Should You Visit Salem MA?
As a long-term lover of Salem Massachusetts I often find myself justifying my continued interest in the city. Unfortunately, my inability to think on my feet usually means that my response to, “Oh, you’re into Salem,” is usually dull, uninformative, and a stuttering mess.Yet still, every couple months or so, the itch to return to the Witch City emerges and I pack up the car, load up Spotify with Omnia, and head toward Boston. So I thought today I would do my absolute best to justify why you should visit Salem MA, even if you’ve been before, even if it’s not quite what you expect it to be, and yes, even if it has little to do with The Salem Witch Trials. To begin, let’s jump into why you may want to steer clear of Salem, then we’ll progress into the myriad reasons I think Salem’s still worth loving.
Why You Shouldn’t Visit Salem MA
Salem is Basically Shuttered for Most of the Year
The first and, in my opinion, least persuasive argument for not wanting to visit Salem is a consequence of the city’s success in branding itself as Halloween-central. Be honest, when you think Salem, you think Autumn. I used to as well. Unfortunately, the popularity of Salem during the Halloween season is a bit of a double-edged sword. Many attractions that operate through the late summer to November, shutter for the rest of the year. Why? Well, the crowds just aren’t there.
Fortunately, there are tons of attractions, museums, restaurants, and much more that do indeed operate year-round. There are even a few witch-themed attractions that maintain this calendar as well. So, if this is your big reason for not wanting to visit Salem MA in any other time of the year, trust me, there is tons to do year-round. The one exception I would mention here is the dead of winter – not because there’s nothing to do, but because the winters in Salem are a notoriously frigid, icy affair. But, if that’s your thing, there are few better places in the North Shore area for seaside chilliness than Salem.
Finding an Authentic Witchcraft Experience Is Somewhat Difficult
I’m probably going to get around to making an entire video on this topic someday, but for now I’ll just say that this is also a somewhat valid criticism. Putting aside the Salem Witch Trials for now (I’ll cover that next), tapping into Salem’s modern-day witchcraft community outside of commerce is actually pretty challenging. So if you’re hoping to spend a week visiting coven gatherings, attending Ostara ceremonies, or dancing in the moonlight with your fellow Pagans, you’re going to need to do a bit of sniffing before you find the folks who’ll join you in such revelries.
But, again, this criticism falls flat when you propose this: Even if it is somewhat difficult to root out the authentic pagan experience in Salem, point me to another New England city where the vibrancy of the community is one-tenth of what it is in the Witch City. It may not be perfect and it may need improvement, but it’s the best we’ve got.
Not where Salem Witch Trials Happened Really
I’ll close out the criticisms with the one I find to be the most persuasive and, to be brutally frank, the one that Salem itself does its best to hide: The Salem Witch Trials and modern-day Salem are loosely connected at best. There’s actually a whole lot of history that goes into why this is the case, but here are the bullet points:
The Contemporary Locations of The Salem Witch Trials
- Most of the hearings and people associated with the Trials actually occurred/lived in the towns surrounding modern-day Salem, not Salem itself. At the time of the Trials, Salem was split between the rural, agricultural Salem Village and the more modern, urban Salem Town. These were two entirely distinct locations, who expressed a fair amount of vitriol with each other (which was actually a major factor in why the Trials occurred in the first place). Salem Village is where the vast majority of the events in The Salem Witch Trials took place. The area was renamed years later and largely encompasses modern Danvers, just a bit north of present-day Salem. The urban Salem Town is what we now know simply as, “Salem.”
- This means that not only are there few sites historically connected to the Trials in Salem, but there never really were many in the first place. Most of the events literally occurred somewhere else entirely.
- Still, there are a few historically relevant sites to the Trials in Salem, like the home of one of its judges where a few hearings took place, the site of the Salem Jail where prisoners were held while they awaited trial or execution, and the site of the executions.
BUT! If this fact is halting you from visiting Salem Massachusetts, there’s an argument to be made. Most of the surrounding towns where the Trials actually occurred or where their players lived have managed to restore or preserve relevant sites. And there are two memorials within Salem dedicated to the victims of the Trials. So, what better place to set up shop while you explore the entire North Shore area than Salem? You may have to do a bit of driving to see it all, but Salem is still the most active, most central place from which to explore the history of The Salem Witch Trials.
Why You Should Visit Salem MA
Now that we’ve gotten the arguments against Salem out of the way, let’s dive into why I still think the city holds a lot of magic, no matter what time of year you choose to visit.
Let’s just get the most obvious one out of the way. No one does Halloween like Salem, Massachusetts. Looking for something scary? Salem’s got haunted houses, monster museums, and ghost tours. How about something spooky fun? Check out all of the filming locations of Hocus Pocus, enjoy the yearly Halloween Carnival, or wander up the supposedly haunted hidden corridor in The House of the Seven Gables. Witchcraft more your thing? Well, check out the entire freaking town in that case. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people descend on Salem for one glorious night. And they bring with them an electricity unlike any I’ve ever experienced anywhere else. It’s an insane, glorious, beautiful thing that you have to experience at least once in your life.
The Rest of Salem’s History
I’m going to frame this in a way that most Salem historians are going to hate, but it turns out that The Salem Witch Trials is actually some of the least interesting history that’s happened in Salem. The city positioned itself perfectly at one point to be the premiere trading hub in early America. You read that correctly. I’m talking ahead of Boston, ahead of New York – the golden child of Puritan America was Salem. And then nineteen people met their deaths at the end of a rope and everything changed.
Salem then established a trade connection with China that is unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Ever wonder why there’s a giant Chinese house sticking off the back of the Peabody Essex Museum? That’s why. Go in sometime and find out more. It’s absolutely fascinating. Indeed, Salem has gone trough so many compelling eras it’s hard to distill them in this short format but the sheer volume and variety of Puritan, Maritime, Industrial, Literary, Philosophical, Occult, and Architectural history in Salem is staggering. When you visit Salem MA, start at the Visitor’s Center. They’ve got tons of information on the Peabody Essex Museum, National Maritime Site, Customs House, and much more to help you dive into Salem’s storied, fascinating past.
While we’re on the topic of architectural history, Salem houses an absolutely jaw-dropping array of early American homes. The list of influential architects and buildings in this town is too long to dive into here. But for my money there is no other town on the North Shore to get full exposure (meaning places you can actually go inside of, many of which feature stunning, original furnishings) to early American architecture, ranging from the Puritans to the Civil War and beyond, than Salem.
And many of these historic places have been converted to bed and breakfasts, so you can actually spend entire vacations surrounded by the thick history within Salem’s walls. I’m not even personally that much of an architectural guy, but the work of Samuel McIntire alone has filled many of my Salem trips with wonder, beauty, and a deeper appreciation of the American aesthetic than I likely would have otherwise found.
Plenty of Free Things to Do in Salem
Another incredible thing about Salem’s architecture is that it’s largely free to enjoy. You could, and I have, spend an entire weekend just wandering through the famous Chestnut Street district. Of course, if you want to go inside many of these buildings, that may be another issue price-wise. But there are structures, like the Salem Athenaeum, you can check out totally for free. There’s also a bevy of parks (Salem Willows Park, the Salem Common, Ropes Mansion garden, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, just to name a few) that are entirely free to enjoy.
If you’re around during Halloween, you could literally spend all day and night just wandering the city. And trust that you’d be fully entertained by the costumed revelers, street performers, vendors, outdoor concerts, and the fireworks display that take place on that gorgeous night. You could also stroll through The Salem Witch Trials or Proctor’s Ledge Memorial for a free dose of the Trials‘ history. Or why not spend a lazy afternoon wandering through the Broad Street, Old Burying Point, or Howard Street cemeteries? These do contain, after all, the real graves of some of the Trials accusers, judges, and accused and therefor represent some of the closest contemporary connections you’ll find in Salem to the Witch Trials. I could go on, but you get my point. Salem is a highly walkable, very well laid out city with tons of free stuff along the way.
But You Want Spooky
I get it. Salem has a bit of a reputation for the spooky, the macabre, the witchy. Can you visit Salem MA and get that experience outside autumn? Yes, yes, and yes. I could do an entire article on just this (and I just might). But here are just a few places to get that spooky vibe year-round:
Honestly, I’m limiting myself here, but you get the idea. Everything above is available year-round for your enjoyment. Some places operate, however, on fluctuating schedules due to inclement weather. This happens a lot in the winter. So always be sure to check websites before you go. If you hadn’t noticed, a fair number of the above are related directly to The Salem Witch Trials, so if you’re looking for this particularly spooky era of American history, don’t fret if you can’t visit in the fall – there are plenty of witchy resources and activities available all year in Salem. This ever-presence of spooky fun is yet another fantastic reason to visit Salem MA.
I saved this point for last because it is by far my personal favorite aspect of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s the single reason I keep going back time after time. Snd why I’m ultimately sure that someday I’ll be packing up my bags and headed to the Witch City for good. In a word, it’s the culture. The cumulative culture in Salem is a fascinating, perplexing, multifaceted thing. There are two specific areas of the culture in Salem that I’d like to highlight:
Salem has a very healthy and vibrant food scene both inside and outside of the city center. For our purposes, I’ll focus on anything that’s walkable from downtown. Just within this few block radius you’ve got insanely good pizza, a few coffee shops with a wide array of beverages and sweets, a couple fine dining establishments, some of the best seafood joints you’ve ever had the pleasure to visit, a vegan shop that is a must-try (Life Alive near The Witch House), a couple diners, a few pubs, some cafes, a liquor store, the country’s oldest still operating candy shop – I could go on. The food scene in Salem is an absolute delight that continues to surprise me every single time. It alone is a solid reason to visit Salem MA.
Salemites sometimes get a bad rap in our larger cultural discourse for being confrontational, exclusionary, and gruff. While I won’t deny any of these – I don’t think I could unless I’d lived in Salem for some time. I will say that you won’t find a lot of these kinds of people in the tourist areas. Why? Well, they aren’t very good for business. So, for tourists, this point is kind of irrelevant.
My experience of the people of Salem is the exact opposite of this reputation. I’ve sung along in a drunken stupor with the karaoke singers at Gulu Gulu Cafe, laughed at how horrible a game is with folks at Bit Bar, had two hour-long conversations about Hermeticism with shop owners, and so much more. To me, the people of Salem are like none other. Their passion, intensity, welcoming spirit, and acceptance has always been on full display to me. This is likely why Salem is well regarded as one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly communities around. Perhaps it’s also why there are so many pet-friendly initiatives as well.
The people of Salem have massive hearts, welcoming arms, and are a delight to be around any time of year. The one key exception being November 1st, when every single person dreads the daylight. I’ve enjoyed life-changing tattoos in Salem. I’ve wept across the table from tarot readers. Shop owners and I have pontificated over Crowley and Gardener. I’ve participated in pagan rituals. And during each of these beautifully memorable events, I’ve found only welcome, only warmth, only acceptance and love. The people of Salem truly are the great hidden strength of the city. And they are by far the thing about the Witch City that I cherish the most.
What about you? Have you been to Salem? What was your experience like in the Witch City. Comment and let me know. Thanks so much for reading. Stay weird, witches!