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provincetown, massachusetts city guide

by Stephanie

Illustration by Julia Rothman

Our Provincetown, Massachusetts City Guide comes from Andrea E. McHugha freelance writer and stylist specializing in lifestyle, travel, weddings and health — and our tour guide through this beautiful peninsula city. Andrea made sure to cover hotels, in case you’re looking to visit this fall or next spring and summer. Thank you, Andrea, for an impeccable guide to this historic beach region! — Stephanie

CLICK HERE for the full guide after the post!

Provincetown, perched on the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, is one of New England’s most friendly destinations. “P-town,” as it’s affectionately dubbed, is known for its tolerance of all lifestyles, and as such, welcomes tens of thousands of visitors year-round. Like any coastal community, the population swells in the warmer months, but P-town has something to offer every season. Rich in history and home to America’s oldest art colony, this community boasts miles of sandy beach (it’s part of the Cape Cod National Seashore), and amazing biking and walking trails at Province Lands. A testament to its extraordinary vistas, famed naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau visited the town for solace and inspiration. Restaurants, shopping and galleries all make your visit memorable while inns, bed and breakfasts and guest houses ensure a comfortable stay.

From sushi savored in a centuries-old church to a well-known seafood shanty to fine dining, P-town has something for every palate and many restaurants are open year-round.

Right on the water, Bayside Betsy’s is a consummate favorite among locals and visitors alike. Serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Bubala’s by the Bay is a charming bistro right on the harbor in Provincetown’s West End, and serves up the daily catch morning, noon and night.

Centrally located on bustling Commercial Street, Edwige at Night is a perennial favorite best known for their fresh specials and creative cocktails (white-ginger cosmo, anyone?). Vegetarians have a nice selection, too.

Ciro & Sal’s is known for its northern Italian cuisine and quaint settings that include a garden and cozy dining rooms. (Call to make reservations.)

Arguably the epicenter of P-town activity, the Crown & Anchor, which boasts six bar venues including “the town’s largest nightclub (Paramount), the town’s only video bar (Wave), a cabaret venue, a poolside bar with heated pool, a piano bar and an ever-popular leather bar (The Vault). The Crown also features the Central House at the Crown — a year-round restaurant offering lunch and dinner.”

Set in a charming former boat shack and serving modern American cuisine for breakfast (nearly legendary), lunch and dinner, Devon’s celebrates P-town’s fresh seafood and Portuguese roots.

On the East End of P-town, laid-back eatery Fanizzi’s by the Sea offers a casual feel, comfort food and 180-degree views.

“Hip cafeteria meets healthy eatery” would be one way to describe Frappo 66. Their “eat in, chill out” slogan says it all.

One of few fine dining establishments, Front Street serves up creative Italian dishes in a historic Victorian, winning the chef-owned restaurant multiple awards.

Best known for Drag Queen Karaoke and cold beers on the patio, the Governor Bradford is a P-town landmark. The interior is reminiscent of an old whaling ship (the wood quite possibly was reclaimed from one) and downstairs, below street level, is a lounge area that usually hosts drinking and dancing.

Tucked away off Commercial Street, the appropriately-named Jimmy’s Hideaway is warm, cozy and welcoming and boasts a menu that puts a twist on tavern favorites.

For P-town visitors on the go, John’s Hot Dog, Hamburger & Seafood Stand serves up — beyond the obvious — fried clams, fried dough, stuffies and the like from the service window on Lopes Square.

An espresso, newspaper and sunny morning at Joe Coffee & Cafe guarantees a day started off right. It’s also ideal for Commercial Street-people watching, indoors or out.

The only South African restaurant for miles, Karoo Kafe has a unique selection of dishes (antelope, ostrich) alongside a nice selection for vegans and vegetarians.

There’s a reason you can almost always expect a wait at the iconic Lobster Pot, as the seafood outpost is a familiar favorite with two floors serving lobster rolls, fried clams, clam chowder, lobster panini, scallops and their signature pumpkin muffins.

The decidedly unfussy Mayflower Cafe offers a diner-like menu with a little bit of everything for everyone.

Warm and welcoming in a cedar-shingle home with flowering gardens at the entry, the Mews Restaurant & Cafe dishes up year-round waterfront dining in the heart of the East End Art Gallery District. Things are a little more casual in the café area, and cocktail aficionados will appreciate the 286 vodkas available from 32 countries.

With seafood, meat and poultry, plus plenty for vegetarians, Napi’s is a P-town favorite. Year-round service, friendly staff and unique ambiance (nautical meets house of worship, perhaps?) enhance the experience.

Overlooking the harbor with a casual vibe, Pepe’s on the Wharf is a great spot for an afternoon cocktail (especially if you score a spot on the second-floor deck). The menu is seafood focused with an emphasis on freshly caught fare.

It’s hard not to win over a crowd when your specialty is fresh ground coffee, chocolate and gelato, and The Purple Feather does it right (mojito, sorbetto, espresso). They also have a full lunch menu and stay open late most nights.

Cupcake aficionados love Relish, a bakery and café right on Commercial Street, with a great take-out menu for beachgoers.

Quaint and cozy, Ross’s Grille bills itself as a “wine bar bistro” and boasts killer views from its second-floor location on Whalers’ Wharf.

No matter where you travel, it’s always good to know where you can get a good slice of pizza (especially that late night, post-partying slice), and Spiritus Pizza fits the bill with fold-worthy, NYC-style thin crust pie.

Since arriving in 2009, Saki Sushi has won over diners with its hip vibe and ambiance as well as its invigorating menu, which includes sake from around the world.

For a more polished P-town experience, Victor’s on Bradford Street has won rave reviews for its dinner — and its famed Drag Brunch!

Provincetown preserves its small-town charm by eschewing large hotel chains for a host of inns, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts. Accommodations range from posh B&Bs with onsite spas to budget-friendly rooming houses. Here are just a few:

The Benchmark Inn is known for its simple elegance and old-fashioned hospitality.

The Carpe Diem Guesthouse & Spa feels like a home away from home — if your home is always charming, provides wine and cheese daily and features a great little spa in the backyard (and fabulous innkeepers who whip up a crazy good hearty breakfast).

Just steps from Commercial Street, The Carriage House is an award-winning inn with myriad rooms, some with private decks to take in the P-town scene.

The Land’s End Inn is set high atop a hill in P-town’s charming West End and is known for its history and ocean views.

The Bradford-Carver House is an intimate, budget-friendly guest house with private baths located steps from Commercial Street.

In the quieter West End, the Oxford Guesthouse offers English charm and luxury accommodations.

Christopher’s by the Bay is a guesthouse in a 19th-century Victorian with all 10 of its rooms named after prominent artists.

Historic inn, day spa and resort, Crowne Pointe is one of P-town’s bigger inns with 40 rooms situated in six restored historic buildings.

On the farthest reaches of P-town’s West End, the Foxberry Inn is a nature lover’s dream with bucolic views and easy access to the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Dog-friendly and a little off the beaten path, Four Gables Cottages offers private accommodations for guests and their four-legged friends.

A luxury boutique hotel, the White Porch Inn provides modern amenities in historic environs, promising to please even the most discerning traveler.

The White Wind Inn sits right on Commercial Street and is steps from the bay.

A unique compound comprised of nine 18th- and 19th-century houses and cottages, the Brass Key Guest House has been recognized by the New York Times and consistently wins rave reviews.

A stone’s throw from the bay (and some rooms with grand views of it), the Somerset House serves a hot breakfast and cocktails at happy hour — vacation at its best.

A Greek revival guesthouse, the quiet West End Inn offers four rooms and three apartments, all nestled behind a white picket fence and far enough from the fast pace of Commercial Street.

Shop, See & Do
Commemorating the first landing of the pilgrims in 1620 at Provincetown, where the Mayflower Compact was composed and signed, the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum stands tall in the center of town. It’s an arduous climb to the top but well worth the 180-degree view of the Atlantic, and the collection at the museum celebrates the town’s seafaring history.

The breathtaking sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore protected lands in P-town peak high and wide, and are as close as you’ll get to the ones you’ve imagined in the Sahara. Check them out by dune buggy via Art’s Dune Tours.

Because of its location, Provincetown is one of the best whale-watching capitals in the world, and the Dolphin Fleet sails the shores of Provincetown and on Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary to get the best views of the mammoth, magnificent creatures reveling in their natural habitat.

Guided tours aboard the Provincetown Trolley are the best way to make sure you don’t miss an inch of P-town. The 40-minute tour includes drives through the art district, explores National Seashore Park and visits more than 20 points of interest.

From major label retailers to unique, locally-owned boutiques, shopping in P-town is fabulous and mostly contained by Commercial Street (but we encourage you to wander off the beaten path, as well). Favorites include Atlantic Cotton, Board Stiff, local designer Daniel Cleary, Diane Z, Karol Richardson, French Kiss Fashions, the Human Rights Campaign Store, Silk and Feathers, Marc Jacobs, the oddities at Aunt Fanny’s and more.

Fishing, sailing, biking and kayaking are great ways to enjoy P-town, and there are a ton of charters and rentals available. Start at the Chamber of Commerce for a list.

Never a dull moment in P-town, there are a host of events that take place throughout the year. The annual Provincetown International Film Festival, the the Spring Restaurant Week & Gallery Stroll, the annual Provincetown Portuguese Festival & Blessing of the Fleet, concerts, fairs and Family Pride Week are just a few. Click here for the P-town Chamber’s events calendar.

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  • I think the author really missed the mark on P’town. She seems to have noted all of the easiest and most visible places while completely neglecting the restaurants and shops that make P’town unique.

    For restaurants, SKIP Bubbala’s and Bayside Betsy’s. The food is mediocre at best and they are WAY overpriced. Instead, check out The Red Inn (expensive, but good) or the the Burger Queen (it’s a charmingly quirky burger shack, and the cheapest lunch in P’town).

    For shopping, Provincetown does not offer “major label retailers”, which is a huge part of what makes it such a nice place to be. It has one, solitary Marc by Marc Jacobs store, which is the only major chain of any kind (and it should be noted that Marc Jacobs continually donates an enormous amount of money towards town improvements). That said, you really needn’t bother going there because it is exactly the same selection available at any other Marc by Marc Jacobs store anywhere.

    As far as shopping goes, you would be insane not to check out:
    MAP – http://www.yelp.com/biz/map-provincetown – Map’s proprietress, Pauline, carries an amazing collection of (mostly men’s) vintage, designer, and ultra-classic clothes, jewelry, accessories, and some books.
    Yates & Kennedy – http://stylecarrot.com/2009/08/04/provincetown-yates-and-kennedy/ – a fabulous bunch of housewares that are largely nautical themed. The store’s owner, Mitch, for a while was selling off his mother’s collection of unbelievably fab 1960’s sunglasses.
    Tim’s Used books – down a narrow walkway to the side of the UU church, they have a great selection
    Marine Specialties – http://www.ptownarmynavy.com/ – part army/navy surplus, part just about anything else you can imagine. You can buy vintage airline dishes, various nautical bits and bobs, and there is even a rack of old wedding dresses (?!). It is one of the most bizarre and wonderful stores I have been to!
    Even the Land’s End hardware is worth a visit.

    If you have never been to Provincetown, you should go, because it is really an amazing place!

  • Great! But you forgot that P-town is the only other place besides NYC that you can visit an actual John Derian store! A bit tucked away, you’ll find it on Law Street
    (back of 396 Commercial Street), weekends in the summer or by appointment. Just a little insider info from a local gal…

  • I have been wanting to travel to p’town for like ever and this is sealing the deal.
    And thanks Aaron for more info! And a John Derian store?!? I’m coming!!!

  • I think the author is really not a shopper because the great stores were ignored for clothing Item, Coffey Men and Body Body are terrific. For home furnishings check out Waharmony.com for high end Asian, Rootshomeandgarden.com, and Soundstream design for industrial vintage. And for a wonderful fun assortment of housewares don’t miss Utilities or utilitieshome.com. Lastly, Shor for a great home design collection.

  • It seems like the author may have passed through Ptown once or twice, but you might want to find a local to give a more flavorful and detailed inside scoop.

    Yates and Kennedy on commercial st. is not to be missed – everything from hand printed tee shirts to antique taxidermy – everything in the store is in an earthy palette of blacks, whites, beiges, and browns.

    A great time to visit Ptown is during the garden tour in the summer – you can see the wide variety in lifestyles and design choices. it’s a chance to check out some beautiful, ecclectic and utterly individual houses and gardens.

  • Just returned home from P-Town yesterday! Would HIGHLY recommend the Waterford Inn — very affordable, nicest staff, excellent tavern. Bought lots of goodies at Yates and Kennedy and Roots — the best part about visiting in November is every shop is having incredible sales!

  • I love Ptown and have visited it often over the years – most recently for a wedding this summer. And I must say that I find it really troubling that the town is described as known for its “tolerance for all lifestyles” – everyone I know there would be literally shrieking – and I do mean shrieking – at that description. The only other reference to “lifestyles” is the ubiquitous “Drag Queen” flyby mention. Provincetown is famous for its high density of LGBT residents and as a world-famous destination for LGBT tourists. The town’s featured summer tourist week’s include: Family Week for same-sex couples and their kids, as well as Bear week for furry gay men, and those who love them! There is also women’s week and so on. As is often the case, there is also an incredibly vibrant and rich arts scene in Ptown, with extraordinary galleries and a new modern art museum. The author’s discomfort with naming what Ptown itself celebrates and enjoys is so at odds with the town’s bohemian spirit and joie de vivre. And yes, the wedding I attended was a same-sex celebration – another huge element of Ptown’s culture!

  • Rachel – thank you for pointing out the major flaw in what is otherwise a decent nod to P-town. P-town is 99% GAY, a word that doesn’t appear once in this guide. How can “it get(s) better” if we can’t even acknowledge a decades-old GAY destination?

  • Thank you Aaron for commenting and hitting the mark. I have been dying to say exacty the same things since I first read this guide.

    It sounds as though the author may have been to ptown once, and decided to list each and every tourist trap in town without digging deep to find out what makes that place special.

  • Any experience of P’Town is memorable whether you’re sticking to the thoroughfare of Commercial Street or finding treasures in the alleyways.

    Visit the Center for Coastal Studies while you’re in town.

    +1 for Marine Specialties, btw.

  • Ditto to comments by Rachel and Northanger Abbey—no one can take this overview seriously if it doesn’t mention, front and center, the enormous presence and influence of LGBT visitors and residents. I would also advise Design Sponge to take care to update overviews like this. The late, lamented Frappo 66 shouldn’t appear here. As well, the listings overlook Farlands (terrific sandwiches and baked goods on Bradford at Conant); Chach for breakfast on Shankpainter Road; natural food store 141 Bardford Natural Market (new and inventive in-house kitchen, on Bradford Street); Relish in the West End for excellent sandwiches and baked goods; and Wired Puppy in the East End for excellent coffee and free WiFi. And any account of P-town that ignores the fascinating yard-sale-cum-Filene’s-Basement vibe of Marine Specialties (Commercial Street across from the UU Church) deserves to twist slowly in the wind…

  • I wonder if the author thought Ptown being a gay destination was common knowledge and therefore didn’t mention it explicitly? For me as an MA native it seems obvious but I know that’s not the case if you’re not from the region so yes, she should probably have stated that upfront.

    Also just thought I’d add another vote of confidence in Karoo Kafe, which is awesome, and the owner now has a sit-down restaurant in Eastham. Both are delicious and the staff are great about explaining and recommending menu items for anyone new to South African food (lots of us!)

    Lastly, I really really like The Squealing Pig and think it deserves a mention, and if you’re looking for fine dining, Ten Tables is amaazing! :)

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