Must See Historic Sites In Spooky Salem, A Wicked Day Trip From Boston
If you want to bask in the festive fall spirit in New England, there's no better place than witchy Salem. While enjoying the fall decor and fall foliage, you can learn about Salem's creepy past as the "witch capital" of the United States.
Salem embraces rather than shies away from its notorious past, when the infamous 17th century Witch Trials defined the town. Salem is replete with whimsical magic shops, all things haunted horror, and ghostly tour options. Many of Salem's must see destinations are devoted to its witchy history. If you're like me, you may wish that witches were real.
But Salem is also a beautiful and historic seaside town. It boasts beautiful 17th century Colonial and Georgian architecture and delicious seafood. Salem is an eminently walkable town, where you'll be plunged back in time and history to bewitching effect.
Overview and History of Salem
Tucked into the east coast of Massachusetts, Salem is one of New England's most historic towns. Salem was established as a port city in 1626, with Roger Conant as its founding father. Salem gained success in trade and commerce. Salem's frigates opened the Far East trade routes, producing America's first millionaires.
Salem's claim to fame, however, is its witch attractions. Salem was the site of the most famous witch trials in the United States. In 1692, several Salem girls fell ill. Because of their strange behavior, the townspeople feared they were possessed by the devil.
The girls accused three townspeople (Titubia, Sarah Good, and Sara Osborne) of casting evil spells on them. The first trial set off an avalanche of accusations. At first, only social outcasts were vilified and charged. They were accused with little evidence -- odd behavior, visions, unusual birthmarks.
As collective mass hysteria grew, the mob mentality spawned the term "witch hunt." Ultimately, more than 150 people were accused of practicing witchcraft, with 19 executions mostly by hanging.
In 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible made the Salem Witch Trials infamous. The Crucible is a partially fictionalized tale of the trials. Miller wrote the play as an allegory for McCarthyism, a time when the United States government similarly persecuted "communists" with scant evidence.
In the late 1970s, Salem became known as the “witch capital” of the United States.
Today, you can find witch decals on police cars, shops offering "magical" goods, haunted house tours, and museums dedicated to witches and magic. For fans of Halloween, or anything “witchy,” Salem is the ultimate town to visit in fall.
Best Witchy Things To See and Do In Salem
So what should you see and do in a day or weekend in Salem? I was recently in Boston and took a side trip to Salem. Salem is really one of the easiest day trips from Boston. Here are Salem's top must see sites and destinations, especially if you're interested in Salem's spooky history.
If you can't make it to Salem right now, click here to take an online virtual tour of all the sites associated with Salem and the Witch Trials. If you need another witchy destination on your US bucket list, click here for my guide to filming locations in New Orleans for American Horror Story's Coven.
1. Essex Street
Charming Essex Street is a historic cobblestoned district, with the original brick Old Town Hall. Old Town Hall dates from 1816. The second floor still stands as a public hall and the first floor is used as a public art space. The exterior of the building was featured in the popular Disney Halloween cult film, Hocus Pocus.
In need of a broomstick, cauldron or spellbook? You’ll find all those goodies and more along Essex Street. The pretty street, effectively a pedestrian mall, is lined with souvenir shops, bookstores, cafes, and nooks with magical goodies (some are campy, of course). The Coven's Cottage is especially nice.
If you want to get into the Salem spirit with a psychic reading, pop into Hex, Magika, or Omen. For something non-witchy, don't miss Oak + Pine, a simply gorgeous store with household items and plants.
There's even a statute of Elizabeth Montgomery riding a broom on Essex Street. It honors her character Samantha from the 1960s TV show Bewitched.
2. Explore the Derby Waterfront District
The Derby Waterfront District has classic New England charm. You'll find boats in the bay, the lighthouse standing watch, and seafood restaurants. This is a good spot to have dinner and watch the sunset among the sails. Try Finz Seafood & Grill.
You can walk along the water to the Derby Wharf Light Station to visit the light house. Alternatively, walk the opposite direction to Salem Pioneer Village. It's a recreation of a 1630s colonial village, a living museum where you can see homes of both Native American and British settlers.
Address for Salem Pioneer Village: 98 West Avenue
3. The House of the Seven Gables | Turner-Ingersoll Mansion
Are you a literary fan? If so, you should pay a visit to the House of the Seven Gables. Built in 1668 by Captain John Turner, it's one of the oldest mansions still standing in the United States. Three generations of Turners lived in the home, until John Turner III went bankrupt.
The house was sold to another mariner, Samuel Ingersoll, in 1782. Upon Ingersoll’s death, daughter Susanna inherited the mansion. She was often visited by her younger cousin, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne immortalized the house in his 1851 novel of the same name. Inside, you'll find a recreation of the secret staircase from the novel.
The mansion is the perfect destination for fans of early Colonial architecture and Georgian interiors. It's a prime example of the prosperity of early Salem, with enviable waterfront views. The house where Nathaniel Hawthorne was born is also on the property.
Visitors take a guided tour through the property (no photos though). And there's a Colonial Revival garden to boot.
Address: 115 Derby Street
4. Wander around the McIntire Historic District | Ropes Museum
The McIntire Historic District is another beautiful neighborhood in Salem. It's filled with rare historic 17th century homes that look right out of a period film or history book. The homes are wonderfully restored and well kept.
There's a one mile self guided walking trail, marked with signs and plaques. The McIntire District includes the Phillips House (a historical museum), Hamilton Hall, The Pickering House, and my favorite, the elegant Ropes Mansion and Garden.
Dating from the 1720s, the Ropes Mansion is part of the Peabody Essex Museum. The Colonial Revival style garden is a charming place to pause for photos. It's open to the public free of charge.
Embodying the spirit of Salem, the Ropes Mansion comes complete with its own ghost story. In 1839, Abigail Ropes died after her dress caught fire near the fireplace. Legend holds that her ghost roams the house. The Ropes Museums starred as Allison's house in Disney hit Halloween film Hocus Pocus.
Address: click here for a self guided walking trail
Address Ropes Museum: 318 Essex Street
5. Visit the Peabody Essex Museum
If you need a dose of culture with your pumpkins and ghouls, be sure to check out the Peabody Essex Museum. This world class museum originated under the East India Marine Society. Members would bring back objects from their far seas adventures.
Spread over 30 galleries, the museum has exhibits on maritime art and history, American art, decorative art, and Asian art. There's a stunning atrium to have tea in between gallery stops and rotating art exhibitions. Currently, the museum is featuring an exhibition on the Witch Trials, on display until April 2021.
The museum also has several dedicated historic houses that are worth a visit. The highlight is the Yin You Tang house. It's a 200 year old house dating back to the Qing Dynasty. The museum bought the house in China and reassembled it in Salem.
On the Crownship-Bentley Lawn (one block from the main entrance) check out a magnificently spooky site specific installation, What The Birds Know. It was commissioned by the museum and created by renowned artist Patrick Dougherty. The piece, nicknamed Stickwork, was created with saplings gathered by local volunteers.
Address: 121 Essex Street
6. Salem Custom House
Built in 1819, the Salem Custom House is one of the older buildings in town, with history and ocean views galore. The Custom House was a principal place of business in Salem. It's now a designated historical landmark.
Author Nathaniel Hawthorne grew up in Salem and worked for 3 years in the Custom House. You can see his office inside. Hawthorne's stint in the Custom House inspired his famous novel The Scarlet Letter. In it, a Custom House narrator tells the story of Hester Prynne, a virtuous woman forced to wear a scarlet letter as punishment for adultery.
Interestingly, Hawthorne added a “w” to his name to distance himself from another famous Salem resident, Judge John Hathorne. Hathorne was the principal judge in the Salem Witch Trials and dubbed the “Hanging Judge.”
Address: 176 Derby Street
7. Salem Witch Museum
The Salem Witch Museum isn't your standard museum. It's an interactive introduction to the 1692 witch hysteria, housed in an old church.
Thirteen life size staged scenes give you the historical backdrop. There aren't any real historical artifacts, but you get a good history lesson. You can also take a 15 minute guided tour through the exhibit Witches: Evolving Perceptions.
Address: 19 1/2 Washington Square North
8. Salem Witch House | Jonathan Corwin House
For more authenticity, head to the Salem Witch House. "Witch House" is the colloquial name for the Jonathan Corwin House. It's one of Salem's top destinations and most famous homes.
Built in 1642, the mansion is the only surviving home with direct ties to the Salem Witch Trials. The house is known as a "first period" house because, with its steeply pitched roofs, its characteristic of homes built by the first settlers.
No witches lived there. Rather, it was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, another judge presiding over the infamous trials. Legend holds that Corwin sometimes used his own house as an interrogation room (so many were accused). But there's no solid evidence confirming the legend.
Now a museum, the storied house is filled with 18th century period furniture and relics to explore on a self guided tour. Upstairs are two bedrooms that seem frozen in time.
Address: 310 Essex Street
9. First Church in Salem
This beautiful Gothic church is right in keeping with Salem's historic vibe. It's the oldest church in Salem. The church was founded by 30 Puritan members of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The current building was constructed between 1834-36.
The beautiful First Church was inspired by Gothic buildings in England. It's been described as "one of the most outstanding stone masonry Gothic Revival ecclesiastical structures in the United States." It's a Unitarian Universalist church welcoming all worshippers.
Address: 316 Essex Street
10. Old Burying Point Cemetery
Old Burying Point Cemetery is Salem's oldest cemetery and one of the oldest in the United States. It was first opened in 1637. There are memorial benches for those executed in the Salem Witch Trials. Most victims were hung. But Giles Corey was "pressed to death" with rocks.
You'll find Corey's grave here, as well of that of alleged witch Martha Corey. This is also the final resting place of the infamous Judge Hathorne and Judge Bartholomew Gedney.
Address: Charter Street
How To Get To Salem Massachusetts
There are a few different options when it comes to getting to Salem from Boston. I recommend driving, if you have access to a car.
Driving or Uber : 30-45 minutes
MBTA Commuter Rail at North Station: 30 minutes
Bus: 1 hour
Boston Harbor Cruises Ferry at 1 Long Wharf: 50-60 minutes
The train station is a short 5-10 minute walk to the center of Salem.
I hope you've enjoyed my travel guide to Salem. If you love New England, you might also enjoy these travel guides:
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