The cultural powerhouse for the North Shore was a thriving international port up to the late 19th century. Salem was the place where merchants and shipowners made their fortunes in the Old China Trade.
Some 200 years later, the wealth from that time is plain to see, in the mansions along Chestnut Street and the stately architecture preserved in the waterfront Salem Maritime National Historic Site.
An infamous stain on Salem’s past came in the early 1690s, when 20 innocent people were executed for witchcraft, partly on the basis of “spectral evidence”.
This meant they had appeared to the accusers in “visions”, which were taken as proof that the accused were in cahoots with the Devil. Now, there are lots of attractions harking back to that event, some somber and some lighthearted.
Salem’s strength lies in its 17th-century cobblestone lanes, evocative architecture, fabled waterfront and the awesome Peabody Essex Museum.
1. The House of the Seven Gables
The inspiration for the Dark Romantic novel of the same name by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), The House of the Seven Gables is one of the oldest preserved timber-framed mansions in North America.
A blend of Colonial and Georgian architecture, and right on the water, the house was built in 1668 for the shipowner Capt. John Turner, and was enlarged in the early 18th century by his son, John Turner II.
Hawthorne visited as a guest of his second cousin, Susannah Ingersoll, and bestowed the house with a life of its own in the novel.
Visiting, you’ll get a 45-minute guided tour with a professional docent, as well as a 30-minute audio guide for the historic grounds.
Admission includes access to the Nathaniel Hawthorne Birthplace, built in the mid-18th century and relocated to the grounds from 27 Union Street.
2. Peabody Essex Museum (PEM)
Named for its benefactor, the locally born philanthropist George Peabody (1795-1869), PEM is one of the country’s oldest, largest and fastest-growing museums.
The holdings are immense, comprising huge collections of art from Japan, China, Africa, Oceania, India and Korea, as well as an extensive assortment of textiles, American decorative arts, Native American art and maritime art.
One striking exhibit is the Yin Yu Tang House, a late 18th-century home from China’s Anhui province, relocated to the grounds.
You can also get to grips with Salem’s local history, retrace milestones in fashion and design, learn about early American maritime trade and check out several PEM properties around Salem, like the Ropes Mansion, which we’ll talk about later.
3. Salem Maritime National Historic Site
The city’s seafaring history comes into focus at this national park, preserving a parcel of waterfront on Salem Harbor.
There’s a dozen historic structures at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and interpretive signs detail more than 200 years of maritime history.
You’ll delve into the Triangular Trade during the Colonial period, privateering during the Revolutionary War, and the Old China Trade that drove Salem’s economy into the mid-1800s.
Wander along Derby Wharf to see the Friendship of Salem, a replica of a 1797 East Indiaman that made those long voyages to and from China.
You can also see inside many of the old buildings here, with self-guided tours available through the U.S. Custom House (1819), the Narbonne House (1675) and the Derby House, a sumptuous merchant’s residence from 1762.
4. Witch House
At 310 Essex Street stands the only building in Salem with a direct connection to the witch trials. Built some time in the mid-17th century, this was the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin (1640-1718) from 1675 until his death.
Corwin was one of the judges in the trials, known to have made preliminary inquiries, signed arrest warrants and held hearings.
Although his overall role is unclear because of the scarcity of records from 1692, he is never known to have expressed remorse for the trials later in life, which he spent on the bench of the Superior Court and as the judge of Probate.
The house was restored in the 1940s, removing a storefront that had since been added, and opened as a museum in 1948. What you get on guided and self-guided tours is a privileged look at the domestic life of a well-heeled Salem resident in the late 17th century.
5. Chestnut Street
To get an idea of the wealth created by the Old China Trade from the end of the 18th century to the mid-19th century, take a little walk around the leafy residential streets just west of downtown.
Protected as the Chestnut Street Historic District, this neighborhood features a slew of Federal-style houses built for rich merchants by architect Samuel McIntire (1757-1811).
On Chestnut, River, Bridge, Beckford, Lynn, Pickering and Broad Streets there’s a roster of striking residences.
Check out Hamilton Hall (9 Chestnut), the Stephen Phillips House (34 Chestnut), the Saunders House (39 Chestnut), the Ropes Mansion (318 Essex), the John Bertram Mansion (370 Essex), the Pierre-Nichols House (80 Federal), the Pickering House (18 Broad) and the Francis Cox House at the corner of Chestnut and Summer.
6. Salem Heritage Trail
After arriving in Salem, an ideal way to acquaint yourself with the venerable townscape and see the main sights is to follow this self-guided walking trail around the historic downtown.
The Salem Heritage Trail is marked with a red line on the sidewalk, and this will lead you to interesting locations like the Old Town Hall (1817) and Salem Common (created 1667), along with many sights and attractions in this article like the House of the Seven Gables, the Witch House and the Peabody Essex Museum.
Each spot is accompanied by a detailed and entertaining blurb, touching on themes like Salem’s indigenous history, Colonial Salem, the witch trials, the Age of Sail, Abolition, African American experiences and contemporary Salem.
7. Old Burying Point Cemetery
A necessary stop in Salem is the second-oldest cemetery in the United States. This is the final resting place of many people who were alive during the trials.
Most prominent is John Hathorne (1641-1717), a leading judge at the witch trials and ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
One eye-catching tomb is for Sinon Bradstreet (1603/04-1697), the last governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colonyand husband of Mary Bradstreet, America’s first published poet.
You can spend a little time deciphering the carvings on the cemetery’s historic headstones, and admiring the abutting Pickman House, a first period Colonial dwelling, which was likely to have been standing at the time of the witch trials.
8. Salem Witch Trials Memorial
Salem has plenty of fun and kitschy nods to witchcraft, and amid this fun it can be sobering to consider the human tragedy that took place in the early 1690s.
The memorial, dedicated in 1992 on the 300th anniversary of the executions, is both simple and affecting. On Liberty Street, by the Old Burying Point, this consists of a granite wall, partially enclosing a small courtyard with six locust trees.
Projecting from the wall are 20 granite slabs, each carved with the name, means and date of death of one of the victims. Inscribed at the entrance are quotes from the condemned, taken from court transcripts.
These include protests like “God knows I am innocent”, “Oh Lord, help me” and “On my dying day, I am no witch”.
9. Salem Ferry
Given the city’s rich maritime history, surely the best way to arrive in Salem is by boat. This can be done via the Salem Ferry, a high-speed catamaran shuttling between Long Wharf in Boston and Blaney Street Dock at Salem Harbor in 50 minutes.
The vessel is the Nathaniel Bowditch, 92 feet long, with two decks, including interior seating, a galley and three restrooms.
The upper deck is ideal for some sightseeing and if you want to catch some sun on summer trips, while the climate-controlled interior ensures maximum comfort out of the elements.
10. Punto Urban Art Museum
South of the harbor, the Point (El Punto) is a traditionally working class neighborhood, noted in recent times for its large Latinx and immigrant population.
As a way of breaking down socioeconomic barriers and fostering neighborhood pride, several blocks of El Punto have been turned into an eye-popping outdoor gallery.
Here you can check out more than 75 large-scale murals, by 30 high-profile artists from around the world, as well as 25 artists from the area.
Inspiring and thought-provoking, the Punto Urban Art Museum makes for an ideal palate cleanse amid Salem’s historical attractions.
11. Stephen Phillips House
You can enter one of the handsome old mansions along Chestnut Street, as this Federal-style residence at No. 34 is preserved as an historic house museum.
The origins of this building, constructed in 1821 are curious: The core consists of four rooms brought here via ox sled from Danvers by Captain Nathaniel West. These had come from the 1806 country home he had built with his ex-wife, Elizabeth, daughter of the millionaire merchant, Elias Hasket Derby.
In 1911, Stephen W. Phillips, also from a shipping family, purchased the house, bringing five generations of family furnishings with him, while his wife Anna oversaw a Colonial Revival update.
Touring the Phillips House you can peruse that furniture and decorative art, find out about the Phillips family and their staff, and view a collection of antique carriages and cars.
12. Salem Willows
Another change of pace, there’s an oceanfront park at the end of Salem Neck that has attracted families since the mid-19th century.
This space is named for the willow trees that were first planted here in 1801 to provide cool, shaded walkways for patients at a small hospital close by.
Salem Willows became a public park in 1858, and the seasonal boardwalk businesses framing the park to the east have been around in some form since 1880.
There’s a string of arcades and holes in the wall for pizza, seafood, tacos, chinese and ice cream. The park is a great place to come if you just want to contemplate the ocean and look across the water to nearby North Shore communities.
The tip of the peninsula is edged with beaches, affording the perfect vantage point for the 4th of July fireworks show in Salem, but also Marblehead and Beverly.
13. Salem Art Gallery
A dose of reason and skepticism is served up at the Salem Art Gallery, which opened in a former funeral parlor in 2016.
This is the world headquarters for the Satanic Temple, promoting egalitarianism, social justice, and the separation of church and state.
Along with temporary shows presenting work by established and emerging artists from around the world, the gallery has a permanent exhibit charting the history of Satanism, moral panics and witch hunts.
One key exhibit is the 3,000-pound bronze statue of Baphomet (2015), which was offered to the State of Oklahoma after a statue of the Ten Commandments had been erected on public grounds outside the State Capitol.
14. Ropes Mansion and Garden
In 1912, this Georgian Colonial mansion opened to the public as Salem’s first historic house museum.
The Ropes Mansion was built in the 1720s for the merchant, Samuel Barnard, and was then in the Ropes family from 1768 until 1907 when it was donated to a trust for public benefit.
The property is now operated by the Peabody Essex Museum, and is cherished in particular for its one-acre Colonial Revival garden, designed by the Salem horticulturalist and botanist, John Robinson.
The garden is open to the public for free, 365 days a year, and the house, which appeared in Hocus Pocus (1993), can be seen on a self-guided tour on weekends throughout the summer, up to the end of October.
15. Salem Pioneer Village
Forest River Park, on the water near Salem State University, is the location for the country’s first living history museum.
An artifact in its own right, the Salem Pioneer Village was constructed in 1930 as the set of a play to mark Salem’s tercentennial.
Giving an impression of what Salem might have looked like in its earliest days, the museum is a three-acre village with thatched roof cottages, dugouts, wigwams and the grander Governor’s Faire House.
The site is interlaced with kitchen and medicinal gardens, while a blacksmith’s shop offers another window on 17th-century life. When we wrote this article the Salem Pioneer Village was open on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.