Salem, Massachusetts is best known for a series of events that happened nearly 325 years ago. In 1692, 20 innocent men and women were put to death because they were believed to be witches. While this temporary outbreak of hysteria and witch hunting was tragic, it pales in comparison to the number of “witches” burned at the stake or tortured in Europe during the early Modern Period, yet it is a stigma and a history that has hung over the town ever since. These witch trials, which were portrayed in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, overshadow the town’s rich history as an important seaport.
Today, more than one million people visit Salem each year, especially during the town’s month long “Haunted Happenings” in October, with events like parades, street fairs, family film nights on the common, lantern tours, costume balls, haunted houses, live music and chilling theatrical performances.
I’m not so into the macabre, spooky, or haunted; nor am I drawn to the Halloween-themed shops or New Age and Wiccan boutiques scattered throughout town; but I was intrigued by the history of the town and thought Salem would make a great day trip destination. Located just 30 minutes north of Boston, Salem is an easy day trip from Boston, Portland, ME, or even our home in Rhode Island. You can also combine it with a day in nearby Gloucester.
We lucked out with a beautiful, unseasonably warm Election Day in November, making a perfect day for exploring this seaside town. While some of the town’s prime attractions, like the Salem Trolley and harbor boat tours were closed for the season, the various museums and historic maritime site were open and not at all crowded.
Salem Witch Museum
Because our main draw, like most, was the witch trials, our first stop was at the Salem Witch Museum. While there are many museums in Salem dedicated to the witch trials — the Witch House, the Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch Trials Memorial, the Witch History Museum — theSalem Witch Museum is heralded as Salem’s most visited museum.
Not quite a museum in the traditional sense, when you enter the museum you buy a ticket for a “presentation” that begins at regular intervals. I have to say, it wasn’t at all what I expected. My assumption was that there would be some sort of movie or interactive presentation that told the history of witch trials without sensationalizing or over dramatizing the devil worship / witchcraft aspect, since it was later proven to be all a falsehood started by a group of girls that were either bored or caught up in a mass hysteria.
Instead, when we entered the presentation we were seated in chairs set surrounding a witch’s circle in red on the floor in the center. The lights go out and the soundtrack comes on, lighting up a series of dioramas on the outskirts of the room. The presentation starts out by highlighting a statue of Satan with the creepy voice talking about devil worship and witchcraft — dramatic and a bit much for younger kids.
It then goes on to talk briefly about how they assume the rumors of witchcraft started, the trials, the conditions in the prisons, and how the accused were tortured and then hung or pressed to death. It concluded with a discussion about how the accuser later recounted and the victims were declared innocent.
After the presentation, the group moved to a second area where we were told about the history of witches and the perceptions of witches through the ages, and reminded how “witch hunts” of various forms still take place today. The Salem Witch Museum is found in Washington Square and is open daily 10 am – 5 pm, with longer hours in the summer and during Haunted Happenings. After chatting with my daughter after our visit, we both agreed that we wouldn’t recommend it for kids under 10, depending on their maturity and how easily they scare.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
Since it was such a nice day out, we took a stroll down to the waterfront. Upon arriving in Salem, we had stopped into the Salem Visitor Center and signed up for a tour of the Friendship of Salem, a replica of a 1797 East Indiaman sailing vessel now operated by the National Park Rangers. They only allow 25 people at a time onto the Friendship on guided tours only so it is a good idea to make the Visitor Center your first stop in Salem to get signed up.
On board, our park ranger guide gave us a full tour of the Friendship, pointing out its features and telling us a bit about the history before bringing everyone below to see where the sailors lived. It was a nice complement to our visit to the Mayflower II in Plymouth. At the visitor center we were also given a Junior Ranger booklet and my daughter worked on some of the answers during her tour so that should could earn her Junior Ranger badge back at the Visitor Center.
The Salem Maritime National Historic site is also a great place for kids just to run around and have fun. We were quite bewitched by the wharf and ended up spending at least an hour here chasing pigeons, taking in the view, and exploring all the educational exhibits along the wharf that explain the site’s history in trade and cotton production.
After all that time near the water, we were hungry for some seafood and headed over to Pickering Wharf to Finz Seafood and Grill for a lunch of lobster mac n’ cheese, a lobster roll, calamari and oysters. If you are looking for something a bit more casual, inexpensive and family friendly, you could also try Witch’s Brew or In a Pig’s Eye for sandwiches, salads and burgers.
We had hoped to have time to visit the House of the Seven Gables, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but we spent so much time enjoying the maritime site we couldn’t fit it in.
Peabody Essex Museum
I’d heard such good things about the Peabody Essex Museum that it was on my “must visit” list for our day in Salem. The roots of this museum go back to 1799 and the East India Marine Society, and much of the art found at the PEM reflect those roots, with a wide selection of maritime art including model ships, maritime artifacts, and art objects from Asia, Oceania, India and elsewhere.
The Peabody Essex Museum is located at 161 Essex St.
Salem Witch Memorial
By the time we left the Peabody Essex Museum, it was dark out and Salem was busy rolling up the sidewalks. It may stay busy during summer or October evenings, but except for the occasional group tour gathering, there were very few people out and about. We took a quick stroll through town but many of the shops were already closing. Our last stop of the day was at the Salem Witch Memorial, located right next to the Old Burial Point Cemetery on Liberty Street.
Dedicated in 1992, the memorial consists of 20 benches, each engraved with the name, date of execution, and method of execution for each of the wrongly condemned. Outside the memorial you will find a plaque with the words of the victims engraved on it. It was definitely a bit spooky visiting here at night and I can see why people into ghost tours would enjoy coming to Salem.
Our day in Salem, MA definitely bewitched us…but it was the Friendship, the wharf, the Peabody Essex, and this quaint colonial seaside town that captivated us…not the witches. You can definitely spend two days in Salem and I look forward to going back in the summer when it stays light later and we can get acquainted with the town on the Salem Trolley, take a harbor tour, visit the House of the Seven Gables, and perhaps try the Witch House Museum, which was the former home of the Judge in the witch trials and also where Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island, once stayed before being ousted from Massachusetts.
Books to Read Before You Go
For Kids and Young Adults
The Salem Witch Trials, An Unsolved Mystery from History, by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple
I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials, by Lisa Rowe Fraustino (part of the Dear America series)
A Break with Charity: A Story About the Salem Witch Trials, by Ann Rinaldi
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare (This Newbery Medal winner is set in CT but about a girl accused of witchcraft
The Crucible, by Arthur Miller
The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe
Have you been to Salem? What did you think?
Entrance to museums and attractions was provided by Destination Salem. All opinions are my own.