There’s so much color and quirk in the city of Salem, Massachusetts.Photo Credit : Cathryn McCann
One of New England’s most quirky, colorful, and historical places is Salem, Massachusetts. A well-known destination for all of its witch-themed Halloween festivities in October, the city has plenty of attractions to check out and enjoy year-round. For a fun blend of history, fantasy, and activity, here are 13 of our favorite Salem attractions and things to do.
Found right in the heart of downtown Salem, the Peabody Essex Museum is an iconic, historic attraction that can’t be missed during a visit to the Massachusetts city. The building itself is an architectural wonder, with hundreds of panels of glass filtering in plenty of natural light in the atrium. The museum’s exhibits feature a wide range of both modern and historic art and culture from around the world, with specific appeal to viewers of all generations and walks of life. Visitors can also tour Yin Yu Tang House, the magnificent ancestral home of the Huang family, featuring Chinese art, culture, and architecture, check out the child-friendly Art and Nature Center, or view two centuries of New England life on a historic house tour.
Any history lover knows a visit to the city of Salem is incomplete without a visit to the oldest surviving 17th-century wooden mansion in New England. Built in 1668, the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion was originally constructed by merchant and sea captain John Turner, and eventually inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel titled, of course, The House of the Seven Gables. During your visit, check out the original architecture and features, view exhibits, attend educational programs, photograph the beautiful seaside gardens, and explore Hawthorne’s birthplace or other 17th, 18th, and 19th-century historic houses on the site. While at the Gables house, be sure to find the mysterious secret staircase!
Salem, Massachusetts, is well known as the site of the execution of 20 citizens for supposed witchcraft following a series of trials in 1692. The Salem Witch Trials inspired the famous play, The Crucible, and caused the area to be forever known for “witchcraft and wizardry.” Today, the memorial site for those 20 victims serves as a reminder of the mass hysteria that occurred at that time. Built in 1992, the stone memorials etched with the names and dates of each victim are located across the street from where many of the witch examinations took place. While in Salem, be sure to take a step back in time and visit the memorial.
It’s easy to get lost in the beauty and history of downtown Salem and forget that it does, in fact, border the ocean. Strolling to the outskirts of the city to smell the ocean air, view the yachts and sailboats, and eat seafood is certainly a worthwhile diversion. There are plenty of quaint boutique shops and cafes to check out, and the homes surrounding the wharf date back to the 1600s. The calm sea, historic Sail Loft, and homes of every color make for some beautiful scenes to be taken in while strolling or sitting and enjoying the fresh air.
Within view of Pickering Wharf is the Salem Maritime National Historic Site — established in 1938 and the first of its kind in the United States. The nine-acre waterfront park includes multiple historic buildings, such as the Custom House where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked, three wharves where privateers docked during the Revolutionary War, and the Friendship of Salem, a 171-foot replica of a tall ship once used to sail the globe in search of spices and trade goods. Each facet of the site tells a different story of the lives of the sailors, privateers, and merchants who passed through one of America’s most influential ports.
Dark, gothic, and eye-catching, the Salem Witch Museum’s unique structure lures in many a visitor — making it Salem’s most visited museum. The attraction brings the Salem Witch Trials to life through 13 stage sets, life-size figures, and narration depicting the drama, darkness, and intrigue of the 1692 hysteria. Guides walk visitors through everything witchcraft, including modern practice, stereotypes, and hunting. For a true understanding of the Salem trials and witchcraft throughout the ages, the Salem Witch Museum is the attraction to check out. And for more, tour The Witch House, the 17th century home of one of the trial’s judges, Jonathan Corwin, and Salem’s only remaining building with direct ties to the witch trials.
Both a historic attraction and a great place to stay, The Merchant Salem is a boutique hotel right in the heart of downtown. Originally built as the home for sea merchant Joshua Ward and since used as a tavern, office building, and rare book shop, the hotel is now a beautiful blend of modern design and historic features. Check out the oldest surviving staircase designed by noted architect Samuel McIntire — known for the McIntire historic district comprising over 400 buildings and homes in Salem. Guests can opt to stay in the George Washington King Deluxe room, where the president stayed in October of 1789, shortly after his election, or get cozy by the lobby fireplace originally cast by American silversmith Paul Revere.
A part of the aforementioned McIntire Historic District, elegant Chestnut Street is lined with uniquely New England and historic houses, making it an absolutely mandatory stroll for any architectural aficionado. The entire street is a Registered National Historic Landmark, showcasing Federal-style mansions and grand antique houses, including Stephen Phillips Memorial Trust House and Hamilton Hall — named in honor of founding father Alexander Hamilton. Every house is different, so it’s worth wandering the full length of the street.
It’s nearly impossible to explore Salem and not take a walk down the Essex Street pedestrian mall. The cobblestone and brick-lined street in the center of downtown Salem is closed off to vehicular traffic, creating a haven for walkers, shoppers, and pedestrians. The mall features countless shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, attractions, and often hosts street vendors and fairs. It’s the perfect modern activity in a historic area.
It isn’t called “The Witch City” for nothing. While in Salem, give in and enjoy some Halloween-esque fun in the Salem Witch Village, which includes attractions like “Frankenstein’s Castle,” the Salem Wax Museum, and an array of options for themed tours around the “Haunted Neighborhood.” Salem’s original wax museum features wax figures depicting the witch trials and stories of seafarers past.
If you’re feeling burnt out on museums and witchcraft, spend some time wandering or playing in Salem’s beautiful eight-acre public park. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, military drills were conducted in the park. Now, the area is given over to looming elm trees, a small playground, ornate entryways, and a beautiful gazebo. The park is just a stone’s throw from downtown, making it an easy destination for the whole family.
The 92-foot-long vessel that travels from Boston Harbor to Salem features two decks, booth seating, a galley, benches, tables, three restrooms, and open-air space for up to 149 passengers. Running from May to October, the ferry is a great way to get out of the city, spend some time on the water, and enjoy Salem without worrying about traffic or parking. The high-speed catamaran serves up breakfast and lunch fare, tasty snacks, beverages, and alcohol, making the boat trip itself a fun experience. The boat gets from port to port in under an hour, and offers accommodations for big groups.
There are many fun opportunities and attractions in the historic and unique city of Salem, Massachusetts, and one of the best ways to navigate the area and check out the attractions listed above (and many more!) is to follow the red painted line. The Salem Heritage Trail winds around the city, taking you past many of the best historic sites, shopping, restaurants, and attractions. You’ll be hard-pressed to hit all 127 stops on the map, but following the trail in its entirety is a great (and active) way to get a snapshot of everything Salem has to offer.
What are your favorite Salem attractions and things to do?
This post was first published in 2017 and has been updated.