AAA Magazines

How to have a wicked good time in Salem, Massachusetts

Night exterior of Salem Witch Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. An eerie glow lights up the exterior of Salem Witch Museum. | Photo by Louise Michaud / Courtesy Salem Witch Museum

For a wonderfully witchy time, there’s no place like Salem, especially in October. This historic and scenic seaport clings to the coast between Portland and Boston, and its brick sidewalks lead to a trick-or-treat bagful of spooky attractions and activities. It’s also home to modern-day witches and warlocks, whose shops brim with paranormal paraphernalia. 

Salem’s identity as Witch City stems from the horrific events of 1692, when the citizenry, fueled by suspicion and superstition, executed 20 innocent people for witchcraft: 19 were hanged; one was crushed to death.

These days, the community acknowledges its dark heritage and has a half-dozen excellent museums to explore and explain it. At the same time, Salem embraces a lighthearted, entertaining take on the magical and mystical. 

Annually throughout October, the family-friendly Salem Haunted Happenings festival draws frightfully large crowds. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the town has canceled some major events and some attractions are closed, but you’ll still find plenty of fun afoot. In fact, with smaller numbers expected, it may be the perfect time to visit Salem, as long as you adhere to special health protocols: Protective masks are required, attractions are limiting indoor capacity, and some urge advance reservations. For more info, check out salem.org and hauntedhappenings.org

1. Conjure the past

“Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft" painted by Tompkins Harrison Matteson. | Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

"Trial of George Jacobs, Sr. for Witchcraft" painted by Tompkins Harrison Matteson. | Photo courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum

Imagine viewing poignant petitions from those sentenced to die, accusers’ testimonies, and damning death warrants. In fact, you can: For the first time in more than three decades, the Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex Street. 978-745-9500; pem.org.) is displaying its trove of fragile 1692 witch trial documents (through April 4, 2021), written by those who lived through the tragic times—or didn’t.

Established in 1799, the museum’s collections today comprise nearly two million works of art and decorative objects. Highlights include American art and architecture, Native American art, Asian export art, photography, rare books and manuscripts, and an exhibit on the 19th-century worldwide sea trade that created many Salem fortunes. There is even a reconstructed 200-year-old, 16-room Chinese house.

2. Delve into darkness

Salem Witch Museum. | Photo by Robert Duschenne / Courtesy Salem Witch Museum

Salem Witch Museum. | Photo by Robert Duschenne / Courtesy Salem Witch Museum

Using lifelike figures set in sequentially illuminated and narrated tableaux, the Salem Witch Museum (19-1/2 Washington Square North. 978-744-1692; salemwitchmuseum.com) offers a clear, sobering account of how suspicion and hysteria overtook the town’s residents and resulted in the trials and executions.

You’ll also learn about societal perceptions of the witch figure through the centuries and examine how witch hunts can happen even today.

3. Take a spirited stroll

On a night tour of Salem. | Photo by Histrionic Academy LLC

On a night tour of Salem. | Photo by Histrionic Academy LLC

Step into Salem’s backstory on one of more than 20 guided walking tours. Many stir ghost stories into the brew, especially the lantern-lit nighttime tours. Among the most popular are:

  • Salem Witch Walk (978-745-8763; crowhavencorner.com/witch-walk). Featuring insight into modern witchcraft, these tours are led by well-known witch and company owner, Lorelei, who also owns the shop Crow Haven Corner, or one of several other practicing witches.  
  • History Afoot Guided Walking Tour (historyalivesalem.com/walkingtours), led by a costumed historical educator.
  • Salem Day Tour (978-741-1170; salemghosttours.com). This history-rich tour is often led by company owner Tim Maguire, a trial victim’s descendant. It’s offered by Salem Ghost Tours, which also has a hauntings-heavy Salem Night Tour.

4. Get the chills

A room in the Witch House. | Photo by Mimi Bigelow Steadman

A room in the Witch House. | Photo by Mimi Bigelow Steadman

The Witch House (310-1/2 Essex Street. 978-744-8815; thewitchhouse.org) isn’t the lair of an old crone. Rather, it was the home of Jonathan Corwin, merchant, magistrate, and a judge in the trials. The only structure you can visit with direct ties to the 1692 events, this three-story black house is large for its time, reflecting Corwin’s considerable wealth.

It’s chilling to think he conducted inquiries into witchcraft accusations right in the parlor. Equally creepy are displays detailing 1600s-era medications, such as dried, powdered toad and parts of corpses—everything, it seems, except eye of newt. 

5. Summon the dead

A granite stone honors a victim of the Salem witch trials. | Photo courtesy Destination Salem

A granite stone honors a victim of the Salem witch trials. | Photo courtesy Destination Salem

You won’t find the graves of witchcraft victims among the moldering headstones in the Charter Street Cemetery (24 Liberty Street), which is also called Old Burying Point. This is, however, the final resting place of “hanging judge” John Hathorne, perhaps the most infamous player in the trials. (His great-great-grandson, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, added a “w” to his name to distance himself from the deeds of his forebear.)

Beside the cemetery, a C-shaped granite wall frames a grassy spot. The Salem Witch Trials Memorial, dedicated in 1992, comprises 20 granite benches projecting horizontally from the wall, each bearing the name of an innocent. Walk quietly along the wall, pausing to read each name.

6. Haunt the shops

Shopping at Remember Salem. | Photo by John Andrews / Courtesy Destination Salem

Shopping at Remember Salem. | Photo by John Andrews / Courtesy Destination Salem

Dying for a set of vampire fangs? In need of a crystal ball or magic wand? Prowl Salem’s numerous shops for these mystical materials and more. You’ll also find shelves stocked with such lighthearted items as kitchen-witch ornaments and black hats, plus Salem souvenirs. Self-proclaimed witches operate some of the enterprises and can mix custom potions for you.

Many also have inner sanctums where they hold psychic readings, spell-castings, and séances.

Want to express your inner witch? Visit a local studio to dress in appropriate garb for a shockingly fun photo session. 

7. Fly around town

The Salem Trolley. | Photo by Kishgraphics / Courtesy Destination Salem

No broomstick? The Salem Trolley is the next best way to gain an overview of the city. In addition to touring the heart of the town, the trolley rolls along Salem Harbor and into the McIntire Historic District, which boasts one of the country’s largest concentrations of 18th- and 19th-century dwellings. Among the 300-plus structures are gracious, Federal-style sea captains’ and merchants’ mansions designed by Salem-born architect and craftsman Samuel McIntire (1757-1811).

While nearly all the houses are private, three owned by the Peabody Essex Museum (pem.org/visit/historic-houses/mcintire-historic-district) and one owned by Historic New England (historicnewengland.org/property/gedney-house) are usually open to the public. They are closed this year due to the pandemic. Before you go, download a brochure mapping a self-guided architectural walking tour. 978-744-5469; salemtrolley.com.

8. Get salty

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site. | Photo by Mimi Bigelow Steadman

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site. | Photo by Mimi Bigelow Steadman

Take a break from all things witchy at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Encompassing 12 handsome structures on nine scenic waterfront acres, it recalls the days when Salem was one of the richest and largest ports in Colonial and post-Revolutionary America.

You can’t miss the square-rigged Friendship of Salem, a replica of a merchant ship used in Salem’s lucrative 18th-century East Indies trade. Although the buildings and ship are normally open for tours, they are closed this year; openings will be phased in. 160 Derby Street. 978-740-1650; nps.gov/sama.

Ever since her first visit as a teenager, writer Mimi Bigelow Steadman has been bewitched by Salem’s unique mystique. Read her previous article, Legendary lighthouses in Northern New England.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

Travel offers and deals

Mom on kids on roller coaster

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

Learn more

Woman at airport looking at arrival and departure screen

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Travel.

Learn more

Infinity pool

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

Learn more

Makena Beach, Maui, Hawaii

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

Learn more

back to top icon