After reading J.W. Ocker’s book, “A Season with the Witch”, earlier this year…I am dying to visit Salem. Partly for the obvious reason. Partly for their celebration of all things spooky year-round. But mostly because it simply sounds like a really cool – and unique – town. (I picture a spookier version of Stars Hollow from “Gilmore Girls”.)
But what to do there? I certainly had suggestions from my book, but I was thrilled when I ran across ThingsToDoinSalem.com. If you’ve ever wanted a running list of every last event, attraction and town happening in Witch City…it is the site for you. Today I’m excited to welcome the woman behind the blog, Alyse Grimm, to Spooky Little Halloween to share 15 of her favorite things to do in Salem, MA!
15 Things to do in Salem, MA this Halloween Season
By Alyse Grimm, Things To Do in Salem
Salem, Massachusetts is one of the most significant seaports in Puritan American history. It boasts a past full of trade, ships, early American settlement, the birthplace of books you had to read in high school and, of course, the witch trials. It is an incredibly popular travel destination and people visit from all around the world, especially during October. October and its events are called “Haunted Happenings”, and the city is packed all month with costume-clad visitors. Wandering the uneven brick streets, hearing the leaves scraping the pavement with the wind and people watching during this time of year is one of my favorite things in the world.
You could certainly plan a day trip into Salem and hit the highlights, but in my opinion, you really need a few days to fully enjoy it. Salem is largely a walking city, and there are hundreds of shops, restaurants and attractions all centered in the downtown area. Everyone has their favorites, and there really is something for everyone, regardless of if you’re looking for history, witchy, spooky or somewhere in between.
Best Attractions in Salem, MA
I am regularly asked about my favorites, and I have to say The House of the Seven Gables is always a hit. I have been on the tour several times and would go again without hesitation. Historical buildings, a Harry Potter-esque staircase up the chimney space (yes really and yes you can go up it), a gorgeous garden, views of the wharf and a really nice gift shop all lend to this being a favorite across the board. Also, they have a resident cat who happens to have his own (unaffiliated) Instagram account. So if you happen to see Dusty’s cute little face, be sure to tag @dustywatchofficial and follow his adventures on their grounds.
The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) is a landmark of the city and an easy one to recommend because with regularly rotating exhibits there is always something interesting on view. Currently, they are featuring “It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi from the Kirk Hammett Collection” which is really neat to check out. Kirk Hammett (better known as the guitarist from Metallica) worked with the PEM and loaned them part of his collection of classic horror and sci-fi posters and props. The display spans through a couple of rooms and is accompanied by clips from old horror films being projected on the walls, an original musical piece he wrote and filmed interviews with Kirk. If you do plan to hit the PEM I would suggest allowing at least an hour or two for wandering the exhibits. There is a lot to see!
The Salem Trolley is a favorite of locals and tourists alike and an attraction I am always up for. The tour is about an hour long and brings you to 14 stops in The Witch City. Your ticket is also good all day, so you can hop on and off at designated points all you like. Even as someone who is very familiar with Salem, I still learn new things every time I am aboard. If you’re just visiting the area and need a break from walking, this is a good way to rest your feet while still getting some sight-seeing in! The trolley isn’t a completely permanent/year-round attraction, but it does run every year from the spring through the fall.
The Friendship of Salem is a fun stop for the nautical folks and is a landmark of the city. Seeing it docked at the wharf is a lot like seeing an old friend! Right now it’s away on renovations and maintenance (last I heard, it’s in Gloucester) but should be back soon. If you’re popping into town over the fall and it’s back in Salem, you can take a tour of it with the National Park Service and check out the inside. Seeing where the crew slept, the captain’s quarters, etc. is especially fun for the kids. Even if you don’t go on a tour, walking down the Derby wharf and seeing it from the outside is still enjoyable.
Best Restaurants in Salem, MA
When it comes to food, there are so many options, but to narrow it down to a handful here are a few quick and easy picks that are on my go-to list.
As a coffee lover, I am always on the hunt for a good local coffee shop. Brew Box has delicious brews. I love their iced coffee, and they also have one thing I can’t say I have seen any other coffee house do: they offer “cereal milk”. To make it they strain milk through dry cereal to flavor it like that cereal. You can then use that milk to sweeten your coffee and give it a hint of that flavor. Check their menu board to see what the cereal milk of the week is!
Nick’s Firehouse is a small spot on Church Street and on mornings when I am busy and need something I can eat with one hand while multitasking, they’re my go-to. Their bacon, egg and cheese on an English muffin is homemade to order, delicious and always piping hot. If you do stop in, keep in mind they are a cash-only establishment.
If small bites in an Irish style pub is more your speed, I suggest checking out the sliders at Oneill’s. Seasonally they go between regular beef patties and pulled pork with coleslaw and both varieties are delicious. They also have mac and cheese rangoon and shepherd’s pie rangoon which I have yet to try but sound amazing.
Tavern in the Square is a typical American fare style restaurant, but they have one of my favorite appetizers in the area. Their “Big Dig Fries” is described on the menu as “waffle fries, cheese, bacon, sour cream, scallion”, and it’s an amazing crossover between waffle fries and nachos. It’s enough to split between two or three people over a drink which is lovely when the perimeter walls are open for nice weather days.
The Cheese Shop of Salem makes what they call their “ultimate grilled cheese”, and it does not disappoint. It’s melty, rich and made to order in a panini press – a must have for the grilled cheese connoisseur.
Goodnight Fatty began as a late night pop-up style gig with small batch freshly made cookies and quickly flew into success with their delicious creations. Salem as a whole went insane over it and they now have a permanent space in Higginson square open Friday and Saturday nights. If you’re around when they’re operating, DO IT. Believe me when I say you can’t go wrong and every cookie creation they produce is worth the price and the wait. (There will definitely be a wait.)
Lastly, if you’re looking for some drinks, I’d highly recommend Far From the Tree and Bit Bar. Far From the Tree has an assortment of delicious hard ciders and is a great place to relax a bit. Bit Bar is an arcade-style bar with retro arcade games, vintage games and tons to do while you socialize.
Best Haunted Happenings in Salem, MA
Haunted Happenings occurs each October in Salem and a slew of events pop up in the calendar. Some are recurring, some are not, and towards the top of the favorites list would have to be The Haunted Happenings Grand Parade. It’s sort of like the official kick-off of Halloween time in Salem. It marks the beginning of the celebrations and the parade goes through historic areas as well as downtown. The route ends in the Salem Common with live music and continued good times. I definitely recommend it as a good way to ring in the month with friends and family.
Also towards the top of that favorites list is Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop. The show is a must-do between locals and tourists alike. It is a mock 1690s witch trial where you as an audience member are part of the jury. You are able to ask questions, cross-examine and ultimately come up with a verdict for the accused which means the show is different every time. It runs for about an hour and takes place in the Old Town Hall.
If you’re a fan of everything scary, the Salem Horror Fest will definitely help you up the ante on the creep factor. For a few weeks through October there are regular showings of both classic and contemporary horror movies at CinemaSalem. Complete with a kickoff party and discussion panels with film creators it’s worth checking out. I, however, can barely handle the previews for scary movies so you likely won’t catch me there. But if you’re brave…
Derby Square is a highly foot-trafficked area of Salem and each October the Salem Open Market pops up. (Formerly called the Derby Square Market.) If you’re looking for something less scary than the Salem Horror Fest, this one is nice and tame. Check out vendors and craftspeople from all around New England as well as Salem locals, support small businesses and pick up some unique finds. This is a great time to grab some early holiday gifts!
It’s worth a quick mention that during Haunted Happenings, The Salem Trolley does “Tales and Tombstones” tours in addition to their regular rotation. It is definitely worth looking into if you want to add to the October vibes.
Regardless of the time of year, there are always events going on in Salem. Even in the frigid New England winter months, there are patrons wandering those uneven brick streets enjoying the city. Salem has such an energy to it that is unlike anywhere else I have ever been and I know you’ll fall in love with it just like I have.
Updated Oct. 5, 2017: Alyse just launched a Things To Do in Salem guide! It’s only $10, and it gives you a ton of info about all the fun coming up in Salem, MA in October, November and December 2017! Download it now:
Alyse Grimm is a 31-year-old Pacific Northwest native who now resides in beautiful New England. After first visiting Salem, MA roughly 10 years ago, she fell in love with the old town and has been frequenting the Witch City ever since. Things To Do In Salem came about as a result of wanting to help visitors get the most out of their trip to Salem and keep up to date with events, year ’round. Outside of covering the city’s happenings Alyse is an avid reader, writer, artist and coffee drinker.
All photos in this post courtesy of thingstodoinsalem.com.
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