On a craggy peninsula strewn with granite outcrops, the seafaring town of Marblehead is a slice of historic New England.
To put the town’s history into perspective, two hundred of Marblehead’s residences were built before the American Revolution.
These are in an historic district with some 900 contributing buildings, along twisting, rollercoaster streets. So one of the best things you can do in Marblehead is to head out and see what you can find.
Part of the town’s success as a maritime town lies in its natural harbor, a beautiful natural attraction skirted by rugged headlands, and primed for the Race Week regatta in July.
1. Fort Sewall
With a long history going back almost 400 years, Fort Sewall guards the entrance to Marblehead Harbor atop the promontory, Gale’s Head.
There was a temporary fortification here as early as 1634, but the origin of the current fort is 1742, during King George’s War.
This was rebuilt during the American Revolutionary War when it was garrisoned by John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, and came to prominence in the War of 1812 when its guns enabled the pursued USS Constitution to shelter in Marblehead Harbor.
Since the 1920s Fort Sewall has sat within a panoramic public park, with wonderful vistas of the harbor and the Marblehead Neck peninsula.
Try to be here in July for Glover’s Marblehead Regiment Annual Encampment, while The Barnacle, a short walk down Front St, is a seafood restaurant on the scene since the 1960s.
2. Chandler Hovey Park and Marblehead Light
Developed as a summer resort in the 19th century, Marblehead Neck is its own peninsula, cradling Marblehead harbor from the east side and attached to the mainland by a causeway.
This area is renowned for its stately mansions, and at the rocky northern tip is the unique Marblehead Light.
This skeletal structure, raised in 1895 to replace an earlier tower from 1835, is the only lighthouse of its kind to be found in New England.
The fixed green beacon is visible for seven nautical miles (8.1 miles), and the tower is within a stunning 3.75-acre park, with stupendous views of the mouth of the harbor, and Manchester-by-the-Sea and Beverly over the water.
Try to be here late in the day, you can watch the sun go down over Marblehead and the many little boats anchored in the harbor.
3. Self-guided Walking Tour
By any measure, the Marblehead Historic District is huge, encompassing 2,300 acres and almost 1,000 contributing buildings.
If you want to immerse yourself in the town’s maritime history, the best thing to do is arm yourself with a map, venture into this winding streetscape and discover those wonderful old houses once inhabited by merchants, shipowners, naval heroes and fishermen.
The Marblehead Museum has produced a useful self-guided tour, beginning at Abbot Hall (town hall), leading northeast to Fort Sewall and looping back.
As well as the Jeremiah Lee Mansion (1768), memorable stops include the General John Glover House, built for the famous general in 1762, the Old Town House (1727), and the Simon Bradstreet House (1732), erected by the great-grandson of Simon Bradstreet, the last Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
4. Downtown Marblehead
Amid all that history, Marblehead’s Old Town is a great place to hang out, filled with mom and pop stores, boutiques, galleries, live music venues and places to eat.
Seafood is on the menu in a maritime town like this, and The Landing (81 Front St) and Maddie’s Sail Loft (15 State St) are a couple of central spots devoted to classic New England-style dishes like clam chowder, lobster rolls and fried scallops.
Behind the historic storefronts along Washington St there’s a tempting array of one-off shops for women’s clothing, toys, jewelry, flowers, candles, as well as maritime apparel at F.L. Woods, which dates back to 1938.
In the “newer” commercial district along Pleasant St to the southwest are yet more restaurants, the luxury Warwick Place cinema and the trailhead for the four-mile Marblehead Rail Trail.
5. Devereux Beach
Marblehead’s main public beach is sandy bay at the base of the Causeway leading to Marblehead Neck.
Facing southeast, Devereux Beach is well screened from ocean swells, and has ankle-high waves ideal for smaller children to play in the water.
Lifeguards are on duty every day during the summer season, and there’s a concession stand on Ocean Ave at the Neck Run Cafe. Among the facilities are two picnic pavilions, a playground, a volleyball court and public restrooms.
You can also wander a little way along the causeway on Ocean Ave for a satisfying view across the harbor from Lady’s Cove.
6. Old Burial Hill
One of the oldest graveyards in New England is also one of its most scenic, on a granite hill looking out over Marblehead Harbor and Salem Sound.
In 1638, this hilltop was the site of Marblehead’s first meetinghouse, and if you look around you’ll discover a slew of 17th-century headstones with memento mori carvings.
Some of the graves belong to Marblehead’s early ministers, and there’s one (with a modern marker) for Wilmot Redd (d. 1692), a victim of the Salem witch trials.
Old Burial Hill is referenced in H. P. Lovecraft’s short story, The Festival (1923) and was one of a few filming locations in Marblehead for Hocus Pocus (1993).
7. Jeremiah Lee Mansion
When Jeremiah Lee (1721-1775) built this opulent Georgian mansion in 1768 he was the richest shipowner and merchant in Massachusetts.
With an amazing level of preservation, his residence is considered one of the finest late Georgian houses in the United States, and is now managed by the Marblehead Museum.
Some of the original details still in situ include intricately carved woodwork and hand-painted wallpapers produced in England.
On a guided tour of 18 different rooms you can appreciate early American furniture made by cabinet-makers in Marblehead, Boston and Salem, as well as other exceptional 18th and 19th-century decorative arts, from silver to ceramics, textiles, clocks and mirrors.
8. Castle Rock Park
A crucial lookout in Marblehead’s seafaring days, this dramatic granite outcrop faces the Atlantic Ocean on Marblehead Neck.
All along the shore are palatial waterfront mansions, and it is thought that the name for this headland came from the castle-like Carcassonne mansion just behind.
The small surrounding park can be reached from a path off Ocean Avenue, and you can enjoy the seascape from the benches next to the outcrop.
With care, you’re free to explore Castle Rock’s cascade of ledges, some with tidepools, and the view from here is extraordinary at sunrise.
9. Abbot Hall Maritime Museum
Marblehead’s fourth town hall was built in 1876, and some 150 years later is still the seat of the town government.
Abbot Hall is in the Romanesque Revival style, and is crowned by a splendid clock tower housing a Howard #2S clock, installed in 1877 and still manually wound by maintenance workers every week.
As well as having a municipal function, Abbot Hall also contains the Dr. Ray Cole Maritime Museum, devoted to the town’s naval heritage.
In these galleries you’ll discover Marblehead’s connection to the earliest days of the US Navy, Marblehead’s numerous naval heroes, the story of the three USS Marbleheads to berth in the harbor, and Marblehead’s status as the birthplace of Marine Corp Aviation.
There’s also special detail about George Washington’s famous surprise attack on Hessian Forces at Trenton on Christmas night 1776, facilitated by General John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, which ferried his army across the Delaware.
10. Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary
At the heart of the Marbleneck Peninsula there’s a 20-acre wildlife sanctuary managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
This property is made up of swamp, woodlands and thickets. The woods here attract a surprising variety of migratory birds in spring and fall, particularly warblers making their way along the Atlantic coast.
As well as being ecologically important, Marblehead Neck Wildlife Sanctuary is a joy to traverse on foot. In a relatively small area you’ll climb rocky hills and walk over a section of boardwalk next to a beautiful little pond.
On the raised west side of the pond, the Warbler Trail leads to a perfect vantage point if you want to spot songbirds on their migrations.
11. J.O.J. Frost Gallery & Carolyn Lynch Education Center
Almost opposite the Jeremiah Lee Mansion, the Marblehead Museum also owns a cozy-looking house at 14 Washington Street.
This building is newer than it seems, actually dating to 1940, and was bought by the historical society as an HQ in 1998. The highlight inside is a permanent gallery dedicated to the Marblehead folk artist J. O. J. Frost (1852-1928).
Untrained, Frost began painting at the tender age of 70, and was inspired by childhood memories of Marblehead as a fishing town, and sailing on schooners.
Although technically imperfect, Frost’s work is widely celebrated as Folk Art, appearing in several prestigious collections. The largest belongs to the Marblehead Museum, donated by Frost’s son in 1928.
12. Crowninshield Island (Brown’s Island)
Guarding the entrance to Dolliber Cove and Marblehead Little Harbor is a five-acre outcropping owned by the Trustees of Reservations.
Only reachable from the mainland by water, unless you come at low tide, Crowninshield Island is named for the pioneering historic preservationist Louise E. du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958).
If you’re crossing the mudflats on foot, try to be here an hour before low tide and depart one hour after, to ensure the longest possible time on the island.
While you’re here you can explore a sandy beach, meadow, salt marsh and rugged shoreline, and savor fabulous views of Fort Sewall, the harbor, and other little islands nearby.
13. Marblehead Festival of Arts
Taking place over the July 4th holiday, the Marblehead Festival of Arts has a history going back to 1962.
There’s a crowd-pleasing assortment of events and activities, including a street festival, film festival, an artisan’s marketplace and a children’s festival, with kite flying, sand sculpture, and paint your own pottery.
Across four days you can browse exhibits at a variety of locations, like Abbot Hall, Old North Church and Old Town House, and there are performing arts daily in Crocker Park.
This space has a perfect view of the harbor from its granite ledges, ideal for the dazzling fireworks show on the final evening.
14. Marblehead Race Week
With its pristine harbor, Marblehead emerged as a hotspot for recreational yachting in the mid-19th century, and stages a number of regattas throughout the season, including during the Marblehead Festival of Arts.
The biggest of all is Marblehead Race Week, dating back to 1889 and always held in the last full week of July. Since the 2000s the senior divisions of this event have become part of the Helly Hansen Sailing World Regatta Series.
The wind and weather conditions in Marblehead Harbor are never the same from one day to the next, and no lead in the regatta is ever safe.
If you happen to be in town, you can bring a blanket and picnic and watch the action unfold from one of Marblehead’s scenic harborside parks.
15. Glover’s Marblehead Regiment Annual Encampment
Remembered for rowing Washington across the Delaware River, the Marblehead Militia was led by John Glover (1732-1797), whose family moved to Marblehead when he was a child.
At the very start of the conflict, Glover’s schooner, Hannah, was chartered by Washington to raid British supply vessels during the siege of Boston in June 1775, possibly making it the founding vessel of the United States Navy.
Glover’s Marblehead Regiment celebrates its role in the early history of the United States, with a living history encampment at Fort Sewall every July.
Bustling with soldiers, sailors and civilian townsfolk, this is an opportunity to learn more about the Marblehead Regiment’s contributions to the American Revolutionary War.
Among the many historical experiences, you’ll get to chat to costumed reenactors, see demonstrations of 18th-century trades, hear music from the time, try period-appropriate snacks, and witness action-packed reenactments.