Sunday, October 21, 2012


A Salem-Lover's Tourism Guide

With the exception of Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Salem, Massachusetts, is my favorite place in the entire world. You'd have to be very hard of heart to argue with the winning combination of witches and salt water taffy.

As a youngster growing up in Boston, my mother and I would head up Route 1 every year in October to attend Salem's annual psychic fair and putter about the town enjoying the lovely fall weather. (Everything they tell you about fall in New England is entirely true, by the way. I'm getting misty-eyed just thinking about it.)

That yearly outing was in addition to the school field trips and assorted other jaunts I'd make, which makes me an old hand at navigating Salem. And given the overwhelming number of museums and attractions, how to even begin deciding which are worth your while?? To help you out, I'm sharing with you my very own Salem Tourist Loop. 

- Stop One: The Witch House
Cost for Adult Admission: $10.25

The name of this museum is a touch misleading; the tour focuses much more on what life was like in Salem during the time of the witch trials than it does on the trials, or witches, themselves. Still, though, this tour — which leads you through the home of one of the witch trial judges, Jonathan Corwin, and his family — provides enough information about Judge Corwin's role in The Unpleasantness to keep the witchier among you interested, and a heap of fun details about life in Colonial Massachusetts for those who are more historically or architecturally inclined.

- Stop Two: The Witch Dungeon
Cost for Adult Admission: $8.00

This is PURE CAMP. But actually pretty well done camp. So really what I'm trying to tell you is that it's the perfect place. The Witch Dungeon is essentially a two-part experience: in part 1, you'll be treated to a vignette-style reenactment of the trials featuring live actors. Part 2 takes you down to the dungeon, where things will jump out at you FAIR WARNING. Take a Xanax if you're easily startled.

This is the most Disney-fied of the tours I'd recommend. (If, um, Disney stayed truer to Grimm I suppose.)

The Witch Dungeon's two other affiliated museums, the Witch History Museum and the New England Pirate Museum, are mostly filled up with wicked cheesy wax figures. Skip 'em.

- Stop Three: House of the Seven Gables
Cost for Adult Admission: $12.50

Wait first. Before you go to The House of the Seven Gables you need to read the book. Read ittttttt. Oh my God it's so good, you guys, it's got everything: a bloody ruff! A daguerreotypist!! Hepzibah!!! Also: a gable is the triangular section of wall at the end of a pitched roof, occupying the space between the two slopes of the roof. (They'll explain that a little more clearly on the tour.)

Okay now that you've read it, you can properly enjoy the tour, which actually I think you can enjoy even if you haven't read the book. Much like The Witch House, there's a lot of that will be of interest to history and architecture lovers, including a secret passageway that's thought to have been used to hide escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

The short movie at the beginning of the tour is worth watching, and don't don't don't miss the gift shop.

- Stop Four: Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie

It's America's oldest candy company! And also, you know, a candy company, which means I probably don't really need to twist your arm to convince you to check it out. It's very charming and New England-y and they have red licorice pipes, which are disgusting and totally my favorite thing.

Get the penuche (pen-eww-chee); it's a New England thing, sort of a brown sugar fudge? Entirely delicious. Heck, get a giant box of fudge in assorted flavahs, you're only young once.

I just slipped into local dialect, didn't I?

- Stop Five: Victoria Station

Are you hungry? Or did you ruin your appetite gorging on penuche? Okay then … well, are you thirsty? Yes! Victoria Station is a casual dining-type restaurant, right on Pickering Wharf overlooking the water. This is maybe weird to point out, but their salad bar is amazing.

There used to be a Victoria Station in Boston proper that was made to look like an old boxcar, but now it's gone and I hate change.

So that's my basic loop! I included admissions cost information so you could make informed choices based on your budget; tourism can get costly if you're not mindful! The important thing, though, is to not feel like you need to see everything or be overly scheduled. Wander about, enjoy the sights, visit a few Witchcraft Magick Lifestyle stores … Salem will still be there if you want to go back. Which I would highly encourage you to do!

Photo via Flickr/lee_sie

76 Comments / Post A Comment


Only sort of related to this little tourism guide, but anyway, I watched Hocus Pocus last night based on an earlier Halloween Advent Calendar post. It was in Salem and it was strangely good!
Now I wish I could go to Salem for fall and witches and fudge.

Joseph John Sanchez III

There is a particularly great sculpture garden down Derby Street, past most of the attractions and right near the Salem Ferry. It's not very well-known amongst tourists (or publicized by the city), but I'd highly recommend checking it out!

Bridget Smith@twitter

Seven years ago I went to a Harry Potter convention in Salem. It was amazing, and the best part was that the events were set in various venues around town, so going from one to the next required walking through Salem in October.

This whole town is like they took the weirder parts of my brain and built a theme park just for me. Creepy old cemeteries! The Salem Witch Trials! Witches in general! Pirates! (The pirate museum isn't really worth it, as you said, but I bought a necklace with a ship on it in the gift shop that I still wear regularly.) And best of all, a cobblestoned old New England town that is only slightly modernized! I really loved it there and am sad I haven't been back since.

Yankee Peach

For my money, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem is one of the best museums in the world. And the gift shop is to die for.


@Yankee Peach

I agree! The Chinese House (they brought a house over from China) is awesome to walk through. The rest of the exhibits are also worth a walk-through.

In addition: The trolley tour is pretty fun!

etc etc

@Yankee Peach YES on the PEM. They have what looks like an amazing exhibit on hats right now that I wish I could see. The Chinese house is one of the best historic house tours I've ever been on, and I'll rave about it to anyone who'll listen.

Also, for some more history, the Gedney House (from 1665, if you'd like to continue on the time period of the Salem witches theme!) and the Phillips house. Both Historic New England properties, both lovingly and beautifully maintained. Plus admission is only $5 for each house.


@Yankee Peach Yes to the PEM forever! Also, the Magic Parlor has the best t-shirts.

Daisy Razor

@Yankee Peach They also have Blackbeard's skull, although they don't display it.


@Daisy Razor Are you kidding me?!? That would be the highlight of my visit. I do love the PEM, though, and may or may not be envisioning my wedding reception there.............. not that I'm engaged or anything..........


Just spent a few days in Salem with a friend and if you want to take one tour (because there are many to choose from) go with Hocus Pocus Tours: https://www.hocuspocustours.com/home.html. They are a husband and wife tour guide and are extremely knowledgeable about both the haunts and history of Salem.

Also, if you're interested in a more historical tour, stop by the Rebecca Nurse homestead in Danvers.


@Cass_Eb I agree! They're awesome. I took a tour with them a few summers ago. And I'll add that July is actually a really nice time to visit Salem!


Fun fact: all the Witch Trial stuff actually happened in Danvers, MA. It used to be Salem Village. The house where it started in is no longer there, but there is a lovely hole in the ground marking the site. Also, as said above, the Rebecca Nurse house is there and is a pretty great site.


@ohmy dang, i should have gone there this weekend. i was dragged to danvers with promises of that maize maze that people got so lost in last year they had to call 911 to be rescued.


A comment mentioning Rebecca and Danvers whilst Im in the middle of reading Rebecca is just too much! :)


@ohmy I went to Salem a couple years ago and was overall bummed with the fact that lots of historic places weren't there anymore, so the tour we took was alot of "see that new builing/vacant lot/hole" that's where something vaugely witchy happened!"

Hot Doom

Ye Olde Pepper Company! It's the greatest! Their fudge is to die for, and the penuche is so flipping nice. I haven't been in several years, but they also do some really good root beer candy and black strap candy which is also gross, but also really addictive.

On another note, I watched Hocus Pocus today, for the first time! Half the time, I was seriously thinking about Ye Olde Pepper Company instead of the movie. So now you know.


I went to Salem two Halloweens ago, but all we did was mill around the crowds of costumed people (and the fundies who were protesting the costumed people), drink hot chocolate and take pictures of each other standing in bemusement beside signs advertising "Fried Dough". I didn't get a chance to actually go into any of the museums, and I'm kicking myself for it.


I do, however, have an unread copy of The House of Seven Gables beside me and I'm inspired to start it tonight!


@Decca i've done this many times as well and i swear the fundies are just as entertaining as the museums.


@Decca I had not read it when I went and we didn't want to pay for actual admission so I brought up the Wiki about the house and gave my family my own tour. I highly reccomend it! I think you and I were in Salem at the same time! Did you see an old man and 3 women bickering with each other? That was my dad and my half-sisters taking our dad on a trip for his 70th birthday!)


Though maybe for practicality switch stops four and five around.


I've only been to Salem once and it was only a day trip from Boston but I looooooved and am ready to buy a house & move there & get a black kitty & live happily ever after.
We basically wandered the town, went to a few witchy stores & the house of the seven gables but no museums;we did go to the memorial for the women & men who were killed during the trials. That was extremely moving (I might have got dust in my eye) and terrifying because it lists each way the accused was killed. *shudders*


Yesssssss! I've been looking forward to this, and thank you again for the preliminary guidance. Much appreciation for including warnings about things jumping out for those of us that don't enjoy that type of thing. *shudder*

EVERYONE, TAKE ACTUAL NOTES. Do not trust yourself to remember which witch places Jolie recommends, because once you get there, they all sound the same. And, yes, you want to eat all the pen-eww-chee. (I feel comfortable encouraging this because I have already made a Salem trip this year.)

Has anyone ever ventured to the nearby Pioneer Village? Worth it?


@TheLetterL Totally going to take notes, and definitely going to use this guide for the coming weekend! Thank you, Jolie!


I live in Salem! It's a great place to be, especially in autumn, although there are much better restaurants to try than Victoria Station, like Finz or 62 on the Wharf. I love living in a town that people so enjoy visiting...the more the merrier!


I hope everybody in Boston was out and about today, it was like the Platonic ideal of a beautiful fall day. We had visitors and took them on the Jerk Tour of Boston (which is basically the Freedom Trail with asshole commentary, because we are all jerks). It was great. We're planning to hit Salem next month when it's less of a shitshow. Witches are awesome any time of year, am I right?


@anachronistique I wish to go on this Jerk Tour.


@anachronistique Without realizing it, I have given many Jerk Tours of Boston! BRILLIANT.


@anachronistique If only I could be out and about today, instead of stuck in a cube in Cambridge trying to finish a report...sigh.

The Attic Wife

My favorite Salem museum has nothing to do with witches, it's Count Orlock's Nightmare Gallery. It's a fantastic place, a tribute to great horror movies and the actors who starred in them, there are AMAZING wax figures, plaster casts of people's faces, really great stuff, so if you like horror, it's a great place to go.

But on the topic of tourist traps (Salem is FULL of them) DO NOT GO TO THE WAX MUSEUM. It sucks, not worth the price of admission.


Also fun: the live witch trial reenactment, "Cry Innocent", in which you are a participant! The audience gets to be on the jury! There is always at least one insufferable juicebox who tries to use modern logic to be like "couldn't the fire she caused have been a trick of blah blah modern reasonable explanation?" and then the rest of the audience is like "she's a witch! she turned my bloomers purple!"


I didn't know Jolie was One of Us! I knew I loved her. (One of us, meaning, of course, a Bostonian. Not a WASP.)


@Leanne I'm moving to Boston next month! Bostonian 'Pinners, can you plan a Pin Up or something soon so I can make friends?


@travelmugs BostonHairpin@googlegroups.com. Welcome, welcome!


Guysssss also don't miss the cemetery in the middle of the village; so many cool old graves! Also the Witch Trials Memorial, which may or may not have made me cry.


@SarahP I usually stop by there, too. It just feels like the thing to do, y'know? Like "Wheeeeeeeeeeeee! Exuberance! Happiness! Funfunfun! ...oh, right. Because of that time we killed a bunch of people....CIDER DONUTS!"


@TheLetterL I'm a humongous self-righteous spoilsport of a Bostonian, but I am super uncomfortable with Salem as a spooky fun Halloween destination. "Hey, guy, remember when we hanged a bunch of innocent people and crushed that one guy to death with rocks? This calls for a CHEESY WITCH TOWN MASCOT! And costumes! Wooohoooooo!"

As a general fall destination, because it's gorgeous? Yes. History? Yes. I'm just really glad folks are bringing up the Witch Trials Memorial.


@Spice&Snails&PuppyDogTails Plus, it gets overwhelming at night during the carnival. I remember I went up there during my freshman year of college and had the hardest time trying to find a place to pee... kept getting intercepted by people in creepy costumes, too.


@Spice&Snails&PuppyDogTails So I may just be revealing myself as a humungous sap instead of a Serious Person Who Cares About History, but I also cried when the crackly recording at one of the cheesy touristy "museums" I went to in Salem talked about Giles Corey.


@SarahP I'm sorry, I didn't mean the touristy museums were cheesy, or having feelings about them was cheesy! Once I burst into tears just standing on a street in Salem thinking about Giles Corey. I was thinking of the Salem High School's mascot being Witches and the Halloween-y statue of a fairy tale witch in the town square. The celebratory feeling is what gets to me, not the Lack of Seriousness.


@Spice&Snails&PuppyDogTails Yeah, Salem can require a disorienting bit of mental compartmentalizing: the tragic history part, the Halloween FUNFUNFUN part, and the neat little shoppy/foody/PEM-y downtown part. All the parts are very much worth it, but you can get mental whiplash.


@Spice&Snails&PuppyDogTails Ha ha ha, no I meant the museum was cheesy! It was so so cheesy and not serious, and there I was crying anyway while surrounded by families dragging their kids through, who were probably all just thinking about the candy store anyway.


@Spice&Snails&PuppyDogTails You're not alone. I find it ghoulish and awful.


As a Salem resident, I can't recommend the Witch Trials Memorial enough. It adds a much-needed bit of reality to all the faux-witchy museums and such. It reminds us how cruel humans can be to one another and how fundamentalism and finger-pointing can ruin a community.
But I'm not a complete buzz-kill, so I'd also recommend a visit to Scratch Kitchen for amazing food and Salem Wine Imports for surprisingly cheap but delicious wine.


Jolie! I'm kind of bummed you didn't even mention Bunghole Liquors!


Also, I can personally vouch for the fact that the two museums Jolie says not to go to have the worst wax figures I have ever seen.


@meetapossum There is nothing better than the looks I get when I wear my "Bunghole is not a dirty word" t-shirt when I'm outside Salem/North Shore.


Well, shit. Now I want to go to Salem. And I say that as someone who is most often a Halloween spectator, not participant.

I have always thought of Savannah, GA as my go-to spooky town, but it may just be that I really loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.


@karion I know I'm super late to this discussion but I'm catching up on the Hairpin I missed in the last few days and I just have to say:

My best friend moved to Savannah about a year ago, and having visited her a few times in her new home I can report that Savannah is super spooky. I highly recommend a visit (and a ghost tour or two)!


Stop Six: All The Graveyards, and the witch trial memorial.

Stop Seven: The Peabody-Essex Museum, for all your nautical-art-historical-randomness needs.



Oh I SO want to go to Salem in the fall, least of all because we don't really get "fall" in Texas (it's going to be 90 degrees today! On October 22! What the F!). But most of all because WITCHES AND GRAVEYARDS AND PIRATES. I mean, really.


One of my best buds does a big pre-Halloween Salem jaunt every year, and at some point I should go with her because all this sounds wicked awesome.

Also, I mentally read Jolie's piece in a Boston accent and it was even more entertaining that way, even before I got to "flavahs."


Am I alone in finding Salem in October depressing? I love it at all other times of year, but the Halloween-industrial complex there is just too much, and it's a distortion of history—a particularly troublesome chapter in American history at that. Salem has a wonderful and rich past that is more than just some poor schmo in a costume in the street trying to strong-arm tourists into taking a Haunted Whatever tour.


I have a story about Saint Chappelle! I went to Paris as part of a post-college spring break, and one night, my friend and I went out for fondue (as the French do, I guess?). We ended up drinking a whole bunch, and the next morning got up super early to go wait in line at Saint Chappelle. Turned out I had the kind of hangover where you don't realize you're hungover for like two hours, because you're actually still drunk, and I managed about 4 minutes looking at the pretty stained glass before I realized I was about to vomit everywhere. So I tried to keep it together, took a breather, and then thought maybe I was okay. I hustled to the metro, got on a train, realized I did in fact have to vomit everywhere, and then booted in a trashcan on the Pigalle platform.

Some Frenchman gave me what I'm sure was a disdainful look, but since he was French that might have just been his face.

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gawd, I loved going to Salem in the fall. When I lived in Mass I'd go every year. The Times Square of Halloween.

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I enjoyed that Harry Potter convention too. I even had an art studio under the Harry Potter store in town. One thing I would add to your things to do in Salem is the Salem Tunnel Tour. It is way cool and the best Salem walking tour with unique ghost stories along with the history of the smuggling tunnels and all the corrupt politicians who sat in D.C. who built them. Even the Architect of D.C. who built the Capital Building constructed many of the tunnels and the homes connected to them.


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