Idyllic islands, small town vibes, bicycle rides and gorgeous shorelines – what more could you want? Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, are both wonderful summer destinations. But at only 30 miles apart from each other, what’s the differences between them? And which is right for you?
In fact although close in proximity, these islands are actually quite different!
Luckily we know and love both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. So in this article we’ll be doing a deep dive into what each has to offer.
We compare the vibe, beaches, activities, and more. All so you can make the right decision on which one to pick!
Martha’s Vineyard vs Nantucket: A Quick Overview
Nantucket, meaning “The Faraway Land” in the language of the Wampanoag tribe, is located 30 miles from the coast of Cape Cod. It has actually been previously named “the best island in the world” by National Geographic.
There’s gorgeous beaches on the island, no doubt, but also authentic lighthouses, surf, and boutique shops.
The island itself isn’t huge – 14 miles long and 3.5 miles wide – and you can actually get the ferry over and then cycle around without the need for cars at all. In fact, we think that’s the best way to see Nantucket!
It’s made up of two quaint towns and is easy to get around with no need for taxis or even a car. In contrast, Martha’s Vineyard is more than double the landmass of Nantucket, and made up of six towns. To enjoy it all you’ll need your own car or to use public transport.
Back to Nantucket! This charming island is perfect for relaxing, or enjoying the fresh seafood that you can buy along the shoreline.
There’s also plenty of public beaches in Nantucket. That’s not the case in Martha’s Vineyard where many beaches are private and off-limits.
That’s one big difference between Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. At Nantucket there’s often more opportunities to enjoy the natural scenery. Be that on Nantucket’s many public beaches or immersing yourself in nature thanks to over 40% of Nantucket being protected conservation land.
Martha’s Vineyard was originally called Noepe, meaning “land between the streams”, and was also named by the Wampanoag tribe. It’s just seven miles from Cape Cod – compared to Nantucket’s 30 miles – so you’ll get a shorter ferry journey over. That’s a bonus for those not flying in.
Tribal origin isn’t all that these two islands share; in 1602 Martha’s Vineyard got its name from Bartholomew Gosnold – the same man who first sighted and settled in Nantucket in that very same year!
He named the island after his daughter Martha, and due to the viney undergrowth he found on the coast. So don’t be fooled by the name: there are no actual vineyards on the island!
This island is popular with the rich and famous, and has quite a liberal and artsy feel to it. Nantucket, on the other hand, feels a little more conservative.
Due to its size and the fact it has more settlements, there’s also more to do on Martha’s Vineyard. There’s a livelier restaurant and nightlife scene too. More so than Nantucket, as we’ll show you below.
That makes Martha’s Vineyard probably the better choice if you’re looking for a mix of exploring towns, nature, trying out different restaurants, and taking part in a variety of activities.
Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard: Things To Do & The General Vibe
Both destinations are clearly rich in history, and have fascinating backstories dating back centuries.
They are both also very invested in their tourism industry. That means you will have plenty of excursion possibilities and accommodation choices despite the size of both islands.
Nantucket has actually prioritised tourism since the 1800s due to a need to bring in money after a decline in the traditional whaling activities on the island.
Martha’s Vineyard is also a very popular place, so much so that there’s an increase in population of about 10 fold each summer!
But what else makes these islands unique and different from each other?
It’s quiet in Nantucket (quieter than Martha’s Vineyard), and serene. Staying here will almost take you back in time to when it was a 19th century whaling town.
The island is made up of brown shingle buildings and white sandy dunes. There’s a truly historic and authentic charm that is exuded throughout. There are plenty of great eating options and upscale restaurants too, as well as boutique shops.
This is certainly an upmarket place, and there’s a real New England preppy chic feel to it.
On the culture side, there are activities for everyone ranging from scenic walks along Sconset Bluff Walk, or boating tours from the harbor.
And of course, you must not forget to visit Nantucket’s gem: its whaling museum in the heart of downtown! After all, this was the whaling capital of the world back in the mid-1700s to late 1830s!
The island is also home to over 800 meticulously restored pre-Civil war homes. That’s more than anywhere else in the United States! So this is definitely a place that history buffs will enjoy.
We recommend experiencing the island’s rich history first-hand. So not only should you wander the streets finding those pre-Civil war homes, but you absolutely must visit Nantucket’s three iconic lighthouses – Brant Point Lighthouse, Sankaty Head Light, and Great Point Lighthouse. All are a throwback to 18th century Nantucket.
Finally, although smaller and less busy than Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket is also in some ways more open and accessible. Not only can you travel around on foot or bike (and it’s less hilly than Martha’s Vineyard), Nantucket’s more-than-30 beaches are all open to the public. That’s a huge bonus!
In essence, this is a laid-back and quiet island where you can see history come alive with your own eyes through the gorgeous restored architecture and museums.
Nantucket is also an island perfect for exploring nature, biking quaint roads, and enjoying the beaches unhindered.
On the other hand, a lot of – but not all of – the beaches on Martha’s Vineyard’s are private. So you need a permit to access them.
Regardless of that, this island is still heavenly for those who love the outdoors. With hills and cliffs, 124.6 miles of tidal shoreline and a third of its landscape protected, a lot of this island’s character comes from its natural beauty. So there’s plenty of nature to enjoy, even if some of the beaches are off-limits.
While we’ve established there are no vineyards, Martha’s Vineyard does have some top-tier microbreweries for you to enjoy. There’s also 50 local farms that are indicative of the island’s local commitment to sustainable agriculture.
In fact Martha’s Vineyard is big on their food and harvest scene, and you can partake in walking tours and foodie tours in Spring and Autumn to get involved in celebrating the island’s produce. That’s one of the reasons – along with the many great restaurants on the island – that we think Martha’s Vineyard may suit foodies more than Nantucket.
Another thing we like about Martha’s Vineyard is the authentic independent vibe that remains there. This island hasn’t been tainted by inland chain stores, restaurants or hotels. Instead it fosters a supportive local artisan and entrepreneurial community where everything is one-of-a-kind.
Equally, the arts and culture scene here is fantastic all year round. So you can fill your evenings with classy trips to galleries, live music events, theatre trips and enjoy entertainment after soaking in the breathtaking views that day.
That’s one of the big things that sets Martha’s Vineyard apart from Nantucket. The art and music scene at Martha’s Vineyard really is a winner.
Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard: Our Recommendations
Although tiny, there are plenty of things to visit and do in these small but mighty islands.
As we’ve enjoyed our trips to both, we’ll briefly outline some of our favourite places to go to unwind and get the most out of your holiday.
As you’ll see, what you can do on each island also tells you a lot about its character.
Windswept beaches aren’t hard to find here, but neither is calming open expanses of land if that’s more your thing. If so, check out the conservation areas!
Dionis Beach is one of our favorite places on Nantucket – it’s beautiful, peaceful, and situated on a harbor. With about 300 feet of loose sand before you get to the beach itself, it makes for a romantic day out. It usually isn’t too crowded either.
Similarly, there’s also Jetties Beach, one of Nantucket’s most popular beaches, located just on the edge of town on the north shore.
It’s a huge beach which gets its name from the jetty – as you might have guessed! It comes fully equipped with a beachfront restaurant, café, and tourist shop for those all-important mementos!
At this point, it might be worth mentioning that the film Jaws was actually filmed throughout Martha’s Vineyard! That’s because producers considered Long Island to be too busy, whereas Martha’s Vineyard provided that ‘eerily empty’ atmosphere!
So, just in case you want to retrace 27 year-old Steven Spielberg’s footsteps, we’ll highlight some of the places that featured in the film.
In a nutshell: the opening scene was set in the Martha’s Vineyard harbor town of Vineyard Haven; the night-time bonfire on the dunes was at South Beach in Katama; and the infamous first shark attack was just off Cow Beach at Edgartown. And there’s your whistle-stop tour, and three destinations to add to your Martha’s Vineyard bucket list!
You get bonus points if you strike up a conversation with some of the older locals. They usually have the best stories to tell as many were casted as extras in the movie itself!
Nantucket vs Martha’s Vineyard: The Final Verdict
The obvious difference between these islands is size, and while size isn’t everything, it can make a difference depending on how adventurous and varied you want your holiday to be.
Nantucket is made up of just two quaint towns, compared to Martha’s Vineyard six, and subsequently there’s more going on in the latter.
However, both definitely offer an escape from urban city life. Just in slightly different ways.
Martha’s Vineyard is often visited by celebrities and politicians, and has a preppy boho/ casual and laid back style. Everyone goes everywhere in bathing suits, flip flops and shorts. It also has a more affluent African American community, and this is reflected in its more liberal and artsy community.
While you won’t get bored in either, due to its sheer size Martha’s Vineyard does have more options, be that restaurants, shops, and nightlife. However that does mean you’ll need to look at using buses or a car to get around, whereas in Nantucket you can just use a bike if you wish.
On the flipside, getting to Martha’s Vineyard is usually slightly easier, as typically it sees ferries and flights coming in more frequently.
Meanwhile in Nantucket, things are slightly more upscale. It’s smaller, more familiar, and more conservative. While you can obviously and definitely dress however you want, the general go-to look is preppy chic – so think New England preppy getaway.
Nantucket has the advantage of its beaches being open to the public, but as a note this island tends to grow to a summer population of about 50,000, so accommodation books up fast!
In the end both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard make for amazing holidays, and ultimately it’s completely down to your own preferences. Whichever you choose, have fun!