Part of the Northeastern United States, Massachusetts is the most populated of all the six New England states. History is alive here and aside from its natural beauty, the state is most famous for Pilgrims, the Mayflower, the Boston Tea Party, and the Salem Witch Trials. Other well-known things throughout the state are sports, food, and their strong regional accent.
Boston tends to be the most visited tourist destination, but thanks to the jagged coastline that juts out from the mainland, the state has many seaside resorts too. Cape Cod, Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Salem are all iconic coastal destinations. Additionally, many tourists head to Northampton and The Berkshires, which are in the western region of the state.
Tourism in Massachusetts is extremely diverse and there are plenty of reasons why people head to this state for a vacation. Most are drawn to the big cities and coastal communities, but there are also many places where you can venture into the state’s mountains and forests too.
Livin’ La Vida Massachusetts
Visit Massachusett’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Bay State”
Prior to European settlement and colonization, Massachusetts was home to Native American tribes including the Wampanoag, Pocomtucs, and Mahicans. One of the original Thirteen Colonies, the first European contact occurred in the 16th century as explorers traveled along the coast.
The permanent settlement did not occur until the Pilgrims established the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Arriving on the Mayflower, the Pilgrims famously celebrated their first Thanksgiving in 1621.
After the Pilgrims, the Puritans established colonies in 1629 and 1630 in what is now modern-day Salem and Boston. Called the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Puritans sought religious freedom after breaking from the Church of England.
During the American Revolution, one of the state’s most famous events was the Boston Tea Party in 1773, which saw the people protest against the British tax on tea. The second best-known event was Paul Revere’s Ride in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Riding to alert the locals to the arrival of the British, the event, also called “The Midnight Ride”, was made famous by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Ultimately, Massachusetts would separate from Britain in 1788, when it became the 6th state to sign the US Constitution.
Since then, the state’s economy grew because of industrialization and manufacturing. Higher education has also been important throughout the state and there are multiple highly acclaimed institutions including Harvard University, Boston College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Capital City of Boston
The capital and most populated city in Massachusetts is Boston with 675,647 residents as of 2020. First founded in 1630 by Puritan settlers, the city is one of the oldest municipalities in the United States and is famous for its ties to the American Revolution and the nation’s founding.
Many tourists are drawn to the extensive history, which includes many “firsts” that date back to the 1630s. A few of these include the first public park in the US (1634), the first public school (1635), the first subway system (1897), and the first large-scale public library (1848). Today, many of those firsts and other sites have become tourist attractions.
There are 23 neighborhoods in Boston with most of the tourism being directed Downtown. Apart from Downtown, popular neighborhoods to visit include Fenway/Kenmore Square, South Boston/Seaport, Kendall Square, Harvard Square, Back Bay, and Beacon Hill.
Some of the most popular attractions in the city are Fenway Park, the Museum of Fine Arts, the New England Aquarium, Faneuil Hall, the Public Garden, Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, the Freedom Trail, the USS Constitution, and the Bunker Hill Monument.
Plymouth, “America’s Hometown”
A part of the Greater Boston area, Plymouth is a historical town that got its nickname, “America’s Hometown” for being the site where the Mayflower Pilgrims founded their colony in 1620. Supporting 61,217 people as of 2020, the town is popular for day and weekend trips from the capital, which is 40 miles to the south.
Modern Plymouth is still an active port and has large centers for commercial and industrial purposes. Tourism is spread out along the coast between various historic sites. Famous attractions include Plymouth Rock, Pilgrim Hall Museum, the Plimoth Plantation, and the Mayflower II. There are also a few historic houses worth visiting including the Richard Sparrow House and the Mayflower House Museum.
Although the majority of travelers tend to stay close to town, around Plymouth there are a few outdoor recreational areas that include lakes, ponds, forests, and golf courses. The Myles Standish State Forest offers camping and hiking, while the Ellisville Harbor State Park is known for its natural beach. Out of the various golf courses, the top-rated clubs include Waverly Oaks, Southers Marsh, and Pinehills.
Salem, “The City of Witches”
Technically a suburb of Boston, Salem is home to 44,480 people as of 2020. The city is well-known for the 1692 Salem Witch Trials from which its nickname, “The City of Witches” is derived. An event dating back to colonial times, Salem is still very much tied to the infamous trials, which saw more than 200 people accused of witchcraft and 19 executed.
Various sites throughout the city have been tied to the witch trials including the House of Seven Gables, Gallows Hill, Salem Village, Salem Witch Museum, Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Proctor’s Ledge & Memorial, and the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Although witch-related tourism sits at the forefront of Salem’s reputation, there are plenty of non-witch-related activities too.
Visitors who want to visit happier attractions should head to the Salem Harbor, the Salem Heritage Trail, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, Willows Park, Salem Common, and the Salem Pioneer Village. Additionally, the city’s waterfront shops and restaurants are popular places for visitors to enjoy the local wares and food.
Cape Cod, “Graveyard of the Atlantic”
Situated on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, Cape Cod is one of the top summer seashore destinations for tourists in Massachusetts. Supporting a population of 228,996 people throughout the year, the wave of summer tourists often means that the population swells to more than 500,000 from May to October.
Cape Cod is most famous for its beaches, lighthouses, seafood, architecture, and 560 miles of coastline. Within the area, there are also outlying islands that visitors can explore to spend a day away from the mainland. When not perusing the quaint town, colorful houses, and waterfront shops, the top place to visit in the area is the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Additional attractions include Provincetown where the Mayflower Pilgrims first landed, Race Point Beach and Lighthouse, Chatham Lighthouse, Cape Cod Rail Trail, Falmouth, and Yarmouth.
Nantucket, “The Little Grey Lady of the Sea”
One island that is 30 miles south of the coast from Cape Cod is Nantucket, which has a population of 14,255 as of 2020. A summer colony, many tourists flood this area during the warmer months. The only ways to access Nantucket are by boat, ferry, or plane.
Visitors in Nantucket will be able to lounge on pristine beaches, browse local shops, and dine at charming restaurants. There are also plenty of luxurious resorts and golf courses to cater to visitors. Between the island’s New England charm, lots of lands have also been left untouched so visitors can enjoy the natural landscapes.
A few of the most interesting and spectacular attractions in Nantucket are the Whaling Museum, Madaket Beach, Brant Point Lighthouse, the Sconset Bluff Walk, Surfside Beach, Shipwreck and Lifesaving Museum, Sankaty Head Lighthouse, Great Point Lighthouse, and the Downtown Historic District.
Martha’s Vineyard, “Hollywood East”
Another island located to the south of Cape Cod is Martha’s Vineyard. Often shortened to “The Vineyard”, this island’s nickname of “Hollywood East” is because it is a favorite summertime destination for many celebrities. All year round there are about 17,000 residents in Martha’s Vineyard, but during the summer the numbers can exceed 200,000.
Although celebrities often stay in the most expensive hotels and properties, there are plenty of boutique hotels and traditional inns too. Altogether, there are 6 towns within the vineyard for tourists to explore. Common activities include boating, walking, and beachgoing.
Specific attractions that tend to be very popular are the Aquinnah Cliffs Overlook, Joseph Sylvia State Beach, Flying Horses Carousel, Ocean Park, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Inkwell Beach, the Mass Audubon’s Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, and Lighthouse Beach. Additionally, there are 5 world-class golf courses with premier facilities.
The Berkshires, A Mountainous County
Opposite the Massachusetts coast is the Berkshires, which are mountains in the state’s western region. Technically a part of the Appalachian Mountain Range, this hilly and forested area is popular for outdoor recreation, its small communities, and its interesting history. Perhaps most surprisingly, is the region’s association with arts and culture.
When exploring the wild landscapes, tourists can hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail or tour the Berkshire Botanical Garden or Herbert Arboretum. The region is also home to the state’s tallest waterfall, Bash Bish Falls. For arts and culture, the best places to see are the Norman Rockwell Museum, Clark Art Institute, Berkshire Museum, Williams College Museum of Art, and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Appalachian National Scenic Trail
Running through the far western edge of the state is the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (AT). Within Massachusetts, 90.4 miles of the trail varies from low elevations of 650 feet before extending up to 3,491 feet at its highest point. For the most part, Massachusetts’ portion of the AT fluctuates from moderately challenging to difficult.
Hikers don’t have to complete the entire trail if they don’t want to. There are many sections that are perfect for half or full-day trips. Some of the most prominent landmarks along the Massachusetts AT portion are Mount Everett, the Housatonic River Valley, the Berkshires, the Hoosic River, and Mount Greylock.
Boston Harbor Islands
The Boston Harbor Islands are a series of 34 islands that sit within the Boston Harbor. Also called the Boston Harbor National Recreation Area, the islands range in size based on the daily tides with the land space significantly shrinking as the water levels rise. Some of the larger islands are open to the public for recreational activities, while the smallest islands are preserved as wildlife habitats.
Within the islands, one of the most popular places to go is the Boston Harbor Islands State Park. Consisting of 13 islands, the state park is a mere 45-minute ferry ride from Downtown Boston. Beyond the breathtaking views, there are also a few historic sites within the national recreation area. A few of the best places to check out are Spectacle Island, Georges Island, Peddocks Island, and Fort Warren.
Minute Man National Historical Park
For Revolutionary War history, there’s no better place than to go where it all started. One of the most famous historical sites in Massachusetts is the Minute Man National Historical Park, which is where the first battle and first shots of the Revolutionary War took place. Located in Lexington, there are several sites and trails for visitors to explore within the park.
These include the North Bridge, Battle Road Trail, The Wayside, Barrett’s Farm, and the Lexington Battle Green. Although much of the park can be explored on your own, visitors who want to join a tour should head to the Minute Man Visitor Center. The top tours include Hartwell Tavern and the Whittemore House.
“It’s All Here”
Known as the “Bay State”, “Old Colony State” and “Codfish State”, Massachusetts is famous for its stunning coastline and rich history. In addition to its oceanside beauty, the state comes to life as it brings traces of the past to modern times.
Whether you’re staying in quaint coastal communities, secluded mountain towns, or heading to bustling Boston, visitors can take their pick from a long list of attractions and activities. Showcasing some of the best on the East Coast, a trip to Massachusetts is the perfect vacation all year long.