No trip to the Cape is complete without a drive down historic Route 6A. The winding, tree-lined route is a road meant to be enjoyed with historic homes and churches, inspiring art galleries, quaint restaurants and shops, and scenic natural vistas. Along the route are sights that invite visitors and locals alike to stop and take a moment to soak in the history, beauty, and wonder of the Cape.
Perhaps no stretch of Route 6A, also known as Old King’s Highway, offers that more than Barnstable Village, a state-designated cultural district. A quaint, charming village, it evokes simpler times, oozing history thanks to buildings that include the oldest wooden jail in the United States (Barnstable’s Old Gaol), the oldest building in the country housing a public library (Sturgis Library), and one of the oldest running live community theaters in America (Barnstable Comedy Club). Even the village’s post office – it celebrated its 225th birthday in 2017 – has gotten into the act.
On the Cape, this deep-rooted connection to our past is something to be celebrated. “Barnstable Village, one of the smallest villages in town, is home to many cultural organizations and recreational opportunities and is steeped in history,” says Sturgis Library Director Lucy Loomis.
A Connection to the Cape’s Past
The library building, which dates to 1644, was where the Reverend John Lothrop, one of the first settlers of the Town of Barnstable, lived. Along with an extensive collection of books and archives focused on Cape Cod history, genealogy, and the maritime trades, Sturgis Library plays host to lectures and workshops, including writing classes featuring published authors, throughout the year.
Across the street is a mural on the side of a carriage house, made in 2020 by local artists Joe Diggs and Jackie Reeves. It depicts the late writer James Baldwin and his quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
A short walk from the library is Tales of Cape Cod, a nonprofit that is located in the Old Colonial Courthouse; it’s the second courthouse constructed in Barnstable County. If you’re visiting in the summer, set aside an evening for its popular lecture series – they are usually held on Mondays – where you can learn more about the region’s past and present with recent topics ranging from shipwrecks to hurricanes to Tom Brady to the Pilgrims to ghosts.
Yes, ghosts. Whether you believe in them or not, the courthouse is just one of several buildings rumored to be haunted in this section of Cape Cod. While on your Cape vacation, you can dive into this topic with a fascinating, in-depth walking tour of Barnstable Village that not only focuses on the supernatural, but on history led by a self-described ghost hunter.
You can also take your own self-guided walking tour to learn more about this historic village with a 21st century flair. Download the map and grab your walking shoes!
Celebrating the Coast Guard’s History
If you end up taking the ghost tour, it begins and ends at the U.S. Coast Guard Heritage Museum, situated in a building that dates back to the mid-1800s which once served as the U.S. Customs House. One of only two free-standing museums in the country dedicated to honoring the Coast Guard’s history, its mission is to celebrate the military branch’s past from a Cape Cod perspective.
The museum is adjacent to both the blacksmith shop and the old jail, which was constructed in 1690 and housed up to six prisoners at any one time. Carvings from inmates can still be seen on the wall. The site is managed by the Barnstable Historical Society, which offers tours of both the jail and the shop where you can watch demonstrations of this 19th century trade.
On the opposite side of the street from the museum, jail, and blacksmith shop is Cobb’s Hill Cemetery – the haunted history tours give patrons a chance to record electronic voice phenomena here – with gravestones that date back to the early 1700s before the Revolutionary War.
Up the hill from the cemetery is the Cape Cod Art Center. Open year-round, it’s the oldest art center in Barnstable, founded in 1948. It offers exhibits, classes, and workshops, all open to the public. “We also have a beautiful gift shop of original pieces from local artists,” says the center’s Executive Director Roberta Miller. “It features artwork, cards, pottery, glassware, jewelry, and unique gift items. There’s no admission fee.”
Patriots of the American Revolution in Barnstable
From a visual perspective, the village’s most notable structure is the Barnstable County Courthouse, a Greek revival built in 1831. On the front lawn, there are two impressive bronze sculptures of Mercy Otis Warren and James Otis, Jr. The siblings were instrumental in the American Revolution with James, a lawyer and brilliant orator, denouncing the British and leading the colonists’ grievances against foreign rule. Mercy was a poet, playwright, and pamphleteer who lent her voice to strengthening the ideology of the Patriotic movement.
Steps away from the courthouse is The Village Hall, home to the Barnstable Comedy Club, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2022. A community theater group, it boasts a notable history – novelist Kurt Vonnegut acted in its productions in the 1950s and 60s. The theater’s season begins in November and runs through May and typically features four main shows–a musical and three plays.
Like all sections of the Cape, the ocean is a short drive from Barnstable Village. From Route 6A, take Millway to Barnstable Harbor where visitors delight in a range of activities that include the popular Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, where you can view humpbacks, fin, and minke whales in Stellwagen Bank.
For a shorter trip aboard a 25-person pontoon boat, Barnstable Harbor Ecotours gives visitors insight into the ecology of the harbor, marsh, and shore with spectacular views of Sandy Neck Lighthouse.
To continue your natural adventures on land, make sure to stop by Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary, which has classes for little ones, allowing them to explore the tidal flats and interact with the wildlife in abundance here. For adults, they offer kayak tours, guided walks, and natural history lectures that offer you a chance to enjoy one of the natural jewels of the Cape.
While there’s no wrong time to visit Barnstable Village on your Cape vacation, it explodes with excitement during the 4th of July, with patriotic bunting lining Route 6A and a festive parade, as well as December during the annual holiday stroll.
The arts come alive in Cotuit
A short, 10-mile drive from Barnstable Village is Cotuit where the arts truly come alive. On your way, stop by Cape Cod Airfield in Marstons Mills, which boasts two hangars and three intersecting grass runways. Here, you and your family can take time to watch the airplanes and skydivers come and go or you can take your own ride in a replica of a 1930s-era Waco YMF-5 biplane.
Once in Cotuit, you’ll find two cultural beacons of the Cape – the Cahoon Museum of American Art and the Cotuit Center for the Arts – standing tall on Route 28.
Executive Director Sarah Johnson describes the Cahoon Museum as “your one-stop place for Cape Cod art and culture.” Cahoon is an innovative art museum with lively, fun art exhibitions, family-friendly events, open houses throughout the year, educational programs, tours, and a gift shop in an 18th century New England home with a modern gallery addition.
The nearby Cotuit Center more than lives up to its mission to educate, entertain, illuminate, and inspire. With a variety of arts classes for those young and old, you can take time to hone your creative talents during your Cape vacation.
Or you can simply watch as others do the entertaining for you. At Cotuit, they offer the best in community theater; live entertainment featuring the top local, regional, and national acts; and a variety of engaging events, from film screenings to comedy shows to open houses with wine and live music.
You can explore more of Cotuit and its history at the Dottridge Homestead, which is adjacent to the Cotuit Museum, the Cotuit Fire Museum, and the Rothwell Ice House. The homestead, first owned by Samuel and Abigail Dottridge, has been lovingly restored to its original 1800s look and feel, giving visitors a glimpse into vintage Cape Cod.
It’s a fact (trust us) that no summer vacation to this part of the state is complete without enjoying a Cape Cod Baseball League game. At Lowell Park, home of the Cotuit Kettleers, you can partake in America’s pastime while watching the top collegiate baseball players in the country, many of whom have a good chance to make it to the pros. With seats right next to the field, you can get up close to the action while soaking up one of the longtime traditions on the Cape.
No matter where you are in Barnstable or Cotuit, the Cape’s history looms large, giving visitors insight into the region’s past and its connection to the present. What better way (and place) to capture the arts on your Cape Cod vacation.
For places to stay on the Mid-Cape, click here. For dining options on the Mid-Cape, click this link. And for additional things to do during your visit to the Mid-Cape, click here.