Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, where we were accusing people of being witches before it was cool, but I’ve always looked askance at the kitschy-witchy version of history that’s so often used to market Salem, Massachusetts to tourists. The hyped-up Halloween overload was enough to put me off visiting Salem for years.
And yet, I knew New England well enough to suspect that there was a lot more to Salem than that. So last summer, months before the October crowds would arrive, I enlisted a Salem-loving friend to help me explore the less-haunted side of this North Shore city.
I found that it has a walkable and attractive downtown, a scenic waterfront, a plethora of photo-ready historic homes, and what feels like a ratio of one adorable independent shop to every permanent resident. Most appealingly, it has a long and lasting connection to the sea, which shows in everything from the historic sites to the art on view around town. Yes, there are a lot of tea towels featuring cartoon witches riding brooms. But that’s an easy surface to skim away, and beneath it Salem is a real city, inhabited by real people, that also happens to be a worthy day trip destination.
Do & See:
Salem is packed with museums, themed tours, and other tourist attractions. But I wanted to experience the city in a more laid-back, unorganized way.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site, 193 Derby Street. This part of Salem’s waterfront includes the 1819 Custom House and the half-mile Derby Wharf. Walk to the end to get a feel for Salem’s ties to the water and a close-up view of the short, square Derby Wharf Light Station.
Old Town Hall, 32 Derby Square. Take a minute to admire this lovely Federal Style building, Salem’s earliest surviving municipal structure.
Lady of Salem Figureheads, Various locations. Look up and see how many of these brightly painted figureheads you can spot while walking around downtown Salem. This public art exhibit, intended to honor the city’s seafaring past, began in 2013.
Artists’ Row, 24 New Derby Street. Formerly a marketplace, currently an outdoor gallery-slash-shopping plaza featuring local artisans. Open from April to November.
McIntire Historic District, Essex Street and Summer Street. Follow the map in the link for an easy-to-follow walking tour of a perfectly pretty historic neighborhood. Look out for the plaques on the houses and the markers in the sidewalks.
Witch Trials Memorial, Liberty Street. A solemn and tasteful reminder of the real people who lost their lives as a result of the witch trials of 1692.
Eat & Drink:
There are many dining choices in Salem; this is where we stopped for quick and healthy food in convenient locations.
Jaho Coffee & Tea, 197 Derby Street. A bustling local coffee shop by the waterfront that also offers a wide variety of food (and beer and wine.)
Gulu Gulu Cafe, 247 Essex Street. Serving sandwiches, salads, and crepes, along with a range of coffees and drinks, this comfortable spot is located in the lively shopping area of Essex Street.
Browse & Buy:
You could spend a full weekend simply trying to hit every one of Salem’s numerous shops. I did not make it to even half of them, partly because of time constraints and partly because I was deliberately avoiding the most obvious purveyors of witch-kitch. But here are some of the stores I liked best among the ones visited.
Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie, 122 Derby Street. Marketed as “America’s Oldest Candy Company,” this simple shop feels like a sweet throwback to candy stores of yore. If their signature products – sugary Gibralters and molasses-y Blackjacks – are not your idea of candy, they also sell more familiar chocolates, fudge, and all manner of colorful sugary treats.
The Happy Sunflower, 78 Wharf Street. A cute selection of frivolous yet tempting items, located on Pickering Wharf. One of the few Salem gift stores to emphasize the nautical side of the city.
The Coven’s Cottage, 190 Essex Street. Witchy, yes, but not in the history-as-kitch-for-tourists way that pervades so much of Salem. This shop is serious (no photos allowed) and their wares are beautiful and fascinating to look at even if you’re not in the market to buy.
Witch City Wicks, 302 Essex Street. A beautiful, minimal collection of locally-made soy candles.
Wicked Good Books, 215 Essex Street. A bright and inviting new and used bookstore. Also sells cute gifts, including totes featuring the store’s adorable cat logo.
Emporium 32, 6 Central Street. A classier, modern version of a velvet-loving, Dead Can Dance-listening, 1994 high school graduate’s dream boutique.
Roost & Company, 40 Front Street. A huge variety of pretty little finds like cards, notebooks, housewares, and the sort of gifts you’ll want to just buy for yourself.
Circle of Stitches, 66 Wharf Street. A knitting store that’s not just yarn; they also have a tempting and affordable collection of crystals.
There are many parking options in Salem, and the central part of the city is so walkable that any one of them will probably suit your needs for a typical day trip. But I parked in the garage at 10 Congress Street (the upper levels have no time limit) and found it very convenient since I wanted to start my day by the waterfront. It was also very cheap. But keep in mind that I visited in Summer; in October, prices for parking are much higher!
Service here, as in many towns accustomed to being periodically overrun with tourists, can be indifferent or slow. As long as you’re expecting that, it shouldn’t detract from the overall experience.