10 amazing things to do in historic Salem

10 amazing things to do in historic Salem

Like most seventh-grade New England students who read The crucible, I visited Salem on excursions with witch trials during elementary school. I did not realize it then, but as important a social lesson as this perfect storm of xenophobia, misogyny and greed was, it accounts for only 15 months of the city’s history. Now that I have been visiting as an adult, I can say that the witch trials are far from the most exciting part of Salem.

With about 42,000 inhabitants in its 8 square kilometers, Salem is not a vast metropolis. Instead, downtown, which is easy to reach by train, ferry or car from Boston, is very walkable and full of things to see and do. Salem manages to balance a small town atmosphere with worldliness thanks to an eclectic, sometimes strange mix of people, companies and cultural institutions.

Summer is a popular time to visit and provides the opportunity to try several options for outdoor recreation as well as outdoor festivals almost every weekend. October is without a doubt the most crowded month in Salem. Sure, Halloween costumes and events can be a kick, but unless you enjoy sharing the streets with a few thousand of your closest friends, I recommend choosing another month – anyone second month.

While conventional wisdom says winter is not a good time to visit New England, I disagree. It’s the quietest season … and also the coldest, but it’s not something a warm coat and a pair of sturdy boots can handle. The low volume of tourist traffic in the winter provides a great opportunity to explore museums, restaurants, shops, parks and much more. I also enjoy Salem in late spring when the gardens are waking up, crowds are non-existent and shops and galleries are making room for their latest offerings.

Here’s a guide to what you can see, do and experience in Salem.

Front of the Witch Museum in Salem City, the most popular witches American city famous for its history, Salem, Mass.
The Witch Museum (Photo credit: Pierrette Guertin / Shutterstock.com)

1. Salem Heritage Trail

The Salem Heritage Trail is easy to find, a bright red line painted on the road that winds across sidewalks and in front of buildings. For more context on what you see, pick up a printed city guide at the visitor center on Liberty Street when you arrive.

You will pass a number of landmarks, including the Witch History Museum and the Witch House (the only building in Salem directly linked to the trial), the Samuel McIntire Architectural District, and Salem City Hall. You will also see some curiosities, like the statue of Samantha Stevens, the main character from The Witch, who filmed several episodes in the city in the 1970s.

Peabody Essex Museum PEM main entrance in the historic center of Salem, Massachusetts, MA
Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

2. Peabody Essex Museum

This world-class museum is home to a number of excellent permanent and rotating exhibitions. It grew out of the East India Marine Society, a group of 18th-century Salem sea captains who sailed around the world to collect “natural and artificial curiosities.” Today, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) has a massive collection of nearly 2 million works of art and culture, from a life-size wooden sculpture of the Hawaiian god Ku to the captain’s desk. Mary Celeste, a merchant ship discovered floating without passengers and tracks near the Azores in 1872.

There is always something new and interesting to see in the rotating exhibitions, which span traditional and modern. Among the permanent exhibits, do not miss the extensive maritime history exhibit and Yin Yu Tang, a Qing Dynasty merchant’s house that was separated into thousands of pieces and rebuilt on PEM’s grounds.

3. Punto Urban Art

For a thoroughly modern art experience, cross over to the opposite end of Salem for Punto Urban Art. This unique open-air museum uses art – in the form of massive murals – to break down socio-economic barriers and integrate different neighborhoods.

The museum currently has 75 murals by 25 New England artists and 40 international ones. Some have feminist themes. Others focus on racial inequality, while some pay homage to famous figures, such as the cheeky superhero rendition of Salvador Dalí. You can take a self-guided tour of the murals or sign up for an educational tour of social justice, equality and issues facing separate neighborhoods. The latter was suspended during the pandemic; check the website to see when it will be up and running again.

4. Custom House

Managed by the National Park Service, the Custom House, built in 1819, played a key role in the collection of taxes on imported goods during Salem’s long trading history. The building is architecturally beautiful, both inside and out, with massive columns, high ceilings, an arched staircase and lots of wood carvings. If it seems exaggerated, that was the point: the governments of the day showed their wealth and dominance by creating great monuments to themselves.

You can see exhibitions about the work in the Custom House and see the office where Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked – and semi-fictionalized in his introduction to The Scarlet Letter. The Custom House will be under renovation in 2022. Check out the website of the National Park Service, which manages several historic properties in Salem before you visit.

House of the Seven Gables Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
House Of The Seven Gables / Shutterstock.com

5. House Of The Seven Gables

Another landmark in Salem with a Hawthorne connection, this waterfront mansion was built by Turners, wealthy merchants. It went through several families through the generations. Susanna Ingersoll, who inherited the property in 1804, was the second cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The supernatural events of his eponymous novel did not take place here; Hawthorne was just inspired by the incomparable character of the house.

While you can visit the gardens without taking part in a tour, you must take an official tour to see the house. Guides are knowledgeable and energetic and make even the gloomy parts of early colonial life (check out the kitchen for an example) sound interesting.

House of the Seven Gables is not just a museum. It also runs an immigrant resettlement program that helps newcomers learn English and gain citizenship.

Winter day at The Burying Point Cemetery, where the Salem witch trials took place.
Ale Volpi / Shutterstock.com

6. Memorial for witch trials

If you are going to see one thing in Salem related to witches, then make it the memorial for the witch trials. It is located on Liberty Street, next to the historic Old Burying Point Cemetery and a new visitor center with sample exhibits.

The Witch Trials Memorial is quiet, contemplative and gripping. It consists of 20 carved stone benches inserted into walls – one for each man and woman killed during the witch trials. Each bench bears a name and means of death. Visitors often leave flowers, coins, amulets or other offerings, but this is not required. All you have to do is take a slow walk through and reflect on how far we have – and have not – come as a society.

7. Schooner ride

Sailing ships used to populate the waters around Salem. Get a taste of the maritime experience on board fame, a copy of a ship from the early nineteenth century that became the first American pirate ship (essentially a licensed pirate ship) during the war of 1812. The original fame was sunk somewhere off the coast of New Brunswick in 1914, but her double takes care of an exciting ride around Salem Sound. Tours typically run from May to October.

Historic Buildings on Essex Street in the historic center of Salem, Massachusetts, MA.
Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

Salem city center has dozens of dining and shopping options. You will find books, clothes, accessories, home furnishings, New Age equipment such as tarot decks and crystals, gourmet food and chocolates and local wines, spirits and mead. The city also has a new store for cannabis.

Once in town, I head straight to Kakawa Chocolate House, which sells authentic and historic drinking chocolate elixirs plus handmade truffles and chocolates. I’m part of the deep, rich Zapoteca Elixir.

Another must: The Cheese Shop of Salem for – you guessed it – cheeses from around the world plus imported pasta, oil, biscuits and wine. There is also a bacon speakeasy once a week where the secret password gives you a bag of treats like chorizo ​​tacos or smoked pork and bacon with curd.

Non-food boutique standouts include Moody’s Home and Gifts, Peabody Essex Museum Shop and Wicked Good Books.

9. Salem Willows

Treat yourself to a little time travel at Salem Willows, about 10 minutes from downtown. Right on the ocean, this park has a strip of sand with the unfortunate name Dead Horse Beach. There is also a waterfront walkway and some large docks to enjoy views of Beverly Harbor. The sunset is especially picturesque here. In the warmer months you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out on the water.

On the opposite side of the park green is a vintage arcade with games like Skee-Ball and pinball games. It’s a whirlwind of sound and light, and fun for a little nostalgia.

The Willows, which is mainly a local haunt, also has a few restaurants and snack shops. The popcorn at EW Hobbs, a company over 100 years old, is as good as advertised. But unless you have an iron stomach and are missing a few taste buds, do not be fooled by anyone who exclaims the chop suey sandwich at Salem Lowe’s. The best I can say about it is that it’s a coup.

10. Winter Island Park

Just over a mile from Salem Willows, on an amoeba-shaped piece of land known as Salem Neck, lies Winter Island. Between May and early November, you can rent a space here to pitch a tent or park your motorhome.

Day visitors can explore the 27-acre park, including pint-sized Fort Pickering Lighthouse and Waikiki Beach (yes, Salem’s early settlers had something with unusual beach names). From June to September, take a water taxi out to Baker’s Island, 5 miles offshore. It is a really special place and has a small but excellent exhibit about the lighthouse.

Pro tip: Skip the chain hotels and stay at one of Salem’s boutique properties or bed-and-breakfasts. My favorite is the lavishly colorful The Merchant. It is in a historic building that is said to be the 3rd most visited property in the United States, but I experienced nothing more shocking than a good night’s sleep during my stay.

Salem is one of many historically and culturally rich cities in Massachusetts:

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