If the Cape had a capital, Hyannis would be it. The Kennedy mystique, peaking with the 1960s Camelot era of John and Jackie, triggered development that over the decades has created a sprawl of shopping plazas on routes 132 and 28 and has increased the Cape's year-round population to about 220,000. The summer population is about three times that, and you'd swear every single person had daily errands to run in Hyannis. That said, this teeming town has many pockets of charm. The waterfront area, where the islands' ferries dock, has been spruced up by the Walkway to the Sea, a path and park area. Main Street in Hyannis, in contrast to the mega-stores and malls on Route 132, is a colorful and lively place to stroll and shop.
The town of Barnstable, the seat of Cape Cod's Barnstable County government, is made up of seven villages: Hyannis, Barnstable Village, West Barnstable, Osterville, Centerville, Cotuit, and Marstons Mills. Some of those villages have their own "villages": For instance, the famous Hyannis Port is a section of Hyannis. Along the north side of the Cape on Route 6A (the Old King's Hwy.) is Barnstable Village, its compact Main Street anchored by an imposing granite county courthouse. West Barnstable, also on 6A, has a handful of delightful specialty stores and views of acres of salt marsh leading out to Cape Cod Bay. Along the Mid Cape's south coast (off Rte. 28) are Cotuit, Marstons Mills, Osterville, and Centerville, all with gracious residential sections. Osterville has a charming strollable Main Street, and Centerville has Barnstable's best public beach, at Craigville.
While the town of Barnstable is an ideal base from which to explore the rest of the Cape and islands, there's also fun to be had nearby. If you are staying in the vicinity of Hyannis, you'll certainly want to head over to the north side of the Cape for a drive along the Old King's Highway, but you'll also want to stroll around Hyannis Harbor, stopping for lunch at Tugboat's or Baxter's, where seagulls will compete for a bite of your lobster roll. You'll find a number of interesting shops and galleries on Main Street, in Hyannis, as well as cafes and bars.
Some of the finest seaside mansions on the Cape are in the old-money villages of Cotuit, Osterville, Centerville, and Hyannis Port. To explore this "Gold Coast" by car, take some detours off Route 28, driving south toward Nantucket Sound. These winding country roads are also good for biking.
The towns of Yarmouth and Dennis straddle the Mid Cape from north to south, with the north-side villages along the historic Old King's Highway and the south-side villages along commercialized and overdeveloped Route 28. That's not to say there aren't some nice enclaves along the south shore. Some of the beaches along this stretch of Nantucket Sound (West Dennis Beach and Parker's River Beach in South Yarmouth) are popular with families, but the villages themselves (South and West Yarmouth) have definitely seen better days. Developers in the past 30 years have gotten carried away. In stark contrast, Yarmouth Port and Dennis Village on the north side are perfect little time capsules, loaded with old-fashioned New England charm, an encyclopedic array of historic homes, galleries, and terrific small shops.