No October in New England is complete without a few things: leaf peeping, apple picking, and… a visit to Salem– arguably the premier Halloween destination in the United States.
First, a bit of history:
Salem was first founded in 1626, and was incorporated as a city in 1836. Originally called Naumkeag, settlers started calling it Salem shortly thereafter, derived from the Hebrew word for “peace.”
In 1628, the Massachusetts Bay Company arrived to then-struggling Naumkeag and formed a Puritan settlement there. Less than 10 years later, the first sea voyages began, and Salem gained a name and reputation for its salted cod and other wares, trading them as far as the West Indies.
By the end of the American Revolution, ships from Salem had gone as far as India, China, and Russia, cementing Salem’s legacy as a maritime heavyweight for the ages.
Salem played an active role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, and was designated in 2013 by then-President Obama as the birthplace of the National Guard.
However, despite being one of the oldest towns in the U.S., most people know Salem as the U.S.’s “witchiest” city, due to the Salem Witch Trials, which transpired there in 1692.
What happened and why continues to captivate the world to this day, and has been the subject of much debate and fanfare.
Here’s what we know for sure:
19 people (14 women and 5 men) were executed in a variety of gruesome ways during this period of hysteria, found guilty of supposed “witchcraft.” This seems to have originated due to the boredom of a few schoolgirls, who pretended to have fits of satanic possession and blamed those around them, accusing them of practicing witchcraft. In the very strict, Puritan society of the time, things quickly got out of hand.
Today, museums and history books dedicated to the subject show us what happens when rumors and fanaticism are allowed to take root in this way, and the devastation they can cause. Salem is home to a wealth of information on the subject of the witch trials, as well as Wiccan culture today.
In addition to its historical attractions, Salem also has incredible period architecture and world-class museums, as well as a variety of cafes and bookstores to explore.
If you’re in Boston or New England, we really recommend a day trip to Salem!
Getting to Salem:
Did you know that Salem is a super-quick (less than 40-minute!) ride away from Boston?
It’s likely easiest to take the commuter rail from North Station– just hop on the Newburyport-Rockport line, and remember that there are often discounted weekend passes, “all you can ride” for $10! This way, you can pair a visit to Salem with other area stops, such as Ipswich, Newburyport, Rockport, and more for a really reasonable fare. Check out our guides to those day trips at the links above.
If you do decide to drive, there is plenty of metered parking, but note that the area gets super, super crowded on weekends, especially in the fall.
Ultimately, we really recommend taking the commuter rail. It’s a very short walk from the commuter rail stop to the heart of downtown, and the trains usually run roughly once an hour.
Salem Walking Guide
Start out with a "museum morning!"
Salem is an eminently walkable city, with all the top sights located quite close to each other.
When you first arrive, we recommend making a beeline for the Salem Witch Museum, as they often give zoned-entry passes on crowded days.
For example, you could arrive fairly early in the morning and still be given an entry time of 1PM. The entry passes are given by way of a sticker with a time written on it. When it’s your time to enter, you just show your sticker.
While the museum is certainly quite dated and could use some upgrades, it is without a doubt the regional (if not national) expert on the 1692 Witch Trials. It’s been around since 1972, and opened due to works of literature like The Crucible by Arthur Miller becoming standard secondary school required material, which drew heightened attention to the Witch Trials.
Relying on original trial documents, the museum created life-size set-pieces to walk visitors through the story of the witch trials in the form of a narrated audiovisual “show.”
After the seated portion, a tour guide will share information about modern Wiccan practices and the Wiccan religion, international witch hunts in the aftermath of Salem, and more. While the subject matter is certainly more than a bit unpleasant, we wouldn’t say that this museum is inappropriate for children.
While we wouldn’t give this museum a repeat visit– it was very informative, but as we said before, quite dated– we do recommend visiting the museum as a means to ground your first visit to town. While Halloween in Salem is fun, with lots of folks in silly costumes, it bears remembering and honoring the fact that the reason why Salem is famous is because 19 innocent people were brutally executed for crimes they did not commit.
Lastly, there are plenty of other witch-related museums in Salem, like the Witch Board Museum, Count Orlok’s Nightmare Gallery, and the Witch Dungeon Museum, but these are much sillier and more fantastical than the purely-historical Salem Witch Museum. We’d definitely file them under “tourist trap” more than anything else.
Speaking of museums, no visit to Salem is complete without spending at least a few hours at the Peabody Essex, or PEM– truly a regional treasure.
The Peabody Essex is rooted in the East India Marine Society, chartered in 1799. As the story goes, a group of Salem’s sea captains had collected all sorts of odds and ends on their travels around the world, and wanted to establish “a cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities” to share them with their community back home. While this may have begun as a collection of trinkets and souvenirs, today those same objects form the base collection of an enormous museum– the Peabody Essex.
The PEM also boasts excellent rotating and visiting exhibits, as well as an incredible permanent collection of Asian art. Keep in mind that you will have to prioritize what to see– the museum is huge, and it would likely take you more than a full day to see everything in detail. However, we do recommend setting aside ~2 hours to check it out. Admission is a bit steep at $16 (very reasonable student price of $6.50), but it’s worth it. MA residents can get discounted tickets through their local library.
When you finish up at the PEM, perhaps you’re in the mood for a bite to eat. There are several pretty good restaurants along the main drag in Salem, Essex Street. We recommend: Gulu-Gulu for “eclectic/bohemian” fare; Rockafellas for “casual chic”; or The Roof, Salem’s only rooftop eatery.
While we wouldn’t call Salem a “foodie destination,” these places and others are quite good and often have pretty reasonably-priced lunch options. Note, again, that during the fall the area is a madhouse and most places may have a significant wait.
Afternoon history + architecture tour:
Once you’re refreshed and ready to go again after lunch, there are several options for your afternoon.
In nearby Lappin Park, don’t miss the commemorative statue of actress Samantha Stephens, who played the beloved main character on the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. Season 7 of the show was actually filmed in Salem, and TV Land gifted the town with the statue on the 40th anniversary. Note that there is often a line for photos, but it moves quickly.
All along Essex Street, you can’t miss the street festival that pops up every weekend (and on many weekdays, especially in October!) Called the Essex Street Fair, there are all sorts of quirky things to look at, including many witch-themed arts and crafts; secondhand clothing; handmade soaps, essential oils, and other handiworks; and more. There are also street performers, folks dressed up in funny costumes, and an overwhelming amount of things to look at.
For fans of history and architecture, Salem has an excellent free walking tour called the Heritage Trail. Similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail (which we’re obsessed with, check out our step-by-step guide here) the Heritage Trail is a self-guided tour of historic Salem. Instead of the Freedom Trail’s signature 2-brick pathway, just follow the red line painted on the sidewalk. The trail begins at the National Park Service’s Salem Regional Visitor Center at 2 Liberty Street. Before you start the trail, be sure to pop into the center to grab a map and check out the brief (27-minute) film about Salem, called Where Past is Present. The NPS also offers guided tours of Salem for a fee, if you prefer, but walking the Heritage Trail self-guided is super straightforward.
On the trail, you’ll see various historically-significant sites. Some of these include:
- The Samuel McIntire Architectural District;
- The Ropes Mansion and its beautiful gardens;
- Salem’s old and new City Hall buildings;
- The “Witch House”, the only remaining period house from the Salem Witch Trials, belonging to trial judge Jonathan Corwin;
- The Burying Point and Howard Street Cemetery, the 2 cemeteries associated with the victims of the witch trials. The Burying Point is the oldest cemetery in Salem, including the grave of a Mayflower passenger, and the Howard Street Cemetery is where Giles Corey, a victim of the witch trials, is said to have been “pressed” to death by heavy stones.
- The House of the Seven Gables, the inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book of the same name. Originally built in 1668, the house is considered the oldest house in all of New England! Don’t miss the unparalleled views of Salem Harbor from both inside and outside the house, though there is a $11 admission to enter that we’re not entirely sure is worth it.
Before you leave, try to squeeze in some time for a quick walk around the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Fun fact: designated in 1938, Salem Maritime is actually America’s very first National Historic Site!
The protected area sits on 9 acres of pristine waterfront, and consists of twelve buildings of historical importance. Check out the replica of the 1797 Friendship of Salem, a two-masted tall ship that, prior to being captured during the War of 1812, made 15 voyages to India, Spain, Russia, and beyond. We also recommend going for a stroll along the Derby Wharf, as well as exploring the Custom House and 1675 Narbonne House.
The NPS offers tours of the area, on subjects such as historic houses and the history of slavery in Salem. You can learn more here.
If by now you’re in the mood for a hot cocoa or perhaps an ice cream cone (honestly, fall weather in New England is so fickle that there’s a good chance for either!) there are a few places to check out: Front Street Cafe, the Ugly Mug, and our personal favorite, Jaho Coffee Roaster and Wine Bar.
Lastly, we absolutely love Wicked Good Books, an adorable local bookstore on Essex Street, and visit every time we’re in Salem. Check it out!
Have you visited Salem? What did you think? Let us know in the comments!
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