WHY GO: Thought Salem was all about witches? Make a beeline to the electrifying Peabody Essex Museum to discover that’s just not so. Though Salem, Massachusetts is most associated with the Witch Trials, you can spend a few days here without experiencing anything witch-related at all. One of the nation’s best – and dare we say quirkiest – museums, The Peabody Essex, should be your Stop #1.
In the late 1700’s, early 1800’s Salem was the epicenter of the America/ China/India Spice Trade, and that history too often gets lost in Salem Witch Mania. Also believe it or not, Salem, the former hotbed of joy-denying Puritanism, is increasingly known for its locavore, sustainable, and yes, joyful farm-to-table cuisine; and we’re not talking wing of bat and eye of newt. No longer a “lazy city” that only comes alive during the month of Halloween, Salem is a thriving, year round magnet for foodies, boutique-hotel aficionados, museum-goers, and American History buffs. (And should you wish to satisfy your interest in the witchy side of Salem, check out this Getaway Mavens post).
Things To Do in Salem, MA
VISIT: Peabody Essex Museum (PEM). Heralded as one of the top 20 museum in the USA, the Peabody Essex is also the oldest continuously operating museum in the country with the nation’s first collection of Asian Export artifacts, one of the best maritime collections and a top-ten children’s interactive museum. Going through its third major expansion now, you can spend a weekend in a slew of galleries, participate in a selection of innovative programs, and only scratch the surface. People move to Salem specifically because this museum is here.
But why Salem? Following Independence, American ships were barred from most European ports, necessitating more far-flung expeditions. Our young and intrepid citizenry set course for unexplored lands, leading to trade with China and India, and creating fortunes for many. In 1799 a group of young merchants and explorers met over drinks to discuss the establishment of a museum to showcase collected artifacts from their world travels. The original Greek Revival Mariner’s Hall, built in 1825, still displays these early gleanings, and one of the most curious is a taxidermied penguin with a goose-long neck. In the early 1800’s, the taxidermist had never seen a penguin and assumed that the dead creature’s neck had shrunk in transit – so he made adjustments based on the birds he did know.
PEM curators are masters of the obscure, and have put on display some incredible artifacts. Stare agog at a wedding dress made completely from shells and a shimmery gossamer Andalusian cape created out of sea-lion intestines. And do not leave before touring the Yin Yu Tang Chinese House – a two hundred fifty year old 16-room remote village family complex shipped stone by stone, carved wall by carved wall, numbered then rebuilt intact on PEM grounds just ten years ago. Tues. – Sun. 10-5, $15. It’s an extra $5 with admission for a 30-min. self-guided tour of the Yin Yu Tang House.
SHOP: Peabody Essex Museum Store. Huge, colorful, creative and magnificently “curated”, you’ll find everything from jewelry to books, clothing, home goods and accessories at reasonable prices. This is, in my opinion, is the best shopping in town for unique gifts.
TOUR: Salem Food Tour. Yes, there is a food scene in Salem. I was skeptical, too, when I first covered this tour in 2013. Karen Scalia, SAG Actor and foodie extraordinaire is still at it, taking groups of up to 12 (8-10 is her “sweet spot”) on a four-hour, five stop, eye-opening cultural, epicurean and historical walking tour of Salem. FYI – you will be well fed. Start on Pickering Wharf, part of the Salem Maritime Historical Site, to learn about Salem’s role in the Spice Trade and of course try a few said spices at David Bowie’s shop, Salem Spice, to wake up your senses. (Yes, David Bowie, but not that one.) “Seventy five percent of what we taste is through the nose,” Scalia states, as she opens the door to AromaSanctum Perfumes where guests are encouraged to sniff apothecary bottles filled with musks, florals and undetermined scents. Next onto some of Scalia’s favorite restaurants, visits with chefs, and a kitchen tour and quick cooking class. 3.5 hour tours, $58 per person; morning and shorter strolls also available – check website for information
VISIT: House of the Seven Gables. Nathaniel Hawthorne did not live here, but he visited his cousin who did, and this informed his classic book, The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s home (from birth to 4 years old) was originally down the street but transported to Seven Gables property as part of the museum complex. Kids love the secret staircase, and literary types might enjoy a bit of Hathorne Witch Trial history. Open daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 1st two weeks of Jan.) 10-5 with extended hours in warmer season. $16 adults, $11 kids.
VISIT: Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Established in March 1938, this 9-acre compound on the banks of Salem Harbor, was the nation’s first National Historic Site, and tells the story of Salem’s far-flung maritime achievements and trading. The grounds include the Custom House, Public Stores, Scale House, Hawkes House, Derby House, West India Good Store, Pedricks Store House, a lighthouse and three historic wharves. The historic ship, Friendship of Salem, is out for repairs with no date set for its return.
TOUR: Harbor Sweets Factory Tour. Come to Harbor Sweets, home of the original “Sweet Sloop” – and get a gander at how this specialty chocolate factory enrobes triangles of decadent butter crunch in white chocolate then hand dips each in dark chocolate and nuts. Don a hair net and watch ironically svelte employees mold, dip and wrap each piece. Known for its unique packaging and custom candies, Harbor Sweets has a very loyal customer base, though I’d wager most have never been here. Come for a Factory Tour, savor a free sample, and you may walk out a loyal customer too. Prices are reasonable for hand-crafted chocolates; Sweet Sloops, 24 for $19.50, Sand Dollars, 10 for $19.50, Sweet Shells, 20 for $19.50. Tues or Thurs at 11am, Shop open every day including weekends.
TOUR: El Punto Outdoor Art Museum. How do you revitalize a depressed neighborhood? Well, start with boffo wall murals and bring tourists to see them. That’s what’s been happening in this section of Salem just a few minutes’ drive from downtown. El Punto features over 50 large scale murals by 18 world renowned and 20 local artists within a 3 block radius. Check the website, and see the work of these tremendously talented artists.
SHOP/DRINK: Kakawa Chocolate House. Named for the first known word for cacao or cocoa, Kakawa, first at its flagship store in Sante Fe NM, and now right next door to the Peabody Essex Museum, creates historically inspired chocolate recipes from scratch. Kakawa is famous for its drinking chocolate elixirs, based on recipes recreated from historical sources, ranging from intense Mayan and Aztec to colonial American to modern day concoctions. So you’ll find hot cocoa recipes attributed to recipes that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington might have enjoyed, along with confections, ice cream and milkshakes made with the purest of ingredients. Bringing back obscure chocolate recipes rich in spices – such as the Fall Spice Blend TZUL (like drinking a chocolate-pumpkin pie), Chili-enhanced drinking chocolate and other “Mesoamerican Elixirs,” Kakawa is not your father’s candy shop. Even vegans will be impressed with the American Hot Chocolate made with Almond Milk and other Gluten Free/Dairy Free Truffles, Caramels, and Bars. This is a special place and worth a try. You’ll be hooked. Drinking chocolate flights, 3 for $7.50, 4 for $10.
SHOP: The Cheese Shop of Salem. Owner, Peter Endicott, loves being a “cheesemonger.” He was “in construction” before finding this new career while “apprenticing” in a cheese shop in Concord MA. Endicott opened the Cheese Shop of Salem in 2015 and recently, his daughter, Kiri, who grew up fixated on The Food Network, joined him in educating patrons about the best cheese, wine, beer, sake, charcuterie, and other specialty foods. On Saturdays, Endicott serves his growing-famous Grilled Cheese Sandwiches with balsamic onion jam ($9) to an increasing number of in the know foods enthusiasts.
SHOP: Hive and Forge Craft and Curation Collective. You’ll find Happy Clam Soap (soap derived from the clam mud flats of Maine), Cinder Soap, and a slew of other never seen before body cleansers among the jewelry, clothing, art and homegoods at the 28 Artisan Collective known as Hive and Forge (across from Turner’s Seafood). Maker of said soaps, Rachel Chandler, owns Red Antler Apothecary, and in addition to soap cakes cut to order, she sells tinctures, teas, and herbs. As a holistic practitioner “trained as a science and evidence-based herbalist,” Chandler also conducts “consultations on the fly.” Perhaps the moisturizing “Sage Against the Machine” or “Iron Milk Maiden” soaps will be just the thing to sooth your winter-worn skin.
SHOP: Aromasanctum Perfumes. Essential oil fragrances like “Pirate” and “Celestial Smoke” and an infinite number of others (custom blended) cost $15-$30 per ¼ oz (lasts a year) or $65-$250 for a scent made just for you.
TOUR: Salem Trolley. Don’t have a lot of time and just here for an overview of Salem? Take the narrated 8-mile one hour trolley tour, and take note of the places to which you’d like to return.
Where To Eat in Salem, MA
EAT: Turner’s Seafood. Turner’s Seafood is located in the original Lyceum where Alexander Graham Bell presented the first public demonstration of a long distance telephone conversation following the first dispatch of the news to the Boston Globe, itself a reason to soak up the atmosphere here. But, as Turner’s is family owned, by a “fishing family out of Gloucester” at that, you’ve got to come for the freshest of sea creatures. “Turner has his own fish-processing plant on the Gloucester docks, and every day he chooses the best fish. He’s known as ‘Mr. Re-Turner’ because he’ll bring back the catch if it’s not up to his standards,” says one employee. The Asian Nachos, tuna tartar with fried wantons and Asian slaw ($14.50), are outstanding, as is the Award-Winning Lobster Bisque. You really can’t go wrong here.
EAT: Adriatic Restaurant. This Italian restaurant hits all the high notes: great service, excellent food, pretty ambiance, and reasonable prices with entrees at $20-27. The Eggplant Parm is a pleasure to eat – sliced thin, lightly breaded and sautéed, it’s a signature favorite that doesn’t sit heavy in the stomach. The more robust Tagliatelle Bolognese ($19.95) is another favorite, as are the perfectly seasoned Lamb Lollipops ($13.95) and incredibly priced Filet Mignon ($26.95). Besides tried and true traditional dishes, add on something unique like the lobster/corn/scallion fritters called Bag of Munchkins ($11.95), or the “opa!” pan fried Cheese on Fire ($10.95).
EAT: Locals also love Kokeshi, Asian street food in a very cool space, Mr. Crepe – which is pretty self explanatory, and Bit Bar – for old timey arcade games and pub food on the cheap.
EAT: Finz. Oyster-lovers will adore “Oh So Hip Seafood “ Finz. Select from and extensive oyster menu (85% come post haste from Cape Cod) and get them naked (6 for $16.50) or doused in wasabi and Stoli (6 for $18.00). Follow up with the Baha Fish Tacos ($18.00) or Finz Seafood Paella ($23.00).
EAT: Scratch Kitchen. Don’t let the casual coffee shop décor fool you. This is serious foodie territory. Bill Fogarty, the Paul Prudhomme-girthed chef/owner sprinkles bacon dust on French Fries (he’s “big on the three B’s – Bacon, Butter and Beer”), adds nuggets of pork to his mussel broth, sources from attributed local farms, and cooks, New Orleans style, in a window so that passers by may watch. You can be sure everything set before you is farm-fresh and baconlicious. Given his predilection for pig (signature pulled pork, $10.50), Fogarty also serves up an amazingly toothsome veggie Black Bean Burger ($9.50).
EAT: Life Alive. Owners of this crunchy kale and granola fast-real-food café want to “connect you to where your food comes from” and “put you in touch with your senses.” They achieve this brilliantly through bowls of vibrantly hued raw or blanched veggies that come to your table within four minutes. Signature dish, The Goddess (bowl, $9.50), with Ginger Nama Soya sauce, is a satisfying, healthful combination of colors, flavors and textures – enhancing Mother Nature just a tad.
EAT/LOCAL HANGOUT: Red’s Sandwich Shop. Once the 1698 London Coffee House, a Patriot meeting place prior to the Revolution, and now a Salem institution, Red’s serves up fluffy omelets and lunch specials (like Shrimp Scampi) diner style.
SHOP/EAT: Coffee Time Bake Shop. Just a half mile from the center of Essex St., this baker-owned shop is famous for real cream Paczkis and Bismarks – sweet Polish stuffed donuts – one of the most decadent dessert you’ll ever try. No matter when you go, there’s a line.
Where To Stay in Salem, MA
STAY: Hawthorne Hotel. Money was raised by Public Stock Offering in 1925 to build lodging in Salem upscale enough to entertain clients of the Hy-Grade Electric Co. (which became Sylvania), and thus was born the Hawthorne Hotel, now a member of Historic Hotels of America.
You’ll find brass chandeliers, flat screen TV’s and luxury-level bedding in recently renovated antique-filled rooms.
In the morning, soft classical music plays while you sip coffee on overstuffed lobby chairs. It’s so grandeur-of-a-time, you may be surprised to find that the Hawthorne was one of the first hotels to have a blog (soon to be revived). This is partly due to the fact that it is a pet-friendly hotel; monkeys, dogs, and even a box turtle have checked in. $139-$350 (suite) per night includes coffee in lobby, free parking, free wi-fi.
STAY: There are B&B’s and Boutique Hotels cropping up as of late in stodgy-no-more-Salem. Salem Waterfront Hotel was the first near the waterfront. Lately, two stylish Lark Hotels – Hotel Salem on Essex St. and The Merchant – have been winning raves.