The Good: Good food, Good location, A lot to do, Wonderful mood, Interesting shopping
The Bad: Narrow streets in sections
The Basics: Salem, Massachusetts: site of Witch Trials in the 17th Century is now the best tourist destination I visit annually!
Even with Halloween behind us, I find myself thinking of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is considered the Halloween Capital of the United States, but it's so much more than that. For me, for the past seven years, Salem has been my destination of choice, the only place I go for actual vacations (as opposed to business travel). I make an effort to travel to Salem once a year (at least) and it has become a place that centers me and rejuvenates my spirit. And, truth be told, I've only been in Salem once on a Halloween and it was mostly just crowded, so I would recommend visitors to this wonderful city avoid the days immediately around Halloween to get the most out of a trip there.
Salem, Massachusetts is approximately twenty miles north of Boston, Massachusetts in the north eastern United States. This city, which feels more like a village, is nestled up in New England in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. The north shore of the city is on the water; Salem Harbor, Collins Cove, and the Danvers River, all of which flow out into the Atlantic Ocean. This is nice because in addition to having all the trappings of a historic city with character, there are beaches and a seaside which allow those looking for a connection to water a chance to experience that as well.
Salem is by no means a big city. Indeed, the walking map of Salem that features approximately four linear miles by one and a half miles of cross streets pretty much represents the entirety of the city. The Greater Salem area is perhaps twenty miles in diameter. And while it may seem like Salem ought to be fair game for a day trip given its smaller size, that would be a mistake. Salem packs in a load of attractions within its limited space.
This city is not over industrialized or commercialized, so walking through Salem yield unique looking colonial buildings and less modern architecture. Most of the more modern places are designed to blend in with the city as opposed to stand out. So, for example, there is a Dunkin' Donuts on Washington Street made of nondescript yellow/gray brick, which allows it to blend into neighborhood nearby. This helps to preserve the colonial town feel of the city as opposed to screaming of modern commercialism.
Ease Of Local Transport/Parking
Salem is a real easy city to get into (especially with a map!); major routes like Interstate 95 pass close to Salem with clear connecting roads that are well-marked. Indeed, the only place the signs become less clear are on the very edge of Salem when markers will continue to direct travelers to Peabody or Danvers without letting them know they have entered Salem.
Getting around in Salem is easy with a car or on foot . . . for the most part. The bulk of downtown Salem is easy to get around. Streets are wide, there are plenty of signs, and there are very few one-way streets. There are crosswalks EVERYWHERE and locals and visitors are accustomed to having the right of way . . . constantly. So, this is not a great location for angry, frustrated drivers. The traffic - when there is serious traffic - tends to move very slowly because of the number of lights and low number of streets combined with the sheer volume of pedestrian traffic which forces cars to stop. Pedestrian traffic is not a seasonal thing and it does not diminish significantly at night, which is important to be aware of when traveling through Salem.
The only real exception is in the Eastern section of Salem, on Salem Harbor. Here, there are tons of one-way sidestreets - every cross-street connecting Derby and Essex on the eastern shore is a one-way. Those one-way sidestreets are narrow, parking is usually for permitted residents only and it's a pain to travel through. This is not an area to be avoided, though; it is on Salem Harbor that one finds such tourist attractions as the House of the Seven Gables, the Custom House and the Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
Outside the eastern harbor, parking is not so much a problem. There are twelve parking lots or garages within the prime walking area, though honestly, I've never used any of them. I've always managed to find on-street parking and that's worked out well. On weekends, you don't need to feed the meters, so arriving early and staking out a spot on a sidestreet can save money. As well, there is parking down at the wharf shopping area (Wharf St.) and with its highly trafficked area, no one seems to notice when one leaves a car there for the day (especially if you buy something early in the day at one of the shops!). The industrious traveler ought to be able to park in Salem without spending much on parking; the most I've ever paid is $1.00 to feed a meter for an hour to keep my spot on the safe side of the law.
Staying in Salem seems to relegate visitors to expensive bed and breakfasts. I know of no major hotels within Salem. I've always stayed nearby at the Comfort Inn in Danvers (reviewed here!). I'm checking out other lodging options on my next visit. Because of its proximity to Boston, Salem lodging is pretty expensive, especially in autumn.
Salem, Massachusetts is well-known as a tourist city and it maintains that reputation with a slew of wonderful attractions. It has taken me seven years, but I think I've finally hit most of the major attractions and here are some of the most worthwhile:
The House Of The Seven Gables - Located near the harbor with parking of its own, the House of the Seven Gables is the oldest mansion in New England that has not been destroyed and rebuilt. It has a fun tour which takes about an hour and takes tourists through the entire house. The views from the windows are pretty nice and hearing about the history of the house - especially as it relates to Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel with the same name - is interesting. The tour costs adults $10 (it might be more now) and it's worth it when you're getting tired of doing other things in Salem (this was one of the last attractions I actually visited),
Salem Witch Museum - A historic site that explores the effects of the witchcraft trials on Salem and the Massachusetts colony. This is another museum one needs to pay for (approximately $7.00 for adults) and it's easy to see why it is the most visited museum in Salem. This has a lot of information on Wicca and the hysteria against witches,
Witch Dungeon Museum - I preferred this one to the Salem Witch Museum. The Witch Dungeon Museum has a live recreation of one of the witch trials, the trial of Sarah Good. The actors involved were decent, the show was insightful and the tour of the building was wonderful. It's a pretty creepy location and it gives on an idea of the suffering the accused went through. This, too, costs something, but it's been years since I went there, so I do not have a current cost. This is completely worth the money, though,
Witch History Museum - There's also the Witch History Museum, which was one of the first ones I went to. This has a great deal of historic information on the Witch Hysteria in New England and details how a good number of the accused were killed. This is another paid tour, but one gets their money's worth here,
Witch House - Finally, there's the Witch House, which is actually the home of one of the judges from the witch trials. This paid tour is one that combines a lot of information about the 17th century, the legal practices, and the Witch Hysteria and trials. This location is nice because it's the only one with direct ties to the Witch Trials that did not burn down in the big fire Salem had (i.e. it's the only original Witch Trial house that is not a rebuilt replica of the original!). This has a great tour and the guides truly seem to get into it (they are all in costume!),
Ghost Tours - Here I wish I could be more helpful; there are three ghost tours throughout Salem at night: Derby Square, Spellbound, and Haunted Footsteps. I've taken all three over the years and substantively they are all remarkably similar, as they are in price. Two of the three were fun with great guides and a decent tour. If memory serves, it was Spellbound's "Vampire and Ghost Hunt Tour" that was the letdown because it only mentioned Vampires at the beginning when we were told "You're not going to see any Vampires tonight." As I recall, we spent that ghost tour looking at one of the other tours tromping around Salem and saying to one another, "We should have taken that one." The others were much more satisfying; one actually hit the cemetery at dusk, which allowed a limited time in it (city law prevents people from being in the cemetery after dark). Ghost tours may seem silly and they are, I suppose, but they are fun and they are distinctly Salem,
and you can't go wrong visiting the Salem Maritime National Historic Site - It's free and there are clean bathrooms there. So, if you're in Salem on a shopping trip most of the day, this is a good place to hit for clean bathrooms. And yeah, there's a free walk-through museum or a modestly priced ($3.00) tour of the local tall ship (the Friendship). It's an informative tour and a great excuse - outside shopping - to stay on the waterfront.
In virtually every guidebook, Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie is listed as an "Attraction" as opposed to a shopping destination. I'm putting it here because I've never bought anything there. Yes, shameful as it is to admit, every year, I walk in, look around, check out the oldest piece of candy in America (a gibraltar) and I wander out. Hey, if you're into looking at an old jar filled with a mysterious liquid that appears to be an ancient candy, this is a great attraction! But please, if you go there; buy something. That way, I won't feel guilty just going in and looking!
There are only three places I ever eat in Salem (and one I've only gone to once because it was early morning and the others were not open!). There's the Dunkin' Donuts that I got breakfast at once. It's fine. It's a Dunkin' Donuts.
There's the Bangkok Paradise. It has fabulous Thai food and every trip I go there. Lunch for two has never cost me more than $15.00. Dinners are available for $25.00 for a couple, making it quite affordable as well as tasty. Seriously, it's the best Thai food I've had in the United States outside home cooked and a little place in Iowa I once found. The waitstaff is friendly, the Thai food is delicious and it's located near virtually everything in the center of the city at 90 Washington Street. No reservations are needed.
For dinner, I was clued in a few years ago to the Lyceum Bar and Grill. Dinners there are classy, a little more pricey - dinner for two with drinks and desserts ran in the $70 range after the tip -, but worth it. The chefs at the Lyceum are world renowned - I ended up there because my traveling companion at the time saw a special on the Lyceum on the Food Network - and they did amazing things with salmon! The desserts are out of this world as well. It's a classy location and a real treat for anyone who loves good food! Reservations are recommended, I don't know if they are required, but given how packed the place can get, I advise it.
It occurs to me that I once had lunch at a pretty vile place down near the Wharf, but I don't remember what place it was (yea repression!). I'll update after my next trip there. Seriously, Bangkok Paradise and the Lyceum are all the dining options one truly needs in Salem!
The reason I continue to return and return to Salem is the shopping. I don't have a ton of money, but I sure find things to spend it on in Salem! Salem is full of wonderful little shops with candles, incense, and witch-related knickknacks. But some of my favorite places in Salem to shop include:
Harrison's Comics - On Essex Street, this is a geek's heaven! Filled with comic books, toys, maquettes, trading cards, and other science fiction and fantasy collectibles this is just one of those fun stores for a geek to go into. What makes Harrison's different from every other comic book shop in the world? Size, I suppose. It's big and it has a lot of hard-to-find collectibles that will keep a geek happy for years,
Maria's Sweet Somethings - On Front Street, this is a Mecca for chocolate lovers. Forget Hershey Park, forget the hundreds of Russell Stover's Outlets throughout the midWest, forget about wherever Nestles makes their stuff, Maria's Sweet Somethings is the best chocolatier I've ever visited. They make gourmet chocolates, have an assortment of marzipan and do amazing things with ice cream. This is a place that you cannot go into - as a candy lover - without money. There's something for everyone in this amazing little chocolate shop,
and virtually any shop down at Pickering Wharf - These shops are a great collection of antiques, artworks, and witch paraphernalia. There are over twenty shops packed into the little loop of Wharf Street and they all have their charm and things to covet.
For those looking for souvenirs, it's hard to do better than Salemdipity.
Salem, Massachusetts is a colonial city with enough modern aspects to keep it feeling fun and hip, while still being historic and educational. This place combines the best of both worlds allowing visitors a great view in autumn with all the trees and leaves, but somewhere private to escape to as well. There's great shopping and beaches for those looking for fun or museums, art galleries and historic sites for families looking for an educational trip.
And honestly, I've gone to Salem when I've had almost no money and even poor and alone, Salem is a fun place to walk through. With someone, it's a lot of fun. With a loved one, it's one of the most romantic and spirited places in the United States.
For other destination reviews, please visit my reviews of:
Carlsbad Caverns National Park
The Spam Museum
The Mall Of America
For other travel reviews, please click here to visit my index page!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.