and explore the Great Point Lighthouse.
12. Go fishing
Fishing is one of the most popular things to do in Nantucket, thanks to the island’s rich marine ecosystem and diverse fishing opportunities.
Nantucket’s waters are home to a wide range of fish species. Common catches include striped bass, bluefish, fluke (summer flounder), tautog, black sea bass, scup, and bonito. Offshore fishing can yield species like bluefin tuna, yellowfin tuna, and mahi-mahi, and sharks (yes, it is legal to fish for sharks, but not keep them).
You can fish from a boat or try your luck from the jetties or docks. Surfcasting is also a popular method of fishing from the shore in Nantucket. Popular surfcasting spots include Madaket Beach, Cisco Beach, and Great Point.
If you’re looking for a thrilling offshore fishing experience, you can charter a boat and venture into deeper waters. Offshore fishing in Nantucket can lead to encounters with big game fish such as tuna, mahi-mahi, and sharks. These charters typically provide all the necessary equipment and expertise to maximize your chances of a successful catch.
If you’re new to fishing, consider hiring a fishing charter for a guided trip and expertise of experience captains who know the best fishing spots.
13. Bartlett’s Farm
Bartlett’s Farm is one of the best places to visit in Nantucket. Established in 1833, this beloved family-owned farm allows you to have a fun and relaxing day in the island. Grab some fresh produce, taste a variety of farm-to-table dishes offered at the stalls, and explore the plants and flowers at its garden center.
Kids will also love visiting Bartlett’s Farm. Guided farm tours are available where you can go on tractor rides or pick your own vegetable such as tomatoes. There is also a playground where the children can play.
Throughout the year, the farm organizes various events, workshops, and demonstrations throughout the year. These include cooking classes, gardening workshops, flower arranging sessions, and special events like tastings and farm tours. These activities provide opportunities to learn, engage with the farm, and discover new skills.
Visiting this farm is a fun activity for the whole family and will let you feel like a local making it one of the best things to do in Nantucket.
14. Stargazing at Loines Observatory
Visiting the Loines Observatory is one of the most unique things to do in Nantucket. This activity is ideal for all ages and will let you explore the wonders of the night sky at Nantucket Island. It also makes for a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the city, as the observatory is tucked away in the village of Cisco, toward the southern end of the island.
The Loines Observatory was established in 1969. It was designed to provide a platform for studying astronomy and promoting scientific education on the island. The observatory features a dome housing a state-of-the-art telescope, which is used for research, public viewings, and educational programs. The primary instrument is a 24-inch Ritchey-Chrétien reflecting telescope, which offers high-quality images of celestial objects.
It regularly holds public viewings throughout the year. You can use the observatory’s two giant telescopes and a portable reflector telescope to look at the moon, Saturn and its rings, Jupiter, as well as different planets, stars, nebulae, and distant galaxies. The experience will surely leave you in awe, and you’ll also learn more about constellations, satellites, and new discoveries in astronomy.
Public viewings at the Loines Observatory may require reservations or tickets due to limited space or high demand. It’s advisable to make a reservation in advance if necessary to secure your spot.
15. Go Antiquing and Shopping
Nantucket is a haven for antique enthusiasts and shoppers. Browse through the many antique shops and boutiques in town, where you can find unique treasures, artwork, handmade crafts, and nautical-themed souvenirs.
The best shopping in Nantucket can be found in Main Street. It’s a bustling hub lined with charming storefronts and boutiques. Here, you’ll find a mix of upscale fashion brands, jewelry stores, art galleries, and specialty shops offering everything from clothing and accessories to home decor and gifts. Federal Street, adjacent to Main Street, is another shopping destination that you shouldn’t miss.
If you’re looking for antiques, head to Nantucket Antiques Depot located on Old South Road
It’s also worth checking out the shops operated by the Nantucket Historical Association on the island, including the Whaling Museum Gift Shop and the Oldest House Museum Shop. These shops often carry historical and maritime-themed items, books, reproductions, and locally crafted products that celebrate Nantucket’s heritage.
16. Attend Local Festivals
Nantucket hosts a variety of festivals and events throughout the year.
Held annually in May, the Nantucket Wine & Food Festival is one of the most sought-after festivals in Nantucket where you can taste local delicacies and world-class wines, attend seminars and cooking demonstrations, and other special events.
Meanwhile, the Nantucket Film Festival takes place in June and will let you enjoy screenings by independent filmmakers, panel discussions, and workshops and meet renowned filmmakers and industry professionals.
During the Christmas holidays, you can join the Nantucket Christmas Stroll, a cherished holiday tradition that takes place in early December. The town is adorned with festive decorations, and the streets are filled with carolers, live entertainment, craft fairs, and a visit from Santa Claus.
These are just a few examples of the local festivals and events that take place on Nantucket. Check the event calendar to see if any festivals align with your visit.
That concludes our list of best things to do in Nantucket, Massachusetts! Do you have anything else to add? Let us know in the comments section below.
This article is contributed by an expert guest author.