From the north shore to the tip of the Cape, take a trip to one of these picturesque coastal lights.
Lighthouses were first built to prevent seafarers from crashing into dangerous rock formations and cliffsides (as was tragically commonplace in the early 1800s), and signaled to captains and their crew that land was up ahead. Each one had a distinct blinking pattern that not only warned of perilous land formations, but also allowed ships to determine their location (although, now that the GPS is commonplace, the light patterns aren’t as crucial as they once were). The coast of Massachusetts, from the Cape to the north shore, has long had an abundance of maritime traffic—and thankfully more than two dozen lighthouses that still stand today to guide those ships.
While many of those lighthouses are still active in the maritime industry, they’ve also become notable tourist destinations over the years for travelers interested in their history and scenic appearance (just count the lighthouses you can spot while browsing an art museum). Each one has a lengthy history—having been rebuilt, remodeled, and even moved over the course of the last two centuries. Many have nearly fallen victim to eroding cliffs and bluffs, but have been rescued, often multiple times, and relocated further inland by heavy machinery. Some have ghost stories to go along with them, and a handful can be toured, climbed, and explored. So whether you’re staying close to Boston or venturing out for a weekend-long road trip, these twelve lighthouses from the north shore to the tip of the Cape are well worth the visit.
Annisquam Lighthouse, Gloucester
Built in 1801 at the entrance of the Annisquam River, the area’s namesake lighthouse is now manned by the US Coast Guard. The 41-foot tower sits on private property, with (unfortunately) no public access. However, it can be easily admired from afar. Head to Wingaersheek Beach for the day and you can see the white brick lighthouse sitting across the river. Or, you can see it from the ocean—as it was meant to be seen —on a boat ride or harbor cruise around Cape Ann. (You can also get a US Lighthouse Society passport stamped along the way).
Rte 127/Washington Street, Annisquam, Gloucester
Boston Lighthouse, Little Brewster Island, Boston
Boston Light is the oldest continually used and manned lighthouse in the country. Constructed in 1716, it was the first to be built in the colonies. Although it was destroyed by the British during the Revolutionary War, and has been rebuilt and renovated multiple times since, the present tower is still a quintessential symbol of coastal New England. It’s located just off the coast of Boston on Little Brewster Island—but that means a boat is required to see it. If you don’t have your own vessel, you can take a two-hour Boston Harbor Lighthouse Cruise around the outer islands instead (and see two other lighthouses along the way).
191 W Atlantic Ave., Boston; 617-223-8108, bostonharborislands.org
Chatham Light, Chatham
One of the dozens of lighthouses scattered across the Cape’s coastline, the historic Chatham Light is a well-known Cape landmark. Because of cliff erosion (which has significantly affected many other Cape lighthouses, too) Chatham Light has undergone a series of renovations, replacements, and even relocations since its 1808 construction. Originally built as a pair of lighthouses (called the “Twin Lights”), in 1879 the south tower fell off the cliff onto the beach below, after powerful storms left it sitting only 27 feet from the cliff’s edge. The north tower lasted for a bit longer, only to be reconstructed inland (where it stands today) in the years following the south tower’s demise. Tours of the current reconstructed tower are offered weekly (but are currently suspended due to COVID-19).
37 Main St., Chatham
Eastern Point Lighthouse, Gloucester
This 36-foot lighthouse has overlooked Gloucester Harbor since 1832, when it was built to prevent the dozens of shipwrecks that happened off the coast. It gained additional notoriety after the film “The Perfect Storm” brought a local tragedy to national attention. The film, which stars Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney, dramatizes the sinking of the Andrea Gail, a ship that set out from the harbor, only to be caught in the center of a hurricane-strength storm. The ship was lost at sea and the crew was never recovered, and scenes from the movie were filmed at the lighthouse. Although it can’t be accessed directly, it can be admired from the nearby Eastern Point Wildlife Sanctuary (or in the movie, of course).
Eastern Point Boulevard, Gloucester, 978-887-9264
Edgartown Harbor Light, Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard
Just a short walk from Edgartown and a stone’s throw from the aptly named Lighthouse Beach, Edgartown Light is a tourist hub. Originally, it was just a two story house with a lantern on top. But in 1938 it was replaced by a 45-foot tall lighthouse tower, transported from Crane Beach in Ipswich. After Edgartown residents rejected the city’s plans for a bare-bones skeleton lighthouse structure (made of metal and not as pleasing to the eye), the Crane tower was moved to the Vineyard by barge in 1938 and reassembled on its current site in Edgartown harbor. The lighthouse is currently open for visitors, and you can take the spiral staircase to the top to enjoy the views of Chappaquiddick Island and a panoramic seascape. If you’re afraid of heights, the grounds and the area surrounding the lighthouse are worth the trip as well.
121 North Water St., Edgartown, mvmuseum.org
Gay Head Light, Aquinnah, Martha’s Vineyard
In 2015, Gay Head Light was saved from falling off the edge of the Aquinnah Cliffs after erosion caused the cliffs to deteriorate dangerously close to the tower, and was ultimately moved over 100 feet inland. The lighthouse has sat atop the famous multi-colored cliffs since it was constructed in 1799, when the light wasn’t electrical, but a candle submerged in sperm whale oil. It’s also the site of a noted ghostly encounter, after a ship floated ashore in 1804 with no captain or crew—only cargo, and no owners were ever found. It’s one of the island’s busiest spots during tourist season, so make sure to get there early if you want to take a trip to the top without too big of a crowd.
15 Aquinnah Circle, at the end of Lighthouse Road, Aquinnah, gayheadlight.org
Highland Lighthouse, Truro
Built in 1797, the Highland Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the Cape — but the current 66-foot tower isn’t the original structure that was built there. It was rebuilt in 1831, rebuilt again in 1857, and then moved in 1996 when significant erosion left it sitting dangerously close to the water below. The 430-ton lighthouse was then lifted and moved back more than 450 feet to a safer, more inland location. The interior of the Highland Light is closed for renovations until 2022, when visitors can once again climb the 69-step, five-story staircase to the top.
27 Highland Light Road, North Truro, highlandlighthouse.org
Minots Ledge Light, Scituate
Sitting all alone in the middle of the water, Minots Ledge Light is perhaps the most interesting lighthouse in MA. Just a mile off the coast of Scituate, the grey stone tower rises straight out of the waves, anchored directly into the large rock formation below it. Minots Ledge has been dubbed the “I-Love-You” light, and considered one of the most romantic lighthouses in the country, for its signature 1-4-3 flash cycle (a shorthand for the three-word phrase). But it’s also rumored to be very, very haunted, specifically by the ghosts of the men who perished when the lighthouse collapsed during a storm in 1851. There’s no shortage of ghostly sightings and unexplainable phenomena reported by those viewing the lighthouse on a stormy night. Needless to say, this light is closed for visitors, but you can still view it from the surrounding water (if you dare).
Off the coast of Scituate and Cohasset
Nauset Light, Eastham
Eastham’s Nauset Light can arguably boast the most turbulent history of all the lighthouses in the state. In the early 1800s, the light station was completed with three separate towers (nicknamed “The Three Sisters”). But because of coastal erosion, the towers were dismantled, moved, or replaced three times before 1930. By 1996, only one tower remained, and sat only 35 feet from the edge of the cliff, before being moved 300 feet to safety (that same year, it was adopted by Cape Cod Potato Chips as the iconic light pictured on every bag). While tours are temporarily suspended, you can climb to the top of the light tower for free once it reopens.
120 Nauset Light Beach Road, Eastham, nausetlight.org
Nobska Light, Falmouth
In 1828, the property on which the Nobska Light stands was purchased for $160, and a wooden tower was built to house the keeper’s quarters and the light itself. In the 1870s, the current 40-foot tall cast iron lighthouse replaced the wooden one (and is, thankfully, much more durable). Up until the early 1970s, the lighthouse was operated by a civilian keeper, who lived on the property and manned the electrified light. Interior tours of the lighthouse tower are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you can climb the spiral staircase and take in the surrounding views from the top.
233 Nobska Road, Woods Hole, Falmouth, friendsofnobska.org
Race Point Lighthouse, Provincetown
Getting to the lighthouse requires quite a hike (four miles round trip, to be exact) through soft sand and sea grass. But the trail goes along the picturesque seashore, and the view makes it significantly less taxing. Although tours have been cancelled for the 2021 season, they’re typically offered on the first and third Saturdays of the month from June-October. Plan your day with enough time to walk there and back—or, if you have an ATV, you can take that down the path instead. (Plus, pre- and post-COVID, the Keeper’s House at the lighthouse is also open for overnight stays).
Race Point Road, Provincetown, racepointlighthouse.org
Sankaty Head Light, Siasconset, Nantucket
The Sankaty Head Lighthouse, a picture-perfect red-and-white-striped tower on the east edge of Nantucket, sits on a 7-acre stretch of bluff perfect for exploring. Bring your dog, pack, and picnic, and try to go on one of the two days a year the lighthouse is open for climbing. The best way to visit the light? On the Sconset Bluffs Walk, widely regarded as the most beautiful stroll on the island. The picturesque public footpath takes you from downtown Sconset to the Sankaty Head Light, right along the bluffs and behind lavish oceanfront homes.
122 Baxter Road, Siasconset, Nantucket, sconsettrust.org