You’ll find plenty of things to do in Rockport MA, from exploring historic streets and enjoying vibrant arts scenes to discovering pristine beaches and tasting local flavors.
Few communities imbibe the essence of coastal living as completely as Rockport, Massachusetts. This small Cape Ann town of just under 7,000 juts out into the Atlantic, resulting in nearly 10 miles of scenic coastline. It can sometimes feel as though there’s another picture-perfect ocean view around every corner.
With so much idyllic scenery, it’s no surprise that artists have flocked to Rockport for well over 100 years. As one wanders through downtown Rockport and along the narrow Bearskin Neck peninsula, art galleries seem to pop up everywhere.
Outdoor enthusiasts will also find plenty of things to do in Rockport MA with multiple beaches to choose from, cycling along coastal roads and trails, hiking in state parks, and taking a dip in an old quarry to name a few.
To help you make the most of your visit, here’s a list of the 23 best things to do in Rockport MA:
Stroll along Bearskin Neck
Wandering along Bearskin Neck, a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, is among the most popular things to do in Rockport MA.
This thin strip of land contains a variety of colorful shops, cafes, and restaurants making it a fun area to explore – especially on a warm sunny day. You’ll find everything from clothing, pottery, jewelry, fudge, ice cream, and toys along Bearskin Neck’s main drag.
And at the end of the main street, there’s the opportunity to take in the expansive ocean views and walk along a short breakwater. Many visitors take advantage of taking a break at this scenic spot.
Take in Motif No. 1
Rockport MA’s most popular attraction is a quaint, red, barn-like structure located on a narrow wharf. Referred to as Motif No. 1, the structure’s artistic name is due to it being the “most often painted building in the world”.
Originally a fishing shack, Motif No. 1 eventually became an artist studio in the 1930s. However, the structure was destroyed during the blizzard of 1978 and a replica was built in its place the same year.
Motif No. 1 is just steps away from Bearskin Neck’s main street. While walking toward the ocean on Bearskin Neck, turn right at Bradley Wharf and you’ll soon see the red structure.
Insider’s tip: customers of Lula’s Pantry along Mount Pleasant Street can see a perfect view of Motif No. 1 from the retailer’s back porch. (5 Dock Square)
Visit the Headlands for a gorgeous view
Something else you’ll want to do while visiting Rockport’s downtown, is head over to the Headlands for a fantastic view of the water, Motif No. 1, and Rockport Harbor.
The Headlands is essentially a small park with a rugged coast that’s slightly hidden along a downtown side street.
To get to The Headlands from Bearskin Neck, turn left onto Mount Pleasant Street, then turn left at Atlantic Avenue. Follow this street to the end and the trailhead for The Headlands will appear.
Relax on one of Rockport’s beaches
With so much of Rockport exposed to the ocean, it’s not surprising that this town has multiple picturesque beaches.
One of the more popular beaches is Front Beach, a stretch of sand steps away from the heart of downtown. While it’s on the smaller side there’s still plenty of sand and access to the water. A few steps away and further north is Back Beach, known for its scuba diving.
Moving south down the coast is tiny Old Garden Beach and further down, Pebble Beach, which as the name suggests, is covered in sizable pebbles.
Cape Hedge Beach, found at the end of Seaview Street, and next to it, Long Beach, at the end of Long Beach Road, are larger beaches slightly further south. Parking is available for Long Beach from Rockport Road off of Route 127A.
Explore Halibut Point State Park
Located at the northern tip of town is Halibut Point State Park – the perfect outdoorsy thing to do in Rockport MA.
This preserved parcel of land consists of 67 acres of scenic hikes, a rugged coastline to explore, and an old quarry with panoramic views.
It’s also possible, on a clear day, to see Mount Agamenticus in Maine and New Hampshire’s Isles of Shoals. Signs along trails explain the park’s World War II history and connection to the Cape Ann granite industry.
Halibut Point State Park is adjacent to Halibut Point Reservation and the two properties are jointly managed by the Trustees of Reservations and the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.
Enjoy a show at the Shalin Liu Performance Center
A gem of Rockport MA is the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Centrally located, this music venue features 330 seats that look onto a stage with a windowed backdrop of the adjacent coast and ocean.
Rockport Music, the organization that runs Shalin Liu, showcases classical, jazz, folk, pop, and world music in the venue. Guests can also attend the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in June and July and catch HD broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and England’s National Theatre.
Tickets are available online, by phone, or at the box office. (37 Main Street)
Tour Thacher Island or Straitsmouth Island
Rockport has not one but two islands off its shores for visitors to explore.
Thacher Island is located about a mile offshore, is 52 acres in size, and features the Thacher Island National Wildlife Refuge – 24 acres of actively preserved land for migratory songbirds and shorebirds. Just off the coast, it’s also possible to see seals, waterfowl, loons, grebes, cormorants, and alcids.
Thacher Island is also home to two lighthouses – commonly called Twin Lights. Originally built in 1771, the lighthouses were intentionally destroyed in 1775 to avoid aiding British troops and reconstructed again in 1861. They are 900 yards apart.
Straitsmouth Island, only about 500 feet offshore, features a rugged coastline with a lighthouse at its northeastern tip.
Visitors can travel to both Thacher and Straitsmouth Islands by boat, kayak, or by taking the Thacher Island Launch during the summer months. The launch travels to Straitsmouth Island on Tuesday mornings and Thacher Island on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. Tickets for the launch are available on the Thacher Island website – $40.00 for adults and $10.00 for children under 12.
Visit the Rockport Art Association & Museum
Art lovers will want to stop by the Rockport Art Association & Museum (RAA&M) to take the organization’s rotating exhibits of local and regional artists.
Over 100 years old, the Rockport Art Association & Museum boasts 250 artists and photography members as well as hundreds of contributing members. Every year RAA&M has over 40 exhibitions and offers multiple educational programs including classes, artists demonstrations, artist lectures, and gallery talks.
RAA&M is open April – December. Admission is $3 per person or $5 per couple. (12 Main Street)
Enjoy some local ice cream
New Englanders love their ice cream and the residents of Rockport are no different!
Downtown you’ll find several cool creamy options to choose from. Each ice cream shop features its own unique combination of flavors and mixes.
Here are a few downtown shops to choose from:
- The Ice Cream Store (14 Bearskin Neck)
- Robin’s Nest (1 Main Street)
- Sundays Ice Cream (3 Bearskin Neck)
Rent a boat or kayak and explore the coast
Rockport features over 10 miles of coastline, not including its two major islands (see above). Naturally, one of the best ways to experience the ocean and take in the sea views is by boat.
Northshore Adventures and Outdoor Center, located steps away from Bearskin Neck and Motif No. 1, is the place to find kayak rentals.
The center also provides a variety of tours including island tours, Essex/Ipswich River tours, and tours that seek out seals and unique coastal birds. (9 Tuna Wharf)
Explore the coast by bike
Another fantastic way to take in Rockport’s sea views is to ride along the coast by bike.
Bike rentals are available at Northshore Adventures and Outdoor Center. The center rents both cruiser bikes and E-bikes anywhere from 2 hours to half or full-day to multi-day rentals. (9 Tuna Wharf)
Route 127 and 127A are popular cycling routes to explore the coast. For more road cycling route ideas in Rockport see: The Top 11 Rides Around Rockport MA
Visit Art Galleries
Rockport MA, with its picturesque coastal setting, has a long history as an artist colony, dating back to the late 19th century.
It’s not surprising then that there are 19 art galleries to choose from within the downtown area alone. You’ll find everything from fine art, to contemporary, pottery, and crafts at these galleries.
A sampling of the art galleries you’ll find downtown include:
- Three Stones Gallery (32 Main Street)
- Nicholas Gallery (65 Main Street)
- Gallery Montanaro (10 Bearskin Neck)
- Tusinski Gallery (2 Main Street)
Discover the Paper House
One of the more unusual things to do in Rockport MA is to visit The Paper House.
This unique structure is made entirely of newspaper – including all the furniture and decorations inside!
Construction of the house began in 1922 by the owner, Elis F. Stenman. While the home has a traditional timber frame, roof, and floors, the rest of the building consists of varnished newspapers. It’s thought that roughly 100,000 newspapers were used and sealed together with a homemade mixture of flour, water, and…apple peels.
It’s unknown why Stenman employed such an unusual method for building his home. In 1930, he moved out and at that time The Paper House became a museum. Admission is a suggested donation of $2. (52 Pigeon Hill Street)
Visit a Rockport quarry
A fun thing to do in Rockport MA on a hot summer day is to take a dip in one of the local quarries.
Back in the late 19th and early 20th century, these granite quarries provided an economic boom to the town. In fact, Rockport granite was used in iconic structures such as the Boston Custom House, the Brooklyn Bridge, and parts of the U.S. Capitol.
But as quarrying operations ceased over time, some abandoned quarries filled with water, creating the perfect natural swimming pools.
Most of Rockport’s quarries are clustered just south of the Pigeon Cove neighborhood and include Steel Derrick Quarry, Johnson’s Quarry, Carlson’s Quarry, and Flat Ledge Quarry.
Learn about history at the Sandy Bay Historical Society & Museums
History buffs will want to make a stop at the Sandy Bay Historical Society & Museums to learn about Rockport’s rich history.
Established to safeguard the heritage of Rockport’s Sandy Bay area, the society operates two museums that offer visitors a captivating journey through time.
The Old Castle, built in 1711 and one of the few remaining Saltbox homes in Essex County, provides a fascinating glimpse into Rockport’s past, featuring exhibits on Dogtown, quarry tools, and North Village history. (1-5 Castle Lane)
The Sewall-Scripture House, built in 1832, houses a museum of Rockport antiquities and a library with extensive holdings of local history and genealogical information. (40 King Street)
Admission to both museums is $5. Members and children are free.
Go Whale Watching
The waters of Cape Ann are considered among the top 10 whale-watching destinations in the world due to the variety of whale species that migrate here, making whale-watching the perfect thing to do!
Whale-watching tours can take approximately 3-4 hours depending on the company. During the trip, it’s possible to see as many as 9 different species of whales and other animal species such as Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises.
While no tours leave directly from Rockport, a number of companies operate from neighboring Gloucester. These are the most highly rated (according to Yelp):
Savor local seafood
With its coastal location and plethora of fishing boats, it’s no wonder Rockport is a perfect place to sample local seafood. Lobsters, clams, oysters, and more are on the menu, served in a variety of dishes.
You’ll find plenty of restaurants, seafood & lobster shacks to choose from in Rockport. While some restaurants, especially the shacks, tend to be seasonal, others are open year-round.
Here are a few to choose from:
- Roy Moore Lobster – seasonal (39 Bearskin Neck)
- The Fish Shack Restaurant (21 Dock Square)
- The Lobster Pool (329 Granite Street)
- My Place by the Sea (68 Bearskin Neck)
Shop locally at the Rockport Farmers Market
If you’re visiting in the summer, explore local produce, crafts, and artisanal goods at the Rockport Farmer’s Market.
You’ll find the market every Saturday morning in Harvey Park in front of the First Baptist Church in downtown Rockport. A few of the offerings include organic produce, eggs, fish, grass-fed beef, fresh bread, donuts and other baked goods.
The farmer’s market runs from mid-June to mid-October from 9 AM to 1 PM.
Drive along the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway
One of the best ways to take in Rockport’s gorgeous coastal views is to travel along the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway – either by car or bike.
In total, the Essex Coastal Scenic Byway is 90 miles long and connects 14 coastal communities from Salisbury, MA in the north to Lynn, MA in the south. The Rockport section of the journey is roughly halfway, taking travelers along the town’s 10 miles of coastline.
It’s easy to hop on to the byway from downtown Rockport’s Mount Pleasant and Main Streets which are also Route 127. Traveling south, the byway continues to Route 127A, past several local beaches.
Enjoy Christmas in Rockport
A fun thing to do in Rockport MA in the winter is to take part in the town’s Christmas festivities.
Bearskin Neck is decked out this time of year in lights, garlands, and holiday-themed store displays. It’s the perfect place to fill your holiday shopping list with one-of-a-kind finds.
The festivities typically begin the first Saturday in December when Santa arrives by lobster boat followed by a tree-lighting ceremony in the center of Dock Square.
Take in a show at the North Shore Music Theatre
A short drive from Rockport is the North Shore Music Theatre which as the name suggests, provides a variety of shows throughout the year. With 250,000 patrons annually, it’s one of the most attended theaters in New England.
The North Shore Music Theatre showcases celebrity concerts, children’s programming, an annual production of The Christmas Carol, and more. (54 Dunham Road, Beverly)
Go scuba diving
Rarely does one equate scuba diving with New England, but Rockport MA boasts some of the best scuba diving around, according to experts.
Back Beach is considered an excellent spot for beginner-level divers while neighboring Front Beach provides more scenic dives.
Novice scuba divers can go on a dive excursion with Down Under Diving Ventures which includes equipment prep and assistance and multiple dive locations per trip, among other things. And Cape Ann Diver II in Gloucester offers recreational diving, technical diving, and freediving for both beginners and experts.
Visit nearby towns:
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.