You’ll find plenty of things to do in Nantucket, the perfect summer island getaway with beautiful white sandy beaches, charming architecture, a quaint town, and stunning sunsets.
A trip to Nantucket is one of the most memorable vacations in New England.
This somewhat remote island exudes charm, has some of the most beautiful beaches on the East Coast, and provides a long list of things to do for just about any age or interest. Whether you enjoy history, outdoor activities, or simply soaking up the coastal ambiance, Nantucket has something for every type of traveler.
But among the long list of things to do on Nantucket, it’s important to keep in mind that the island’s charm lies in its simplicity and natural beauty. So during your time here take the time to relax, unwind, and enjoy the island’s unique atmosphere.
Traveling to Nantucket isn’t easy – you’ll either need to catch a ferry or fly into the island airport. There’s also no such thing as a budget trip to Nantucket. Both the cost of travel and accommodations are expensive, as are food and most shopping.
But a trip to Nantucket is most definitely worth it – there’s simply no other place that epitomizes summer vacation as well as this island. Even though it’s only 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Nantucket feels like a different world. There’s a uniqueness to this place that’s simply incomparable.
To make the most of your time on the island, here’s a list of the 17 best things to do in Nantucket.
Explore Nantucket Town
Nantucket Town is the colloquial name islanders give to the downtown section of the island. It’s full of numerous shops, retail stores, restaurants, and cafes and exudes charm with its cobblestone streets and storefronts that date back to the 18th century.
It’s easy to spend a couple of hours simply wandering the streets of Nantucket Town, popping into the wide variety of shops, or grabbing a bite to eat. Be sure to also walk toward the water and wander through the wharves were you’ll find a selection of cute shops alongside impressive docked yachts.
If you’re in the mood for coffee or a quick bite to eat, be sure to stop into Born & Bread for a delightful variety of baked goods, sandwiches, and coffee (but get there early for the best selection!) (35 North Centre Street). Over on Main Street, you’ll find Lemon Press, another cute cafe with a wide selection of drinks and organic fare (41 Main Street).
Nantucket Town is also known for an extensive range of women’s clothing stores – so many good ones, that it’s difficult to choose favorites! While you’ll find chain stores such as Vineyard Vines, Ralph Lauren, and J. McLaughlin, some of the boutiques are the most interesting such as The Skinny Dip, full of dresses and tops in distinctive prints (23 Old South Wharf). And Wheat carries a wide variety of one-of-a-kind pieces with luxurious prints and fabrics for all seasons (5 South Water Street).
Relax on Nantucket’s beautiful beaches
The shining star of Nantucket is by far its gorgeous beaches! White sand beaches surround the island and are among the best things to do in Nantucket whether it’s relaxing under a shade umbrella, taking in a dip in the ocean, or walking beside the shore.
There’s a public beach on nearly every corner of the island and while they each have their own personality, all are stunningly beautiful. Here are some of the most popular:
- Surfside Beach: Known for its wide stretch of sandy shore and good surf, Surfside, unsurprisingly, is a popular spot for surfers. It’s on the mid-southern part of the island, not far from the airport.
- Siasconset Beach (‘Sconset Beach): This beach is located in the village of Siasconset on the eastern end of the island. While some areas may be near private properties, there are public access points with ample space to spread out.
- Madaket Beach: If you’re dreaming of wandering along miles of white open sand with hardly a person in sight, Madaket is your beach! Located on the western end of the island, this beach is also a great place to watch the sunset (see below).
- Jetties Beach: This popular public beach, known for its calm waters, is a short distance from Nantucket Town and is a great spot for families, as it offers amenities like restrooms, a playground, and a beachside restaurant.
- Dionis Beach: Located on the north shore, Dionis Beach is known for its peaceful and scenic setting. It’s open to the public, but it doesn’t have extensive amenities.
Explore the island by bike
One of Nantucket’s best features is its extensive bike trails making it possible to travel to just about every corner of the island on two wheels.
While there are times, like in Nantucket Town, when bike paths converge with roads, most of the island’s bike paths are distinctive, much like a sidewalk.
Ambitious cyclists can spend entire days traveling by bike to the western edge of Madaket, through Nantucket Town, and on to Sisconset in the afternoon, for example. Trails also lead up north toward Wauwinnet and from Nantucket Town to points further south. (Click here to see a map of the Nantucket bike paths)
For a fee, it’s possible to take a bike on both the fast and slow ferries, but be sure to make a reservation for your bike during the busy summer months.
Wander around the charming village of Siasconset
“Charming” doesn’t adequately describe the eastern village of Siasconset (colloquially called ‘Sconset) with its quaint gray clapboard cottages, often covered in a cascade of flowers and steps away from stunning ‘Sconset Beach.
This little village is picture-perfect in the truest sense and feels a bit like stepping into a dream or perhaps a different era.
Most visitors arrive in ‘Sconset’s roundabout – essentially the center of this tiny hamlet. From here, you can venture into the Siaconset Market, a modern convenience store with a nostalgic vibe (4 Main Street), or grab a sit-down meal at Claudette’s Sandwich Shop (10 Main Street).
Next, you’ll want to wander down Main Street, across the wooden footbridge (with views of the ocean on your left) to arrive at Gully Road. This street leads to ‘Sconset Beach’s public entrance, a gorgeous white sand beach that extends for miles in either direction.
But part of Sconset’s charm is most definitely its cottages, and Gully Road, which leads into Codfish Park Road, has plenty of them. Take time to wander through this little neighborhood imagining what life is like inside these ocean-side dwellings. Other picturesque cottages and narrow streets continue up on Front Street and Broadway.
Take in the views from the ‘Sconset Bluffs Walk
As you’re bathing in the charm of ‘Sconset village, be sure not to miss the village’s Bluffs Walk.
Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a hiker or walker, you’ll still want to wander down this enchanting path. It’s definitely one of the best things to do in Nantucket on the island’s eastern side.
Imagine walking down a narrow trail on the edge of a cliff, with charming quintessential Nantucket cottages to your left and extensive stunning views of the ocean and beach to your right – that’s the Bluffs Walk!
This public path isn’t that well-known but those who find it are glad they did. In total, the ‘Sconset Bluffs Walk is roughly one mile from beginning to end and the surface is mainly flat. No bikes are allowed on the path but (friendly) dogs are.
Visit Nantucket lighthouses
Lighthouse enthusiasts are in for a treat on Nantucket. The island has numerous lighthouses, many of which are set against stunning vistas and become the backdrop of portraits and photos.
Here’s a summary of the three lighthouses on the island:
- Sankaty Head Lighthouse: Situated at the eastern end of the island, Sankaty Head Lighthouse is known for its distinct red and white stripes. It offers stunning panoramic views of the island and the Atlantic Ocean. (122 Baxter Road)
- Brant Point Lighthouse: Located at the entrance to Nantucket Harbor, Brant Point Lighthouse is one of the most famous and easily accessible lighthouses on the island. It’s a picturesque spot and serves as a welcoming beacon for arriving boats and ferries. (Easton Street)
- Great Point Lighthouse: Great Point Lighthouse is at the northern tip of Nantucket Island. To reach this remote and rugged location, you typically need a four-wheel-drive vehicle or you can take a guided tour. It’s a fantastic spot for wildlife watching and offers a sense of isolation and natural beauty.
Keep in mind that some lighthouses may have restricted access or require special arrangements to visit, so it’s a good idea to check their accessibility and any seasonal limitations before visiting.
Visit the Whaling Museum
History buffs will want to carve out time to visit the Whaling Museum, conveniently located in Nantucket Town.
Here, you’ll find an extensive collection of artifacts, including whaling equipment, scrimshaw (carvings done in bone or ivory), and historic photographs, offering a deep dive into Nantucket’s whaling industry.
One of its most intriguing exhibits is the fully restored skeleton of a 46-foot sperm whale, providing a sense of the scale and majesty of these creatures. The museum also delves into the personal stories of Nantucket’s whalers, offering a poignant look at the hardships and triumphs of those who embarked on perilous whaling voyages.
The Whaling Museum is open seasonally from 10 AM – 5 PM daily. Admission is $25 for adults with discounts for select groups. Check the website to confirm times and prices. (15 Broad Street)
Explore Nantucket’s natural beauty
Nantucket has a long history of preserving natural landscapes and open spaces through extensive conservation efforts. Thousands of acres have been preserved, allowing both residents and visitors to experience the natural beauty of the island.
One of the best things to do in Nantucket is to explore these outdoor spaces. Some of the most popular conservation lands include:
- Windswept Cranberry Bog: This is a scenic and peaceful spot where visitors can take a self-guided tour through the cranberry bog while enjoying the island’s flora and fauna. (301 Polpis Road)
- Squam Farm: Squam Farm offers a 1.5 circular walking trail through fields and woods on 210 acres. (1 Squidnet Way)
- Masquetuck Reservation: Located on the eastern end of the island, this 13.5-acre conservation area features hiking trails and scenic overlooks with beautiful views of Nantucket Sound. (15 Quaise Pasture Road)
- Serengeti & the Middle Moors: This area offers a unique combination of open meadows and wetlands, making it an ideal place for observing wildlife, particularly bird species. (Milestone Road)
- Smooth Hummocks: Located near the eastern shore, Smooth Hummocks is known for its picturesque sand dunes and is a great place for beachcombing and solitude. (Proprietors Way)
Dine at one of Nantucket’s many restaurants and eateries
Nantucket has many excellent dining options throughout the island. And, of course, fresh seafood is a specialty!
Here are a few of the most popular restaurants to try during your stay:
- Millie’s: One of the most popular restaurants on the island is also the most remote (so you know it has to be good!). Located in Madaket, Millie’s food is best described as casual but refined seafood dishes. You won’t be disappointed here. Anything with lobster is a sure winner and the fish tacos are addictive. (326 Madaket Road)
- Oran Mor: Located in the center of Nantucket Town, this bistro features a wide variety of refined dishes and is the perfect place to go for a special date night. The lobster pasta dish is among the most popular as are the truffle bucatini and roasted oysters. (2 South Beach Street)
- Island Kitchen: Another popular spot, just outside of Nantucket Town, is Island Kitchen which serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You’ll find something for just about every appetite here, from Harvest Power Bowls to NY Steak and burgers, to Acai bowls. (130 Pleasant Street)
- Brotherhood of Thieves: This Nantucket Town restaurant is among the most popular casual restaurants on the island with everything from sushi to burgers, fries, and chicken or fish sandwiches. (23 Broad Street)
Take a day trip to Martha’s Vineyard
If you’ll be visiting Nantucket for more than a few days, a fun thing to do is to take the ferry to nearby Martha’s Vineyard.
It takes approximately an hour to travel by ferry to the other Cape Cod island. The ferry ride itself is enjoyable with scenic views of both islands and the sea.
When you arrive on the island, an 8-minute walk from the ferry will land you among the whimsical gingerbread cottages of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. But before reaching these bright, multi-colored Victorian homes, be sure to check out the Flying Horses Carousel along the way – especially if you’re traveling with children – or take a walk along the scenic Oak Bluffs Harbor.
After exploring Oak Bluffs, take the bus or a taxi to Edgartown – a charming town with cobblestone streets, historic homes, and a gorgeous harbor. There’s plenty of shopping here and numerous local restaurants to choose from. If you have time, be sure to visit the Edgartown Lighthouse.
Two other interesting things to do on Martha’s Vineyard include checking out the Aquinnah Cliffs, made of colorful clay, and Menemsha, a fishing village on the island’s western side.
Remember to check the ferry schedule for your return trip to Nantucket and plan your time accordingly to ensure you don’t miss your ferry!
Attend a festival or event
Nantucket has numerous events and festivals that occur throughout the year, so be sure to see if one is happening while you’re visiting.
These are among the most popular:
- Nantucket Film Festival: Held in June, the Nantucket Film Festival showcases a diverse selection of independent films and hosts discussions with filmmakers, actors, and industry professionals.
- Nantucket Book Festival: Also occurring in June, this literary event features book readings, author discussions, and book signings. It brings together authors, readers, and book enthusiasts for a weekend of literary appreciation.
- Nantucket Noel: Throughout the holiday season, Nantucket hosts various festive events, including tree lighting ceremonies, holiday strolls, and the annual Christmas Tree Lighting and Caroling in downtown Nantucket.
- Nantucket Race Week: This event takes place in August and features a series of sailboat races and regattas, attracting sailors from around the world.
Explore historic sites
Settled by the English in 1659, Nantucket features a number of historic sites worth exploring.
Old Mill, pictured above, is one of the island’s most iconic historic sites. Built in 1746 to grind grains for the local community, it’s known for being the oldest functioning windmill in the United States. It also features fantastic scenic views from the top – of the surrounding landscape and architecture. (50 Prospect Street)
Another popular historic site is Oldest House, the former home of Jethro Coffin, the grandson of one of the island’s original proprietors, Tristram Coffin. As the name implies, it’s considered to be one of the oldest houses on Nantucket having been built in 1686. (16 Sunset Hill Lane)
And finally, Nantucket Town, a designated National Historic Landmark District, is itself a historic site given its vintage cobblestone streets and well-preserved 18th and 19th-century architecture.
Go bird watching
One of the best things to do in Nantucket to make the most of the outdoors is to go birdwatching.
This island is a fantastic destination to spot birds, thanks to its diverse range of habitats, including beaches, marshes, forests, and ponds. Here are some of the best places to go birdwatching on Nantucket:
- Great Point: Located at the northern tip of the island, Great Point is a prime spot for birdwatching. It’s home to a variety of shorebirds, including piping plovers, terns, and ospreys. You’ll need a four-wheel-drive vehicle or a guided tour to access this remote area.
- Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge: This refuge, adjacent to Great Point, offers excellent birdwatching opportunities. You can spot migratory birds, waterfowl, and shorebirds along the shoreline and within the refuge’s diverse habitats.
- Squam Farm: Located near the village of Nantucket, Squam Farm is a peaceful birding spot with walking trails and open fields. You can see a variety of songbirds and raptors here.
- Miacomet Pond: This freshwater pond is a great spot for observing waterfowl and wading birds. You can often see herons, egrets, and ducks around Miacomet Pond.
- Eel Point and Dionis Beach: These west-end locations are good for spotting shorebirds, gulls, and terns along the beaches and sandbars.
Take in the sunset at Madaket Beach
One of the most tranquil areas of the island is Madaket Beach, located on the westernmost end of Nantucket.
Here, you’ll find seemingly endless white sand beaches to wander and explore as ocean water laps against the shore.
And while a visit to Madaket Beach is a treat any time of the day, one of the most popular times to visit is in the evening when the sun is setting over the ocean. The expansive views from this location are breathtaking and provide a uniquely rare vista on the East Coast.
Pro tip: locals know one of the best places to eat on the island (and the only place to eat in Madaket) is Millie’s. For the best experience, make a reservation at Millie’s just before the sun sets. Then, when your meal is over, wander down to the beach to take in the full view. (326 Madaket Road)
Visit Great Point
If you have access to a four-wheel-drive vehicle or are willing to take a guided tour, one of the best things to do in Nantucket is to head to Great Point. It’s located at the northern tip of the island and offers a secluded beach experience with great views.
While simply driving around this remote stretch of the island is enjoyable enough, Great Point is also the perfect spot to go beachcombing, birdwatching, fishing, and seal watching (gray and harbor seals can often be spotted lounging on the sandbars or swimming close to shore).
And a visit to Great Point wouldn’t be complete without seeing the Great Point Lighthouse! Also known as Nantucket Light, it still guides mariners’ navigation, flashing every five seconds with the most powerful light in New England.
On clear nights, Nantucket offers incredible stargazing opportunities due to its limited light pollution. And there are many excellent locations to see the stars – even if it’s just outside your rental or hotel!
But if you’re looking for a scenic spot to view the heavens, both Madaket Beach and Great Point offer exceptional stargazing opportunities on clear nights. Most beaches, away from Nantucket Town, also provide scenic viewing opportunities.
To really take advantage of the clear views from this remote location, be sure to bring a telescope.
About Kerry Flatley
Kerry Flatley has lived in New England for the past 26 years. She has roots in Maine & Massachusetts, family in New Hampshire, and grew up close to the Connecticut border. She loves all that this region has to offer – the ocean, mountains, islands, history, villages, and cities. When she’s not writing about New England, she’s relaxing at home in the Boston suburbs with her two teenage daughters and husband.