Like most New England seventh-graders who read The Crucible, I visited Salem, Massachusetts, on witch trials–themed field trips during middle school. I didn’t realize it then, but as important a social lesson as this perfect storm of xenophobia, misogyny, and greed was, it accounts for just 15 months of the city’s history. Now that I’ve been visiting as an adult, I can say that the witch trials are far from the most intriguing part of Salem, a thoroughly modern city along the north shore of Massachusetts.
With about 42,000 residents in its 8 square miles, Salem isn’t a sprawling metropolis. Instead, the downtown, which is easy to reach by train, ferry, or car from Boston, is highly walkable and packed with things to see and do. Salem manages to balance a small-town feel with worldliness, thanks to an eclectic, sometimes oddball, mix of people, businesses, and cultural institutions.
Summer is a popular time to visit and offers the chance to sample several options for outdoor recreation, from compact Salem Common to a pair of lovely coastal parks, as well as outdoor festivals nearly every weekend. October is, hands-down, the most crowded month in Salem. Sure, the 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 — any other month.
While conventional wisdom says that winter is not a great time to visit New England, I disagree. It’s the quietest season… and also the coldest, but it’s nothing a warm coat and a pair of sturdy boots can’t handle. The low volume of tourist traffic in winter makes for a great opportunity to explore museums, restaurants, shops, parks, and more. I also enjoy Salem in the late spring, when the gardens are waking up, crowds are nonexistent, and shops and galleries are making way for their latest offerings.
Here’s a guide to what to see, do, and experience in Salem, Massachusetts.
1. Salem Heritage Trail
It’s easy to find the Salem Heritage trail, a bright red line painted on the road that swoops over sidewalks and in front of buildings. For more context on what you’re seeing, pick up a printed city guide at the visitors center on Liberty Street when you arrive.
You’ll pass a variety of landmarks, including the Salem Witch Museum, the Witch House (the only building in Salem that’s directly tied to the trials, and where trials judge Jonathan Corwin lived), the Samuel McIntire Historic District, Salem City Hall, and Ropes Mansion, a Georgian-style house museum that was a filming location in Hocus Pocus. You’ll also see some curiosities, like the statue of Samantha Stevens, the lead character from Bewitched, which filmed several episodes in the city in the 1970s.
A variety of walking tours are also available in the city, on topics as diverse as haunted happenings, food, and pirate and Puritan history.
2. Peabody Essex Museum
This world-class art and history museum is home to a variety of excellent permanent and rotating exhibits. It grew out of the East India Marine Society, an 18th-century group of 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 wood sculpture of the Hawaiian god Ku to the captain’s desk of the Mary Celeste, a merchant ship discovered floating, sans passengers and clues, near the Azores in 1872.
There’s always something new and interesting to see in the rotating exhibits, which span traditional and contemporary. Among the permanent displays, don’t miss the extensive maritime history exhibit and the Yin Yu Tang, a Qing dynasty merchant’s house that was disassembled into thousands of pieces and re-erected on the grounds of the PEM.
3. Punto Urban Art
For a thoroughly modern art experience, cross over to the opposite end of Salem to Punto Urban Art. This unique open-air museum uses art — in the form of massive murals — to break down socioeconomic barriers and integrate diverse neighborhoods.
The museum currently has 75 murals by 25 New England artists and 40 international ones. Some have feminist themes. Others shine a spotlight on racial disparity, while some celebrate famous figures, like the cheeky superhero rendering of Salvador Dalí. You can do a self-guided tour of the murals, or sign up for an educational tour on social justice, equity, and issues facing segregated 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 collecting taxes on imported goods during Salem’s long mercantile history. The building is architecturally beautiful, both inside and out, with massive columns, tall ceilings, a curved staircase, and lots of wood carvings. If it seems excessive, that was the point: Governments of the time showed off their wealth and dominance by creating outsize monuments to themselves.
You can view exhibits about the work of 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 undergoing renovations in 2022. Check the website of the National Park Service, which manages several historic properties in Salem, before visiting.
5. House Of The Seven Gables
Another Salem landmark with a Hawthorne connection, this waterfront mansion was built by the Turners, wealthy merchants. It passed through several families over the generations. Susanna Ingersoll, who inherited the property in 1804, was the second cousin of Nathaniel Hawthorne. The supernatural events of his eponymous novel didn’t take place here; Hawthorne was just inspired by the inimitable character of the house.
While you can visit the gardens without taking part in a tour, you must join an official tour to see the house. Guides are knowledgeable and energetic, and make even the dismal parts of early colonial life (check out the kitchen for an example) sound interesting.
The House of the Seven Gables isn’t just a museum. It also runs an immigrant-resettlement program, helping new arrivals to learn English and gain citizenship.
6. Witch Trials Memorial
If you must see one thing in the city related to witches, make it the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It’s located on Liberty Street, next to the historic Old Burying Point cemetery and a new visitors center with trials exhibits.
The Witch Trials Memorial is quiet, contemplative, and poignant. It’s made up of 20 carved-stone benches set 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 behind flowers, coins, amulets, or other offerings, but this isn’t required. All you need to do is take a slow walk through, reflecting on how far we have — and haven’t — come as a society.
7. Schooner Ride
Sailing vessels used to populate the waters all around Salem. Get a taste of the seafaring experience aboard the Fame, a replica of an early-nineteenth-century ship that became the first American privateer (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 doppelganger makes for an exhilarating ride around Salem Sound. Tours typically run May through October.
8. Downtown Shopping
Downtown Salem has dozens of options for dining and shopping. You’ll find books, clothing, accessories, home goods, New Age paraphernalia like tarot decks and crystals, gourmet foods and chocolate, and local wines, spirits, and meads. The city also has a new boutique cannabis dispensary.
The largest concentration of shopping is along Essex Street, the main pedestrian walkway, and on Washington Street. Whenever I’m in town, I head straight for Kakawa Chocolate House, which sells authentic and historic drinking chocolate elixirs, plus handmade truffles and chocolates. I’m partial to 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, crackers, and wine. There’s also a once-per-week bacon speakeasy, where the secret password will get you a bag of goodies like chorizo tacos or smoked pork and bacon with cheese curds.
9. Salem Willows
Indulge in a bit of time travel at Salem Willows, about 10 minutes from downtown. Right on the ocean, this park has a sandy strip with the unfortunate name of Dead Horse Beach. There’s also an accessible waterfront pathway and some large docks for enjoying the views of Beverly Harbor. Sunset is especially picturesque here. In the warmer months, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard and get out onto the water.
On the opposite side of the park green is a vintage arcade with games like Skee-Ball and pinball. It’s a whirl of sound and light, and fun for a little nostalgia.
The Willows, which is mainly a local hangout, also has a few restaurants and snack shops. The popcorn at E.W. Hobbs, a 100-plus-year-old business, is as good as advertised. But unless you have an iron stomach and are lacking a few tastebuds, don’t be duped by anyone touting the chop suey sandwich at Salem Lowe. The best thing I can say about it is that it’s a bargain.
10. Winter Island Park
A little over a mile from Salem Willows, on an amoeba-shaped piece of land known as Salem Neck, is Winter Island. Between May and early November, you can rent a space here to pitch a tent or park your RV.
Day visitors can explore the 27-acre park, including the pint-size Fort Pickering Lighthouse and Waikiki Beach (yes, Salem’s early settlers had a thing for unusual beach names). From June through September, take a water taxi out to Baker’s Island, 3 miles offshore. It’s a really special place and has a small but excellent exhibit on lighthouse-keeping.
11. McIntire Historic District
Named for Samuel McIntire, an 18th-century renaissance man best known for his architectural designs and carving, the McIntire Historic District is a showcase of antique architecture along Broad, Chestnut, Essex, and Federal streets. You’ll find four centuries of style here, from the mid-17th century through the early 20th. Walking these roads, especially Chestnut Street, at sunset makes for a special bit of New England eye candy.
12. Salem Maritime National Historic Site
While Salem’s witch trials get the lion’s share of attention, its maritime history is actually far more extensive and more important to the development of both the city of Salem and the New England economy. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, located mostly along Salem Harbor, is the interpreter of this storied past.
The 9-acre park — the first established national historic site in the country — encompasses several sites that were crucial in Salem’s development into a trading powerhouse and, by the early 1800s, America’s wealthiest city per capita. Don’t miss Derby Wharf, which once held dozens of warehouses; the tall ship Friendship, a replica East Indies trading vessel; the 150 varieties of blooms in the Colonial Revival Garden; or Derby House, the tidy (and modest by today’s standards) mansion of Salem’s most successful merchant, Elias Hasket Derby.
Pro Tip: Skip the chain hotels and stay at one of Salem’s boutique properties or bed and breakfasts. My favorite is the sumptuously colorful The Merchant. It’s in a historic building said to be the 3rd most-haunted 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. Consider: