15 Best Things to Do in Barnstable (MA)

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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In the picturesque mid-Cape, this set of seven villages makes up the largest community on Cape Cod.

In the north is the charming Village of Barnstable, looking across the harbor to the dunes of the barrier beach, Sandy Neck.

Facing Nantucket Sound in the south is Hyannis, which is essentially Cape Cod’s downtown, with some urban bustle, a busy harbor, ferry terminal and restaurants for every palate. As you would hope, New England-style seafood is central to the dining scene here.

Hyannis has been home to the Kennedy Compound since the 1920s, and there’s a museum for an enlightening inside look at John F. Kennedy’s summers on Cape Cod.

1. John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum

John F. Kennedy Hyannis MuseumSource: Radomir Rezny / shutterstock
John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum

The Kennedy family has summered in Hyannis for a century now, and still inhabit their compound in Hyannis Port.

This was JFK’s weekend and summer getaway during his administration, so it’s natural that there should be a museum dedicated to the 35th President on Main Street.

The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum is housed in the stately former Town Hall, and has artifacts and interactivity that explore the life of JFK, his family, his legacy and his affection for Cape Cod.

You can get a taste of the Kennedy Compound, hear Jackie Kennedy’s recollections of Cape Cod, find out about JFK’s summer routine, discover his fondness for sailing and the ocean, and chart his presidency through a timeline of world events.

2. Main Street Hyannis

Main Street HyannisSource: Rosemarie Mosteller / shutterstock
Main Street Hyannis

The JFK Museum is in the middle of Cape Cod’s biggest commercial district. Main Street is the backbone, and for almost a mile you’ll find adorable gift stores, upscale boutiques, galleries and a globetrotting diversity of restaurants, all shoulder to shoulder.

Towards the east end you can cut right and head down to the harbor, where there’s a dockside trail and a fine view from the ​​plaza at Michael K. Aselton Memorial Park.

Next door, Hyannis Village Green sets the scene for outdoor community events, from concerts to movie screenings.

Along South Street you’ll pass St. Francis Xavier Church, a Federal-style Roman Catholic place of worship frequented by the Kennedys from the 1920s.

It was also here that Maria Shriver, a member of the Kennedy family, married Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1986.

3. Veterans Park Beach – Kalmus Beach

Hyannis Beach at SunriseSource: Galusha Photography / shutterstock
Hyannis Beach at Sunrise

Backed by a memorial park, this beach in Hyannis faces east, with picture perfect views across Lewis Bay. One of a few things in this spot’s favor is its proximity to the center of Hyannis, within moments of local shops and restaurants.

If you’re planning to laze on the sand, enjoy picnics or a family cookout you could do better than Veterans Park Beach, while the water depth in the swimming area is more for paddling and wading than serious swimming.

Go south and you’ll be at another public property, Kalmus Beach, which has a unique setting on either side of the sandy spit forming the bay’s western lip.

Here you’ve got a large spread of sand, so there’s enough room for everyone, while the steady ocean breezes are popular with windsurfers and kiteboarders.

4. New England Seafood

Osterville Fish TooSource: Rosemarie Mosteller / shutterstock
Osterville Fish Too

Dietary, faith or cultural reasons excepted, it would be unthinkable to come to Cape Cod and not treat yourself to some seafood, straight from the Atlantic ocean.

We’re talking beloved New England standards like lobster rolls, clam chowder, clam bakes, clam cakes, fish and chips and ample steamed or fried platters.

In Hyannis alone you could visit a new seafood restaurant every day for two weeks and still miss out on some great ones.

A few big-hitters are Spanky’s Clam Shack (138 Ocean St), Black Cat Tavern (165 Ocean St), Baxter’s Boathouse (177 Pleasant St) and The Naked Oyster Bistro & Raw Bar (410 Main St).

In the village of Barnstable meanwhile there’s Mattakeese Wharf Seafood Restaurant (273 Millway), Osterville Fish Too (275 Millway) and Dolphin Restaurant (3250 Main St).

5. Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary

Long Pasture Wildlife SanctuarySource: Millbilly Photos / shutterstock
Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary

There’s yet more breathtaking coastal scenery at this patch of woodlands, marsh, vernal pools, meadow and a small beach overlooking Barnstable Harbor.

There are 2.5 miles of trails here, flanked by large oaks, holly, red maple and tupelo, with wonderful vistas over the harbor to the dunes of Sandy Neck.

The trail system at Long Pasture includes a piece of the Barnstable Great Marsh, and there’s a stretch of boardwalk with interpretive signs about the salt marsh habitat. Depending on the tide you can also get out onto the flats, identifying crustaceans and gastropods.

6. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises

Hyannis Whale Watcher CruisesSource: Amy Lutz / shutterstock
Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises

Cape Cod is practically synonymous with whales, which visit Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in large numbers to feed on the batfish.

Among the species in these waters are finback, humpback and minke whales, but also plenty of dolphins. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises has a vessel, The Whale Watcher, that was custom-designed for viewing whales in New England.

This has no external propellers ensuring whales’ safety, and 650 feet of rail space to give everyone a great view. Interior cabins are climate controlled, and are fitted with flatscreen monitors, and there’s a full-service snack bar for bites, soft drinks and alcoholic beverages.

7. Craigville Beach

Craigville BeachSource: lunamarina / shutterstock
Craigville Beach

Between Hyannis and Osterville, Craigville Beach is another in the mid-Cape’s small contingent of public beaches.

This sweep of soft, flaxen sand is on the west side of Centerville Harbor, next door to the private Covell’s Beach.

Craigville Beach has lifeguards on duty throughout the summer, and offers a handful of amenities including showers, restrooms and a snack bar. There’s calm surf, which is good news for parents with smaller children, and from early July the water is noticeably warm.

8. Cahoon Museum of American Art

Cahoon Museum of American ArtSource: Kdionnecahoon / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 4.0
Cahoon Museum of American Art

In the village of Cotuit, this museum presents a survey of American fine art and folk art from the 18th century to now.

The name comes from local artists Ralph Cahoon (1910-1982) and Martha Cahoon (1905-1999), who purchased this historic property in 1945 to be their gallery and studio. The building goes back to the 1770s and had previously served as a residence and tavern.

Opened in 1986, the museum has work by both artists, as well as a large inventory of 19th-century landscapes and seascapes by Alvan Fisher, James Butterworth, Ralph Blakelock and Levi Wells Prentice, among others.

Around the time that we compiled this list there was a captivating temporary show for scrimshaw, with more than 200 examples.

9. Cape Cod Central Railroad

Cape Cod Central RailroadSource: Marcio Jose Bastos Silva / shutterstock
Cape Cod Central Railroad

Spring through fall you can board this heritage train for a scenic two-hour ride through the Cape Cod landscape.

The main option on the Cape Cod Central Railroad is a two-hour, 50-mile round trip to Buzzards Bay through woodlands and salt marshes, and past coastal dunes and cranberry bogs.

The line is a section of the old Cape Cod Railroad, dating back to 1846, while trains are pulled by diesel locomotives from the mid-20th century. For a little more luxury you can book a brunch, lunch or dinner trip in beautiful dining cars from the early 1940s.

10. Cape Cod Maritime Museum

Cape Cod Maritime MuseumSource: Rosemarie Mosteller / shutterstock
Cape Cod Maritime Museum

The name “Cape Cod” conjures all kinds of maritime associations, from fishing to whaling, boatbuilding and shipwrecks. You can dive into these topics, and many more besides, at the Cape Cod Maritime Museum.

There are artifact-laden exhibits here on a wealth of topics, like cod fishing, early navigation, shellfishing, the devastating Portland Gale of 1898, the old Hyannis Port Railroad Wharf and the whaling days in Provincetown.

Something remarkable is the Elizabeth and William Graham Scrimshaw Collection, the largest on public display in the area, with pieces carved from bone, ivory, baleen, whale teeth, and other materials on months-long voyages.

11. Cape Cod Beer

Cape Cod BeerSource: Cape Cod Beer / Facebook
Cape Cod Beer

Based in Hyannis, this craft beer brand has been on the scene since 2004 and expanded its capacity in 2016. When we wrote this article, around 350 bars and restaurants within a 50-mile radius served Cape Cod Beer.

There’s a taproom at the brewery with around 20 beers on tap, with a mix of year-round, seasonal and specialty beers. The five flagships are Narrow Lands (NEIPA), the Porter, the Red, the IPA and Beach Blonde (Blonde Ale).

The taproom and accompanying beer garden are primed for live music performances, while tours of the brewery take place on Saturdays. Cape Cod Beer collaborates with the award-winning JP’s Twisted BBQ, which has a resident food truck here.

12. John F. Kennedy Memorial

John F. Kennedy MemorialSource: jejim / shutterstock
John F. Kennedy Memorial

Among the monuments in the memorial park behind Veterans Beach is this tribute to John F. Kennedy, erected in 1966. The location is significant, on this little rise overlooking Lewis Bay, where JFK spent a lot of time sailing.

The memorial is composed of a stone wall, with medallions on either side. Facing the bay is President Kennedy’s bust profile, while the landward side has the Great Seal of the United States.

To the east there’s a reflecting pool and fountain bearing the inscription, “I believe it is important that this country sail and not lie still in the harbor.”

This comes from Kennedy’s Radio and Television Report to the American People on the State of the National Economy on August 13, 1962.

13. Toad Hall Classic Sports Car Museum

Toad Hall Classic Sports Car MuseumSource: Toad Hall Classic Sports Car Collection / Facebook
Toad Hall Classic Sports Car Museum

This quirky private museum features the personal car collection of one Bill Putnam, housed in a shed behind the Simmons Homestead Inn in Hyannis.

There’s no doubt that Putnam has a type, as the majority of his 50+ fleet are British-made sports cars, including Lotuses, MGs, Triumphs, TVRs, Jaguars and a Morgan.

Here and there you’ll also come across an AC, Ferrari, Daimler, Mazda and a Sunbeam. Another peculiarity at the Toad Hall Classic Sports Car Museum is that every vehicle on display is painted red.

14. Coast Guard Heritage Museum

Coast Guard Heritage MuseumSource: Swampyank / Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0
Coast Guard Heritage Museum

For more maritime history there’s a museum in the village of Barnstable looking at the role of the United States Coast Guard on Cape Cod. The venue is important, in the Italianate U.S. Customs House, built in 1856.

You can find out about the various services that merged to form the Coast Guard, like the United States Lighthouse Service and the Revenue Cutter Service, and discover the Coast Guard’s modern duties, from rescuing seamen to interdicting illegal drugs and enforcing fishing laws.

On show are scores of ship models, maritime flags, historic pieces of rescue equipment, uniforms, weapons, medals and tons more.

15. Steamship Authority

Steamship Authority FerrySource: EQRoy / shutterstock
Steamship Authority Ferry

Hyannis is the main port for ferries between Cape Cod and Nantucket, and also has a route for Martha’s Vineyard.

The most frequent daily service is via the Steamship Authority, which offers two options for Nantucket from Hyannis.

If time is limited, you can catch the M/V Ianough, a high-end, high-speed vessel that makes the crossing in just one hour. For those who have time to enjoy the trip, a more traditional ferry takes around two hours and 15 minutes.

There’s free Wi-Fi on board all of the Steamship Authority’s vessels, and at the ferry terminals. Once you arrive at Nantucket you’ll have easy access to public transport, bike rentals, car rentals and taxis.


15 Best Things to Do in Barnstable (MA):

  • John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum
  • Main Street Hyannis
  • Veterans Park Beach - Kalmus Beach
  • New England Seafood
  • Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary
  • Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises
  • Craigville Beach
  • Cahoon Museum of American Art
  • Cape Cod Central Railroad
  • Cape Cod Maritime Museum
  • Cape Cod Beer
  • John F. Kennedy Memorial
  • Toad Hall Classic Sports Car Museum
  • Coast Guard Heritage Museum
  • Steamship Authority