Blake Walsh

15 Best Things to Do in Barnstable, MA

  • Published 2022/02/04

The town of Barnstable, Massachusetts, is legally a city.

However, its official label still includes “town,” accentuating its charm as a hometown you want to return to time and time again.

It’s a fairly thriving place, with a population of 48,916 according to the 2020 census.

Its biggest village is Hyannis, the business hub of Barnstable County, and the airline hub of Cape Cod, where you can visit Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.

In 2007, the town of Barnstable won the All-American City Award.

Barnstable’s history stretches to the 17th century.

In 1602, the European Bartholomew Gosnold explored the area, and in 1638, the pilgrims settled there.

So, Barnstable became one of the first towns in the Plymouth Colony.

The settlers incorporated the town in 1639.

Their leader was the Reverend Joseph Hull, whose legacy remains as a memorial tablet marking his residence.

The rock he stood on during his sermons also remains on the highway.

Today, Barnstable attracts droves of tourists every summer because of its wide selection of shops and various historical attractions and landmarks.

The town also offers several beaches for leisure and recreation.

Do you want to know more about Barnstable, MA?

Here’s a list of the best things to do in town:

Ride the Waves at Sandy Neck Beach

The clear blue water waves of sandy neck beach hitting on the white sand shore.

lunamarina /

You’ll never run out of fun things to do on Sandy Neck Beach, the longest beach in Barnstable, spanning 6 miles of unspoiled coast.

Its high dunes and clear ocean water make it an ideal spot for sunbathing, strolling, and cooling off on the sea.

Clear blue waters and the sandy neck lighthouse beside a house.

njwalter2004 /

Likewise, a lifeguard stands on duty, so you don’t need to worry about your safety.

Other amenities also stand along the beach, like a snack bar and restrooms.

You can also rent a boat and go fishing.

Otherwise, you can simply try a little off-road driving on the dunes.

A wooden trail bridge on the way to the sandy neck beach shore.

lunamarina /

Know Your Presidents at the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum

A bronze statue of John F. Kennedy in front of the Hyannis Museum.

Ceri Breeze /

The late US president John F. Kennedy regularly visited Cape Cod to rest, recharge, and reinvigorate himself by sailing on the ocean, his favorite place.

To celebrate his legacy, the village of Hyannis established the JFK Hyannis Museum Foundation in Cape Cod.

Kennedy was the first politician to understand the power of television and mass media to sway the voting public.

A piece of paper on a bed of grass - saying "Hyannis Kennedy Legacy Trail".

Cheri Alguire /

Today, the museum offers glimpses into how he used emerging technology through exhibits.

These exhibits feature videos, oral histories, and photographs taken of JFK.

Moreover, you can find an orientation video containing narration by Walter Cronkite regarding JFK’s experiences on the Cape.

Likewise, you can find presidential artifacts in the museum, and then you can drop by the Kennedy Compound.

A bright blue circle painted on the floor of the hyannis trail.

Cheri Alguire /

Get Spooked on the Barnstable Ghost Hunters Tour

Every 7:00 p.m., the Barnstable Haunted Tour starts in the town.

If you’re interested, you can choose from a few tours tailoring to large groups or couples.

The first one is the Ghost Hunters Tour, which takes place from Monday to Friday.

Professional ghost hunters take participants on a three-hour adventure through the local cemetery, the haunted Crocker Tavern House, Barnstable Courthouse, and “The House of 11 Ghosts.”

You’ll even get to see how ghost hunters use sensory equipment to detect ghost activity.

Moreover, this tour is genuinely terrifying, so prepare yourself.

People have left the tour halfway through, sparing themselves from entering the Old Jail, one of the most haunted places in the country.

The other tour is the Haunted & History Tour. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, you can join this tour.

During this tour, you won’t hunt ghosts, but you’ll learn about the histories of Barnstable’s hauntings.

You’ll stop by 10 locations, including Cobb’s Hill Cemetery.

Finally, bring your partner on the Love You to Death Tour, a private adventure of 90 minutes that’s designed for couples.

Your tour focuses on stories of lost love from the Revolutionary War period.

Explore Barnstable along the Cape Cod Central Railroad

Red, yellow, and black train behind purple flowers and green grass.

Mark from Baltimore, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What better way to explore a historic town than by riding a piece of history?

Go back in time and see all sides of this majestic city through the train’s window on the Cape Cod Central Railroad.

The trip lasts for two hours, with detailed narration from the guide, passing the magnificent dunes, marshes, and cranberry bogs of Cape Cod, until you reach the banks of the Cape Cod Canal.

Likewise, this trip is unique because it provides views you can only see by train.

You can also try the railroad’s award-winning dinner specials.

Otherwise, you can opt for their Sunday brunch, gourmet luncheon, or family supper menus.

Red vehicle on the railroad.

Kevin Rutherford, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Study Local History at the Barnstable Historical Society

In 1939, the town of Barnstable established the Barnstable Historical Society in time for its 300th founding anniversary.

The society operates out of the historic Phinney-Jones House, where it faces the Sturgis Library.

The Historical Society has made great strides in recording the history of Barnstable’s seven villages through historical documents and artifacts.

You’ll find various objects dating from the 17th to the 20thcentury during your visit.

For example, you’ll see maritime paintings, read ships’ logs, check out ship models and a scrimshaw collection, and leaf through vintage photographs.

You’ll also find recovered letters, diaries, and even a quilt collection.

Learn Maritime History at the US Coast Guard Heritage Museum

Red colored customs house in barnstable.

Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since 2005, the Coast Guard Heritage Museum has provided residents and tourists glimpses into the history of the maritime agency.

Located inside the United States Customs House in Barnstable, this museum features exhibits about the Coast Guard.

You’ll see displays showcasing the history and roots of the agency.

For example, you’ll learn the stories of the Revenue Cutter Service, the United States Life Saving Service, and the United States Lighthouse Service.

The museum’s exhibits feature Lighthouses and Lightships, Coast Guard Vessels, Coast Guard Aviation, and the Coast Guard at War.

You’ll find more than 100 vessels and airplane models displayed there.

Explore Nature at the Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary

The village of Cummquid features a stunning natural attraction for tourists who want to get closer to the trees and wildlife.

What is this place?

It’s the Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, a 110-acre property whose clean beaches, lush meadows, winding woodland trails, and farm animals make for an unforgettable Cape Cod experience.

You can hike along the trails to arrive at the great Barnstable Harbor, with the dunes of Sandy Neck Barrier Beach on your flanks.

The sanctuary’s location on Barnstable Harbor also allows tourists chances to explore the area further by kayaking or joining a cruise.

See the US’ Oldest Library at the Sturgis Library

Exterior of the old Sturgis library building.

John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1644, the settlement of Barnstable built the Sturgis Library building as a house for the Reverend John Lothrop, the village founder.

This house has become the oldest library building in the entire United States, and it’s also one of the oldest houses still standing on Cape Cod.

During his lifetime, the Reverend Lothrop also used the house’s front room (“The Lothrop Room”) for worship.

Because of this room, the Sturgis Library is also the oldest structure in America that held regular religious services.

In 1863, Captain William Sturgis, one of Reverend Lothrop’s direct descendants, willed the house to the village of Barnstable.

He wanted the village to turn it into a library, and the Sturgis Library opened in 1867.

Large selection of books on bookshelves inside the library.

John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the library opened, it contained 1,300 volumes.

Many of these books came from Sturgis’ private collection.

Today, the Sturgis Library gives guided tours and hosts exhibitions throughout the year.

All of these events are open to the public, too.

The library holds more than 65,000 volumes, including the Cape Cod History Collection, manuscripts, microfilm, and photographs.

Likewise, the National Register of Historic Places has listed the Sturgis Library in its records.

Bring Your Kids to the Cape Cod Children’s Museum

You’ll find the Cape Cod Children’s Museum in the village of Mashpee, in the town of Barnstable.

It’s a terrific place to bring your kids for an afternoon’s worth of family fun.

Likewise, it’s the only museum on Cape Cod devoted to children.

Besides fun, you’ll also help your kids learn about the world while learning a few things yourself.

The museum features various exhibits, programs, and play areas.

A group of moms established the museum in 1990, and it has continued to draw thousands of visitors for over 20 years.

Every year, the museum accommodates 50,000 visitors who want to experience the joy of playing and learning together.

Trace the History of American Crime at the Barnstable Old Gaol

Two storey wooden building called "the old jail".

Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Barnstable is also home to one more of the United States’ oldest standing buildings, the Barnstable Old Gaol.

It’s the oldest wooden jail in the country.

In 1690, the Plymouth and Massachusetts Colonies courts ordered the construction of this jail, which housed prisoners as late as 1820, when the village built a new stone jail.

Then, the village decided to attach the jail building to a barn.

When it was still active, the jail housed six prisoners at a time.

In 1968, the village rediscovered the jail and relocated it from the barn to the Coast Guard Heritage Building grounds.

The National Register of Historic Places recognized the building in 1971, while it got inducted into the Old King’s Highway Historic District in 1987.

Today, the jail has earned a reputation as one of the most haunted buildings in America.

It opens at certain times of the year to ghost tours, where guests might catch the ghost of Goody Hallett, the lover of notorious pirate Samuel Bellamy.

She was put in jail in 1716.

Sample Craft Beer at Cape Cod Beer

Since 2004, Cape Cod Beer has offered guests the region’s original craft beer, filled with their passion for crafting only the freshest and most delicious beer.

You can find them on Hyannis, where the brewery distributes their beer, supplying drinkers from Plymouth to Provincetown.

These drinks are available in cans and on draft.

The place is also open six days a week and is available for tours, events, and tastings throughout the year.

Likewise, they offer various craft beers, from IPAs to Pilsners.

Marvel at the Design of the Barnstable County Courthouse

Exterior of the barnstable county courthouse on a sunny day.

Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Another historical building in Barnstable is the County Courthouse, located on Main Street.

Alexander Parris designed the two-story building and the Greek Revival style, whose construction finished in 1831.

From 1879 to 1971, the building has undergone five expansions, with each addition conforming to the overall architecture.

Opposite side of the exterior of barnstable county courthouse.

John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today, the building functions as a courthouse, and you can find the Barnstable Superior Court inside.

The National Register of Historic Places listed the courthouse building in its records in 1981.

Six years later, in 1987, the Barnstable County Courthouse got named to the Old King’s Highway Historic District.

Statue of mercy otis warren outside of the county courthouse.

Kenneth C. Zirkel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

See the Whales with the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises

If you visit Barnstable from mid-April to mid-November, you might want to join the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises for the chance to spot whales passing Barnstable Harbor.

This unforgettable experience draws tourists from all over the country.

Don’t forget to bring your cameras!

The cruise itself takes passengers of all ages on an eco-tour to Stellwagen Bank.

When you reach this bank, you’ll see pods of whales cruising along with you.

For over 30 years, the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises service has given delightful tours for curious tourists worldwide.

Meet the Kennedys along the Hyannis Kennedy Legacy Trail

A stone memorabilia honoring 50 years of peace corps with two small american flags on the side.

Rosemarie Mosteller /

Starting from the JFK Hyannis Museum, this self-guided walking tour promises to take you on a trip through the life of the Kennedys.

The entire tour covers 1.6 miles in one direction, which takes roughly 90 minutes to complete.

You’ll also have to walk 35 minutes to return to your starting point.

A piece of paper on the grass saying "Hyannis kennedy legacy trail".

Cheri Alguire /

So, not only will you learn more about one of the most popular presidents in American history, but you’ll also get your blood pumping.

You’ll stop by ten important locations, each containing an informational sign.

These signs also have QR tags you can scan to watch an audio-visual presentation.

Check Out Masterpieces at the Cahoon Museum of American Art

Visit the Cahoon Museum of American Art if you want to check out the most innovative art museum in the Massachusetts area.

This museum presents its historical and contemporary art collections in the historical Crocker House, located at Cotuit, a village in Barnstable.

Likewise, the museum welcomes visitors of all ages, so long as they want to learn more about art and art history.

You can attend family-friendly events and enjoy the museum’s creative programming.

After your visit, you can drop by the gift shop for souvenirs.

Final Thoughts

Barnstable is steeped in a rich history, starting from its founding in the 17thcentury.

Today, you can revisit this heritage through the remaining historical buildings and see the town in all its aspects, even the spooky ones.

You can even follow in John F. Kennedy’s footsteps and sail around Cape Cod.

So, what are you waiting for?

Book your Barnstable trip today!

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