A block off the main hub of Provincetown, I climbed the steps to the public library and up a flight of stairs inside.
There, surrounded by books, a life-sized double-masted schooner filled the second (and third) floor of this 19th century former church building. It’s striking to see a ship inside a building, but in Provincetown, it’s more than magical, because in a golden coincidence, the vessel is the Rose Dorothea. The only things missing from this 1907-replica ship are Blanche and Sophia on a pink rattan sofa.
Things like that happen in Ptown. It’s a fishing village where the very first Pilgrims lived. It’s also a strong community of queer pride spanning pre-Stonewall until now. Its colorful views include spectacular sunsets and sparkly Broadway-caliber entertainment, and when it comes to food there’s exceptional dining from Michelin quality menus to window-served fish and chips.
I tend to expect cultural mash-ups in big cities, but for a town that’s walkable end-to-end in less than an hour, Ptown is special. There’s a particular sense of freedom and friendliness that seems inherent to this place. A stroll along Commercial Street is the ultimate social snapshot of characters including drag performers, folksy buskers, polished locals, hungover circuit boys and tourists with flip-flops and melting ice cream. And they’re all walking under garlands of different LGBTQ+ flags (rainbow, trans, lesbian, bisexual, leather pride, and more) along with America’s stars and stripes.
Provincetown gets pleasantly quiet through the winter, then roars back by mid-May when the Fast Ferry from Boston (baystatecruisecompany.com) returns to seasonal service. The Cape Cod breeze turns warm and storefronts reopen, drawing travelers who escape here for a day or, for the luckiest, the whole summer. My latest visit brought me back during peak August weeks, when the town was rebounding big time from 2020-21 pandemic lulls. Streets, shops, cafés, bars, tours and beaches were bursting with cheery travelers making up for too much away time.
As the ferry pulled into MacMillan Pier that sunny arrival morning, my own giddiness flooded back at the sight of the Pilgrim Monument on the hilltop. My partner and I headed past the pier’s little craft shops and old-school snack bars, turning onto Commercial Street to find a handful of new-ish Massachusetts legal-weed dispensaries sandwiched between the boutiques. Some of the sights had evolved, but Ptown’s welcoming vibe was unchanged.
Its colorful views include spectacular sunsets and sparkly Broadway-caliber entertainment, and when it comes to food there’s exceptional dining from Michelin-quality menus to window-served
Fish and chips.
In a few blocks, we checked in at the charming Somerset House Inn (378 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-0383. somersethouseinn.com), where owner Courtney Paulsen-Martin showed us to our room and filled us in on the daily guest happy hour, daily breakfasts, and front terrace made for people-watching.
Food is a big thing in Ptown, and we got our first reminder of local quality with takeout lunch at Pop + Dutch (147 Commercial St. Tel: 774-538-6472. popanddutch.com), serving amazing sandwiches, salads, coffee, and juices. We ate al fresco near the wharf, then headed to the Dolphin Fleet (307 Commercial St. Tel: 800-826-9300. whalewatch.com) dock for a harbor tour. Excursions last three or four hours, but it took less than an hour for our first humpback-whale sighting. We went on to see minke and finback whales, dolphins, and a beach full of seals. The Dolphin Fleet team explained that an abundant underwater buffet makes this area of the north Atlantic one of the best whale watching areas on earth, particularly April through October.
Dazzled by the whale welcome, we headed to Pepe’s Wharf Restaurant (371 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-8717. pepeswharf.com) for cocktails at the upstairs, open-air bar. A few Fraperol cocktails (Pepe’s secretrecipe frozen Aperol spritz) later, we cruised around the neighborhood, chatting up Liberace, or David Maiocco’s tribute to him, while he promoted his Pilgrim House (336 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-6424. pilgrimhouseptown.com) live shows. Dinner brought us to Strangers & Saints (404 Commercial St.Tel: 508-487-1449. strangersandsaints.com), a former sea captain’s home that’s now one of the most romantic restaurants in town. The Mediterranean flavors and seasonal ingredients suit the warm atmosphere inside or on the patio, though an evening sampling some of the creative cocktails at the bar is alone worth a visit.
To cap off our night, we caught the 9 o’clock show at The Club (193A Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-1527. theclubptown.com), Ptown’s best cabaret that’s also a restaurant, bar, and beach club with indoor and outdoor-deck seating. The Club is co-owned by Lea DeLaria and it’s my new favorite spot for enjoying the standout talents of fabulous singers like Qya Crystál, Zoë Lewis, and DeLaria herself on occasion. There’s no cover charge here, so it’s a pleasure to tip the musicians and servers well.
After a chill Somerset Inn breakfast, we were ready to dive into the dunes—or at least cruise them with Art’s Dune Tours (4 Standish St. Tel: 508-487-1950. artsdunetours.com). Founded in 1946 and still run by the same family, Art’s has special access to the Cape Cod National Seashore. At first you may wonder how touring the sand dunes in a four-wheel SUV is more than just soaking up scenery, but you’ll soon learn from Art’s tour guides about the history of the once-forested landscape, unique flora and fauna of this protected park, and stories of fisherman-turned-artist shanties that dot the rolling dunes.
One of the highly recommended Ptown lunch spots of late is a counter-serve seafood joint called The Canteen (225 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-3800. thecanteenptown.com). It’s a sweet beach-themed outpost with a huge back patio, where you can fill up on local oysters, fresh cod, lobster rolls and excellent vegetarian choices like mushroom tacos and an over-the-top grilled cheese with chickpeas and avocado.
Keeping with the day’s nautical theme, we headed to the new Atlantic Shark Center (16 MacMillan Pier. Tel: 508-348-5901. atlanticwhiteshark.org) on the pier for a bite-sized education on great white sharks and other regional marine biology.
Then we rose above it all with a trip on the brand-new outdoor elevator up from Bradford Street to the century-old Pilgrim Monument, the landmarked tower commemorating the Pilgrims 1620 arrival. At its base is the Provincetown Museum (1 High Pole Hill Rd. Tel: 508-487-1310. pilgrim-monument.org), with enlightening exhibits on Ptown’s earliest days, the story of the indigenous Wampanoag tribe, and its LGBTQ+ history.
We ducked into the Portuguese Bakery (299 Commercial St.Tel: 508-487-1803. provincetownportuguesebakery.com), a town standard, for coffee and my first ever malasada, a delicious deep-fried pastry dough covered in cinnamon and sugar. Then we transitioned from day into a night at the Art House (214 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-9222. provincetownarthouse.com), where RuPaul’s Drag Race veteran Miz Cracker showcased her quirky talents and best sequins. In addition to its restaurant and bar, the Art House theater hosts a stellar lineup of performers all summer and fall, including Tony-winning singers, cabaret artists, comedians like Judy Gold, musicians like Melissa Ferrick, and a stream of top drag stars.
No matter the season, the beaches around Ptown always lure people out to the shore. My favorite is Herring Cove Beach, just a bike ride or quick drive from town, and home to a surprisingly good snack bar complete with lobster rolls and good burgers.
But if you’re not feeling the sand, you can still soak up the incredible vistas with drinks or dinner nearby at the Red Inn (15 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-7334. theredinn.com), a favorite local eatery and B&B. While you’re on that end of town, duck into Perry’s Fine Wines (1 Tremont St. 508-487-0140. ptownperrys.com) for an impressive selection of wine and spirits, plus fine cheese, charcuterie, and other fancypicnicking provisions.
Wandering is one of my favorite pastimes, and it’s especially delightful to see where the little lanes and curving alleys take me in Ptown. Among the Cape Cod cottages, I’ve seen wreaths made from oyster shells, funky found-item yard décor, and all manner of maritime artifacts turned folk art. Creativity is always brewing in Ptown, America’s first art colony. Galleries showcasing fine art are ubiquitous too, and the small but mighty Provincetown Art Association and Museum (460 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-1750. paam.org) is one of my favorite stops to explore local artists’ works.
The real-life sights and sounds of Ptown almost mandate time away from screens, and its bookstores and quirky boutiques serve as worthy analog diversions. One of the more interesting is Womencrafts (376 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-2501. womencraftsptown.com), which sells feminist books, artworks, jewelry, and housewares that make memorable souvenirs while supporting local creators.
Provincetown is famous for long-running shows that keep crowds returning every summer. Wildly hilarious headliner Varla Jean Merman just marked 25 years performing at the Crown & Anchor (247 Commercial St. Tel: 508-487-1430. onlyatthecrown.com), Ptown’s premier entertainment complex, while Dina Martina has cracked up crowds there for nearly 20 summers. I always try to catch Kate Clinton and other great comics and revues taking the stage at the Crown & Anchor’s big Paramount Club.
Along with its sassy shows, the Crown & Anchor is home to a recently renovated boutique hotel with convenient access to the beach, as well as to its pool parties, piano lounge evenings, and late-night dancing. At its restaurant Balena, I loved some of the unexpected menu items like Moroccan-spiced cauliflower, smoked carrot hummus, and seafood chowder with
Just up from Commercial Street, cravings for homemade pasta, meatballs, and other beautiful Italian dishes are satisfied at Mistralino (133 Bradford St. Tel: 774-593-5945. mistralino.com). There’s a cozy dining room and large outdoor patio, plus the adorable M Bar upstairs, a secret nook for nightcaps.
The walls of Mistralino’s dining room are lined with signed plates commemorating special occasions, a way for the restaurant to collect donations that support the Provincetown United Methodist Church’s thrift store and Soup Kitchen in Provincetown (SKIP). It’s a fun but modest endeavor that reflects the kind of community-oriented action of Ptown’s people. And just like installing the giant Rose Dorothea schooner inside the public library, it’s this kind of quirky, communal magic that ties together Ptown’s golden fabric.
Visit Ptown.org for the Provincetown Business Guild’s year-long calendar of theme weeks, festivals, and other special events
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