There are many fine places to spend the July 4th holiday in America. But perhaps none better than the island of Martha’s Vineyard, in Edgartown, Massachusetts. Colonial-era homes, chic boutiques, a stunning harbor, and excellent food and drink. Add some sun, a fresh ocean breeze, a favorite travel companion or two, and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect Independence Day celebration. And if you visit any other time during the summer, just about everything we list here will apply equally well.
Of course, you won’t be the first to celebrate the July 4th holiday in this ancient whaling town. It’s a beloved tradition for residents and visitors alike, and has been going on for decades.
Here are our insider tips on how to have the best time while you’re in town: where to stay, eat, drink, and play.
WHERE TO START YOUR ADVENTURE
Whether you fly in or drive and take the ferry, the first thing you should do upon arrival in town is ditch your car and set out on foot to explore the center of Edgartown. It’s a walking town near the harbor, and the best way to experience it is on foot (second best is by bike, and there are numerous places to rent one for the day or the week).
Start out on the perimeter of town, perhaps on South Water Street. It’s lined with cedar-singled private homes, some of which used to be owned by sea captains – you’ll see the “widows’ walks” on the upper windows, where the wives were said to watch the ocean eagerly awaiting the sailors’ return.
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Don’t miss the nearby Edgartown Lighthouse, one of the five working lighthouses on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s surrounded by a pristine beach that’s a great place to collect seashells. There’s also a small spit of land that’s ideal for fishing. Sometimes the lighthouse keeper is there, and you might even be able to climb to the top to see the view.
The homes on the quiet and shaded streets like South Water are prime real estate in Edgartown, as they’re a short walk from the harbor and the charming downtown. A home there runs $15 million+, and some are occupied year-round.
As you stroll toward the center of town on South Water Street, you’ll glimpse views of the sparkling harbor, and the stately residences with private docks and spectacular waterfront views in the back.
Many have luxury “pool houses” that are just are steps away from the water. They appear to be tiny cottages, and they’re fully outfitted – some have full kitchens, and guest rooms.
WHERE TO SHOP
South Water Street and Main Street are Edgartown’s busiest shopping locations.
You’ll find clothing boutiques – some with unique and local finds – and others from popular global brands like Lilly Pulitzer and Vineyard Vines.
There’s a terrific bookstore, Edgartown Books, as well as shops for sunglasses, antiques, and fine art. Our favorite store of all time is Portobello Road on Dock Street– don’t dare get this close and not pay them a visit. You’ll find books, found objects, and other ephemera, and you’ll absolutely love it.
As you stroll, you’ll see all types of people, from locals who fish and sail, to chic visitors, to college students at work for the summer. We ended up chatting with an a cappella singer from the town’s all male group, The Vineyard Sound. Its members are from different colleges all over the country, and they come together for the summer to perform throughout the island. On July 4th, you’ll find them singing the national anthem and other patriotic songs outside the Rockland Trust building on South Water Street.
WHERE TO EAT
Stop for an iced coffee at one of the town’s best coffee shops, Toccopuro (which translates into “pure touch” in Italian). It’s small, the coffee is strong, they sell beans from over 20 different countries and their location is ideal for people-watching.
You should also consider stopping for fudge at Murdick’s, or for ice cream at Mad Martha’s – you’ll find both of these in other towns on the island, and we strongly advise stopping every time you see one if you want to have the perfect Martha’s Vineyard vacation. So many flavors, so little time.
For a quick and casual bite, there’s a walk-up clam shack right next to the Chappaquiddick Ferry entrance called the Quarterdeck – the fried clams are the best we’ve found anywhere on the island. Grab ‘em and have an impromptu picnic on a nearby pier or bench. The Wharf has great lobster rolls and burgers. We also love the Newes from America pub.
For something slightly more formal, Edgartown boast several great eateries, including The Port Hunter, the Behind the Bookstore Café, 19 West Oyster Bar, the Atlantic, Alchemy, and Atria. We also love L’Etoile with its magical garden.
If you’ve got a car and you’re feeling adventurous, head to Morning Glory Farm (you can also get there by bike or on foot if you have the time) – you’ll find incredible baked goods (including pie!), prepared meals, fresh flowers, local honey, produce, meat and fish. It’s a classic, and it smells exactly like summer on the Vineyard.
WHERE TO STAY
There are lots of charming inns, hotels and B&Bs in Edgartown – some quite expensive during the high season. One of the best places to stay while visiting the island – without breaking the bank – is the lovely Kelley House. We’ve done it many times, and we’ve always been really happy there. It’s right by the entrance to the Chappaquiddick Ferry, and just steps away from all of the shops and restaurants in town.
One of the best features about the Kelly House is that in addition to the main property, with its gorgeous views of the harbor from the upper rooms, there are also several small cottages on South Water Street that are part of the hotel’s property. You can book them for larger groups of family and friends and feel as if you have your own house right in the center of town. Each cottage has its own name, such as “Court House” and “Chappy House.”
THE JULY FOURTH FESTIVITIES
The Independence Day celebration in Edgartown actually begins the night before. On the evening of July 3, at the Federated Church in town, readers from around the island recite Frederick Douglass’ powerful landmark speech “What Does the Fourth of July Mean to the Negro?” The powerful 10,000+ word address was written in 1852. The historic church is the 29th site on the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail. Douglass himself addressed a substantial crowd in this very spot, which was then known as the Congregational Church, in November 1857. A new plaque commemorates his appearance on the island, and it’s a source of great local pride.
Hardy souls can start Independence Day itself fresh, bright and early at neighboring Oak Bluffs’ Inkwell Beach. At 7:30A, there’s an annual Polar Bear dip in the water to mark the start of the July 4th celebrations on the island. About 100 intrepid people of all ages join hands in unity as the nation’s birthday dawns.
Back in Edgartown, the annual 4th of July parade is one of the town’s oldest traditions and something that locals and visitors alike look forward to seeing every year. People tend to get decked out in red, white and blue, with bedazzled hats and patriotic T-shirts.
The best viewing spots are along Main Street, North Water Street, and South Water Street. The parade begins in the late afternoon, usually between 4:00 and 5:00P. It’s a good idea to find a spot at least an hour ahead.
If you want an elegant meal beforehand, the Harbor View Hotel celebrates with an annual 4th of July barbecue starting at 1:00P. Their porch is excellent place to view the parade and the fireworks later in the day.
Parade viewers bring folding chairs and beach towels, or just perch directly on the sidewalk to watch. Lots of people bring their dogs. The vehicles and floats include those carrying veterans, elected officials, and local fire and police officials. There are floats from the local sports teams, as well as from many of the island’s oldest organizations, including Camp Jabberwocky, the dance space The Yard, and the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary. There are even alpacas marching happily along.
The best part of the parade, at least according to any toddler or young attendee, is that the participants throw candy, stickers, temporary tattoos and even plastic coins to the crowd from the floats and vehicles.
After the parade, there are concession-style refreshments and live music at the Old Whaling Church. The annual fireworks display over Edgartown Harbor begins at dark.
After the fireworks, bars in Oak Bluffs and Edgartown host music and dance parties late into the night. Last call is extended until between 1:00 and 2:00A in both towns.
WHERE TO HIT THE BEACH
Over the July 4th extended weekend, you’ll have plenty of time to hit the beach. The closest one to the center of Edgartown is Lighthouse Beach. One of our favorites is on the Bay side is Joseph Sylvia State Beach, right along the road from Edgartown to Oak Bluffs. It has gentle waves, soft sand, and lots of room to spread out. There’s a bike trail that runs all the way to Oak Bluffs, which is a great way to soak up the sun and salt air.
There you’ll find “Jaws Bridge,” so called because it was featured in the original 1975 film. Jumping off this bridge is considered a”right of passage” for pre-teens and teenagers. Parents, you’ve been warned.
If ocean surf is more your thing, jump on a bike or in a car and head to South Beach in the Katama section of Edgartown. The cool kids will all be there.
And there you have it! Everything you need to know to have a fantastic Fourth of July on the Vineyard, at least in this little corner of the island. Have fun!
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