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Cape Cod. The name conjures images of luxurious waterfront hotels and private residences, and there are plenty of both on the sandy peninsula that for decades has attracted celebrities, writers, artists, and politicians – the Kennedy clan, Norman Mailer, Edward Hopper, Henry Beston, among them, to its shores. But you don't need deep pockets to enjoy a summer weekend in this Massachusetts coastal hideaway, where accommodations, dining, and activity options can be geared to every budget.


Extending 40 miles east into the Atlantic Ocean, with Cape Cod Bay to the north and Nantucket Sound to the south, Cape Cod is separated from the mainland by the 17-mile-long Cape Cod Canal. With its watery roots tied to fishing, boating, and all manner of water sports, the destination is a magnet for tourists seeking a nature-focused, outdoor vacation. Fortunately, many such activities are free or are accessible for nominal fees.

Cape Cod National Seashore Is The Jewel Of The Cape

Untouched, undeveloped, and pristine in nature, the 43,000-acre Cape Cod National Seashore offers visitors six beaches plus paved walking and cycling trails that traverse vast sand dunes, dense pine forests, and open meadows, with some trails offering stunning ocean views. The use of trails is always free, but the Seashore, which is part of the National Park Service, charges parking fees at all of its beaches from late June through Labor Day.

The vehicle fee is $25 a day, an arguably reasonable fee, especially if several people are entering the park in one car. The option for a solo beachgoer is to bring along or rent a bicycle from one of the many nearby rental shops and enter the beaches for just $15. There is never an entrance fee for active duty military and their dependents, nor for children under the age of 16.

Related: Boston To Cape Cod: The Ultimate One-Day Road Trip Itinerary

Seashore entry points are accessed in all the outer Cape Cod towns, which include Eastham, Wellfleet, Truro, and Provincetown. For those visiting Provincetown, a haven for artists and other creative types at the outermost point of Cape Cod, the best way to enter the Seashore beaches is via the beach shuttle bus that operates hourly, all day, from the town center. Climb aboard the shuttle to either Race Point Beach or Herring Cove Beach and pay a $2 bus fee but no Seashore entry fee.

Camp Out At Nickerson State Park For Just $22

While there are many accommodations options available across Cape Cod, those looking to connect with nature can book a tent campsite at the 1,900-acre Nickerson State Park, located in the town of Brewster, for $22 per night for state residents and $70 for non-residents. Either way, it's a bargain. More than 400 campsites are available and must be booked in advance, particularly for weekend stays.

Activities inside the park include fishing its eight freshwater ponds – some are stocked year-round with trout – hiking its miles of wooded trails, biking along its eight-mile trail that connects with the longer Cape Cod Rail Trail, or just relaxing in the shade of the tree canopy while enjoying a pond view.

A Wide Range Of Lodgings Is Offered On Cape Cod

For the budget-conscious, Cape Cod's commercial accommodations run the gamut from small bed-and-breakfast inns in the downtown areas and roadside motels that line the peninsula's only highway, Route 6, to Airbnb-style rooms, cottages, studios, and apartments that are rented for periods from one night through the whole summer season.

Related: This Beach Is The Best & Most Popular In Cape Cod

Inns and motels will be the most affordable and typically can be booked for under $200 per night, while hotels, cottages, and single-family homes will cost substantially more. The inns and many of the motels provide either a full or continental breakfast, so that's one less meal to buy. Additionally, look for establishments like these that offer the free use of bicycles, and there's more money saved.

How To Keep Dining Costs Affordable On Cape Cod

Yes, weekend vacationers can break the budget and dine waterfront alfresco on oysters, lobster salad, and tiramisu at scores of upscale restaurants in every Cape Cod town, or they can indulge in those same delicacies with a more affordable take-out order eaten under the stars on virtually any public or Cape Cod National Seashore beach.

Visitors can find a wide selection of beach shacks where the fish and shellfish is just as fresh as it is in the priciest restaurants but available for a fraction of the cost. Local grocery and specialty stores also sell freshly prepared take-out dishes featuring local favorites, such as fish sandwiches, fish tacos, lobster rolls, fresh or steamed oysters, and clams, that can be easily transported to a private, outdoor oasis.

Budget-conscious tourists willing to cook their own dinners can make use of free picnic and grilling areas on the Seashore; pick up the necessary items at a local store, find your spot and start grilling!

An artist's mecca since the early 20th century, the outer reaches of Cape Cod are awash in galleries that cater to visitors in the summer season. The town of Wellfleet, with a population of under 3,000, has well over a dozen galleries. Provincetown has nearly 50. Indeed, every town on the Cape has multiple art galleries, and all are welcoming and free to visitors. Many offer special exhibitions and artist demonstrations during the summer season.

The renowned Provincetown Art Association and Museum, established in 1914, has a permanent collection of works by the artists of outer Cape Cod and charges an entry fee of $15. Visitors can tour the whole collection in two to three hours.