Walking around Salem, Massachusetts, in any season — not just the witching — inevitably makes you wonder if the 19 unfortunate souls hanged for witchcraft between February 1692 and May 1693 would feel slightly better if they knew their death blood would become the lifeblood of the city three centuries later.
The “terrible delusion” — as native son Nathanial Hawthorne called it — populates nearly every step downtown: museums, craft shops, haunted houses, civic signage, business fronts and the never-ending goth-con catwalk along the time-heaved, ankle-breaking sidewalks. Clearly, it’s a deeply beloved feature, and no trip to Salem is complete without a dram from the cauldron.
That said, no one really talks about Salem’s rich, witch-free experiences, from the historical architecture and oceanic coastline to A-list art and culinary delights. Two days should be enough to experience them all, especially with this guide to the full Salem.
A Powerful Spell
Salem weaves a powerful spell on both the people who call it home and those who visit. The numbers make this abundantly clear, with about a million visitors arriving in October 2022 alone. Unfortunately, many miss a lot of what makes Salem special. That offers opportunity to Salem seekers willing to go just a little bit further. If you do, you’ll bring more home than just a few poppets.
The first step into the Salem art scene begins with Salem itself. The historical homes in and around the center offer a fresh-air gallery of Colonial and American architecture dating back to 1660. The canvas is particularly rich in the narrow, bending lanes along Derby Street and broader boulevards of the Enlightenment-inspired McIntire Historic District. Several buildings have their own arts and crafts collections to share, too, including the House of the Seven Gables, Phillips House and Ropes Mansion.
The most stunning home in Salem, however, is not even from the United States. The Yin Yu Tang, a 200-year-old house transported piece by piece from the village of Huang Cun in southeastern China, brings to life eight generations of the Huang family. And it does so with almost poetic magic amid intricate wood latticework, an open-air courtyard with fountains and fish, and everyday family furnishings that still seem seconds from springing to life. It’s arguably the star attraction of The Peabody-Essex Museum, and that’s saying something, considering how impressive its entire collection is.
Find a more local flavor at the Salem Arts Association, which displays and sells paintings, sculptures, crafts and more by nearby artists. The gallery is often open to the public and hosts regular exhibitions. Before leaving the neighborhood, pop over to Herb Mackey’s Metal Sculpture Yard, which has a world of metal minions spread across the property. The three blocks of murals at the outdoor Punto Urban Art Museum is worth a spin, too, especially for selfie hunters.
Salem is a seaport on a bifurcated peninsula (aka “Salem Neck”) that juts into the Atlantic Ocean, so the city maintains a special bond with the ocean that brought it wealth and fame. Not only does that put an ocean view around nearly every corner, it also comes with numerous swimming beaches, albeit mostly small and slightly rough.
Survey them all with a walk along the peninsula perimeter, starting along Collins Cove on the west side (where the best sunsets are), around the point neighborhoods (cue Zillow fantasies) and back along the east side. That route takes in Dead Horse Beach, Fort Pickering Beach and Juniper Beach, as well as the 35-acre Salem Willows, where locals relax and seagulls battle amid willow trees, seaside paths, game fields and Coney Island-esque arcades and eateries. There’s even a mound of overgrown Revolutionary War earthworks called Fort Lee.
But the best beach, strangely named Waikiki, can be found at Salem’s top natural jewel, Winter Island Park. This mini peninsula dangling eastward between Cat and Juniper coves is primarily a campsite (the closest North Shore one to Boston), but it also offers a charming walking path along the water’s edge and postcard views of Fort Pickering Lighthouse. History buffs will particularly love the vista from atop the Civil War-era remains of Fort Pickering.
South of downtown, where tourists rarely venture, is Highland Park, also called Salem Woods. A wilder nature experience, the 2.3-mile trail — part dirt path, part boardwalk — loops around 160 acres of uplands, freshwater marshes and open fields that are home to 150 species of birds and other wildlife.
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For its relatively small population — about 45,000 — Salem boasts a surprising number and range of eateries. Most ultimately cater to moving crowds of tourists, providing hearty on-the-go fare rather than fine dining. But there are still many bite-sized treasures to be had.
Start at least one day with Ziggy’s & Sons Donuts, the go-to for locals since 1964. It’s mom-and-pop in every sense of the word — and tastes that way. Start with a jelly, their specialty. For a proper brunch, head to Red’s Sandwich Shop for possibly the best corned beef hash you’ve ever tasted. For lunch, the pastries and paninis at A&J bakery make a great option, as do the soups and sandwiches at Gulu-Gulu. Or you might finally get your lobster fix at the Lobster Shanty, a word-of-mouth favorite. Jolie Tea serves an elegant prix-fix lunch and high tea, and coffee drinkers should head to Odd Meter Coffee Co for some of Salem’s top beans.
Seafood dominates the evening menus in Salem, and the swath of restaurants by the port remain ever popular and crowded. But those seeking a more ambitious chef with a James Beard nomination should check out Ledger Restaurant & Bar, which is inside a 200-year-old bank building and serves 21st-century updates on 19th-century dishes. Settler, perhaps Salem’s classiest date spot, wows consistently with its prix-fixe menu of Mediterranean-meets-New England-meets-family farm dishes. A more stripped-down affair can be found at Ray Adea’s vegetarian Mediterranean restaurant or Spitfire Taco, both of which excel in flavor and value.
Although Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, the oldest candy store in the country, is a tourist trap — sometimes literally in the narrow spaces — it’s still worth a stop for historical candies like Gibralters and blackjacks, not to mention possibly the best licorice twists ever. Up by Salem Common, Goodnight Fatty slings a new line of cookies weekly that are thick and rich enough to nibble on for days. Then, take your nightcap at Mercy Tavern for local cheer or Notch Brewery & Tap Room, which excels at Czech lagers.
The Witch Stuff
Be warned, Salem takes its witch culture with a heaping dollop of cheese, be it in the gift shop swag (“Witch Side Story” t-shirt — get it?), wax museums, wand shops, fortune tellers or ghost tours. And if that’s your bag, dinner is served. Of these, the Salem Witch Museum and its ever-creepy mannequins is still worth a gander, as are boutiques such as Hauswitch and Nocturne. The Bewitched statue of actress Elizabeth Montgomery atop a broom in Lapin Park marks Salem’s selfie G spot.
A more somber and respectful tribute can be paid at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial in the center of town. The open green space is ringed by granite walls and benches and inscribed with the victims’ names. It’s remarkably effective in its simplicity. More death awaits next door at the Charter Street Cemetery, the final resting place of witch trial judge (and great, great grandfather of Nathanial Hawthorne), John Hawthorne. However, underrated Broad Street Cemetery offers even more of the same but with much fewer tourists.
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