21 Fantastic Things Do In Nantucket MA: Find Your New England Island Vibe

WHY GO: Most people come to the island of Nantucket MA for the beaches. Or the boutiques. Or the highly respected cuisine. But Nantucket, 26 miles off the Massachusetts coast – the most remote of all New England islands – is so steeped in history, the whole landmass has been declared a National Historic Landmark.

Nantucket Distance Sign
Nantucket Distance Sign

First settled by Europeans in 1659, by the 18th and 19th centuries Nantucket was the center of the Whaling Industry. When whaling companies decamped for New Bedford on the mainland after a fire in 1846 destroyed a good portion of downtown, the end of one industry opened the door for another – recreation.

By the late 1800’s Nantucket was a thriving summer resort, mostly for well-heeled travelers, and has been ever since. So, of course, come here for the beaches, shopping, and restaurants – but be sure to delve into Nantucket’s dramatic history. Members of the Nantucket Historical Association, “the keepers of Nantucket’s heritage,” make it fun and engaging. Start here…

Looking for more dreamy escapes in Massachusetts? Check out Best Romantic Getaways in MA.

Things to Do In Nantucket MA

Whaling Museum Nantucket MA
Whaling Museum Nantucket MA

GO: Nantucket Historical Association Whaling Museum

The skeleton of a 46 ft bull sperm whale hovers perilously over a harpoon packed whaling skiff – the centerpiece of the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Over the past few decades, this once small whaling museum has expanded into a world-class institution, run by the noteworthy Nantucket Historical Association, which also manages several other worthy historic sites on the island. The unfortunate whale washed ashore nearby on January 1, 1998, and despite attempts to revive it, the whale died (most likely from a tooth infection).

Now, the bones of this monster, the sheer size of it, best demonstrates the dangers inherent in this industry. Whaling crews had to harpoon, wrestle, and drag these gargantuan beasts aboard for processing. One young sailor wrote about the “blood stained decks,” and “huge masses of flesh and blubber lying here and there” on a typical whaling ship.

Whalers – First to Visit Exotic Destinations

Scrimshaw Whaling Museum Nantucket MA
Scrimshaw Whaling Museum Nantucket MA

Nantucket whalers went out for months, sometimes years, at a time. Crews tended to be very diverse: many were from the Azores.  But others were fugitive slaves who found a life at sea the best way to throw slave hunters off the trail. Nantucket was a true melting pot before its time.

The men aboard whaling ships were the first Americans to explore the islands of the South Pacific. They brought back bamboo and rattan used in distinctive Nantucket decorative arts. Life onboard was often boring, so sailors passed the time carving or etching whalebone, and creating gifts for their loved ones – like scrimshaw, corset stays, pie-crimpers, and combs.

View from Whaling Museum Observation Deck, Nantucket MA
View from Whaling Museum Observation Deck, Nantucket MA

Begin with the Island-In-Time exhibit, which illuminates 5,000 years of Nantucket history, from the Wampanoag natives, to the first nine English settlers in 1659. Tragically, the settlers grew to a population of 9,700 by 1840, while the local tribe dwindled through illness and alcoholism. Originally, a community of 3,000, their numbers reduced to 800. And then, to basically none.

World-Class Scrimshaw Exhibit

Upstairs, several galleries feature temporary exhibits, and one permanent, which happens to be my favorite – the Decorative Arts – showcasing shelves and shelves of elaborate scrimshaw on whales teeth, rolling pins, pipes, and other work of crafty sailors.

It’s one more floor up to the Observation Deck. Join other guest on nice days from this great vantage point. From here, take in exceptional views of town, and the open-mouth ferry and wharves in the harbor below. It’s a not so secret meeting place, and a quiet space for a breather. Check website for museum hours, dates, and admission fees.

 Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA
Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA

VISIT: Egan Maritime Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

A bit out of town, the fantastic Egan Maritime Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, is worth the bike ride, or even a taxi ride to see.

Shallow shoals surround this 14-mile long crescent moon shaped island. Over 700 ships have run aground around Nantucket – and continue to do so.

Nantucket has been a magnet for shipwrecks since men set off in ships: the last one in 1995, when the Panamanian cruise ship Royal Majesty lost its bearings and ran aground on the Rose & Crown shoals. (It floated off, without any injuries, at high tide).

Nantucket’s Dangerous Shoals

Heroic Maritime Lifesavers, Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA
Heroic Maritime Lifesavers, Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA

Between 1700 and 1900, over 200 ships a day from all over the world sailed to or within miles of Nantucket, with no GPS. Using only a clock, sexton and compass, many ran up on the shoals, and were splintered by the waves.

Boston Humane Society

In wintertime, crews on wrecked ships would often die of exposure. This impelled the Boston Humane Society (when it was still “human” oriented) in 1775-1780 to build unmanned shacks on beaches stocked with blankets and stoves so that victims of wrecks could survive the night. (The four “Humane Houses” that remain on the island have been turned into summer homes).

Schooner Witherspoon, Shipwreck Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA
Schooner Witherspoon, Shipwreck Lifesaving Museum Nantucket MA

The US Government formed the U.S. Lifesaving Service, in 1871, with paid crews. (The first Lifesaving Station on Nantucket– near Surfside – is now the Star of the Sea Youth Hostel).

In 1915, the Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard. Learn about early lifesaving techniques, like the “Breaches Buoy” – a method of rescue utilizing a zip-line shot from shore to distressed vessel. (The last of these were used in 1962 when helicopters couldn’t get to a ship listing near shore).

Famous Shipwrecks

On January 10th 1886, battling strong winds, snow, and heavy seas, the Schooner Witherspoon ran aground. The men of the Lifesaving Service on land went into action almost immediately. But the sailors were so frozen, it took them hours just to set up the breaches buoy. A copy of a painting by a witness to the scene is on view along with a splinter from the ship.

Lightship Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum
Lightship Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum

Other famous disasters happened far from shore. The Nantucket Lightship – sitting miles from land to ward sailors off the shoals – was once called the “Statue of Liberty of the Sea.” It was the first light that mariners would see while sailing from Europe. (Lightships were decommissioned in the 1980’s and were replaced by buoys).

On May 15 1934, the sister ship to the Titanic, the Olympic, was following a radio beacon sent from the Nantucket Lightship when the large Ocean Liner rammed and sunk the smaller boat – killing 7 people onboard.

Andrea Doria

And a more recent and well known tragedy that could have been much worse.  The SS Andrea Doria heading to New York on July 25th, 1956, with 1,706 people aboard, collided with the MS Stockholm about 45 miles south of Nantucket. Though 46 people died, many more were saved, as it took over 11 hours for the ship to sink and other ships in the area took part in rescue efforts.

More Dramatic Tales

The beauty of this museum is that shipwrecks come to life here. Especially if you enlist a docent who interjects personal tales and adds drama. You’ll also hear about island characters like Millie, who lived next door to Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers”) in Madaket.  And you’ll see life preservers made entirely of cork, spurring one visitor to quip, “that’ll take a lot of wine!” Check website for hours, dates, and admission fees.

LEARN: Nantucket Lightship Baskets

The Nantucket Lightship Basket is easily identifiable the world over, though you have to come to Nantucket (or order online from here) to obtain this truly authentic piece of folk art.

The woven baskets made from strips of rattan brought back to Nantucket on Pacific-Island-bound whaling ships were first painstakingly fashioned in the 1870’s by men manning the Nantucket Lightship – essentially a floating lighthouse. What came to be known as “Lightship Baskets” were initially given to wives and used to carry crops from fields and gardens.

Fashionable and Collectible Lightship Baskets

But, in 1948, Jose Reyes, protégée of basket-maker, Mitchy Ray, tweaked the utilitarian Lightship Basket. He scaled down its size, and added a cover, ivory clasp, and curved wooden handle.

When Charlie Sayles, another famous artisan, placed a carved ivory whale on the lid of this new “Friendship Basket” in the 1950’s, a Fashion Icon, not to mention a coveted Nantucket souvenir, was born. It’s estimated that Reyes made over 5,000 signed baskets from 1948 until his death in 1978.

This very localized form of art prevails, thanks to current artisans who are learning from 3rd and 4th generation basket makers.

Although the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum closed in 2021, the Reyes workshop is now on display in the Decorative Arts Gallery at the Whaling Museum, and the annual basket exhibit is open every summer at Hadwen House on Main Street.

Greater Light interior Nantucket MA
Greater Light interior Nantucket MA

TOUR: Greater Light

Not to be confused with the Great Point Lighthouse marking the Northernmost end of Nantucket, Greater Light was the home of a couple of eccentric Quaker sisters. In 1930, the never-married Philly born Gertrude and Hannah Monaghan, converted an old livestock barn into a “found object” work of art.

The sisters, along with their wealthy parents, had been summering on Nantucket for years. They’d garnered a quirky, artistic following. Gertrude, the muralist, and Hannah – actress and playwright – would mount theatrical shows in the large sunlit central room. Most furniture is original to the home, and art on the walls came from Gertrude’s own hand.

A Most Exotic Home

Greater Light Bedroom Nantucket MA
Greater Light Bedroom Nantucket MA

Most of the architectural elements in this fantastical abode came from demolition sites, and just “fell into place,” according to the sisters.

They procured church windows that also serve as patio doors. And they secured the wrought iron railings framing an interior “Romeo and Juliet” balcony from a demolished Philadelphia building.

Though the sisters entertained often, they maintained a religious, almost monastic personal life. Their convent-like bedrooms are dark and church-like, with bubbled yellow glass windows. Gertrude and Hannah called them “rooms of Golden Light.” Check website for opening dates and tour times. Free. 

Fire Hose Cart House Nantucket MA
Fire Hose Cart House Nantucket MA

VISIT: Fire Hose Cart House, NHA Site

Built in 1886 this small barn is the last remaining 19th century firehouse on the island. Watch a video about the harrowing Fire of July 13, 1846, when a “tiny tongue of flame in a hat shop leapt from a stovepipe into a wall.” This spark set off a chain reaction that left a third of downtown – including the dry goods, grocery and provisions stores – in cinders.

Nothing in that area survived, necessitating a call for help from off-island. The human-pulled Cataract # 6 was one of the only Fire Hose Carts to survive the Great Fire.

Jethro Coffin House Nantucket MA
Jethro Coffin House Nantucket MA

VISIT: Jethro Coffin House – the “Oldest House in Nantucket in its Original Location,” NHA Site

Sitting up a hill on its lonesome, the Saltbox Jethro Coffin House was Nantucket’s largest structure when first built in 1686. It was a wedding gift from Jethro’s big shot Dad, Peter Coffin. Peter maintained a financial interest in the New Hampshire Lumber Co., which came in handy, as the brush and spindly trees on Nantucket were useless in construction.

In the mid 1600’s, wood had to be imported from the mainland or scavenged from shipwrecks.

Interior Jethro Coffin House Nantucket MA
Interior Jethro Coffin House Nantucket MA

At age 23, Jethro married Mary, 16, and they were fruitful and multiplied. Mary and Jethro had 8 children. They raised 6 in this “over the top McMansion of the day,” and lived here for 20 years.

Though the original portrait of Mary is in the Nantucket Whaling Museum, there’s a copy here. For some reason, she looks exactly like a Gilbert Stewart rendering of George Washington.

Old Gaol Nantucket MA
Old Gaol Nantucket MA

TOUR: Old Gaol, NHA Site

Pronounced “jail,” this 1805 Garrison-style Old Gaol prison is one of the oldest in the country. Hardened criminals were shipped off the island. But this is where low level petty thieves and prostitutes were locked up.

Now in a residential area surrounded by houses, it was first built next to a House of Corrections (halfway house for orphans and the homeless) and judicial area. Inside, four rooms – two on each floor – held two prisoners each and was quite cushy compared to overcrowded jails of the day.

Old Gaol Cell Nantucket MA
Old Gaol Cell Nantucket MA

Each prisoner had his own bunk, chamber pot, and some wood for the stove heater. Take the tour to hear engaging stories of those who spent time here, including a town drunk who embezzled from the bank and “must have had connections,” as he lived upstairs in “the penthouse” for three years. During his time here, he made baskets, read books, and was granted a pardon from US President, Grover Cleveland. The Gaol served as the town’s penal facility until 1933.

Old Mill Nantucket MA
Old Mill Nantucket MA

TOUR: Old Mill

Built in 1756, this Dutch windmill is the oldest functioning mill in the United States. Enter inside to see the workings of this early machine, the advanced technology of the day. It’s completely mind-blowing.

Nantucket Cobblestone Streets
Nantucket Cobblestone Streets

TOUR: Nantucket Historical Association Downtown Walking Tour

As you stroll the cobblestone and brick-line Historic District, learn about Nantucket’s transformation from the Whaling Capital of the World to a world-class destination. Includes a stop at the Quaker Meeting House and Greek Revival Hadwen House. Check website for Walking Tour times, dates, and fees.

Nantucket Atheneum
Nantucket Atheneum

 STOP: Nantucket Athenaeum

One of the only grand structures to survive the great fire of 1846, this neoclassical library stars on many an Instagram page.

G.L. Brown Basket Maker Nantucket MA
G.L. Brown Basket Maker Nantucket MA

SHOP: Brown Basket Gallery, South Wharf

Come down to the waterfront to visit the man and his handiwork. G.L. Brown, one of the very few authentic Nantucket Lightship Basket makers in business for over 40 years, has invented some of his own styles in addition to traditional ones.

Just Off the Wharves, in Nantucket MA
Just Off the Wharves, in Nantucket MA


If you only have a few hours, or want to get the lay of the land right off the ferry, opt for one of several sightseeing tours that all run about 1.5 to 2 hours, and bring you to all points on the island. Choose from Barrett’s Tours or Nantucket Island Tours – both in coach buses. Take Gail’s Tours if you prefer a luxury Mercedes Benz van. Or arrange a custom tour (or just a ride somewhere) with Val’s Cabs.

Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge Nantucket MA
Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge Nantucket MA

TOUR: Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge

Owned by the Trustees of Reservations, Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge, 1,117- acres of beach, salt marsh, sand dunes, and “forests” of wind-sheared oak and cedar, on the far northern end of the island, allows very limited access.

The Great Point Lighthouse now standing was built in 1986 to replace the 1816 structure destroyed during a punishing coastal storm in March 1984. The best way to experience this Refuge is via 2-hour Natural History 4X4 Oversand Vehicle Tour. Check website for tour times and costs.

Wild Nantucket Surfside
Wild Nantucket Surfside

GUIDED HIKE: Nantucket Walkabout with Peter Brace

Nantucket Walkabout is yet another way to experience the wild side of Nantucket (and we’re not talking Bachelorette Parties here), experienced naturalist, Peter Brace, takes visitors on a one to three hour exploration of his favorite untamed places, with constant commentary on the natural aspects of the island. He’ll even pick you up! Year round, check website for calendar and rates.

Sankaty Lighthouse and Bluffs Nantucket MA
Sankaty Lighthouse and Bluffs Nantucket MA

PHOTO OP: Sankaty Head Lighthouse

Take the bus or bike about 9 miles from town to Sankaty Lighthouse. It’s most remarkable for the bluff eroding so quickly, the structure had to be moved in 2007.

The “ocean from Portugal” has been pounding against the sand here for so long, in fact, Herman Melville  remarked on it in July 1852 when he visited this light – built just two year earlier.

He claimed, “The sea has encroached upon that part where their dwelling-house stands near the light-house, in a strange and beautiful contrast, we have the innocence of the land eyeing the malignity of the sea.”

WALK: Sconset Bluff Walk

As gorgeous as it sounds, this path – that takes you through cottage backyards – offers views of the wild Ocean and the bluffs along the coast. It’s less than two miles to Sankaty Head Lighthouse.

First Congregational Church Nantucket MA
First Congregational Church Nantucket MA

CLIMB: First Congregational Church Steeple Tower

Whaling captain’s wives paced these “widow’s walks” while waiting for their men to return from the sea. The tower, with sweeping views of the town and island, is open for visitors with hearty lungs (94 steps to the top).

Maria Mitchell Aquarium Nantucket MA
Maria Mitchell Aquarium Nantucket MA

VISIT: Maria Mitchell Assoc. Science Center and Observatories

Maria Mitchell, the first “Professional Female Astronomer in the USA,”  was born on Nantucket. Mitchell was also a naturalist, librarian and educator who believed in “learning by doing.” The Maria Mitchell Association operates 2 observatories, a natural science museum and aquarium, and preserves Mitchell’s birthplace.

Sunset Madaket Beach Nantucket
Sunset Madaket Beach Nantucket

SUNSET: Madaket Beach

Join the hordes on clear evenings to watch the sun set over Nantucket Sound. It’s a few miles from town, so either ride your bike or arrange a ride. Remember, you’ll be on the road again when it’s dark.

BEACH IT: Two Best Beaches

The two most popular beaches in Nantucket are on opposite sides of the island, with very different characteristics.

Jetties Beach

Jetties Beach sits near town, next to the rock jetties that guide ferries and other ships into Nantucket Harbor. The beach is wide and sandy – and calm – making it the perfect place to come with little kids.

Surfside Beach

On the other hand – and the other side of the island – Surfside Beach is self-explanatory. Here, the sand is soft and wide – and the rollers roll in over sandbars, creating strong surf that might be a bit much for little ones – but awesome for Big Ones.

Nantucket Ferries

Nantucket Ferry

GETTING TO NANTUCKET: Steamship Authority, Hyannis MA

Short of flying in or hitching a ride on your friend’s yacht, Steamship Authority’s Nantucket Ferry is the most popular and consistent way to get to the island, especially if you need to bring your car, as no other ferry service offers it.

Car transport is expensive, so bringing your car is best for families renting a seasonal house or for people with second homes on the island.

On Nantucket Ferry Steamship Authority
On Nantucket Ferry Coming into Nantucket Harbor Passing Brant Point Lighthouse

Consider bringing a bike only for a fraction of the cost.The Steamship Authority also runs high-speed ferries out of Hyannis on the coast of Cape Cod  – taking one hour. Check website for updated rates.

Hiannis Ferry

Hy-Line Cruises (no cars) operates year round multiple times a day from Hyannis MA and another high-speed Sunstreak Ferry out of New Bedford MA operates between Memorial Day and Labor Day (no cars).

Bikes in Downtown Nantucket MA
Bikes in Downtown Nantucket MA


There are plenty of bike rental shops as soon as you exit the ferry wharfs. So even if you don’t bring one, you can rent one. From town, Cisco Brewery is 3.8 miles, Madaket Beach is 6.2 miles, and Sankaty Light is nearly 9 miles – all on wide and easy bike baths that thread the island.

Young’s Bicycle Shop (also rents cars). Nantucket Bike Shop. Easy Riders Bicycles. Cook’s Cycles (also rents mopeds and Jeeps). Nantucket Island Rent A Car (at the Airport). Affordable Rentals for cars.


The NTRA “Ride the Wave” has routes all over the island. In season only.

Restaurants on Nantucket MA

Ciscos Brewery Nantucket MA
Cisco Brewery Nantucket MA


As you might tell from the category, this is not just a brewery. Cisco encompasses Nantucket Winery, Cisco Brewery, and Triple Eight Distillery, a gift shop, a live music venue, and various food trucks – in all a party year round on grounds seemingly expanding by the minute.

Take your food and drinks to an open-air patio replete with picnic tables. There’s room to dance if the spirits move you. A few miles out of town, you can either bike here, cab it, or take the free shuttle that leaves every 15 minutes from the Visitor’s Center downtown.

Cisco Brewery has become such a sensation on Nantucket, it has since expanded to four other locations: Boston Seaport, New Bedford MA, Portsmouth NH – and, amazingly, my home-town of Stamford CT!

Black Eyed Susans Nantucket MA

EAT: Black Eyed Susan’s

The food is fantastic at Black Eye Susan’s – a sleek sailing yacht- wide restaurant. Winning raves for both its breakfasts and dinners – a feat in and of itself – served either on the luncheonette counter or a few tables, we were happy with fresh salads, and minimally fussed with entree’s like pasta touched only by sautéed tomatoes, garlic, and not much else.

EAT: Locals Recommend

Many locals claim that there is not a bad meal to be had on the Island, as excellent restaurants – nearly 100 of ’em – have raised the bar: a “rising tide lifts all boats” effect. That said, of course, there are favorites. Check out Brotherhood of Thieves for burgers and cool vibes. Straight Wharf for seafood and wine.  Island Kitchen for breakfast/brunch. Hit up Millie’s on Madaket Beach for awesome sunsets and seafood. The Nautilus for “rustic seafood-centric small plates.”

Hotels In Nantucket MA

Regatta Inn - Parlor
Regatta Inn Nantucket MA

STAY: Nantucket Resort Collection (4 Options)

Though there are dozens of hotels, inns and B&B’s on Nantucket, Nantucket Resort Collection distinguishes itself as an unpretentious luxury collection of four restored homes and boarding houses near, but not part of, the downtown action.

Interiors of the Regatta Inn, Chapman House, Sherburne Inn, and the soon to open (and larger) Veranda House, are thoughtfully designed, with great attention to detail, and a warm, gracious approach to hospitality.

People who book these inns to be a social sort, taking advantage of afternoon tea and an enhanced Continental Breakfast. Check website for rates at all properties.

Star of the Sea Youth Hostel Nantucket MA
Former Star of the Sea Youth Hostel Nantucket MA

STAY: Many More Inns, Hotels, and B&Bs

There are dozens of hotels, inns, and B&B’s on Nantucket, and range from Budget (Jared Coffin House) to Luxury (White Elephant), from traditional to contemporary, family friendly to “no kids under 12” spots. Sorry to say the Star of the Sea Youth Hostel, a knockout, is now owned by the Town of Nantucket and its future use is still up in the air.

Things to Do In Nantucket MA


  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine, Shape.com, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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