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How Are Cape Cod & Nantucket Different?

You might think Cape Cod and Nantucket have no distinguishing features, but you’d be wrong.

The two ocean-side destinations cater to different crowds. If you want to clarify the differences between these coastal towns so you can decide which one to visit, we can help.

Today we’ll help you make the most out of your next trip to the eastern U.S. by finding the destination that best suits your desires.

Let’s set sail!

About Cape Cod

Cape Cod is a peninsula that reaches into the Atlantic Ocean from Massachusetts. It borders the Gulf of Maine. Fifteen towns sit along this stretch of land, including Provincetown and Chatham. You can travel to the peninsula by crossing the canal on one of the two highway bridges. 

European explorers began coming to this region in the early 1500s, anchoring their ships in the Gulf of Maine. By 1620, the pilgrims started colonizing the area near Provincetown. When farming proved difficult on the dune-covered landscape, settlers turned to fishing and whaling. With transportation improvements around 1800, the Cape became a tourist destination.

Today it continues to be a popular destination for summer tourists. Over five million visitors explore this peninsula every summer. They enjoy beaches, tour lighthouses, and go whale watching. It has also become a great spot to golf and fish. 

Pro Tip: You’ll love enjoying these 9 Best Things to Do On Cape Cod.

Cape Cod at sunset
Cape Cod is one of the most popular spots in Massachusetts.

About Nantucket

The small island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, sits south of Cape Cod. Its name comes from a Wampanoag word that translates to “land far out at sea.” You can take a small plane or a ferry from the mainland to get here. 

European settlement of the island began in the mid-1600s, but residents turned their attention to the sea when the crops failed and the cattle overgrazed. They became a fishing and whaling town, just like Cape Cod. Eventually, life on the island became too challenging, and settlers abandoned the region.

In the mid-1900s, developers began to show interest in turning the island into an upscale vacation destination. Today, the town of Nantucket continues to cater to summer tourism. Only 12,000 people live there full-time, but during the summer, the population swells to 65,000. 

Visitors to this small island enjoy exploring its beaches and lighthouses by bicycle and eating seafood. It has also become an exciting fishing and hiking destination. 

Cape Cod Big vs. Nantucket Small

Cape Cod stretches for 339 square miles with 500 miles of coastline. With all that space, you’ll find more options of places to visit on this peninsula than on the small island of Nantucket. Finding familiar chains like Five Guys and Olive Garden won’t be difficult.

With so many sections of the peninsula to explore, you might not get to see it all. In the Mid-Cape, the most popular area, you can find ferries to the islands and popular attractions like the JFK Museum. Tourists also enjoy exploring miles of beaches at the Cape Cod National Seashore along the Outer Cape near Provincetown.

On the other hand, the island of Nantucket covers barely over 100 square miles and has a small-town feel. The quaint downtown features historical museums, lighthouses, and cozy inns. You won’t find large chains on the island, only local shops and restaurants. 

The smaller size of the island means you won’t have trouble exploring all it has to offer. You can visit picturesque seaside cliffs and search for shells along sandy beaches. At the end of the day, unwind at the local brewery or stop by one of the fine dining restaurants. 

Nantucket Beach
A visit to both Nantucket and Cape Cod is sure to leave you with life long memories.

Which is Quieter?

You’ll want to head to the island for a quiet, laid-back vacation. But if you prefer the hustle and bustle of city streets, consider taking a trip to the Cape instead. 

Located just over an hour outside Boston, Massachusetts, traffic heading out to the peninsula can get backed up during the summertime. Luckily, once you cross the bridge, the cars spread out while heading to their destination.

On Cape Cod, you can enjoy all the comforts of home. While you’ll have plenty of local places to explore, you can also pop into big-name retailers for a taste of familiarity. If you like meeting new people and exciting nightlife, you’ll want to consider heading to this area.

Getting to Nantucket can also be difficult because you’ll probably take a boat from Hyannis. Once you make it to your destination, things will instantly quiet down.

You can walk or bike to almost anything on this peaceful Atlantic island. The quaint town has plenty of shops and views to explore during your stay. The island has cobblestone streets and historic buildings, setting the scene for a charming, relaxing trip.

Cape Cod and Nantucket Similarities

While each spot has a signature style, they also have several similarities. You’ll take in the salty sea air and miles of coastline, no matter which area you visit.

Cape Cod and Nantucket are popular summer tourist destinations that grew from coastal fishing towns. When you take a trip to either today, you can book a fishing charter to catch things like tuna and flounder. Tourists also enjoy sailing, seeing lighthouses, and visiting the beach. 

Both destinations have rich histories and unique architecture. They have many museums to explore and no shortage of things to do for history buffs. 

Pro Tip: Spend the night at one of these 20 Best Free Camping Spots (on the East Coast).

Don’t Skip The Bay State

Both Cape Cod and Nantucket have great things to offer for any kind of tourist. Whether you’ve been looking for a quiet escape or a high-energy city vacation, consider heading to Massachusetts. 

You can drop a line into the Atlantic Ocean or stay on solid ground and enjoy the sights. However you like to vacation, these spots in the Northeast U.S. have options for you.

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