From history to mystery, there are plenty of worthwhile attractions and sightseeing opportunities in Salem to be enjoyed over the course of a long weekend, or even longer if you have more time. Here’s your ultimate guide to the best things to do in Salem, including insider tips and what to know before you go!
Introducing Salem: the historic city of Massachusetts
Tucked into the coast of Massachusetts, Salem is a small town with lots of magic. Established as a port city in 1626, for much of its history trade dominated Salem’s commerce. However, in 1692 Salem was the site of the most famous witch trials in the United States, with 200 people accused of witchcraft and 19 ultimate executions.
Arthur Miller’s The Crucible made the witch trials infamous but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that Salem became the “witch capital” of the United States, as it is known today. Today you can find witch decals on police cars, shops offering magical goods, haunted house tours and museums dedicated to witches and magical other beings. For fans of Halloween, or anything “witchy” this is the ultimate city to visit.
Shop along Essex Street
In need of a broomstick, cauldron or spell-book? You’ll find all that and more along Essex Street, one of the main shopping streets in town. The charming street offers souvenir shops, cafes and many stops for magical goodies.
There is even a statute of Elizabeth Montgomery riding a broom in honour of her character Samantha from Bewitched! It is also a historic district, with the original Old Town Hall and cobblestones. Old Town Hall is one of the most historic buildings in town, dating from 1816.
The second floor still stands as a public hall and the first floor is now used as a public art space. The exterior of the building was featured in the popular film, Hocus Pocus. The street is closed off to vehicles making it the place for a perfect stroll.
Explore the Derby Waterfront District
The Derby Waterfront District has all the classic New England charm. The boats in the bay, the lighthouse standing watch, the seafood restaurants – it’s all there! My first night in town I enjoyed a wonderful meal by the harbour and watched the sunset among the sails.
You can walk along the water to the Derby Wharf Light Station to visit the light house or walk the opposite direction, south to Salem Pioneer Village, a recreation of a 1630’s colonial village.
Visit The House of the Seven Gables
The House of the Seven Gables was built in 1668 and it one of the largest mansions still standing. The home is a destination for fans of early colonial architecture and is a prime example of the prosperity of early Salem. The house Association also own several other historic properties in Salem, including the home where Nathaniel Hawthorne was born.
Wander around the McIntire Historic District
The McIntire Historic District is a beautiful neighbourhood in Salem with historic homes that look right out of a period film or textbook. The homes are wonderfully restored and well kept. In the McIntire District include the Phillips House (a historical museum), Hamilton Hall, The Pickering House, and my favourite, the Ropes Mansion and Garden. The Ropes Mansion is part of the Peabody Essex Museum and the garden is a charming place to pause for pictures.
Visit the Peabody Essex Museum
If you are looking for some art and culture along with your pumpkins and ghouls, be sure to check out the Peabody Essex Museum! This museum originated under the East India Marine Society, and members would bring back objects from their far seas adventures.
The museum focuses on maritime arty and history, American art, and Asian art. There is a stunning atrium to have tea in between gallery stops and rotating artistic collections. The museum also has several dedicated historic houses around Salem that are also worth a visit!
Pay a trip to the Salem Custom House
The Salem Custom House is one of the older buildings in town, with a famous former employee! Author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the writer of The Scarlet Letter, grew up in Salem and worked for a time in the Custom House.
Fun fact: Nathaniel Hawthorne added a “w” to his name to distance himself from another famous Salem resident (and relation) Judge John Hathorne, the principal judge in the Salem Witch Trials, known fondly as the “Hanging Judge.” The Custom House was a principal place of business for the port city of Salem and it remains a historical landmark.
A note on getting to Salem
Salem is an easy trip (by train or car) from Boston, MA meaning that I found Salem to be the perfect day trip from Boston. Because the downtown is so small, you can happily spend an afternoon wandering Salem and still have time to spare for a tea or early dinner.
There are many family-owned restaurants in Salem with just as many ice cream parlours and tea/coffee shops. The train station is a short 5-10 minute walk from the centre of town, making it one of the most walkable towns I’ve been to in North America!