Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts, Nantucket is an island that conjures many associations, from affluence to shipwrecks.
For decades up to the mid-19th century, this was the whaling capital of the world, an industry driven by the demand for the brightly burning and almost odorless wax extracted from the head-case of sperm whales.
The tragedy that inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) was the final voyage of the Nantucket-based whaler, Essex.
Modern Nantucket is known as a fashionable, upmarket and easygoing island escape, with sensational beaches, iconic lighthouses, and a downtown exuding centuries of maritime history.
Not to forget, there may not be a better place in America to discover by bike, as the island has two-way paved paths alongside every major road.
1. Whaling Museum
Nantucket’s whaling trade is laid bare at this first-rate museum, documenting the origins, height and final days of this boom.
Part of the complex is a 19th-century Greek Revival building, once a plant for whale oil and wax production.
One of the many captivating exhibits gives you a glimpse of these processes, with the help of the world’s only original whale-oil press still in situ.
Elsewhere there’s a 46-foot sperm whale skeleton, a huge scrimshaw collection, and tons of other seafaring curiosities dating back centuries.
Dramatic accounts from the whaling days paint a picture of the dangers faced during these years-long voyages, and you can investigate Nantucket’s Melville connection and the sinking of the whaling ship, Essex, following an encounter with a sperm whale in 1820.
2. Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge
You can discover Nantucket at its wildest along this pair of long, sandy peninsulas that join at the northernmost tip of the island at Great Point.
This extraordinary coastal environment is protected by several conservation properties, the largest of which is the 1,117-acre Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, belonging to the Trustees of Reservations.
There’s much to see, from the epic ranges of maritime dunes, to wind-molded stands of maritime oak and The Cedars, the largest red cedar savannah woodland in New England.
One of a few astounding locations is Great Point, abounding with gray and harbor seals, which hunt in the riptide.
There, Great Point Lighthouse is the most powerful in New England and is the third in a line of lights dating back to 1784.
It’s no stretch to claim that Nantucket is one of the most bike-friendly places in the United States, and it’s something that contributes to the island’s inimitable lifestyle.
This has much to do with a network of shared-use sidepaths along all of the main arteries, allowing you to get to beaches, attractions, and sites of amazing natural beauty in the most cost-efficient way possible.
Naturally you can bring your own set of wheels with you from the mainland—but you’ll also be greeted by a couple of rental shops on the Steamship Authority ferry dock.
A few regulations need to be kept in mind, and it’s worth checking the Town & County of Nantucket webpage before you set off.
4. Brant Point Lighthouse
There has been a navigation aid at Brant Point, ushering ships into Nantucket Harbor since 1746.
The first Brant Point Light was just the second lighthouse to be built in Colonial America, and this wooden construction lasted little more than a decade before burning down.
The current lighthouse, standing 26 feet tall and clad with wooden shingles, is the ninth on this site, and went up in 1901. You’re almost duty-bound to make the short trip from downtown to one of the symbols of the island.
Past the coastguard station, there’s an elevated walkway carrying you over the sandy beach. The view from the shore is a joy, encompassing the harbor and Nantucket’s skyline.
5. Sankaty Head Light
At the island’s eastern tip stands a functioning lighthouse that was built in 1850, and was one of the first beacons in the country to be fitted with a Fresnel lens.
That original lens can be seen at the Nantucket Whaling Museum, while Sankaty Head Light was moved 400 feet inland in 2007 due to coastal erosion.
The lighthouse, with its bold red stripe and surrounding grassland, is one of the island’s emblematic scenes.
Whether you come early in the day to see the sun rising over the Atlantic, or late when golden hour sets the fields aglow, this is a wonderful place for some amateur photography.
6. Downtown Nantucket
Since the 1950s the Nantucket Historic District Commission has enforced strict rules to preserve the island’s unique architectural character, and these efforts are unmistakable in the downtown area.
Here you can let your curiosity be your guide, navigating cobblestone streets faced with typical Nantucket Houses, humble lean-tos and also ostentatious mansions from the whaling days.
Something that adds to the sense of uniformity in the historic core is the Great Fire of 1846, which razed 40 acres of the center and was fueled by flammable whale oil.
The rebuild took place just as Nantucket’s whaling boom was ending, leaving lower Main Street with enduring examples of Greek Revival commercial architecture, especially between Federal and Centre Streets.
The Nantucket Island Chamber of Commerce has produced a brochure for a self-guided walking tour, along Main Street, Vestal Street and Liberty Street.
7. Siasconset Beach
Curving outwards on the eastern end of the island, Siasconset Beach is one of Nantucket’s wilder beaches. The surf here is boisterous and the beach drops off quickly from the shore.
So while this may not be the best place for less assured swimmers to bathe, the beach’s generous spread of sand and the absence of tall dunes, still make it a wonderful spot.
During the high season there are lifeguards on duty, along with amenities like a snack bar and restroom.
Just inland there’s a wall of tall bluffs, and setting off from ‘Sconset town, you can walk north for almost a mile along the ‘Sconset Bluff Walk, for magnificent ocean views.
8. Madaket Beach
The ultimate place to watch the sun go down on Nantucket is this white sandy beach at the western end of the island.
Madaket Beach is at the mercy of the elements, and erosion caused by the tempestuous surf means there’s a big drop-off between the parking area and the beach itself.
This is bridged by a ramp during the high season, and at any other time it can be enough just to take in the views from the parking lot. Late in the day the views of the rolling waves and sky will live long in the memory.
9. Nantucket Atheneum
Often held as the finest building from the post-fire reconstruction, the Nantucket Atheneum (1847) is in the Greek Revival style, with fluted columns and Ionic capitals on its portico.
As an institution, the Atheneum was born in the 1820s, with the merging of the Nantucket Mechanics Social Library and the Columbian Library Society.
This became a free public library in 1900, and offers a whole spectrum of services and programs to both residents and visitors.
It’s also worth noting the history of the site, which hosted an annual anti-slavery convention in the 1840s, attended by abolitionist figures like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
Throughout this time, from 1836 to the mid 1850s , the pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell was the Atheneum’s librarian.
10. Hadwen House
A monument to Nantucket’s whaling days, Hadwen House is a stately Greek Revival mansion built in 1846 for the whaling and silver merchant, William Hadwen.
The 2 ½-story house stands out for its theatrical Ionic portico, which was the work of local builder/architect Frederick Brown Coleman and with a level of splendor that hadn’t been seen on the island at that time.
The Hadwen House has belonged to the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) since 1963, and is a showcase for several NHA collections, including lightship baskets, decorative arts, and an enthralling cache of historic maps and nautical charts.
11. Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum
With their currents, hidden shoals and unpredictable weather, including sudden storms and dense fog, Nantucket’s waters have claimed an inordinate number of vessels.
The count of shipwrecks in the vicinity is more than 750, including modern events like the Argo Merchant tanker disaster in the 1970s.
At this museum around the harbor from downtown Nantucket you can learn about the generations of brave islanders who fought to save lives in these perilous waters.
The Nantucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum has stirring accounts from the United States Coast Guard, the Massachusetts Humane Society, and the US Life-Saving Service, paired with Fresnel lighthouse lenses, ship models, black and white photography, beach carts and surfboats.
12. Jethro Coffin House (Oldest House on Sunset Hill)
Thought to be the oldest residence on Nantucket still in situ, the Jethro Coffin House was built in 1686.
This was a wedding gift for Jethro Coffin (1663–1727) and Mary Gardner (1670–1767), signifying a union between two of the island’s oldest European families, who hadn’t always kept friendly relations.
The building material came from the Coffins, and the house was built in Gardner land, reinforcing ties between the families.
The Nantucket Historical Association has owned the Jethro Coffin House since 1923 and maintains it as a window on Nantucket life in the 17th century, complete with a kitchen garden, planted with herbs and vegetables cultivated some 350 years ago.
13. Cisco Brewers
Dating back to 1981, Nantucket’s only brewery has a reputation that has reached well beyond these shores. Cisco Brewers has four locations on the mainland, including Boston, and its beers are distributed in a dozen states.
To visit there’s a shuttle bus departing from East Chestnut and Federal Street downtown on a continuous loop on peak weekends.
When you arrive you’ll know why so many people make the trip; the brewery is in its own compound with ample outdoor space, and summer afternoons are like a big laid-back festival, with live music, several food trucks and a raw bar.
Flagship beers are Wandering Haze (Hazy IPA), Gripah (Grapefruit IPA), Whale’s Tale (Pale Ale), Shark Tracker (Light Lager), and Grey Lady (Wheat Ale), while Summer Rays (Golden Ale) will be on tap in the warmer months.
14. Jetties Beach
Within a short bike ride of downtown Nantucket, this beach is named for the giant rock jetties that have guided ships into the harbor since they were built in 1911.
Jetties Beach’s proximity to the town center makes it a go-to location for annual events like the famous Boston Pops on Nantucket and the Sandcastle and Sculpture Day in August, and the 4th of July fireworks.
Facing north on Nantucket Sound, Jetties Beach has calm surf and warm, shallow waters, with sandbars that are exposed at low tide. This, combined with its convenience, ample space and amenities, makes the beach a great choice for families.
15. Daffodil Festival
Spring is a glorious time to be on Nantucket, not least because in late April some three million daffodils are in bloom around the island, many planted since the 1970s by the Nantucket Garden Club.
To mark this uplifting display of color, the local chamber of commerce organizes a raft of events and activities on the last weekend in April.
The Daffodil Festival goes back some 50 years, and one of the defining elements is the stunning Daffodil Flower Show, held in the greenhouses at Bartlett’s Farm, with a different theme each year.
There’s also an antique car and motorcycle parade along Main Street, and out to ‘Sconset where there’s a tailgate picnic, along with a variety of family-oriented fun and entertainment at Children’s Beach.