Sometimes overlooked in favor of Cape Cod’s more famous destinations, Falmouth is an adorable town on the Upper Cape, with culture, shopping, cosmopolitan dining, marvelous coastal views and fine public beaches.
Falmouth is a point of departure for ferries to Martha’s Vineyard, which is visible across the sound, and the village of Woods Hole is the site of a number of important marine science institutions, like the Marine Biological Laboratory, founded in 1888.
There are sandy beaches facing west on Buzzards Bay or south over Nantucket Sound, and you can walk or ride the length of the town along the Shining Sea Bikeway, with more than ten miles of beautiful scenery on the way.
1. Nobska Point Lighthouse
Perched on a promontory at the entrance to Woods Hole Harbor, Nobska Light was established in 1826, while the current 42-foot iron tower was erected in 1876. This lighthouse was automated in 1985 and is still active, with a range of 13 nautical miles.
From the lantern room at the top of the tower you’ll be treated to one of the region’s great views, encompassing Nantucket and Vineyard Sounds, Martha’s Vineyard, the Elizabeth Islands and Woods Hole.
At the junction of Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds, Nobska Point is a truly dramatic place to be, especially at sunrise or sunset.
2. Shining Sea Bikeway
The author and poet Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), famous for penning the anthem “America the Beautiful”, was born in Falmouth.
As one of a few local tributes, this 10.7-mile rail trail was named in her honor. The Shining Sea Bikeway is on the right-of-way of the Woods Hole branch line of the Old Colony Railroad, which was completed in 1872 and gave rise to the first summer homes in Falmouth.
There’s no better way to traverse Falmouth without a car, from North Falmouth Railroad station at the northern trailhead to the Steamship Authority terminal in the south.
The route takes in a salt marsh, a cranberry bog, pastoral farmland and little harbors for a neat overview of the coastal Upper Cape.
3. Old Silver Beach
The pick of Falmouth’s public beaches is a little sandy cove at the mouth of Herring Brook, facing west on Buzzards Bay, with views to West Island on the other side.
Old Silver Beach is on a shallow slope, with a large sweep of glistening, thigh-high water to float or play in. The sand is soft, and the beach is divided between public and private sections by the brook.
This has an important salt marsh ecosystem on its banks, cutting inland to the stream’s source at Wing Pond.
On a walk by the brook you might come across egrets, and if you look closely at the water you’ll see hundreds of little fish darting around the waters at the mouth.
4. Highfield Hall & Gardens
In the 1870s the president of the Chicopee Manufacturing Company, James Madison Beebe purchased more than 700 acres to build a country estate.
Highfield Hall, completed in 1878, was saved from demolition in 1994 and opened as a museum and event venue in 2006.
The residence is framed by two magnificent gardens that were restored just over a decade ago, and this is all a canvas for vibrant art exhibitions in the summer.
The Highfield Story is the permanent exhibition, recounting the estate’s turbulent history. You can spend a relaxing hour or two exploring the trails leading off into Beebe Woods, and picnicking in the shade of one of the estate’s massive beech trees.
5. Woods Hole Science Aquarium (WHSA)
Owned by the Federal Government, this aquarium in Woods Hole is run by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Biological Laboratory.
The WHSA is thought to be the oldest aquarium in the United States, tracing its history back to the 1870s.
The tanks here display species found in Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern waters, with some 140 species, while the aquarium also runs a rehabilitation program for sea turtles that have washed up on Cape Cod’s beaches.
The attraction has a series of touch tanks holding whelks, sea stars, crabs and small fish, and scientific exhibit cases for a closer look at animals’ bones, skulls and teeth.
Added to that there’s info on the history of Woods Hole’s scientific endeavors, local marine habitats and the WHSA’s sea turtles.
6. The Knob
On the northern lip of Quissett Harbor in Woods Hole there’s a long and narrow peninsula reaching westwards into Buzzards Bay.
At the end, the Knob can be accessed along the causeway by a trail, and it’s a walk well worth making at the end of a clear day for a breathtaking sunset. You can often see right across the bay, as far as West Island and even New Bedford Harbor.
Looking towards land you can admire the harbor, its many yachts and the grand houses couched among the trees behind.
There are beaches along the peninsula, exposed to the waves of Buzzards Bay, or sheltered in the harbor and ideal for kids.
7. Falmouth Main Street
Falmouth’s downtown area is as pretty as they come, and has been the heart of the town since 1756.
The centerpiece is a gorgeous village green, hemmed by mature trees and beautiful examples of Colonial and Federal architecture.
Further east along Main Street is another grassy expanse, at Peg Noonan Park and the grounds of Falmouth Public Library.
All along Main Street is a crowd-pleasing diversity of restaurants—from sushi to pizza—alternating with boutiques, upscale gift shops and galleries.
Back on the Village Green, the First Congregational Church (1796) has a bell cast by Founding Father Paul Revere, famed for his midnight ride in April 1775.
8. Chapoquoit Beach
Like The Knob, this beach faces west on Buzzards Bay and is another fine place to find yourself at sunset.
Chapoquoit Beach is a thin strip of pale sand on a narrow peninsula that guards the entrance to West Falmouth harbor from the south.
Something to love about this spot is the relative absence of crowds, and if you come on a calm day the waters are crystal clear and ideal for younger swimmers.
Sitting by the shore you can see across the bay to West Island and Cleveland Island Light, and there’s nature on the landward side in the form of a salt marsh, offering a habitat for fiddler, hermit and spider crabs.
9. Museums on the Green
On the Village Green in Falmouth the town’s historical society maintains a charming two-acre campus, blending historic architecture, Colonial gardens, a four-seater outhouse, stocks, two cannons and a life-size outline of a whaling ship by the whaling pots.
Here you can visit the grandest residence on the green, the 1790 Wicks House, previously home to two doctors and a whaling captain, and loaded with Wicks family items.
The 1730 Conant House holds the society’s archives, library and offices, but also gives a glimpse of changing lifestyles over the years in Falmouth.
Among the artifacts are pieces of scrimshaw, a cannon from the War of 1812 and a working jukebox from 1939.
10. Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL)
In July and August you can take a tour of the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole.
The MBL dates back to 1888, with more than 500 scientists and faculty involved in research and educational programs devoted to exploring fundamental biology and understanding biodiversity.
Tours of the campus take place Monday through Friday and take in the Marine Resources Center for a look at the marine animals used for MBL research, as well as the internationally regarded MBLWHOI Library.
The Pierce Exhibit Center & MBL Gift Shop are open mid-June through mid-October, with colorful and interactive exhibits for all ages, spectacular underwater footage and live marine animals.
11. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)
The largest independent oceanographic research institution in the country is also in Woods Hole, pushing the frontiers of ocean knowledge on topics as varied as oil spills, polar systems, underwater archeology, ocean acidification and climate change.
You can learn more about this work at the Ocean Science Discovery Center, with fascinating details about the state-of-the-art vessels, vehicles and tools used by the WHOI, and enthralling exhibits about its discovery of the wreck of the RMS Titanic in the mid-1980s.
Kids will adore the Splash Lab, offering hands-on educational fun throughout the season. Free walking tours are given in July and August, through the institution’s high-tech dock area and a variety of restricted facilities in its village.
12. Spohr Gardens
More than 40 years in the making, this idyllic woodland garden on the west shore of Oyster Pond is open to the public daily for free.
The shaded, meandering paths in Spohr Gardens are scattered with little nods to Falmouth’s heritage, like anchors, lighthouse lanterns, ship bells and millstones.
The garden is a riot of color throughout the season, with spring bulbs, rhododendrons, azaleas, day lilies, irises and many more. The views are also glorious spanning Oyster Pond but also reaching out to the south onto Nantucket Sound.
13. Falmouth Heights Beach
One of many things going for this beach is its location, within moments of Main Street’s shops and restaurants.
On Nantucket Sound, Falmouth Heights Beach is at the western end of a long stretch of public sandy oceanfront, extending to Bristol Beach in the east.
The water is calm, and mostly clear of seaweed. As well as seasonal concessions, there’s a cluster of eateries behind or near the beach, along with a line of beautiful houses along Grand Avenue.
This is a fabulous spot if you want to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and at any other time the shore is a beachcomber’s paradise littered with shells.
14. Barnstable County Fair
A fixture of the Cape Cod summer for 180 years now, the Barnstable County Fair in mid-July means seven days of old-fashioned family fun.
The fairground has been in East Falmouth on the site of the old Chesterbrook School since the event relocated here in 1973. Today close to 90,000 people attend the fair.
You can expect a wealth of 4-H exhibits and demonstrations, a petting zoo in the livestock area, carnival rides & games, arts & crafts and a packed program of live entertainment.
Naturally, indulgent fair food is a big part of the experience, from fried dough to kabobs, cannoli, coxinhas, bacon-on-a-stick and deep-fried twinkies.
Falmouth is as close as the mainland gets to Martha’s Vineyard, and there are several operators helping you make the short crossing and bask in unforgettable views on the way.
If you’re traveling with a vehicle, the Steamship Authority has the most frequent year-round service, taking only 45 minutes from Woods Hole to Vineyard Haven.
For passengers only, the Island Queen ferry runs between Falmouth and Oak Bluffs from late May to mid-October, and has a full-service snackbar on board.
Another option is the Falmouth-Edgartown Ferry, with a one-hour cruise aboard the Pied Piper to Edgartown Harbor on the island’s east side.