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Nantucket is a charming and historic island about 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Known for its cobblestone streets, historic charm, pristine beaches, and vibrant cultural scene, Nantucket Island is the perfect place for a fun day trip. Whether you’re drawn to its maritime heritage, scenic beauty, delectable seafood, or simply the serene escape from the mainland, a day trip to Nantucket has something for everyone.
Nantucket makes a perfect day trip from Cape Cod with multiple ports and high-speed ferries arriving in 90 minutes or less. The island is small enough to enjoy a good chunk of it on a day trip but has enough to keep you busy during a long weekend.
If you are looking for a complete day trip itinerary, check out this post, “One day in Nantucket: A Walking or Biking itinerary” (coming soon)
Otherwise, keep reading this post to learn everything you need to know to help you plan your own itinerary for the best day trip to Nantucket!
How to Get to Nantucket
Hy-Line Cruises: Hy-Line Cruises operates passenger ferries from Hyannis, Massachusetts, or Martha’s Vineyard. The journey takes approximately 1 to 1.5 hours. You can park your car in Hyannis and take the ferry as a foot passenger. You can bring bikes on the ferry as well.
Steamship Authority: The Steamship Authority also operates ferries from Hyannis to Nantucket. They offer both passenger and vehicle service -the trip takes about 2 to 2.5 hours.
Freedom Cruise Line: This line departs from Harwich Port, Massachusetts, and takes a little over an hour.
Seastreak: This fast ferry departs from New Bedford, Massachusetts, and takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes.
All the passenger ferries cost $60-$100 per person round trip depending on the day and company you choose to travel with.
Nantucket Memorial Airport: You can fly directly to Nantucket from several major cities in the U.S. There are multiple daily flights to Nantucket Memorial Airport (ACK) from airports like Boston Logan International Airport (BOS), New York’s JFK Airport (JFK), and Washington – Reagan National Airport (DCA). Airlines such as Cape Air and JetBlue Airways often offer flights to Nantucket.
Private Boats and Charters
If you have access to a private boat or are chartering one, you can sail to Nantucket. There are several marinas and harbors on the island where you can dock your boat and enjoy a full day on the small island.
I always suggest booking the 8am fast ferry and the last return ferry of the day. This will give you plenty of time to explore Nantucket. Whether I have explored by foot, car, or bike, I’ve always needed the whole day and never wanted to return earlier. Some ferries allow you to change departure times up to a few hours in advance, so there are options for earlier departures, although I doubt you’ll need them.
How to Get Around the Island
Getting around on a day trip to Nantucket is relatively easy, and several transportation options are available to explore the island. If you want to see it all in a day, you’ll need a car, but the highlights can easily be seen by foot, bus, and/or bike.
The Nantucket Regional Transit Authority, or NRTA, operates a public bus system on the island. Also known as “The Wave,” these buses run year-round and provide an affordable and convenient way to get around Nantucket. The NRTA has several routes and loops, including popular destinations like downtown Nantucket, the airport, beaches, and other attractions. You can check the NRTA’s schedule and routes for up-to-date information.
You can rent a car from one of the rental agencies on Nantucket if you prefer the convenience of having your own vehicle. Most of the car rental agencies are located at the airport. However, Affordable Rentals is located a short walk from the main ferry terminals and is the best option for ferry passengers. Note parking can be limited and expensive in some areas, so it’s essential to plan ahead and be mindful of parking regulations.
Nantucket’s historic downtown area is very walkable, so getting around without a car is easy. The best way to explore the cobblestone streets, boutique shops, restaurants, and museums is on foot. You’ll also be able to walk to the Brant Point Lighthouse and nearby beaches from the ferry terminal on a day trip.
Biking is the most popular way to get around Nantucket, especially during summer. You can rent bicycles from various shops on the island, like Nantucket Bike Shop or Cook’s Cycles Shop– there are numerous bike paths and trails to explore (more on those later in the post). The island is relatively flat and bike-friendly, so this is a fun way to see Nantucket’s natural beauty.
Exploring the Island: Nantucket’s Best Towns
Nantucket’s main town is Nantucket Proper (also called Nantucket Town). There are other villages and hamlets around the island, of which Siasconset, often called Sconset and Madaket, are the two best for exploring on a day trip (in addition to the town itself). Outside of these areas is mainly residential and private property. You’ll also find salt marshes and wetlands. Siasconset, Madaket, and Nantucket Proper are the best areas to visit while on a day trip to Nantucket.
Some visitors spend all day here enjoying the town’s cobblestone streets, unique museums, local bistros, and lovely views.
The town of Nantucket is the primary settlement on the island and serves as its economic and cultural hub. It’s characterized by its well-preserved historic architecture, with many buildings dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The town’s architecture reflects its whaling heritage and New England maritime traditions. This is where most attractions and things to do on Nantucket exist, including the famous Whaling Museum, the high-speed ferry ports, the picturesque Old Warf, and the best shopping boutiques. It is also the main hub for the WAVE bus to other parts of the island.
Siasconset or Sconset
This charming village is located on the eastern end of Nantucket. Sconset is renowned for its charming architecture, stunning coastal views, relaxed ambiance, and strong sense of community. It’s a perfect destination for those looking to experience the quintessential charm of Nantucket in a more tranquil setting. This is where you will find some remarkable cliffs and the lovely Bluff Walk, offering breathtaking ocean views from the picturesque bluffs. The iconic Rose-Covered Cottages, which bloom beautifully during the summer months, are also in Sconset and the historic Sankaty Head Lighthouse.
Madaket is a charming and laid-back village located on the western end of Nantucket Island. Known for its natural beauty, scenic beaches, cottage-style homes, and a relaxed atmosphere, Madaket offers a close-knit community feel, with excellent surf conditions, stunning sunsets, and a close connection with nature. It’s an ideal destination for those seeking a peaceful retreat by the sea and is a great hub to embark on fishing charters or scenic boat tours to explore the island’s coastline.
Things to do on a Day Trip to Nantucket
If you are walking or biking, you won’t have time to do it all in a day, but you’ll come close. If it is your first time on the island, I recommend this day itinerary, which includes my favorite spots such as Bug Light, Brant Point, the scenic Cliff Walk, Sankaty Lighthouse, and the charming historic streets of downtown Nantucket.
Here are some of the best things to do on a day trip to Nantucket.
Try Local Coffee, Bakeries and Cafes:
Since you probably woke up early to start your day trip to Nantucket, you may be craving a morning pick-me-up. There are several coffee shops on the island conveniently located within a short walking distance from the ports. My favorite is the Handlebar cafe. I also love the Nantucket Bake Shop; it is about a 30-minute walk from port or a 15-minute bike ride.
Spend your morning exploring Nantucket’s historic district along the stunning Nantucket Harbor. Stroll down cobblestone streets lined with historic homes, charming boutiques, museums, ice cream shops, and art galleries.
Visiting Main Street and Centre Street for shopping and sightseeing is a must-do on a day trip to Nantucket. For locally-made furniture, hand-woven throws, and other beautiful home goods, stop into Nantucket Looms. If you’d rather spend your morning browsing books, head to Nantucket Bookworks. This charming bookstore has an excellent selection of children’s books and gifts, and even has a candy counter!
Pictures along Old Warf
Don’t skip out on a stroll down Old Warf. Located in downtown Nantucket, this is my favorite street in Nantucket for views of the port and cozy Cape Cod-style cottages full of blooming flowers in the summer.
Nantucket Whaling Museum
Visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum, situated in an 1847 candle factory, to learn about the island’s rich maritime history and whaling industry. After all, this island used to be considered the whaling capital of the world! The museum features artifacts and exhibits telling the story of Nantucket’s heyday during the 19th century. The highlights of this museum are the 46-foot sperm whale skeleton and the rooftop observation deck with panoramic views of the town and harbor.
The Lifesaving Museum in Nantucket is a historical museum dedicated to preserving and showcasing the island’s maritime heritage, specifically focusing on the island’s life-saving stations and the brave men who served in them. It aims to educate visitors about the critical role these stations and their crews played in rescuing mariners in distress along the treacherous waters surrounding Nantucket.
Sconset Bluff Walk
Visiting this picturesque village on the island’s eastern end could be the highlight of your day on Nantucket. The Sconset Bluff Walk is a must-do activity here. This two-mile scenic walking path along the bluff offers stunning ocean views and will lead you past charming cottages adorned with roses. It starts at Front Street and weaves along the backyard of some beautiful homes.
Enjoy the Sunset
If you have time to return to the island’s west side, head to Madaket Beach for an incredible sunset. Dotted with cottages, this shoreline is nothing short of magical as the sun goes down – the sky becomes a vibrant tapestry of pink, orange, purple, and yellow hues.
Historic Sites to Visit
Jethro Coffin House
The Jethro Coffin House is a historic house located near downtown Nantucket. It is one of the oldest surviving houses on the island and a notable example of colonial-era New England architecture. The house is named after its original owner, Jethro Coffin, a member of one of the island’s founding families.
First Congregational Church in Nantucket
The First Congregational Church is located in the heart of Nantucket Town, established in 1711, making it one of the earliest congregations on Nantucket. The church was formed by a group of settlers seeking religious freedom and a place to practice their faith. The church building is a classic example of New England Colonial architecture with a white, clapboard exterior, steeple, and spire. It attracts tourists and history enthusiasts who appreciate visiting and learning about the island’s religious and cultural past.
The beautiful historic Hadwen House is a prime example of Greek Revival architecture built in 1846 by a whaling merchant, William Hadwin. Located in the heart of the historic district in Nantucket Town, its surrounded in beautifully maintained gardens and is significant not only for its architectural value but also for the insights it provides into the lifestyles and tastes of wealthy whaling merchants during Nantucket’s maritime heyday.
It is often open to the public as a museum, allowing visitors to step back in time and experience life as it was in the mid-19th century. Walking tours provide insights into the history of the house, its original occupants, and the broader historical context of Nantucket.
The Old Gaol is one of the oldest jail buildings in the United States. It was constructed in 1806 to serve as the island’s jail and house of correction. The Old Gaol is a fine example of Federal-style architecture, characterized by its simple yet elegant design. The building features brick construction with symmetrical windows and a traditional cupola on the roof. Today, the Old Gaol operates as a museum, offering guided tours that take visitors through the various rooms and cells, providing a sense of what life was like for prisoners during the 19th century. The museum showcases artifacts and provides educational insights into the island’s history.
The Old Mill
The Old Mill is one of the island’s most iconic and recognizable structures, often called the “Nantucket Mill.” The Old Mill is the oldest functioning windmill in the United States. It was built in 1746 by Nathan Wilbur, a Nantucket sailor and millwright, and it served as a vital component of the island’s economy during the 18th century. Its location on a hill overlooking Nantucket Town gives visitors a panoramic view of the island. Today, the Old Mill operates as a museum, allowing visitors to take guided tours inside the mill to learn about its history, operation, and the technology of windmills.
Beaches to Visit
With crystal clear, shallow water, white sand, restrooms, and an onsite restaurant, this is the perfect place to spend an afternoon at the beach in Nantucket. As one of the most popular beaches on the island, you’ll find this shore just outside of town. If you’re here in the summer, you may witness a festival or event on this beach, like the 4th of July fireworks, Boston Pops event, and other outdoor activities.
In the afternoon, head to Cliff Beach on the island’s northern side, known for its beautiful cliffs and soft sand. With smaller waves than other Nantucket beaches, Cliff Beach is great for swimming. You can explore the nearby Nantucket Cliffs, towering 11 meters high, or stroll between the dunes lining the shore. You’ll also notice two white towers, known as the Nantucket Cliff Range Lights, 1 kilometer east of Nantucket Cliffs. These structures were built in 1908 and help ships safely navigate to Nantucket Harbor.
Steps Beach is another excellent option, with scenic views of Nantucket Sound and easy access to the nearby Sankaty Head Lighthouse. Although this beach does not have lifeguards or facilities, you’ll enjoy the soft sand and gentle surf. If you come here in the evening during August and September, you might even see the bioluminescent creatures in the water!
Lighthouses to See
There are four historic lighthouses on Nantucket, all with their own unique history and picturesque surroundings.
Bug light has an intriguing history stemming from 1838 and evolving into what it is today. It is about a 20-minute walk from downtown, nestled in a residential neighborhood with grounds open to the public; there are also three parking spots near the light.
Sankaty Head Lighthouse
Steps from the Bluff Walk and Steps Beach, is the iconic Sankaty Head Lighthouse. This historic Nantucket landmark was built in 1850 and is still operating today. Be sure to take a self-guided tour of the grounds and enjoy the dramatic views from this historic lighthouse – you’ll definitely want to bring your camera!
Brant Point Lighthouse
Alternatively, check out the Brant Point Lighthouse, within walking distance of the harbor. As the second-oldest lighthouse in the United States, this structure is on the National Register of Historic Places, initially constructed in 1746. While here, you can enjoy the small, quiet beach surrounding the lighthouse and watch the boats cruise in and out of the harbor.
Great Point Lighthouse
Another must-see lighthouse in Nantucket is the Great Point Light, also known as the Nantucket Light, nestled on the island’s northernmost point. This lighthouse was originally built in 1784 but was destroyed by a fire in 1816, in which it was rebuilt as a stone tower afterward. While this lighthouse is remote and hard to reach, visitors will be rewarded with a stunning beach view, home to several seals.
You must apply for a permit to drive to the Great Point area, where the lighthouse is located. It’s along a sandy stretch of beach requiring 4-wheel drive.
Enjoy the Bike Paths
Nantucket is an excellent destination for cycling enthusiasts and casual riders alike. Here are some notable bike routes and paths in Nantucket:
- Nantucket Bike Paths:
- Madaket Bike Path: This path runs along Madaket Road, offering a scenic route to Madaket Beach and providing beautiful views of the ocean.
- Polpis Bike Path: The Polpis Bike Path travels through the eastern part of the island, providing stunning views of Nantucket Harbor and the surrounding marshlands.
- Hummock Pond Bike Path: This path takes you through the Hummock Pond area, passing by the pond and offering a peaceful cycling experience.
- Surfside Bike Path: The Surfside Bike Path stretches 11 miles starting at Nantucket High School and goes to Surfside Beach.
- Siasconset Bike Path:
- Starting in Siasconset (Sconset), this bike path runs along the southern coast, allowing riders to enjoy breathtaking views of the Atlantic Ocean.
- Cliff Road Bike Path:
- This bike path travels along Cliff Road, providing access to beautiful beaches and scenic coastal views.
- Milestone Bike Path:
- The Milestone Bike Path runs parallel to Milestone Road and offers a safe route to explore the central part of the island, passing by picturesque landscapes and conservation areas.
- Eel Point Road Bike Path:
- The Eel Point Road Bike Path provides a route to the remote western part of the island, offering views of Madaket Harbor and Eel Point.
- Cisco Bike Path:
- Starting near Cisco Beach, this path takes you through the Cisco area, known for its beaches and conservation land.
- Tom Nevers Bike Path:
- This bike path runs through Tom Nevers and offers a picturesque route with views of the Atlantic Ocean and Nantucket’s eastern shoreline.
- Jetties Beach Bike Path:
- The Jetties Beach Bike Path is a short path near Jetties Beach, providing easy access to the beach and nearby attractions.
The Best Places to Eat in Nantucket
Nantucket offers a variety of dining options, from seafood shacks to upscale restaurants, and it’s known for its fresh seafood and locally sourced ingredients. Here are some great places to eat during a day trip to Nantucket.
The Galley Beach
Located right on the beach, The Galley Beach offers a romantic atmosphere and stunning ocean views. This menu features an extensive wine selection and seafood dishes made with locally sourced ingredients – sample the halibut or lobster corn chowder. It is only open during high season.
Charlie Noble A great casual lunch spot with outdoor patio, serving classic New England dishes and a all day Raw Bar.
The Chanticleer Restaurant and Gardens
This elegant American restaurant serves dishes like pasta bolognese, filet mignon, tuna tartare, pad thai, and burgers, along with an acclaimed wine selection. Nestled in a stunning historic mansion in Siasconset, you’ll love this property’s upscale atmosphere and surrounding gardens.
The Bean is located in historic downtown Nantucket, this is the perfect place to grab a cup of joe or a snack while shopping and exploring the town. Choose from several coffee blends, teas, fresh lemonade, pastries, and sandwiches.
A great spot to grab a drink, go for tastings and enjoy live music. The property boasts three different bars, and a variety of craft beers, cocktails, and wines. On the weekends, you can check out the local food trucks while you’re here!
Straight Wharf Restaurant
This high end Nantucket restaurant, located along the harbor, offers a seasonal menu focusing on fresh seafood and farm-to-table ingredients. Greenery, white tablecloths, and candles on each table make this restaurant feel particularly lovely. It is opened seasonally at 5:30 pm and located near the ferry terminals so you might have a chance for an early dinner if you opt for a late departure.
There’s no shortage of things to do on a Nantucket day trip. Start by exploring the vibrant downtown; enjoy the historic landmarks and iconic lighthouses, hit the beach, and soak in the charming villages and scenic surroundings. If you can swing an overnight trip, go on a sunset walk, then enjoy a beautiful dinner overlooking the water. There’s no better place to enjoy the coast!
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