New England

The 11 Best Things to Do in New England This Year

Posted by
K.C. Dermody
March 08, 2021
Updated June 08, 2023

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA townscape at dusk.
Photo: Sean Pavone

What comes to mind when you think of New England? Chances are its magnificent coastal scenery, picturesque lighthouses, island gems, and beautiful stretches of white-sand beaches.

Of course, it may also be the region’s brilliant autumn foliage and colorful mountain peaks.

The region is also home to some fantastic cities ripe for exploration, from the rich history of Boston to the grand mansions of Newport. And of course, tasting fresh seafood is one of the best things to do in New England. Some of the region’s best dishes range from lobster rolls to clam chowder to cranberry anything and everything (even cranberry wine.) The berry is native to the area, first farmed on Cape Cod in 1816.

If you’re ready to explore some of the best things to do in New England, check out the list below for some of the best. There’s an awful lot to choose from!

Related Read: 12 Best VRBOs in Maine for a Unique Vacationland Getaway

1. Head to the Cape Cod National Seashore

Cape Cod National Seashore
Photo: Denis Tangney Jr.

The Cape Cod National Seashore spans 40 miles along the peninsula’s eastern shore from Provincetown to Chatham. Most people visit for the beaches, although it’s technically one long stretch of sand with dunes that soar as high as 150 feet. Nauset Beach and Lighthouse Beach are considered to be two of the best beaches on the Cape.

While you could simply relax and enjoy the scenery, there are many things to do here, from ranger-guided walks and bike rides on scenic paved trails to surfing lessons and kayak tours. Provincetown has a colorful downtown area (consider grabbing a quick and tasty lunch at John’s Footlong) and catching golden hour at one of the many area lighthouses is one of the best things to do in New England for landscape photographers. Local foods include fried clams and, of course, lobster rolls. You’ll definitely want to try both.

Related Read: Boston to Bar Harbor: An Essential New England Road Trip

2. Spend the Day on Martha’s Vineyard

marthas vineyard new england
Photo: Aubrey Odom

Martha’s Vineyard is a popular day trip for Bostonians, easily reached by ferry from the village of Woods Hole on the Cape. While it’s possible to drive onto the ferry, many people leave their cars on the mainland and rent a car or bike on the island – it’s very walkable.

There’s also a passenger-only ferry that departs from nearby Falmouth, crossing to Oak Bluffs. The vibrantly painted gingerbread cottages (a tourist attraction in their own right) give Falmouth a storybook feel. You might want to hop on the famous 150-year-old Flying Horses Carousel – it’s the oldest in the country – and then enjoy a swim at an area beach.

Since the beaches here faces the Vineyard Sound, the water is usually calm and warm enough in the summer. After working up an appetite, try Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company, serving clam chowder and fresh oysters daily.

“Jaws” fans won’t want to miss a visit to Joseph Sylvia State Beach. If you rent bicycles (or bring your own), you can pedal the three miles from Oaks Bluff to see where Steven Spielberg shot many scenes from the film.

It includes the swimming beach where Alex (the sheriff’s son) was attacked and the bridge from the film. Technically, you’re not supposed to jump off it, but when it’s hot out, there’s almost always some kids taking the plunge to the deep waters below anyway.

Related read: 11 Things to Do in Oak Bluffs, Martha’s Vineyard

3. Walk the Freedom Trail in Boston

Old State House boston ma
Photo: Cloris Ying

One of the best ways to uncover the historic sites and history of Boston is to walk the 2.5-mile Freedom Trail. The city’s most popular attraction is free – all you need to do is follow the red stripe that starts in Boston Common, the oldest public recreation area in the country. It was established in 1634. If you need a jolt of caffeine first, stop at Boston Common Coffee Co. before you start strolling.

The route will bring you to 16 different sites that pertain to the Revolutionary War. It travels through historic downtown and the North End and concludes at the Charlestown waterfront.

Allow plenty of time to take it all in. A visit to the Old State Museum is one of the best things to do in New England if you love history, with centuries-old items related to the area and birth of the United States (including a vial of tea salvaged from the original Tea Party.) The old cemetery is interesting too, with the graves of everyone from Paul Revere to Ben Franklin’s parents.

Near the Paul Revere House in the North End area, The Daily Catch is the place to go for lunch or dinner, serving Sicilian-inspired seafood and pasta dishes.

Related Read: 10 of the Best Airbnbs in Boston, Massachusetts

4. Learn About Witches in Salem

salem massachusetts old town hall
Photo: Daniel Hanscom

Love the creepy and macabre? You can learn more about all things witchy at the place where the infamous Salem witch trials took place. Salem is just 30 minutes from Boston.

At the Salem Witch Museum, you’ll be completely immersed into the world of Salem in the late 17th century. It tells the story of the 1692 trials through live reenactments and exhibits, and also has an interesting section focused on the evolving image of witches into modern times.

Stop at the Gallows Hill Museum to hear ghost stories and learn more about witches, witchcraft, and ghosts through a 4D theatrical experience, complete with special effects like glowing orbs and fog.

October is a great time to visit as there are Halloween-related events all month, including the popular Salem Witch Walk that’s hosted by witches, naturally. Tours will bring you to some of the eeriest sights in the town, including what’s said to be the most haunted graveyard in the U.S.

Related Read: Where to View the Best Fall Foliage in New England

5. Whale Watch and Hike in Acadia National Park

cadillac mountain acadia national park
Photo: Shakti Rajpurohit

One of the most beautiful places to visit in Maine is Acadia National Park, home to rugged ocean shoreline and soaring mountains. Whether you want to play on land, water, or both, you can do it here. It’s one of the most visited parks in the country.

This is one of the top spots in all of New England for whale watching. Humpbacks commonly spotted in the area and tours depart right from Bar Harbor. Canoeing and kayaking tours are also popular here, as taking a drive on the 27-mile-loop road along craggy coastline. And one of the must-stops along the way is Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, worth a visit just to enhance your Instagram feed.

You find miles and miles of scenic trails in the area, including one that winds to the top of 1,530-foot-high Cadillac Mountain, offering sweeping vista of the coast, Frenchman Bay, Porcupine Islands, and Bar Harbor. If you can time your trek to arrive just before dawn, you’ll be the first to see sunrise that day as it’s the spot where sunlight hits the country first on most mornings.

In the town of Bar Harbor, start with breakfast at 2 Cats Café. And because one of the very best things to do in New England is a lobster roll taste-test, stop by Geddy’s, one of the most popular places in town, for dinner or an afternoon snack.

Bar Harbor Lobster Bakes serves up a traditional “Downeast lobster bake” — a meal that’s truly unforgettable, and photo-worthy, too!

Related Read: 14 Best Hikes in Acadia National Park, Maine

6. Ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway

Mount Washington Cog Railway new england
Photo: Ceri Breeze

One of the best things to do in New England for families and railroad enthusiasts is to take a ride on the Mount Washington Cog Railway, in New Hampshire. You’ll ride in one of two vintage steam trains that have been operating for more than 150 years. It’s a three-hour round-trip ride to the summit of the 6,288-foot-high mountain.

At the top, you can stop by the visitor’s center (with an observatory and an interactive weather museum) and get spectacular views of five states, the Atlantic Ocean, and Canada. In the fall, it’s especially breathtaking when the landscape is blanketed in fiery reds, brilliant oranges, and golden yellows.

Related Read: The 11 Best Cabin Rentals in New Hampshire

7. Discover History in Portsmouth, NH

Portsmouth New Hampshire
Photo: Denis Tangney Jr

Other than Boston, Portsmouth, NH may be the best place for history lovers to visit. Dating to 1623, it’s one of America’s oldest cities. Check out the Strawberry Banke Museum, which sits on the site of the original seaport. The museum offers a chance to step back in time as you learn about the lives of early New Englanders. You can watch artisans at work and explore over 30 buildings from the late 1600s to the mid-20th century, all of which are beautifully restored and furnished from various eras to show the changes in architectural styles.

The USS Albacore Museum, housed in a 1953 US Navy research submarine, is also worth a visit. It was used to test experimental features, helping to create the high-tech and silent submarines the Navy uses today.

Visitors can step inside and explore spaces like the control room and bunkrooms, look through a periscope, and listen to crew members tell stories of what happened while they were out at sea. Spending the morning here is one of the best things to do in New England if you like engineering or naval history.

Related Read: 13 Perfect Airbnbs Near Portsmouth, New Hampshire

8. Get on the Water at Squam Lake

Squam Lake Sunset
Photo: Denise Bush

Squam Lake in New Hampshire was the setting for 1981’s “On Golden Pond.” Near the White Mountain foothills, it’s as peaceful as the movie depicted, as well as a nesting site for common loons. In the summer, you can watch them in their breeding plumage, cast your line for trout or bass, rent a kayak, or enjoy a low-key beach picnic.

At the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, look forward to close encounters with animals like mountain lions, bobcats, and a bald eagle. The center is also the place to sign up for a Squam Lake pontoon cruises. There are several tour options, including a dinner sunset cruise and one that will take you out on the water to see the filming sites from “On Golden Pond”.

Related Read: The 11 Best Cabin Rentals in New Hampshire

9. Hit the Slopes at Killington

Killington Ski Area new england
Photo: Emily Ho

Vermont offers some of the best skiing in New England, and Killington (affectionally known as the K-show) in the Green Mountains is the biggest and one of the most popular. It has nearly 75 miles of trails and 1,500 acres of skiable terrain, plus five base areas and two gondolas.

There’s also a tubing park, snowshoe tours, and sleigh and gondola rides. Afterward, relax with a good brew at one of the area’s many bars or breweries. Happy hour hot spots include the Lookout and the Wobbly Barn, though you could always swing by Liquid Art Coffee House for a great cup of local coffee — and the occasional wine-pairing dinner.

Related Read: 9 Best Resorts in Vermont for Families & Couples

10. Tour Ben & Jerry’s in Waterbury

ben and jerrys
Photo: @chuttersnap

One thing Vermont is famous for is Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. The factory is in Waterbury and guided tours are available nearly every day of the year. From the glassed-in mezzanine, you can watch as ice cream is made in the production room. Of course, they don’t just tease you the whole time – you get to try whatever flavor they’re making that day. There’s also a funny “ice cream graveyard” in which the brand retires old flavors.

Waterbury is a cute little town with country stores and covered bridges. You might want to check out Green Mountain Coffee or the Cold Hollow Apple Cider Mill or stroll along the downtown area, with some great independent shops, art galleries, and restaurants.

Related Read: 10 Supremely Secluded Cabin Rentals in Vermont

11. Stroll the Newport Cliff Walk

Cliff Walk Newport Rhode Island
Photo: iStock

The best way to get an authentic feel for the Gilded Age is to tour the Newport Mansions in Rhode Island. The homes here display the wealth of the era gained by the rapid economic growth of industrialization in the U.S. This is where society’s most elite had their summer “cottages,” which aren’t cottages at all. This is where you’ll find Vanderbilt’s mansion “The Breakers,” where you’ll see glittering gold and sparkling chandeliers throughout its massive 125,339-square-foot space.

After your tour, stroll along the Cliff Walk, which spans about 3.5 miles along the rocky shoreline, offering views of the mansions on one side and the crashing waves on the other.

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