The House of the Seven Gables, looking out toward the harbor, in Salem, Massachusetts.
Photo Credit : Kristina Smith/Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism
Along with Plymouth and Boston, Lexington and Concord, the city of Salem, Massachusetts, is one of those hot spots of early American history that most of us have known about since middle school. And the Salem of history textbooks still exists today, with reminders of its early existence and witch-trial infamy being easy to find around town (especially in October, when Salem parlays its ye olde spooky vibe into New England’s biggest Halloween bash). But it exists side by side with the Salem of today, which boasts an ever-deepening arts and culture footprint as well as a growing foodie scene, and enough great shopping and recreation to satisfy the many residents who prefer to live in this midsized coastal community and simply commute into Boston.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring this city of lore and legend, but if you have just a day or two, here are the five best things to do in Salem, Massachusetts.
For more than a century, visitors have streamed to this imposing mansion-turned-museum that looms up at the end of a street overlooking the harbor. Dubbed the House of the Seven Gables after the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel that made it famous, the building has not only many gables but many facets. It’s a literary shrine, paired with Hawthorne’s own birthplace, an 18th-century home that was relocated to these grounds in 1958. It’s a rare example of 1600s architecture, built less than 30 years after the Pilgrims landed. It’s a talisman of Salem’s seafaring age, whose early owners were families who made their fortunes on the water. And it’s also a community beacon, hosting dialogues on immigration and immigration reform as well as offering resources for new Americans. All this, wreathed in Colonial Revival gardens that provide an oasis of beauty by the sea. As of late July 2020: The House of the Seven Gables is open Friday though Tuesday. Admission includes an audio tour of the gardens and grounds, a link to a virtual tour of the mansion, and access to the visitor center and museum store. Visitors are required to wear face masks and observe social distancing.
The oldest continuously operating museum in the U.S. is also one of the most ambitious. Having already expanded eight times in its history, it debuted a jaw-dropping 40,000-square-foot addition in 2019, part of a $16 million museum-wide initiative to give visitors entirely new experiences of virtually all of its collections by 2022. In addition to a vibrant array of African and Native American art and three centuries of New England art, this world-class museum boasts a cache of Asian art and cultural artifacts that includes the only complete Qing dynasty house outside China. Modern design aficionados will also find much to love here, with everything from skateboards to haute couture being showcased in the new Fashion & Design Gallery, which boasts a rotating selection of items from fashion icon Iris Apfel’s own collection of more than 800 wardrobe pieces.As of late July 2020: PEM is currently open Thursday through Sunday, with admission via timed tickets to limit occupancy, and with visitors required to wear face masks and observe social distancing.
The Salem neighborhood known as the Point earned its spot on the National Register of Historic Places for its impressively intact collection of early 20th-century buildings, most of which are homes built for mill workers after a fire devastated the city in 1914. But today the Point — or “el Punto,” to its many Spanish-speaking residents — may be best known for its stunning array of large-scale murals, more than 75 in all, created by artists from across New England and around the world. The brainchild of the nonprofit North Shore Community Development Coalition, this is equal parts open-air museum and social-justice public art program, with all works being painted on or next to rent-restricted buildings within a roughly three-block radius. As of late July 2020: The usual slate of guided themed tours is not being offered at this time; however, visitors can download a walking map or, even better, an iOS app or Android app from the Apple Store or Google Play that comes loaded with information about the murals and the artists who created them.
Reminders of Salem’s world-famous connection to witchcraft are seemingly everywhere you look — which attraction you choose to explore will depend on whether you have an appreciation for history or the occult (and some offer a bit of both). Either way, the thought-provoking Salem Witch Trials Memorial is a must-see: Inspired by the Vietnam Memorial, the small park is filled with granite benches inscribed with the names of the 20 people executed in 1692 for supposed witchcraft. A few blocks away is the Salem Witch Museum, which brings the witch trials to life through 13 stage sets, life-size figures, and narration; there’s also a staff-guided tour that focuses on witchcraft more broadly. At the Salem Wax Museum and Salem Witch Village, meanwhile, you can enjoy some Halloween-style fun in the form of attractions, tours, and gift shops filled with spooky wares. As of late July 2020: The memorial is open, but visitors should know that masks are required downtown and in all city parks and playgrounds. The Salem Witch Museum is open but has changed parts of its operation and also requires visitors to wear masks and maintain social distance. The Salem Wax Museum and Salem Witch Village are temporarily closed.
Pickering Wharf and Essex Street
Shoppers will inevitably wind up in one of these two spots, though Salem’s downtown is compact enough to put them both within easy reach. Pickering Wharf is right by the water, meaning you can breathe in some ocean air and soak up views of yachts and sailboats as you browse the one-of-a-kind art at Joe’s Fish Prints (recently featured in Yankee’s “Bringing the Sea Inside” feature) and pick up candles and eclectic home decor at Partridge in a Bear Tree, or feast on fresh-caught seafood at Finz and Sea Level. By contrast, Essex Street anchors a pedestrian mall in the center of downtown featuring a mix of shops, restaurants, and attractions, and often hosts street vendors and fairs. Favorites here include the vintage fashions at Modern Millie, gourmet goodies and wine at Pamplemousse, and new and used tomes at the indie Wicked Good Books. As of late July 2020: Massachusetts retailers and restaurants have been allowed to reopen under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines, but call ahead or check the websites for specific businesses to get the most up-to-date operating information.
Have your own list of the very best things to do in Salem, Massachusetts? Leave your picks in the comments below!
This post was first published in 2020 and has been updated.