You should wake up the morning after a perfect day in Provincetown with a burn. If something doesn’t hurt—a lobster-red arm, a thudding head, a twinging heart—you did it wrong. Try again.
Provincetown is a beach town, but one with layers. It’s chock-full of renegade history: It’s where the Pilgrims first landed (yes, before Plymouth) and signed the Mayflower Compact, a document that helped spark democratic revolutions across the world.
Since then, this small village at the end of Cape Cod has attracted and harbored fishermen and seafarers, hearty New England settlers and Portuguese immigrants, outcasts and criminals. And its beauty, remoteness, and anything-goes attitude has always drawn people on the fringes of society: artists, bohemians, poets, hippies, the LGBTQ community.
Some say that the old Provincetown—where thrill seekers could show up by the carloads and easily find a couch to sleep on, a restaurant job to pay the bills, a blunt to smoke, and a boyfriend or girlfriend (or two)—has all but vanished. They’re half right.
Most of Provincetown’s old-school restaurants, including the Flagship, the restaurant where Anthony Bourdain cut his teeth (and which he immortalized in Kitchen Confidential) changed hands several times before ultimately becoming private residences. The characters Bourdain idolized have left town or, more than likely, this earthly plane. The beach shacks kids once rented for a few summer days’ worth of tip money are now tasteful multimillion-dollar summer homes. And, of course, no other small town in America felt the sobering brunt of the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath like this LGBTQ-centric village.
But the naysayers get something wrong, too. The watering holes and cretins of old Provincetown may no longer exist, but their spirit pulses through daily life here. It’s just that yesterday’s bohemians are today’s label-shunning queer kids. Yesterday’s badass towny cooks are today’s badass Jamaican-immigrant cooks. And yesterday’s pot-smoking Ivy League servers are today’s pot-smoking Ivy League–equivalent servers from Eastern Europe. The drugs are still here. It’s just that some are legal now.
Time has transformed Provincetown like the tides reshape the dunes here every year. As much as the ebb and flow washes away, it washes that much ashore, too: the driftwood and the horseshoe crabs, the madcaps and the hedonists. The landscape and the faces change; the stories stay the same.
America today is both more homogeneous and more divided than ever, but Provincetown is holding out as a small, accepting, unique, and tight-knit community. A mind-blowingly weird one. But a community nonetheless. It’s one of the last places in this country where outcasts aren’t just tolerated, but celebrated and protected.
Walking down the main street here, you’re likely to stroll past a straight family with matching mullets, a thong-clad gay man, and a hijab-wearing day-tripper from MIT—all within 45 seconds, no one batting an eye.
Provincetown can be a lot of things for a lot of people. You can roll grandma and the kids out of the minivan, stuff ’em with taffy and fried clams, and go home happy. You can pirouette off your yacht, clad in white linen, to attend a world-class art opening while drinking biodynamic French wine. Or you can spend your day sunning on a beach studded with bears, twinks, genderqueers, and dykes of all ages, then end your night dancing and making out on the sand with a stranger as waves lap against the shore under the moonlight. Pick your poison, really.
I can’t guarantee you’ll find the thread of old Provincetown while you’re here. In all honesty, a lot of it depends on you. How easily can you let your guard down? Can you befriend locals and suss out the places to be that night? Can you turn off your phone and live in the moment for a day?
This guide should give you a leg up on finding your own version of the Provincetown that Bourdain and so many others lionized.
MacMillan PierGet Directions
If I had only one morning in Provincetown—or one morning left in my life—I would spend it walking along the harbor east of MacMillan Pier.
Artists have long tried to capture this stretch of land—the moored dories, the minute-by-minute changing of the color palette—but nothing comes close to seeing it in person. If it’s high tide, walk the beach; low tide, walk the flats, exploring the ephemeral tidal pools and peninsulas. Take in the ethereal light and feel the brine sticking to your skin.
If you need a high-octane beverage to function this early, grab an espresso or cold brew nearby at Kohi Coffee Company’s takeout cafe at the Waterford Inn.
Provincetown Portuguese Bakery
299 Commercial Street
Provincetown’s heritage as a Portuguese fishing village has dimmed, but the Portuguese Bakery remains a solid holdout. The fryer doesn’t start churning out their famous malasadas until 9 a.m. or so, but I like their two-bite options better anyway. Try the rich, custardy pasteis de nata; almond-paste filled pasteis de torres novas; and trutas (cinnamon-dusted deep-fried pastries filled with sweet potato and whiskey). A breakfast of champions.
Eat them as you tour nearby monuments: They Also Faced the Sea, at the end of the MacMillan Pier, celebrates the Portuguese-immigrant matriarchs whose resilience held families together during the heyday of Provincetown’s fishing industry. The bronze bas relief memorializes the band of renegades who fled life in Europe aboard the Mayflower and in our harbor signed the Mayflower Compact, the first known document of self-governance in America. The recently dedicated Provincetown AIDS Memorial honors the millions of people who have died of AIDS and the caregivers who responded to the crisis.
Province Lands Bike TrailGet Directions
Rent a bike from Arnold’s Bike Shop and head out to the Province Lands Bike Trail, a 5.5-mile loop that snakes through the sand dunes of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Visiting Provincetown and not exploring its surroundings is like visiting New York City and never leaving Times Square. What was once dubbed the Back Shore and Helltown—inhabited by fishermen, smugglers, outlaws, and prostitutes—is now pristine parkland offering breathtaking views of the dunes and the ocean. It’s also where the likes of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Jack Kerouac, and Norman Mailer spent time relaxing and working.
The quickest trail takes about an hour by bike, but take your time. Stop at the Visitor Center. Take a dip at Race Point Beach, where you’ll likely see seals or even a whale off in the distance.
The Captain’s Daughters
384 Commercial Street
Once you’ve made it back to town, refuel with an iced tea and locally made Chequessett Chocolate at Captain’s Daughters. Rifle through the store’s wares, which include Cape Odd sweatshirts and locally made Haag Ptown soap. Grab a bottle of one of their full-spectrum hemp-oil tinctures—it will come in handy later. Meander up and down the side streets here to see some of the cutest, funkiest houses and gardens in town.
Provincetown Art Association and Museum
460 Commercial Street
Most of the action in Provincetown revolves around a one-mile stretch of Commercial Street.
Start your trek on the east end at the punching-above-its-weight Provincetown Art Association and Museum, and take the rest of the afternoon to weave between the galleries, shops, people, and side streets. Among the best from the east end to the center of town? The Albert Merola Gallery, the quirky and eclectic John Derian shop, Four Eleven Gallery, hippy-dippy Shop Therapy, and Julie Heller Gallery.
225 Commercial Street
Full disclosure: I own the Canteen. But since I spend my waking hours making it the best possible Provincetown-centric place it can be, it’s only natural that I—humbly—recommend you stop in for a visit.
Spend some time in our “secret” backyard. The lobster roll, Brussels sprouts, and frosé are the most popular things on the menu; or, to branch out, get an oyster roll and a local beer. Soak in the very Provincetown crowd: the queer folks and the polo-clad families, the locals and the day-trippers, the Bulgarians and the Jamaicans. An impromptu toddler-led dance party might erupt. A pig on a leash might walk through on its way to the beach. Dig your toes into the sand and look out onto the ocean. It’s not horrible.
After lunch, continue exploring the shops from the center of town to the west end. Don’t miss: Tim’s Used Books, army-navy-surplus emporium Marine Specialties, the nautical–rock star outfitter Map, pleasure–and–safe sex shop Full Kit Gear, and the bohemian marine utopia Loveland.
147 Commercial Street
Stop into Pop+Dutch, the sandwich-slinging, hottie-filled general store/dune shack of your dreams. Order a Danny DeVito (sandwich, not actor) and grab a pint of peach-and-panzanella salad to go. Stop by Perry’s of Provincetown down the street for a nice bottle of wine—you’ve got yourself quite a picnic.
Hatches HarborGet Directions
Bike over to Herring Cove and walk along the beach to Hatches Harbor. Plop down on the sand with your snacks, cannabidiol tincture, and a book from Tim’s. Stay for the sunset.
99 Commercial Street
On your way back to town, stop for dinner at Sal’s Place—part-Italian, part-bohemian speak-easy on the sea. The hospitality’s warm, the food tasty, and the wine flowing. I like making a meal out of the appetizers, like the creamy bluefish pâté, burrata salad, and meatballs.
4–6 Masonic Place
Provincetown is the home base of two of the most talented, subversive, wry, and brilliant queer performers alive.
Ryan Landry and his band of gender-bending troubadours host a range of performances throughout the summer—from Showgirls at the Atlantic House, a weekly talent show, to remakes of theater classics at Fishermen Hall, like Brokelahomo! and Thoroughly Muslim Millie. And seek out the unclassifiable Billy Hough—he can often be found behind the piano at the Porchside Lounge or the Grotta Bar.
If you leave Provincetown without experiencing one or both of these talents, you’ve wasted your time here.
293 Commercial Street
At this point, your night is coming to a close. Head to the watering hole of your particular tribe. I’d narrow it down to the Atlantic House (for the gays), the Underground (for a mixed crowd), and the last-of-its-kind Provincetown dive bar, the Old Colony Tap (for straights and those who accept their lifestyle). Order a drink. Make a friend.
Last, grab a slice of pizza at Spiritus. Late in the evening, the crowd outside surges. Pizza is inhaled. Orange grease is smeared on white T-shirts. Late-night plans are solidified. Friends are kissed goodnight. And it all feels like the center of the universe. In fact, for an hour or two every summer night, it is.