During my first visit to Martha’s Vineyard, I spent the weekend exploring historic towns like Chillmark and West Tisbury. I strolled through Edgartown – the island’s first colonial settlement and my best friend and I ended the weekend with a relaxing beach day at Oak Bluffs, a lively seaside town home to over 300 gingerbread houses.
Martha’s Vineyard is well-known for catering to the rich and famous. During their presidential terms, both President Clinton and President Barack Obama regularly spent their summers vacationing on the island south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Back in 2014, Tripadvisor even named Martha’s Vineyard as one of the most expensive vacation destinations in the states. However, what headlines fail to mention is that you can have fun on the island without spending a small fortune. Despite its reputation, financially savvy travelers like myself can have a ball while spending close to nothing.
In fact, I didn’t spend any money on activities during my weekend in Martha’s Vineyard. When we got to the island, we grabbed a free copy of “Welcome Martha’s Vineyard Guide” which helped us discover some incredible free things to do in Martha’s Vineyard.
So spare your Martha’s Vineyard budget and enjoy many of the vineyard’s historic attractions for free. However, before I recommend a few places to check out on the island, let me give you some more information about Martha’s Vineyard.
Where is Martha’s Vineyard?
Martha’s Vineyard is a Massachusetts island located just south of Cape Cod. This small island has 17,000 inhabitants and stretches 21 miles from East to West.
Before being colonized by the English in the 17th century, Martha’s Island was inhabited by the Wampanoag people who called the island “Noape” which translates to “land amid the streams”.
Although Martha’s Vineyard may be small, the island has amassed a lot of wealth over the past three centuries, attracting the likes of presidents, actors, actresses and musicians. But what else would you expect from a state with an average household income of $75,297?
Nevertheless, if you’re on a budget, do not let that stop you from visiting Martha’s Vineyard. There’s tons to do on the island, you just have to know where to go if you’re on a budget.
Free Things To Do in Martha’s Vineyard
(Updated May 28, 2018)
Making up roughly ¼ of Martha Vineyard’s population, Edgartown is the largest Martha’s Vineyard neighborhood. Originally a major whaling center in New England, this historic town is one of Martha Vineyard’s major tourist attractions.
Edgartown’s historic colonial aesthetic is easily recognizable because of its architecture. One of the best places to experience the island’s colonial charm on a budget is to visit the Federated Church.
The Federated Church is the oldest church in Martha’s Vineyard. Built in 1828, it has a striking clock tower that you can see from anywhere in town. As the oldest church in Martha Vineyard, the Federated Church so perfectly captures the colonial-Massachusetts’ feel.
This is one of my favorite photos of Martha’s Vineyard. I love the way the clock tower hides behind the bushes.
Also, here’s an exclusive look inside the Federated Church in Edgartown. All of the church doors were locked except for one so I respectfully entered the church and took a peek inside.
Visiting this church made me feel like I stepped back in time. The church had old boxed pews, wooden chairs and a large bronze organ in the back.
As I was about to leave, I noticed that each congregation member had a name tag for Sunday service.
The Pagoda Tree
The Pagoda Tree in Martha’s Vineyard is the oldest pagoda tree on the North American continent. The story of Martha Vineyard’s Pagoda Tree goes like this: Captain Thomas Milton, an English sailor, admired the pagoda trees from Asia so much that he planted a pagoda tree seed in Martha’s Vineyard during the early 1800s. The rest is history!
This massive tree stands over 40 feet tall and even offers shady relief over most of South Water Street. The Pagoda Tree is an excellent photo spot in Martha’s Vineyard!
Dr. Daniel Fisher House
Another must see attraction in Edgartown is the Dr. Daniel Fisher House. What makes this mansion so special is its architectural style. Built in 1840, the Dr. Daniel Fisher House was built in the Federal style and belonged to… you guessed it, Dr. Daniel Fisher – a Massachusetts’ whaling tycoon (a bit ironic) during Massachusetts’ whaling golden age.
Sometime between the 19th and 20th century, Senator William Morgan Butler purchased the Dr. Daniel Fisher House and made architectural and landscape improvements to the estate that people have come to know and love like the East Lawn, the semi-circular veranda, and the porte cochère! The Dr. Daniel Fisher House is one of the beautiful places on the island where you can have a scenic vineyard wedding or classy event.
Although I missed the guided tour, I explored the property on my own. The Fisher House’s lawn was immaculate. I adored the semi-circle veranda on the side of the house. It had gorgeous white and black drapes. I also enjoyed the hidden seashell path out back.
Just behind the Fisher House is The Island’s oldest standing residence – The Vincent House. Built in 1672, The Vincent House was owned by the Vincent family, a prominent Massachusetts family who owned the house for generations until 1940. The house was eventually donated to the Martha Vineyard’s Trust in 1977 by the MacKenty and Bigelow families and moved to its current location on the Fisher House estate.
The Vincent House is the oldest standing unaltered house on Martha’s Vineyard and it is used as a history museum to commemorate 347 years of life living on Martha’s Vineyard.
Edgartown Historic District
The Edgartown historic district is another Insta-worthy neighborhood on the island.
Even though the island was colonized during the 17th century, The Edgartown Historic District was primarily built during the 19th century when Edgartown experienced exponential growth due to the whaling industry. The Edgartown Historic District’s opulence during this period is reflected in the architecture of its buildings – Greek-Revival style and the occasional Victorian and Federal style architecture.
Many homes have colorful doors which draw the eye in #doorporn.
What used to be a retreat site for practicing Methodists during the 19th century is now one of Martha Vineyard’s historic landmarks.
Located in the neighborhood of Oak Bluffs, The Campground is a vibrant, historical community that’s famous for its Gingerbread Cottages and iron Tabernacle. During the 1800s, the Methodists religious community migrated here and built temporary tents. Over time they were replaced with small wooden gingerbread cottages. There are over 300 gingerbread houses on the island. Many have whimsical names like Pink House, Angel Cottage, and Sea Shrimp.
Last but certainly not least, one of the best ways to enjoy a budget-friendly afternoon on Martha’s Vineyard is by relaxing at any of the Oak Bluff beaches. Since Martha’s Vineyard was once a historic whaling center, the island is teeming with gorgeous lighthouses that look out into the Atlantic.
Even though Martha’s Vineyard carries a stigma as one of the most expensive places to visit in the U.S., there’s so much to experience on the island so don’t miss a beat even if you’re on a budget!
What other free things to do in Martha’s Vineyard would you add to the list?
Danielle is a travel finance strategist, writer, speaker and podcaster. She paid off $63,000 of student loan debt in 4 years, bought a house at 27 and has traveled to 25 countries. She refuses to let her financial responsibilities hold her back from living life on her own terms.