Martha's Vineyard vs Nantucket: which dreamy Massachusetts island is better?


We field this question a lot here at Lonely Planet’s New York City headquarters: Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard? 

While you could visit both (both are beloved getaways, both are accessible by ferry, both have airports), summer vacation time (particularly for those from the USA) is criminally limited. And this question deserves an answer. 

Associate Editor Ann Douglas Lott swears by the hilly landscapes and charming towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Senior Director of Content Brekke Fletcher’s most recent trip to Nantucket was chilly and rain-soaked, yet she’d pick Nantucket again and again.

Even though these two LP-ers work side by side, be they writing and editing each other’s work or laughing over lunch, this is the row we all knew was coming. Now it’s up to you to decide which writer makes the better case for their preferred summer isle. Let the battle commence.

Collage of images from Martha's Vineyard - L: hydrangeas and a grassy lawn, R: Lighthouse Beach
L: Hydrangeas! Hydrangeas everywhere! R: Lighthouse Beach – two very important words in the Vineyard © Ann Douglas Lott

Why Martha’s Vineyard is summertime bliss

Rugged, hilly landscapes, jaw-dropping oceanside cliffs, over 120 miles of coastline and six unique beach towns – Martha’s Vineyard is summertime bliss. On both Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, you’ll find beautiful beaches, lighthouses, fresh seafood and charming, walkable (or cyclable) towns. But as far as New England summer vacations go, Martha’s Vineyard’s (or, as the locals and regulars call it, the Vineyard) natural beauty and sheer variety of experiences are unmatched. About twice the size of Nantucket, there’s so much more to uncover in its variety of landscapes – Nantucket, on the other hand, is almost entirely flat. The Vineyard’s wide-open spaces make for an alluring getaway for both the Obamas and us New Yorkers especially.

First of all, getting here is way easier, with more high-season ferry services available from New Bedford and Cape Cod in Massachusetts, as well as from Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. There’s also an airport on the island, and direct flights here from New York City can be very affordable if you book early enough (I just booked one for July for just $88). But if you’re bringing your own car, you’ll need to take the ferry. As soon as you step off the ferry in Oak Bluffs, you can walk directly into its colorful, lively town, admiring the famous “gingerbread houses,” hopping on the carousel before grabbing an ice cream, or you can rent a car – or take a reliable and affordable public bus – and keep exploring. 

And with so much ground to cover, you’ll want a few days here to keep exploring. While Nantucket has an admittedly charming main town, Martha’s Vineyard has that times six: Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Vineyard Haven and West Tisbury. You’ll have a completely different trip depending on where you base yourself. Go to Aquinnah for the low-key vibe and stunning cliffs, or stay in Edgartown and stroll through its charming brick lanes lined with shingle-style homes, stopping into ice cream shops and boutiques. More places to stay also means more accommodation options for all budgets, so you don’t actually need to have a CEO’s salary (or know someone who has a CEO’s salary) to stay here.

Collage of images from Martha's Vineyard - L: Ann Douglas Lott on Aquinnah Beach, R: Marsh landscape
L: I can’t resist a sunset on Aquinnah Beach, R: Paddling in the marshes is the perfect way to start or end your day © Ann Douglas Lott

You also have an embarrassment of beaches to choose from. There’s Aquinnah Beach, which is ideal for enormous, crashing waves, dramatic cliff views and the most gorgeous, peaceful sunsets. There’s also Lighthouse Beach, right in Edgartown, which is a good choice for calmer waters, a great tanning spot and, of course, a lighthouse visit with a view of the harbor. Or, if you want the fun crowds and exciting waves, go to South Beach, where the opening scene of Jaws was filmed. Bottom line: you won’t run out of options.

And yet, amidst all that “more,” there’s something magically rugged and unspoiled about Martha’s Vineyard. It’s easy to break away from the more crowded areas and experience the island’s natural beauty, whether you’re watching a sunset on a secluded beach, driving through beautiful farmland or hiking on wooded trails and along seaside cliffs. Slow living is the norm here. Almost a third of the island is protected, meaning you won’t find massive chain hotels taking over its beaches. The same goes for local shops and restaurants. You also won’t find strict dress codes here because everything is so laid-back – no need to pack your finest, preppiest ‘fits or Nantucket reds.

If you still can’t decide between the two, save the smaller island of Nantucket for a day trip. You can return to the Vineyard in no time to watch the pink sunset.

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Nantucket has better sunsets, Ann Douglas © Cavan Images / Getty Images

Nantucket’s beaches are for everyone

Um, the sunsets are pink in Nantucket, too. Nice try. And you say smaller like it’s a bad thing, but that’s one of the reasons I prefer Nantucket to the Vineyard. (Also: what’s with that moniker? There are other vineyards in the world? This is another reason I don’t love MV as much. Snooty!) 

Now, as a journalist, I must disclose that I broke my foot in Martha’s Vineyard over a decade ago, descending a single stair carrying a tray of martinis. It was a top traumatic experience of my life (ambulance to island hospital, ambulance to ferry, ferry to ambulance, ambulance to Mass General and several thousands of dollars I did not have).

But this is not the reason I advocate for Nantucket. Yes, it’s smaller and flatter, but that just makes it much easier to get around, particularly on two wheels. You can bike (or e-bike) almost anywhere on the island, and that fact alone makes it the better eco-choice. And if you’re not a biker, Nantucket is also served by a free shuttle service that covers most of the island. Not so on Martha’s Vineyard.

The reason there are more transportation options to get to and from Martha’s Vineyard is that it’s busier. To be fair, in the summer high season, some preplanning and reservations are absolutely necessary on both islands. You cannot just roll onto a car ferry. And while Martha’s Vineyard boasts many celebrity summer residents, like the Obamas, Nantucket is the island of choice for the sitting president’s family, the Bidens.

Nantucket’s Main Street downtown area is an idyllic and bustling New England village, with shingled buildings, historic sea captain’s homes and exquisite churches, brick-lined streets and sidewalks. To add to the old-timey vibe, look out for their decorative street lamps. It is as walkable as it is charming with many extraordinary restaurants to choose from (Via Mare and Nautilus are stand-outs), unique, hyperlocal shopping experiences, and one-of-a-kind museums. Tootling around town, yes, you’ll see some folks wearing Nantucket’s signature red, but it is far from a requirement. In fact, I would argue that Nantucket is significantly less fussy about fashion than Martha’s Vineyard, but we’d need the fashion police to sort that one out.

Outside of typical summer holiday fare, Nantucket’s whaling history and literary bonafides – ever hear of a little tome entitled Moby Dick – make it a better choice for history buffs and readers of historical fiction. Do not miss out on the Whaling Museum.

Remember when I mentioned that “The Vineyard” can be a bit snooty? I have two words for you that should never be uttered together: private beaches. All beaches on Nantucket are public, no private security will chase you off the shore. 

And speaking of beaches, Nantucket has plenty to choose from. There’s family-friendly Jetties Beach just a stone’s throw from Main Street. North shore beaches tend to be calmer and warmer (there is one called The Bathtub), while the south shore is better for catching waves – Cisco Beach is popular with surfers and young adults. Siasconset (or Sconset) is all the way east, and since its beaches are a bit out of the way, they tend to be less packed with crowds (don’t miss out the Sconset Bluff Walk, though that is frequently crowded). TLDR: There is a beach in Nantucket for anyone and everyone.

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Dining options abound on Nantucket. From left: seafood at TOPPER’S at the Wauwinet, cicchetti from Via Mare and donuts at the Downyflake © Brekke Fletcher / Lonely Planet

There are plenty of charming accommodations scattered across the island, from family-run B&Bs to loft apartments downtown, but no big resorts or deafeningly loud clubs. Rent a house with friends or post up at one of the locally owned luxury hotels, like The Wauwinet or The White Elephant (I love both and recently stayed at newly renovated Cottages at the Boat Basin). And the purveyors at the farmers markets and local provisioners provide decidedly superior produce and seafood. In particular, the oysters in Nantucket are the best. 

I could go on, but I’m out of space: trust me, Nantucket is where it’s at, and not just in summer. My preference is to visit Nantucket in late September to savor the last flash of summer heat in the quiet, calm perfection that precedes a beautiful autumn.



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