Made up of five villages, Dennis is a town on the Mid Cape, held by many as Cape Cod’s cultural center.
You can see why, as the storied Cape Playhouse, the Cape Cod Museum of Art and the Cape Cinema are all grouped together on a campus here.
To go with that, Dennis may have the best beaches of any town on the Cape. It helps that so many are open to the public, and they range from sheltered bays to dramatic, open coastlines with sunsets that need to be seen to be believed.
During your time in Dennis you can ride for miles along the Cape Cod Rail Trail, paddle down gentle rivers in pastoral countryside, and dine next to a harbor with boats passing to and fro.
1. Mayflower Beach
The competition is fierce, but the best beach in Dennis is this pristine piece of sandy shore, on the Cape Cod Bay side.
The sand is pale, soft and powdery, and the water is perfectly clear on calmer days. As with other beaches on the Cape Cod Bay shore, there’s a massive difference between high and low tide, partly because Mayflower Beach is on such a shallow slope.
When the tide is out the sand seems to stretch out forever, and is creased with tide pools. The shoreline is angled to the northwest, and if the sunset happens at the same time as low tide, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most magical sights on the entire Cape.
2. The Cape Playhouse
Hailed as one of the best small stage theaters in the United States, the Cape Playhouse goes all the way back to 1927, making it the oldest professional summer theater in the country.
The venue is special too, in a converted meetinghouse from the 19th century. An amazing roll call of esteemed actors have trodden these boards, among them Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers, Henry Fonda and Julie Andrews.
Every summer there’s a thrilling season of musicals, comedies, dramas and mysteries. The theater is part of the Cape Cod Center for the Arts, with the Cape Cod Museum of Art and the Cape Cinema a few steps away.
3. Corporation Beach
Facing Cape Cod Bay, this fabulous public beach is on the scallop-shaped Nobscussett Harbor, shielded to the west by Nobscussett Point. If you’re in search of a beach for littler children, Corporation Beach has pretty much everything you need.
The shallow waters are warmed by the sun, and the surf is usually gentle. Even when the tide is up, you’ll need to go out a long way before the waves reach above thigh height.
When the tide retreats you can walk into the harbor for hundreds of feet, and children will have a fun time splashing around the many tide pools. In season, there’s a snack bar next to the beach, managed by Dennis Public Market.
4. West Dennis Beach
Yet another inviting place to linger by the ocean, West Dennis Beach is an endless ribbon of sand on the Nantucket Sound, right next to the mouth of the Bass River.
One of the many good things going for this beach is its length, at almost three miles. This means that even in the hectic summer months you’ll be able to claim your own patch of sand. Parking isn’t a problem either, with more than 1,000 spaces.
Lifeguards are on duty throughout the summer, and among the amenities are showers, restrooms, and playground equipment for wee ones.
5. Scargo Tower
An abiding monument for Dennis, this cobblestone tower is perched on Scargo Hill, which banks steeply from the southeastern shore of the Scargo Pond.
The current structure is from 1901, and is actually the third Scargo Tower, replacing two wooden towers from 1874 and 1876 destroyed by a storm and then fire.
The hill is 160 feet above sea level, and is one of the best-known natural landmarks on the Cape, and the tower gives you a stirring panorama of the pond, the Dennis countryside and Cape Cod Bay.
A plaque above the entrance explains that the tower was built as a memorial to Charles and Francis Tobey, two Dennis-born brothers whose ancestors had been here since 1678.
6. Cape Cod Rail Trail
Dennis is one of six towns on the route of this pioneering multi-use trail. The Cape Cod Rail Trail has opened up the cape to bicyclists and pedestrians since the 1970s, and is now more than 25 miles long, not including the many trail connections along the way.
From Yarmouth to Wellfleet, the trail follows the course of an old railroad line, originally laid down as the Cape Cod Central Railroad in the 1860s.
The path is wide and paved, beckoning you through rural and residential landscapes, with ponds, cranberry bogs, salt marsh, tidal rivers, and woods.
Something worth mentioning in Dennis is the bridge across the Bass River, purpose built for the trail in the late 2010s, as well as the rental shops along the trail, like Barb’s Bike Shop and the Dennis Cycle Center.
7. Cape Cod Museum of Art
This art museum at the Cape Cod Center for the Arts underpins the center’s status as a cultural hub for the region.
The Cape Cod Museum of Art was founded in 1981, safeguarding the unique cultural landscape of the cape and celebrating its large community of artists.
There are seven galleries here, with a lively schedule of exhibits ensuring that you’ll always have something new to enjoy.
Outside you can stroll around a gorgeous sculpture garden on the center’s landscaped grounds, while the shop is the perfect place to pick up something unique, made by a local artist.
More than a static space for displays, the museum hosts lectures, classes and a succession of seasonal events.
8. Josiah Dennis Manse Museum
During the summer you can tour the Colonial Saltbox home of the man for whom Dennis is named.
Reverend Josiah Dennis (d. 1763) became the first minister of the Congregational Church of the East Precinct in Yarmouth in 1727, and held that post for more than 35 years.
He was held in such high esteem that when the town was incorporated in 1793, it became Dennis.
Several rooms here are devoted to specific aspects of town life, from maritime history to spinning and weaving, and childhood in Dennis.
On the grounds is a lovely heritage garden, as well as the one-room West Schoolhouse (c. 1770), the last of Dennis’s 12 district schools still intact.
9. Paddle Adventures
One look at Dennis and you’ll see the potential for canoe, kayak and stand-up paddle board experiences in summer.
The town’s interior is laced with water, and this is especially true in West Dennis and South Dennis, where the estuarine Bass River serves as the boundary with Yarmouth and provides world-beating conditions for water activities.
Upriver are serene ponds, while the lower reaches have bays and coves that demand some exploration.
One company to hook you up is Bass River Kayaks & Paddle Boards, offering rentals from its store in West Dennis, Memorial Day weekend until mid-September.
You can rent a kayak or paddle board here for anything from 90 minutes to seven days. Another local operator is Cape Cod Waterways, which offers canoe, kayak, paddle board and pedal boat rentals, both on the Bass River, and on the Swan River in Dennis.
10. The Ice Cream Smuggler
On the Old King’s Highway in East Dennis is a famous seasonal ice cream stand in business for more than 40 years. Pretty much everything at The Ice Cream Smuggler is homemade, with top notch ingredients.
This goes for the 27 flavors produced daily in small batches, as well as the cones, which come in sugar, cake, and waffle varieties, plain or dipped in chocolate.
As well as scoops and sundaes you can get shakes, malts, frappes, ice cream sodas, freezes made with sorbet or sherbet, and ice cream cakes & pies.
The Ice Cream Smuggler has featured on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate, and often has a line out the door at peak hours.
11. Cape Cinema
Also on the Cape Cod Center for the Arts campus is a unique movie theater that opened in 1930 and hosted the world premiere of the Wizard of Oz in 1939.
If the Cape Cinema looks like a local Greek Revival church, it’s because the design was based on the South Congregational in Centerville, MA.
The auditorium is renowned for its massive, almost psychedelic mural, conceived by Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) and covering 6,400 square feet.
The theater shows independent, cult and classic movies, with leather seats, beer and wine available. There’s also a live music series that has showcased the likes of Saint Vincent, Bon Iver, and The Dirty Projectors.
12. Sea Street Beach, Dennis Port
Like West Dennis Beach, this slender sandy beach faces Nantucket Sound, and sits below high bluffs. In the past, this was the exact site of the town landing, and you’ll reach the shore from the parking lot via a steep wooden stairway.
At the top of the slope are several benches, where you can ponder the ocean, and watch the sun come up or go down.
Sea Street Beach has more boisterous surf than the beaches on the north side, and is guarded by breakwaters at short intervals.
There are lifeguards here throughout the high season, and you’ve got markets, restaurants and ice cream stands close by the center of Dennis Port.
13. Scargo Pottery
Going back to 1952, Scargo Pottery was founded by Harry Holl (1922-2014) who soon became the best-known potter on Cape Cod, and later co-founded the Cape Cod Museum of art.
The studio, on the wooded shore of Scargo Pond, off the Old King’s Highway, became a popular stop where you could buy Holl’s creations but also watch him at his craft, sharing insights about his process.
Now, Scargo Pottery is run by his four daughters, who all honed their skills at the studio over many years. Today, as before, you can visit to admire the amazing breadth of work on display, watch talented potters at the wheel, and leave with your own work of art from the shop.
14. Sesuit Harbor Cafe
Looking over the Northside Marina on picturesque Sesuit Harbor is a quintessential New England-style clam shack, serving a full range of seafood classics.
Front and center is the lobster roll, touted as one of the best on the Cape, and coming with fries and homemade coleslaw.
Platters include fish & chips, scallops, whole belly clams, fish sandwiches, and a fisherman’s platter if you want a bit of everything. The location is part of the experience, with picnic tables right along the quay, as you watch the boats pulling out to Cape Cod Bay and coming home.
15. Flax Pond Conservation Area
Inland, the town’s countryside is embroidered with ponds of varying sizes, several of which can be discovered at conservation areas that are owned by Dennis and open to the public.
There are more than 80 different conservation sites, adding up to almost 900 acres. A favorite is Flax Pond, found right on the Yarmouth line off Setucket Road.
From the parking lot, a blazed trail system curls around the lovely southern and eastern shores, and takes you east into hilly stands of pine and oak, interspersed with wetlands.
In the warmer months people visit Flax Pond for fishing and paddling, and the conservation area is one of the few public places in Dennis where dogs are allowed off leash.