Last Updated on October 2, 2023
I will admit, I’m not much into the wizardry or ghost scene. So, when I visited a friend in Salem, MA, the witch and dungeon tours and kitschy shops on the main pedestrian strip did not interest me.
The more than two million visitors who arrive each year to do just that, however, prove these attractions are worth the trip, especially in October when almost half of that visiting population mobs the town 20 minutes north of Boston.
I was drawn to the area’s historic homes, picturesque views from Salem harbor, world class art museum, and wonderful restaurants, and they did not disappoint!
History of Salem
As the second established settlement in New England, Salem was founded four years before Boston. Roger Conant brought a group of settlers, mainly Puritans, from nearby Cape Ann in 1626.
The area, known as Naumkeag, had been a Native American fishing site for millennia. The townsfolk renamed it Salem, derived from the Hebrew word for peace. That didn’t prevent them from violently displacing the Native American people who’d peacefully occupied the land.
The Massachusetts Bay Company and Captain John Endicott brought more inhabitants to the colony in 1628. By the 1630s and continuing for two hundred years, Salem’s ships held great importance in worldwide trade.
Since the Witch Trials in 1692 tend to dominate the reputation of Salem, I had assumed they lasted a long time. To my surprise, the trials were carried out for less than a year and a half. In that time, 20 people were executed and five more died in prison.
Dozens more were accused and jailed. When the governor’s wife was accused of witchcraft, the governor shut down the trials and the hysteria abated.
Peabody Essex Museum
The Peabody Essex Museum essentially started with the founding of the East India Marine Society in 1799. The charter of this society of ship captains and traders provided for a “cabinet of natural and artificial curiosities” from around the world. This collection moved into the East India Marine Hall in 1825 and continued to grow.
Today, PEM includes three campuses and 35 buildings focusing on art, culture, science, and history. The main site is the museum in the center of Salem which includes several galleries filled with art and historical items. Over a dozen historic houses reside in the neighborhood.
The glass ceiling of the two-story open atrium provides easy access to the galleries as well as a view of the Yin Yu Tang Home and tables and chairs to enjoy the café onsite. The East India Marine Hall still anchors the museum and holds several well-preserved ship mastheads.
Next to the Hall, a gallery displays a sampling of the museum’s offerings, including paintings, sculptures, and furnishings. Along the balcony encircling the room, Salem Stories showcases cultural artifacts from one of the original cabinets of curiosities to a poster of the ever-popular 1993 movie, Hocus Pocus.
Along with intriguing temporary exhibitions, PEM also displays items from its permanent collections that I would happily revisit.
In On This Ground: Being and Belonging in America, the vibrant dynamism of the Native American art stood out to me in contrast to the stodgy stiffness of the colonial paintings. As opposed to many museum collections of historical artifacts, this exhibit displayed contemporary Native American art including intriguing paintings and photography, modern portraits and bold fashion design.
Recollections of My Return to Blue Lake caught my eye for its flowing cerulean blue silk and unique design.The artist, Patricia Michaels of Taos Pueblo, brought Native fashion to popular view by reaching the finale of the 2012 “Project Runway” season.
In the South Asian Art Gallery, paintings by Maqbool Fida Husain depicting the Mahabharata captivated me. The angular lines and somber colors portrayed the conflicts that Husain saw as a metaphor for the history of the Indian subcontinent.
He completed 29 paintings in 1971 for the 11th Bienal de São Paulo, a prestigious international art festival. The Mahabharata, the longest epic poem known, documents the feud of family factions and devastating battles.
Nestled within PEM, the Yin Yu Tang provides visitors with the experience of walking through a home built in southeast China in the 1790s. Videos show how the house was dismantled piece by piece and then reassembled at the museum.
The “Hall of Plentiful Shelter” safeguarded the Huang family for eight generations. The central courtyard and large gathering rooms provided a sense of community while the individual chambers with latticed windows ensured privacy. As I wandered around it, I noticed the quiet, careful movements of the other visitors as if in respect of entering someone’s home.
After exploring the PEM, I walked about a half mile down Essex Street to the Ropes Mansion. Unfortunately, it was only open on weekends for tours so I didn’t get to see the inside.
The garden, however, was open and worth my effort. Three unmarried Ropes sisters inherited the 1720s home in 1893 and moved from Cincinnati to live there. The house is known to many as one of the settings for the 1993 Halloween classic, Hocus Pocus.
The Ropes sisters renovated the home into a colonial revival mansion and commissioned John Robinson to design the garden in 1912. The garden was in full bloom on that September 2023 day I visited and bursting with color.
Robinson’s original notes still guide the planting every year, including its 5,000 annual flowers. Century-old rhododendrons and a copper beech tree still grace the garden grounds.
Essex Street Pedestrian Mall
The Peabody Essex Museum sits along the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall. As I strolled along the cobblestone and brick lane, I could imagine women walking with their hoop skirts dragging along the pavement holding the arms of men in waistcoats. Of course, the history of the beginnings of our country can be found all throughout the town of Salem.
Most of the shops along the mall seemed to be related to witchcraft, with plenty of souvenirs to be found. Restaurants and cafés were interspersed and I couldn’t resist checking out Kakawa Chocolate House.
The colorful mural of a skull and flowers on the front window proclaimed: “chocolate to die for.” As I would die for chocolate, I couldn’t resist the temptation for a heavenly gluten-free flourless cake with melted chocolate in the middle.
The Historic Wharves
A walk down Essex Street toward the water brought me to the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, the first such site established in the United States in 1938. The nine-acre national park includes ten historic buildings and four wharves.
During the heyday of shipping in Salem in the late 1700s, dozens of wharves lined the coast for ships to dock. Few of these structures remain. The Derby Wharf still juts out into Salem Harbor for over 2,000 feet.
I joined dozens of other visitors to stroll on a warm, sunny day out to the light station at the end. A replica of Friendship, the three-masted ship built in Salem in 1797, also rests in the harbor.
Along Derby Street, several historic buildings related to the harbor business still stand, including the Customs House, West India Goods Store and the homes of prominent merchants.
The House of Seven Gables
Less than a half mile up the coast, The House of the Seven Gables draws many Nathaniel Hawthorne fans to its doors. Although I had never read the novel based on this home, I enjoyed touring the amazing 1668 mansion built by captain and merchant John Turner I.
The Turners inhabited the house for three generations before selling it to another captain, Samuel Ingersoll, in 1782. Hawthorne moved back to his birth town of Salem in 1825 and began visiting Susanna, his cousin and Ingersoll’s daughter.
The restoration and preservation of the structure became the goal of Caroline Emmerton, a local philanthropist. Emmerton bought the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion in 1908 and hired Joseph Everett Chandler, a Colonial Revivalist architect. She wished to restore the home to its 1668 grandeur to attract tourists and used the profits to fund the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association which helped immigrant families.
The tour also includes the Retire Beckett House, Hooper-Hathaway House, and Hawthorne’s birthplace – homes purchased by The Association and then moved to their campus between 1911 and 1958. The lawn offers a peaceful place to view Salem Harbor.
The iconic New England garden showcases manicured flower and herb beds, spruce hedges, a wisteria arbor and a lovely rose trellis.
Yes, Salem is best known for its infamous Salem Witch Trials and its many witch-related tourist sights. However, the town also boasts a rich history of art and commerce that shouldn’t be overlooked when looking for a lovely weekend travel destination.