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Provincetown Before the Show

Provincetown in the summer is a thrumming, chaotic spectacle. It’s a paradise, but one for extroverts with deep pockets. The crowds, the traffic, the rates—it can all be a bit much. But swing back into town during shoulder season (spring or fall), and you’ll find something else—a charming seaside village with the same winsome architecture, the same sunsets at Herring Cove Beach (because of Cape Cod’s curve, you can watch the sun sink into the Atlantic), and just enough art, dining and shopping to satisfy your senses. Spring is a great time to visit, thanks to slowly warming days, blooming bulbs and the promise of beach days to come.

To get your bearings, imagine Cape Cod as an arm, raised and bent. The “elbow” is Chatham; the “hand,” Provincetown. Like half-curled fingers, the sandy outermost point of the Cape circles in, protecting the harbor. To see this formation from higher up, visit the Pilgrim Monument, the looming Italianate granite tower that defines the town’s skyline. Open daily from April through November, the tower and its sister, the Provincetown Museum, let you take in the full sweep of land and water and learn about the Mayflower’s five-week stop here in 1620, before the Pilgrims headed west to Plymouth.

The tower overlooks the town’s residential and commercial district. Most commerce happens, fittingly, on Commercial Street. Beyond this is the Cape Cod National Seashore, which claims about two-thirds of the town’s land. The park surrounds the village on three sides, creating sudden breaks between civilization and relative wilderness, all accessible via bike trails that start at the western edge of town, on Province Lands Road (Rte. 6A), and weave past beaches and through the park (note: Some hills can be steep).

Stop by the Province Lands Visitor Center to learn about the coastal flora and fauna and take in rolling dunes and ocean from the observation deck. Or head over to the Beech Forest Trail for a mile-long self-guided tour of glacial kettle ponds. Art’s Dune Tours takes visitors on four-wheel-drive excursions through the less travelled part of the park, including the off-the-grid “dune shacks” where Eugene O’Neill, Mark Rothko and Jack Kerouac sought refuge and inspiration.

Be sure to check out Land’s End Inn, set on a bluff above the west end of Commercial Street, with views of the harbor, sea and Bay coast of the Cape. The common rooms of this 1904 shingle-style structure are exuberantly decorated with all manner of stained glass and Art Nouveau tchotchkes, but the effect is utterly charming.

Impressionist Charles Webster Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, not long after a railroad connected Provincetown to the outside world. In 1914, the Provincetown Art Association became America’s first art colony. Writers soon joined the mix, and Provincetown has remained a creative hub ever since.

One monument to this heritage is the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), at the east end of Commercial Street. Its permanent collection houses nearly 2,000 works by more than 500 artists who have lived and worked on the Outer Cape. The museum also hosts exhibitions for established and emerging artists from around the world. A few blocks away, the Fine Arts Work Center offers artists and writers off-season residencies, and they, in turn, welcome the general public for readings and talks throughout the spring.

Many galleries operate year-round, including the Julie Heller galleries (one in the center of town, the other in the East End), which display prints and paintings from a who’s who of Provincetown artists, historic and contemporary. The Cortile Gallery represents a diverse collection of local and international artists.

Other arts are alive and well, too, with the Water’s Edge Cinema showing art house movies year-round, weekend live performances at the Crown & Anchor and open-mike night on Sundays at the Mews Restaurant and Café.

If you visit Mews Restaurant for the music, stay for the food. The restaurant’s ocean-view dining rooms serve upscale dishes with Asian accents, such as lobster dumplings in miso broth, as well as a solid burger and roasted chicken. Over in the West End, Victor’s offers New American small plates for sharing and a well-stocked raw bar. As the weather warms, don’t miss the prix-fixe Italian offerings at Ceraldi, where Chef Michael Ceraldi sources much of his food locally and makes pasta by hand. And newcomer Canteen is already a hit, with its chefy takes on Cape Cod classics such as lobster rolls and fish-and-chips.

For more casual fare, head down a short alley off Commercial Street to Karoo Kafe. When this South African eatery opened in 2012, it seemed a risky bet in this chowder town, but the food was simply too good to resist. Don’t miss the bobotie, a mild curried meatloaf. Equally good, though less exotic, is Spiritus Pizza, where the pies are thin and crisp and the toppings deliciously savory. Here you’ll also find excellent ice cream from Lewis Brothers, which has its own shop just up the street.

Provincetown is big on breakfast, and it doesn’t get much better than Café Heaven, which has the fluffiest pancakes and best eggs Benedict in town.

Many shops close in the off season, but some of the better ones stay open. Utilities is a gourmand’s paradise, with kitchen gear, retro-style tableware and artisan jams. Land’s End Marine Supply is Provincetown’s general store, with everything from lumber to art supplies, while Shor offers high-style interior decor that can be pricey but worth at least a look.

Forget your fancy T-shirt? Marc by Marc Jacobs will set you up, and off-season prices can be incredible. And Good Scents—a fragrance shop with oils, soaps and lotions—will keep you smelling as pretty as the flowers that are just starting to bloom.


Pilgrim Monument & Provincetown Museum: High Pole Hill Rd.; 1.508.487.1310;

Cape Cod National Seashore:

Province Lands Visitor Center: 171 Race Point Rd.; 1.508.487.1256;

Art’s Dune Tours: 4 Standish St.; 508.487.1950;

Fine Arts Work Center: 460 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.1750;

Julie Heller Galleries: 2 Gosnold St., 1.508.487.2169; 465 Commercial St., 1.508.487.2166;

Cortile Gallery: 230 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.4200;

Water’s Edge Cinema: 237 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.3456;

Crown & Anchor: 247 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.1430;

Mews Restaurant and Café: 429 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.1500;

Victor’s: 175 Bradford St. Ext.; 1.508.487.1777;

Ceraldi: 336 Commercial St.; 1.508.237.9811;

The Canteen: 225 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.3800;

Karoo Kafe: 338 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.6630;

Spiritus Pizza: 190 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.2808;

Lewis Brothers Ice Cream: 310 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.0977;

Café Heaven: 199 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.9639

Utilities: 393 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.6800;

Land’s End Marine Supply: 337 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.0784;

Shor: 240 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.7467;

Marc by Marc Jacobs: 184 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.0723;

Good Scents: 351 Commercial St.; 1.508.487.3393

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.