10 Things to do in Salem, Massachusetts
Salem, Massachusetts, is most (in)famous for the witch hysteria of 1692. And that’s a shame, because Salem was a major port city and boasts a rich and varied history.
But perhaps I’m biased. I was born in Salem (in October), spent almost every Sunday and Halloween of my childhood there, and still visit family in the city. There are many things in Salem for curious travellers to explore. Here are ten that I think will give you a taste of the full flavor of Salem’s rich history:
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America’s oldest living history museum brings 1630 Salem back to life. Visitors can learn about the lives of some of the earliest English settlers. Sites you may explore include simple homes, gardens, a blacksmith’s shop, and the Governor’s Faire House.
Settlers built Fort Pickering early in the 17th century on Winter Island (actually a peninsula). It guarded Salem Harbor until into the 20th century. It went by several names until 1799. Since then, it has honored Salem’s Gen. Timothy Pickering, who served as Quartermaster General during the Revolutionary War and as Secretary of War for our young country. The Fort’s ruins will especially intrigue visitors interested in military history.
This 17th-century home is often called the Witch House, because its owner Jonathan Corwin was one of the judges in the witch trials. It is the only house still standing with a tie to the trials. A tour gives you picture of the home lifestyle of prominent early colonials.
Witch Dungeon Museum
The Witch Dungeon Museum features reenactments of the witch trials based on court transcripts. There is also a replica of a dungeon where those accused of witchcraft may have been held. This is a good choice if you want to experience something witchy but historically based.
Peabody Essex Museum
The oldest continuously operating and collecting museum in America houses more than one million works, primarily from the 18th century forward. It stems from the East India Marine Society, founded in 1799 during the heyday of the Old China Trade. One of the Society’s purposes was to maintain and display artifacts that sailors brought back from abroad, so that local citizens could enjoy and learn from them. The Museum today boasts one of the largest collections of Asian art in America.
The Ropes Mansion is a Georgian Colonial operated by the Peabody Essex Museum. The house was originally built in 1727 for Samuel Barnard, who was a prominent merchant. In 1894, new owners had it renovated in Colonial Revival style. Its real showpiece is the large garden added in 1912.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
America’s first National Historic Site maintains 12 historic structures on the Salem waterfront that preserve and teach 600 years of New England maritime history and in particular Salem’s Great Age of Sail, which spanned the 18th and 19th centuries. Sites you can explore include the Custom House, a warehouse, and a replica of Friendship, a 1797 merchant tall ship. The Visitor Center presents a 27-minute film, Where Past is Present, which will give you an overview of the history of Salem and Essex County.
Chestnut Street features opulent homes built thanks to the fortunes made during the Great Age of Sail; it is one of the most beautiful streets in America. Phillips House is the only such mansion open to the public. Built in the Federal style in 1821, its interior was renovated into Colonial Revival style nearly a century later. In addition to the historic home, you can explore the carriage house’s collection of early automobiles, including a Model A Ford.
New England Pirate Museum
Where there is a maritime society, there will be piracy. The Pirate Museum offers an educational and entertaining guided tour during which you can learn about the buccaneers who terrorized New England’s Gold Coast, see artifacts from sunken ships and pirate hoards, and explore a recreated colonial port, a pirate ship, and a treasure cave.
House of the Seven Gables
Nathaniel Hawthorne used to visit his cousin Susanna Ingersoll at her notable home. He later used it as the setting for his well-known 1851 Gothic novel. Today the historic house is a museum that you can explore on a 45-minute guided tour. You may also visit Hawthorne’s birthplace next-door.
When to Visit Salem
Salem has four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and October.
Throughout October, Salem hosts Haunted Happenings, a celebration of Halloween and Salem’s witch history. Events kick off with a Grand Parade and include live music, movie nights, costume balls, haunted houses, and more. Hundreds of thousands of people pour into the city. If a month-long, city-wide, elbow-to-elbow block party is your thing, then by all means go to Salem in October. You’ll be in Massachusetts at the peak of fall colors.
If you prefer more restful and refined travel, do not go to Salem in October. I also don’t suggest Salem in winter; many sites are closed, and a New England blizzard is a traveller’s nightmare (and not much fun for adult locals either).
Late spring and summer are lovely, and the best seasons to enjoy Salem and the sites in this post.
How to Get around Salem
Like most old cities, Salem is best explored on foot. One fine way to enjoy the city is to follow the Salem Heritage Trail. Marked by a thick red painted line, the Heritage Trail connects Salem’s historic sites. You can start and stop the self-guided tour at any point and skip or linger at spots on the way.
If you’d like a break from walking, the Salem Trolley is a great way to explore the city. You may either stay on the Trolley for the duration of the one-hour, eight-mile narrated tour or hop on and off at any of its 14 stops.
If you’d like to see Salem from the water, you may book a sailing aboard the Fame, a full-scale replica of the first American privateer schooner to go out to sea during the War of 1812. A schooner is a sailboat with more than one mast. A privateer is a private person or ship that attacks enemy vessels during wartime; privateers contributed greatly to America’s victories in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
If you’re coming on a day trip from Boston, the most enjoyable and efficient way to get to Salem is to take the Ferry, a high-speed catamaran from Long Wharf.
I wish I had more time when I was in Boston years ago to visit Salem. It looks like a cool town to see.
Thanks, John, Salem is a pretty unique city; I hope you have a chance to explore it some time.