Salem needs no introduction. Most schoolchildren know that this town, one of New England’s oldest, is inextricably linked with the Witch Trials in 1692. Though it’s this notorious past that puts Salem on most tourists’ radar – especially around Halloween – this charming seaport town has a personality that’s so multi-faceted, you won’t have any trouble finding a wealth of activities year-round to thrill you and your family, from captivating art installations to nature-based sanctuaries. Come discover the many things to do in Salem, Massachusetts.
Named for its stunning, white oak willow trees, Salem Willows Park is an expansive property. Enjoy the leafy shade, as you stroll on the popular half-mile-long loop trail, take in the views of sailboats moored in Salem Sound and relax on one of many benches or picnic on a grassy mound. (The gazebos are also good places to chill.) A pair of small sandy beaches provide options for either dipping your toes or just enjoying the sun. Although the park is open year-round, their small amusement area with a few rides and games only operates in the summer.
Whether you’re a bird watcher, hiker or biker, Salem Woods will satisfy your craving for nature-based excursions. Bird watching opportunities, including mourning doves, blue jays and northern cardinals, are abundant all year, especially spring through fall. Also in fall, you’ll find the park’s red maple trees glorious when their leaves turn a vibrant crimson. If you enjoy rambling, tackle the moderately challenging nature trail that wanders beside wetlands, including a marsh where you might hear spring peepers or other types of frogs. The highest point – 140 feet above sea level – affords views of the Atlantic.
Founded near the turn of the 18th century, the Peabody Essex Museum is considered one of the largest and oldest museums in the U.S. Featuring more than one million objects, this renowned museum is home to diverse exhibits spanning the world’s cultures. It’s no wonder the main building takes up three city blocks! The new wing, which debuted in mid-2019, will delight minimalist architecture buffs with its stone slab exterior and solitary soaring window. Once inside, you’ll want to linger in the fully furnished, 200-year-old upscale family home (Yin Yu Tang) that was shipped from China and reassembled on site. On a decidedly more contemporary note, there is an exhibit spotlighting the chic wardrobe of fashion icon Iris Apfel, noted for her bold colors and sense of whimsy.
The Punto Urban Art Museum is just a 10-minute walk from downtown Salem in the El Punto neighborhood. More than 100 murals splash the facades and alleyways within a three-block radius, bringing visitors to this Latinx neighborhood populated mostly with immigrant-owned emporia. It’s certainly an eclectic collection of images, from the surreal to the cartoonish. Try to find the butterfly with giant eyes and the “magical” cat created from a kaleidoscope of colors. Local, national and international artists have turned this low-income neighborhood into a delightful open-air museum; these creators include Brazilian artist Sipros Naberezny, who portrays his muse, Salvador Dali, as a mask- and cape-wearing superhero (“Super Dali”), and Favio Martinez, hailing from Mexico, who pays homage to Mexican mythology in his boldly hued mural.
Set along a peninsula that’s connected to Salem Neck and just two miles from downtown, Winter Island Park was once a strategic locale that was the site of Fort Pickering. Today, not much remains of the 17th century ruins, but the Fort Pickering Lighthouse still stands. Waikiki Beach, with its small sandy cove, is a placid spot for sunbathing or swimming. If you bring a kayak, you can launch it from the beach here or nearby Pebble Beach to view numerous coves. Kayaks are also available to rent from Coast to Coast Paddle, which has a seasonal kiosk in Salem Willows.
Roam around the dozen historic structures on the nine-acre expanse that makes up the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and you’ll come away with insights into U.S. and New England’s seafaring history. Along the almost half-mile long wharf, there’s a replica of the 18th century, three-masted tall ship Friendship of Salem. (It’s currently closed for renovation, but the exterior is still an impressive sight.) Seasonally, you’ll be able to inspect the Georgian-style Derby House, a fine example of a prosperous merchant’s home and one of Salem’s oldest brick edifices. After your visit, check out the garden in back, a recreation of a colonial revival garden with blooms and herbs that would have been available in the 18th century.
Witch and Famous Houses
Though there’s clearly an abundance of great things to do in Salem, Massachusetts, throughout the year that don’t involve witches, we’d be remiss to omit all of them.
The 17th century dwelling known as the Witch House never actually had any witchy inhabitants, but was the home of Jonathan Corwin, who was intimately connected with the witch trials of 1692-93. As a magistrate, he interrogated several women charged with witchcraft – perhaps in this very house, according to rumors – and later, as a judge, presided over several trials where more than a dozen were hanged. Roam the quartet of fully furnished rooms to examine informative plaques and ephemera on the trials and learn more about the witch trail era, including colonial superstitions and medical treatments. You’ll see a doll known as a poppet that witches supposedly used to curse people and books with recipes involving snail water and other curatives.
You also won’t want to miss the imposing mansion that inspired Nathanial Hawthorn to pen “The House of the Seven Gables.” Salem-resident Hawthorne visited the home often when his cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, lived there. A guided tour allows you to explore the interior with its steep hidden stairwell to the attic. There have been rumors of some paranormal activities, such as ghosts being seen, heard or felt. But don’t miss the garden with its lovely seasonal blooms, including wisteria, lilacs and roses. Find more literature-themed road trips.
Places to Eat in Salem, Massachusetts
Gulu-Gulu Cafe offers up an extensive, creative sandwich and crepe menu, with all-day breakfast sandwiches, including tofu with vegan cheddar. Why not pair a turkey, cheddar and apple butter sandwich with a craft beer?
Turner’s Seafood at Lyceum Hall is a family-run establishment noted for its fresh fish and seafood. The menu is sizable with all sorts of variations. Order your mussels in white wine and butter or with Dijon mustard and a beer cream broth.
If you’re craving Mexican food, Howling Wolf Taqueria serves up a variety of mega-size burritos. The achiote-marinated tofu burrito with mango pineapple salsa and the shrimp with mango chile puree are especially scrumptious.
Places to Stay in Salem, Massachusetts
The Salem Waterfront Hotel and Suites is conveniently located to most sights in downtown (though few rooms have water views, despite the name). The rooms are simple, yet you’ll be able to rent an iPad and enjoy a heated indoor pool.
Named for author Nathanial Hawthorne, the Hawthorne Hotel is a historic property located in downtown that exudes plenty of antique charm. If you’re into ghosts, numerous paranormal sights and sounds have been reported here.
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