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Located off the southern coast of Cape Cod, the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket are incredible beach vacation destinations in their own right. During the summer months, or even during the late spring and fall shoulder seasons, visitors can easily spend a few days or a week’s long vacation on these islands, enjoying some of the most beautiful beaches on the eastern side of the country.

However, vacationers to Cape Cod will often want to take a side trip to one of these islands just for the day and often ask which island gives more juice for the squeeze. Let’s dig into some of the details.

Getting There

Nantucket Fast Ferry

The fast ferry to Nantucket is a 1 hour ride. It is the way to go if your budget can afford it.

The first factor to consider in making a day trip to either Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket is getting there. While Cape Air does fly to both islands from Hyannis, most day visitors will end up taking one of the ferries, so that’s where we will focus. While it is possible to ferry across with your vehicle, this is not recommended for day travelers, as the cost is very high, parking is at a premium, and generally, it is a pain in the ass and you will wish you had not even tried. Don’t do it. Walk-on travel is the way to go. Once on either island, taxi service is readily available, as is a very good bus system that will get you anywhere you need to go. 

While Martha’s Vineyard is a mere four miles off the beaches of the town of Falmouth, Nantucket is 30 miles out to sea. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Martha’s Vineyard is easier a shorter trip. It depends on where on Cape Cod you are staying, and how much of a pain is parking going to be…


Both islands are serviced by The Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises. Both of these services offer high-speed passenger service to Nantucket from Hyannis, making the trip a one-hour journey. Compared to the 30-45 minute ferry ride from Falmouth or Woods Hole, it’s not that much longer, although it is much more expensive (see table below).

I have taken both ferry services and they are comparable in quality and pricing, although the Steamship Authority fast ferry is a few dollars cheaper.

Steamship Authority also has a slower ferry for about half the price of the fast ferries. The one-way trip takes two hours. This is not recommended. Taking into account the return trip, this is two hours out of your day, However, it is an option if you are trying to save cash.

Martha’s Vineyard

You have two options, the Steamship Authority out of Woods Hole and the Island Queen out of Falmouth Harbor. If it’s peak summer, don’t take the Steamship Authority. You will have to park at a satellite lot and take a bus, known by islanders and local work commuters as the “cattle car,” to the Woods Hole ferry terminal. I know this very well, as I used to do it every day while working on the island.

The better option is to take the Island Queen. Park at the Staples Parking Lot nearby and walk to the ferry terminal. Although this is probably discouraged, there is an old Friendly’s Restaurant that went out of business years ago and has plenty of parking. You shouldn’t have any trouble. The ferry is about 30 minutes, less time than the Steamship and less parking hassle. It also always arrives in Oak Bluffs, the preferred port on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s the better way.

Bottom Line

It’s a bit longer to get to Nantucket, but if you are willing to spend the cash to ride the fast ferry, then I would not worry about the extra time. If you are staying on Cape Cod in the town of Barnstable or any town east of that, then it’s a nonissue. If you are staying in Falmouth or Bourne, then a trip to Martha’s Vineyard (Oak Bluffs) might save you some time and be the better choice.

Knockabout Oak Bluffs Audio Tour

Take a self-paced walk through the island’s most popular town. Includes all audio files and maps streamed directly to your smartphone. It’s GPS enabled, so the audio starts automatically as you walk. Super easy and a great way to explore the island on your own schedule.

Just Off The Boat

If you are traveling to the islands for just a day, then one thing you won’t want to do is spend a lot of time on a bus, Uber, or taxi once you arrive. Being able to see the sights as soon as you step off of the boat is important. After all, between parking and the ferry ride to your island, some of the day is already gone and you need to make the most of the remaining time. Luckily, many of the popular destinations and outdoor activities on both islands are steps from the ferry piers.

Martha’s Vineyard is larger than Nantucket, and for this section, we will compare Nantucket village with the town of Oak Bluffs of Martha’s Vineyard. Both of these locations are within eyesight of the ferry service, and both have quite a few sights to take in that require no extra transportation besides your feet.

Nantucket Village

Nantucket Harbor

The National Park Service reports that Nantucket is the “finest surviving architectural and environmental example of a late 18th and early 19th century New England seaport town. With this in mind, much of the sights and character of the village revolve around Nantucket’s place in maritime history. Right off the HyLine ferry is Straight Wharf, named such because it goes “straight” up Main Street. Here, there are a variety of shops, restaurants, and the Gazebo where the specialty drink is the frozen mudslide. Although modern amenities are everywhere, you will feel like you entered a time warp to the early 1800s once you step off of the boat.

Downtown Nantucket is known for its narrow, cobblestone streets. The stones are original, imported during Nantucket’s heyday in the whaling age to limit horse-drawn carriages from kicking up dust or to mitigate excessive mud during wet weather. And, with the entire island being designated a national historic district, most of the buildings in the village are either original, restored, or replicated architecture of that bygone era. Nantucket undoubtedly has a unique, historic character, but also a fun, partying island feel that you will enjoy from the moment you arrive.

The Nantucket Whaling Museum is located in Nantucket Village’s downtown area and is a great stop for anyone interested in the island’s role in the whaling industry. Nantucketers were amongst the wealthiest citizens in the fledgling United States due to their mastery of the industry, shipping whale oil across the globe and reaping incredible profits in return. The Whaling Museum has artifacts and interactive exhibits for those wanting to peer into the island’s past.

The Nantucket Historical Association (NHA), which owns the Whaling Museum, also owns and operates several other historic sites such as the Jethro Coffin House (Nantucket’s oldest home), the Hadwen House (an example of a 19th century Nantucket Mansion), and the Old Gaol (Jail). These are all within walking distance of the ferry and admission to the whaling museum will also grant access to NHA historic sites.

If you are looking for sandy beaches, then I recommend taking a walk to Brant Point Lighthouse. It is a 15-minute walk from the ferry/wharf. This lighthouse is the second oldest lighthouse in the US, although it has been rebuilt eight times due to weather damage, erosion, or age. It is a great spot for a photo opportunity and is surrounded by a sand beach, so spending a few moments walking around is peaceful as you watch the boats and ferries come and go. Being located on the harbor, Nantucket Village does not have any surf beaches, so this is the best one within walking distance. If you decide to take the walk (or rent bikes and ride), then be sure to stop at the Brant Point Grill for a Lobster Bloody Mary. They are delicious.

Brotherhood of Thieves

Brotherhood of Thieves feels like an 1800s pub: dark, cozy, great burgers and Cisco Beer. It’s always booked for a reason.

Nantucket has some great places to eat and drink for the day traveler. While the island has a reputation for being a bit upscale, it is also home to some seaside shanties and casual pubs. Some of my favorites include:

  • Rose & Crown: Great for nachos, burgers, fish & chips, lobster rolls and cold beer. There are no water views, but the tavern atmosphere is a unique blend of island vibe and British pub.
  • Slip 14: This seafood shack and bar is located right on the pier across from Straight Wharf. We have eaten here a few times and enjoy sitting at the high-top tables by the bar. Lots of good energy here. The glazed wings are delicious, although all of your fresh seafood favorites can be found here.
  • Brotherhood of Thieves: One of the more well-known taverns on-island, the wait can be quite long. Be sure to get your name on the wait list an hour or two before you get hungry. Then go walk around town and come back. Brotherhood has a great raw bar with oysters, poke bowls, and sushi, along with seared tuna steaks, lobster rolls, and pub food. Something for everyone in a pub environment.

Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

Gingerbread Cottages

The gingerbread cottages in Oak Bluffs are a popular attraction for day visitors to Martha’s Vineyard.

If you have only one day to visit the island, then do it in Oak Bluffs. The Steamship Authority has ferries into Vineyard Haven, but I do not recommend them. There is not much to see there and you will just end up taking a bus, taxi, or Uber into Oak Bluffs anyway.

Oak Bluffs began its summer tradition as a Methodist camp called Wesleyan Grove in the 1830s. At first, saving one’s soul was serious business. But as time went on, the campers started to enjoy themselves more. They converted their tents into summer cottages and stayed for the entire season. Today, they are the famed gingerbread cottages seen in postcards and photographs of the island and are an attraction unto themselves. You could spend an hour walking through the cottages, officially named the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association, and informally known as the “campground.” For those who want to know more about the cottages and those who created them, the association offers walking tours in July and August, or you could download the Knockabout Oak Bluffs Walking Tour, which takes you through the town and discusses its history, of which the Camp Meeting Association is a focal point.

While Nantucket goes to great lengths to preserve its historical legacy, Oak Bluffs is a bit more modern, and a walk up Circuit Ave will be a sharp contrast to the cobblestoned Main Street of Nantucket. Here, you can find souvenir shops, eateries, drinkeries, and local artisan shops. When Oak Bluffs was being developed as a tourist community by the Oak Bluffs Land and Wharf Company in the 1870s, they wanted a contrast with the religious campers of Wesleyan Grove and thus kept it as modern and secular as they could get it. That tradition has carried forward to today. There is not much history to see on Circuit Ave, just a lot of people having a great time.

Flying Horses Carousel

Flying Horses Carousel is a great activity for young families

At the end of Circuit Ave is the Flying Horses Carousel, an original Coney Island merry-go-round that was brought to the island during its development as a resort town. This is a great attraction for families with younger children, something that is fairly lacking on both islands. And, while we are on the subject of young families, Oak Bluffs also has a pretty cool pirate ship adventure for the tots. Kids dress up as pirates and go on a raid in Oak Bluffs Harbor, spraying water cannons as they search for plunder and booty. This can be a big deal for kids, who otherwise do not have a whole lot of options while Mom and Dad eat sashimi and drink Dirty Bananas on the harbor (more to follow).

Favorite places to eat and drink include:

  • The Lookout Tavern: This place has a great raw bar and sushi options, but also has faves like fish and chips. The seating is indoor/outdoor and the view over Vineyard Sound is one of the best. It gets crowded here during peak hours, so a late lunch or early dinner is best if you don’t want to wait.
  • Nancy’s/Donovan’s Reef: Home of the famous Dirty Banana. This is arguably Martha’s Vineyard’s signature drink, frozen and delicious. Even locals will stand in line for a Dirty Banana. Donovan’s Reef is the outdoor, Harborside bar associated with Nancy’s Restaurant.
  • Giordano’s: The pizza here is really good. I know, it’s Martha’s Vineyard and you want seafood. Giordano’s also has a menu full of fried seafood that you can get from the takeout window. But sometimes, a slice of pizza at the beach is a bit of heaven.
  • Coupe deVille: Boasting a huge selection of beers on tap, this Harborside restaurant has covered, outdoor seating on Oak Bluffs Harbor. Wings, fried seafood and raw bar are specialties here. This is a great place to sit and watch the sunset over the harbor.

A Bit Further Away…

Sconset Bluff Walk

The Sconset Bluff Walk in late April.


Nantucket is smaller than Martha’s Vineyard and has a great public transportation system that will bring you most places on-island. One of the more notable villages accessible by bus that you may wish to visit is Siasconset, located on the eastern edge of Nantucket. Many come here to experience the Sconset Bluff Walk, a one-mile path along the ocean that traverses the dunes and goes through the backyards of some of the island’s most prized real estate. The Bluff Walk is a right of way, meaning that it is for public use, despite going through seemingly private land. The views of the ocean are fantastic.

Visitors to Siasconset, known locally as ‘Sconset, can also walk to some pretty remote beaches, with public access points near the Bluff Walk. If you head to Nantucket and want to see some open ocean and deep sand beaches, this is one place to find them. Sconset is also accessible by bike, however, it is a six-mile ride, mostly along a paved and dedicated bike path. It takes 45 minutes to ride from Nantucket village to Sconset. You can ride there and load your bikes on the bus racks if you’d prefer not to cycle back into town.

For history and maritime lovers, Nantucket also has the Nantucket Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum. Learn about some of the ships that have been lost to the sea around the island.

Nantucket also has a craft brewery, Cisco Brewers, which also encompasses a winery and distillery within its business. This is a popular destination for day travelers to Nantucket. Getting to Cisco is easy. They offer a free shuttle that runs continuously throughout the day between downtown and their location. Cycling along the Cisco Bike Path is another popular way to travel to the brewery. Food vendors are also on-site for when you get a bit hungry.

Martha’s Vineyard

Martha’s Vineyard is larger than Nantucket and has six separate towns to visit. However, as a day traveler to the island, you can’t see it all. If you want to see sights beyond the walking distance of Oak Bluffs, the most bang for your buck will be in Edgartown. It’s feasible to rent bicycles and ride along the Beach Road Bike Path to Edgartown, stopping at the Jaws Bridge and Joseph Sylvia State Beach along the way to enjoy the sand and a swim. There’s also a bus that runs the route between the two towns regularly.

For lighthouse lovers, Edgartown Lighthouse is open in the summer and visitors can, for a small fee, climb to the top for views of Edgartown Harbor, Chappaquiddick Island, and even across Vineyard Sound to Cape Cod.

History buffs can take a 75-minute, guided walking tour of some of Edgartown’s historic sites including the Old Whaling Church and Vincent House to learn what life was like during the Vineyard’s early years as a seafaring community through today’s iteration of island life as a vacation destination. The tour is provided through the Vineyard Preservation Trust.

If you really do want to see the whole island, or close to it, in a day, then you may want to sign up for a bus tour that will get you to the main points of the island including the Aquinnah Cliffs. Just be forewarned that these tours are not of the hop-on, hop-off variety. You are mainly passing by most sites of interest without stopping.


Such a subjective topic, isn’t it? Both are idyllic islands that offer their own version of a perfect little getaway. However, it can be said that if you want to step back in time, then Nantucket is your island. After all, the entire island is a historic district. If you don’t care too much about that sort of thing but want to see more impressive ocean views and a livelier atmosphere, then Martha’s Vineyard, specifically Oak Bluffs, is where you want to take your day trip.

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