If Cape Cod felt old, Nantucket seemed undoubtedly historic. The entire town looked exactly as I’d imaged the 1600s: boxy buildings with hand-painted signs swinging above the doors, lined along chunky cobblestone streets that twisted and turned on a whim. The faint smell of the ocean blew over the island in a subtle breeze, creating a peacefulness throughout the island.
Nantucket’s historic authenticity is a byproduct of the declining whaling industry that once populated the tiny island for over a century. Once the whaling industry declined in 1850, the population went with it, leaving Nantucket nearly forgotten — and full of deserted pre-Civil War buildings.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the population slowly started to return and restore the historic buildings. Now the 47-square mile island has some of the most expensive real estate in the country — even surpassing the Hamptons! — but most of its inhabitants are summer tourists, just like the rest of Cape Cod.
Nantucket lies just 30 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, accessible only by ferry and plane, making it the perfect day trip. We spent a day in Nantucket from Cape Cod searching for seafood. Here’s what to do and where to eat on Nantucket.
A Day Trip to Nantucket
Nantucket vs. Martha’s Vineyard
Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are the two most popular day trips from Cape Cod. Both are just a ferry’s ride away from the Cape, both are quaint towns from the 1600s, both have the distinct preppy vibe of New England. So how to pick which one to visit?
There are entire articles dedicated to the Nantucket vs. Martha’s vineyard debate (the Observer and the Oyster have good advice) but I doubt you can go wrong with either. We picked Nantucket because it’s smaller and more walkable, supposedly has a better food and drink scene, and has better shopping — not that I can afford anything there!
Getting to Nantucket from Cape Cod
There are only two ways to get to Nantucket from Cape Cod: ferry and plane. The flight from Hyannis is only 15 minutes long, but it’s expensive and on a teeny tiny plane (personally, that would horrify me). The ferry is the easier option, with high-speed ferries that cross the 30 miles of water in about an hour.
Ferries leave for Nantucket about every hour and a half, from early morning to around 9 pm. The rate can vary depending on the season, but in summer expect about $77 roundtrip. Grab some breakfast to go at the Hyannis Harbor cafe to eat on the boat, or purchase food while you’re en route.
The “slow” ferries take about two hours, but are only $37 roundtrip, so if you don’t mind the slow, steady pace, the Steamship Authority is the way to go. Plus, you can even take your car on it (for another $400.)
What to do on Nantucket
It’s obvious that such a tiny island would be full of beaches, so going to the beach on Nantucket is at the top of most tourists’ to do lists. Fathom breaks down the many beaches here, and since I’m not much of a beach-goer (I watched way too much Shark Week before my trip), I leave it to them to elaborate.
We traded diving for dining, opting to eat our way through the island (more on that below) and sightsee through the town. Wandering around the island is entertaining in itself, with plenty of historic buildings, bursting hydrangea flower beds and little shops to keep us occupied.
The Whaling Museum made every single “what to do in Nantucket” list I read and even locals recommended it, but instead we opted to visit Cisco Brewers — a distillery, brewery and winery all in one.
Cisco Brewers is a little inland from the downtown area of Nantucket, but there’s a free shuttle from the visitor’s center from 12pm – 6:30 pm daily. After a quick ride through the narrow streets, it takes you to the open land where the beer, wine and liquor is made and enjoyed. Surrounding the outside area of tables and bean bag games are the bars of Cisco Brewers, Nantucket Vineyard and Triple Eight Distillery, each selling their respective spirits. Food trucks are stationed nearby with pizza, seafood and other bites.
Where to eat on Nantucket
Nantucket claims to have an advantage over Martha’s Vineyard because not all of the Vineyard’s restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol. We took full advantage on Nantucket, starting with wine, delicious Wellfleet oysters, lobster cocktail and fried clams at Cru, a stunning restaurant right on the pier decorated with a modern, nautical theme and large windows that open out to the pier.
After beers at Cisco Brewers, we had fried shrimp at The Tavern before taking off on our ferry. Locals recommended the Club Car Restaurant and Bar for seafood favorites like lobster mac and cheese and soft shell crab, or B-ack Yard Barbecue for pork ribs and brisket. Both are right by the harbor.
Millies, for baja-style seafood, Petticoat Row Bakery, for treats, and Straight Wharf, for local seafood, were also on my list of where to eat on Nantucket.
Of course you could spend far longer than just a day on Nantucket, but if you don’t want to stay at a pricy b&b or are just stationed somewhere on the Cape, a day trip is a perfect excursion to experience all of Cape Cod.