Travel Guide: Salem
I’ve been to Salem, Massachusetts twice—once in August and once in October. I’m positive that Salem is charming all year-round, but for obvious reasons it becomes a destination in October, especially weekends close to Halloween. My advice is to go on a weekday if at all possible, so you’ll still be able to enjoy the Halloween spirit without the crushing crowds. This is also a great book to read before you go.
Like a lot of places in the US, unfortunately, it’s best to get to Salem by car. But, the good news is that once you’re there, the city is small and walkable. Taking a bus or train to Boston and then another bus or ferry to Salem is an option, but renting a car will give you more freedom to stop along the way (just outside of town you can see the Hocus Pocus house and Old Burial Hill, or the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River and her gravesite, if you’re coming from the south). If you really plan ahead, you can book a hotel that guarantees parking so you can dump your car as soon as you arrive and you don’t have to compete with the day visitors who fill the expensive garages.
WHAT TO DO:
Tour the house that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous book (and pick up a copy in the gift shop, it’s not an easy read but it’s worth tackling). Hawthorne is a descendent of John Hathorne, the only judge involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions (the ‘w’ was added to the surname later to distance the family from the trials). This is a popular place and tickets are limited, so get here right when it opens to secure your spot and enjoy the secret staircase!
The Witch House is the only structure still standing in Salem with direct ties to the witchcraft trials. Corwin was a local magistrate and he served on the court which ultimately sent nineteen people to the gallows. Corwin lived in the house, an excellent example of seventeenth-century architecture (and my dream home), for more than forty years and it remained in the Corwin family until the mid-1800s. You can take a guided or self-guided tour, and they have extended hours in October (but again, the house is small so get there early).
The Salem Witch Museum was the thing I was most disappointed by on my first visit, but I still went back on my return trip. You can’t really go to Salem without visiting this museum, but while it starts out promising—with an animatronic retelling of the witchcraft trials—it is seriously lacking in artifacts or anything else you might expect to find in a traditional museum. The gift shop is worth a visit, though, if only for their floaty pens.
Even if you don’t normally spend hours wandering cemeteries like I do, a visit to Salem isn’t complete without at least seeing the first cemetery established in Salem in 1637, the Old Burying Point (also called the Charter Street Cemetery). Adjacent to the cemetery is a memorial to the victims of the witchcraft trials and the whole area gets very crowded during October. Since our last visit they’ve taken measures to limit visitors to the cemetery, but it’s definitely worth the wait. There are a few other less famous cemeteries within walking limits—like the Howard Street Cemetery or the Broad Street Cemetery—which are just as historic and interesting without the annoying crowds.
You know how much I love a good, crumbling, creepy wax museum and the one in Salem does not disappoint. There were long lines for almost every October pop-up attraction in the area around the Old Burying Point, but one of the shortest was for this wax museum—which was good for us but it also makes me concerned for the future of this dusty relic.
There are a hundred ghost tours to choose from, but the one we took was fantastic (“not recommended for children” will seal the deal for me every time). Our guide pushed around an old-timey baby carriage containing a creepy doll named Myrna, and bought our entire tour Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. I just heard that he may not be doing nighttime tours anymore but it’s still worth inquiring about (and if he’s not available, I still recommend doing a ghost tour—I think every single person that came to Salem when we did was out at night on a tour).
There are tons of cheesy, witchy stores in Salem, but for something a little more refined, check out Hauswitch. They have beautiful (if expensive) things, and for a brief second we all felt like we’d found a portal back to Brooklyn.
WHERE TO EAT:
We didn’t actually eat here, but their window was painted with a Hocus Pocus theme, so how can it be bad?
We ended up at the Mercy Tavern somewhat randomly, but they ended up having delicious nachos and a great local cider selection (you can buy this glass here). I don’t eat seafood so I’m not at all qualified to write recommendations for New England eateries, but I’ve heard good things about Turner’s Seafood.
I loved this store—America’s oldest candy company—so much that I used it as the inspiration for a college branding project. They have all sorts of old-timey candies, including Gibralters, the first commercially-made candy in the US (they have a similar consistency to a really hard dinner mint). It’s located right across from The House of the Seven Gables, so after your tour grab some fudge or a Salem blackjack, still made by hand with the original 1800s recipe.
When you walk into Ziggy’s, you might think you’ve made a mistake and accidentally walked into someone’s private kitchen. Located outside of the main tourist area, the tiny Ziggy’s (there are a few stools, if you want to eat in) feels like a local secret, which is amazing considering that the donuts and coffee were cheap, delicious and served with a smile (and a heavy dose of curiosity about where we were from and what we were doing in Salem).
Traveling to Massachusetts? See all of my individual posts from the state here.