When it comes to fall destinations, few can beat Salem, Massachusetts. Dubbed “Witch City,” there’s more history and supernatural speculation here than just about anywhere else in the country. That said, it’s not all witches and ghosts. Salem is a beautiful seaside town with excellent food, beautiful architecture and stunning hotels and bed and breakfasts. October is prime time to visit, with the Haunted Happenings celebration in full swing. There are parades, film nights, haunted houses… and huge crowds, which might be your thing. If not, I suggest planning your trip now, but taking after things mellow out. Trust me, it’ll still be fun, and waaaay less crazy.
For those not within driving distance, your best bet is flying into Boston. From there, you can rent a car, or make it really easy on yourself by taking the train. In fact, if you’re planning a long weekend in Boston, Salem makes for a perfect day trip. The commuter rail at North Station will take you into Salem in about 30 minutes, dropping you within walking distance of just about everything. You may also take a ferry from Boston between May and October.
Where to stay
I love finding interesting places to stay while visiting historic towns. Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast, a beautifully restored Georgian Federal home, dates back to 1808. Owner Bob Shae, a native of Salem, keeps inn in stunning form (and has tons of recs for visitors!). In addition to a fantastic breakfast, there’s a 700-square-foot ocean view terrace; off-street parking, and in the event you don’t want to drive, they’ll send someone to pick you up at the ferry or train station. It’s in the heart of everything, but on a quiet street near the seaside (and across the street from the historic House of Seven Gables).
For more of a hotel experience, check out The Merchant. The building dates back to 1784, and in the years since has served as a home, a tavern, an office building and a rare book shop. Today, this historic, 11-room hotel mixes modern, fun, vibrant character with the building’s old school charm. Spend the night in the same room George Washington did in 1789 (hint: it’s the room named after him).
Where to eat
One of the most beloved eateries has to be Red’s Sandwich Shop. Located in the historic London Coffee House (built in 1698), this place does classic diner fare and they do it well. Fried egg sandwiches; omelets; and lots and lots of sandwiches.
For a modern twist on diner grub, hit up the Ugly Mug. Think breakfast poutine; or their take on chicken and waffles, made with duck confit and candied pecans atop a waffle, served with a bourbon maple syrup reduction. Kids and adults will love their soda fountain drinks, from the traditional New York Egg Cream to the unconventional Spring Sprang, made with elderflower, ginger syrup with a splash of lemon.
Who doesn’t like pizza? You’ll find delicious Neapolitan-style pies at Bambolina restaurant. Try the Autumn Harvest, made with roasted cauliflower, aged provolone, truffle essence, mascarpone, topped with a soft poached egg. Their simple margherita is fantastic as well.
Good bar food, cocktails and classic arcade games? Count me in! Bit Bar offers next level (video game puns!) mac and cheese, burgers, tater tots and salads alongside your childhood favorite games. You really can’t go wrong with the food, so I guess the real question is which to play first: Centipede, Q-Bert, Miss Pac-Man or Galaga.
I love a good brewery, but being a bit of a lightweight means many taprooms pour stronger stuff than I want. Enter Notch Brewing, who specializes in session beers, aka beers that won’t knock you on your Massachusetts. A session beer is 4.5% ABV or lower, but that doesn’t mean they’re not delicious. Try a perfected European brews, like the Polotmavy Czech Amber Lager; or the Dog and Pony NE IPA. Bring your own food, order from one of the food trucks that often pops up, or enjoy a delicious Bavarian pretzel from their onsite kitchen.
Of course, no trip to Salem is complete without a little seafood. Visit the Lobster Shanty for a great seafood spot that’s masquerading as a dive bar. Awesome clam chowder, spicy crab cakes, sammiches and more.
What to do
There’s something really special about the architecture here. Let’s face it—there’s not too many places in the USA with buildings date back to the 17th Century. Soak up much of the town’s architectural history in the McIntire Historic District, named after famed local architect, Samuel McIntire. Head out on the McIntire Historic District self-guided walking trail, which is one-mile (about one hour’s walk). The trail is marked on posts and sidewalk plaques by one of McIntire’s favorite designs – a sheaf of wheat, symbolizing the prosperity of Salem and the new United States. Here’s a map if you’re interested.
You should make a special trip to visit the House of Seven Gables, the place that inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book of the same title. The seaside mansion was built in 1668 for Captain John Turner I. Admission includes a 40-minute guided tour of the mansion, a visit to the Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthplace, a stroll through the Colonial Revival seaside gardens and more.
You can’t talk about Salem without mentioning their infamous witch hunt. There are all sorts of museums, shops, tours and more capitalizing on the witch thing. It’s fun to dig into the kitschiness of it all, but it’s worth mentioning that 20 innocent people died during these 1692 trials. Steep yourself in the complicated history at Salem Witch Trial Museum. The main exhibition features thirteen life-size stage sets, figures, lighting and a stirring narration.
Another notable locale is the Jonathan Corwin House (1640–1718), aka the Witch House. Corwin served on the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which ultimately sent nineteen to the gallows. It’s the only structure still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Salem witch trials.
The Salem Witch Memorial is a must. Dedicated in 1992 by Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, it’s a somber, understated place to remember and honor those executed in 1692.
Okay, now that we got the serious historical stuff out of the way, let’s talk about fun stuff! I love a good walking tour—it’s a way to get the lay of the land, learn interesting facts from locals, and get your 10,000 steps in. For a great overview of the city, check out Hocus Pocus Tours. This 90-minute walking tour delves into Salem’s infamous Witch Trial Hysteria, the life and times of Nathaniel Hawthorne, plus fun stops showcasing sites from the cult classic Halloween flick, Hocus Pocus. If you’re a fan, you know it takes place in Salem and yes, it was filmed here.
Looking for something spookier? Book a ghost tour with Salem Historical Tours. This lantern lit stroll features engaging guides creatively convey Salem’s authentic haunted history. Delve into Salem’s macabre past guides regale you with true tales of documented paranormal activity, chilling cemeteries and centuries old murder. Bwahahaha!
And if spooky isn’t your thing, get out on the water with Mahi Harbor Cruises. From May – October, you can opt for one of their specialty charter cruises. Think daytime trips with live music, sunset cocktail cruises, and fall foliage and lighthouse cruises.