A Local’s Guide to Salem, MA

I came to Salem, MA to study at Salem State University and stayed for my love of the small city, known for its infamous witch trials in 1692. Salem attracts thousands of tourists every year for its history, museums, and scenic views, and especially for the city’s “Haunted Happenings” that take place every October. I have my own quarrels with the the city’s celebration of its infamous history of intolerance that resulted in the deaths of innocent people as a current means to boost tourism, but that’s another post for another day. Overall, Salem is a beautiful and quirky little city that should certainly merit a visit.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive for a city remembered for its historic puritanical intolerance of people who are “different,” present Salem celebrates diversity. The LGBTQIA community has a strong presence and support from city officials, and many churches hang “Black Lives Matter” signs and gay pride flags by their entrances. And despite the infamous witch trials of centuries past, many Wiccans today live and practice in Salem, and some own or work at witch/magic-themed shops (check out Crow Haven Corner). It’s fascinating how such a fearful and intolerant city has embraced what it once rejected so fiercely, and that quality is precisely what makes me so proud to live here.

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Circle of flags in downtown Salem. Source.

That said, there’s a LOT more to Salem than the witch trials. There’s good food, beautiful views, unique museums, and some really quirky locals. If you want the full Halloween-town version of Salem, come during October when everyone’s dressed in costume, fog machines fill streets with fog, a small carnival is open, and locals have gone into hiding. Zombies lurch at unsuspecting tourists on the street, somber corpse brides stare wistfully as they limber slowly down the sidewalk, and jedis and pirates may break into a light saber battle or sword fight at any time, any place. The city is an entirely different place in October.

Halloween in Salem is an experience, to say the least. Crowds of thousands of costumed tourists fill the streets, littered with zealous hateful preachers, countering peaceful guitarists, drunk college students, and police on horseback. Roads close down and the entire city just parties for a night (or two, or three).

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Expect lots of costumed monsters roaming the street.

But if you’d like a relaxed visit where you can really get to know Salem like the locals know it, come during the spring when flowers are in bloom, the hot summer months, or at the very beginning of autumn when the trees’ leaves turn all shades of beautiful – before October 1st. It’s still beautiful in the winter (and way cheaper to find lodging), but also very chilly. I’ve lived here for 6 years and am sad to leave, though I’m excited about my destination. These are some of my favorite places that to relax, eat, learn, and explore in Salem.

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Parks:

Salem Willows: This is one of my favorite places to go running during the off-season. Giant weeping willow trees offer shade in the grassy areas, the ocean provides beautiful views and a gentle breeze, and – my favorite part as a runner – there are public restrooms. If you’re here in the off-season, the Willows is a beautiful park to relax; there are often families having picnics, people playing basketball on the small courts, and kids riding their bikes. The small beach is a perfect spot to launch a kayak or canoe, or to simply enjoy the ocean. During tourist season, though, the arcades and restaurants open up and the park is brimming with people. Though I don’t come here to run once the tourists arrive, I still like to stop by the park to eat lunch and people-watch.

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The Devil’s Chase is a 6.66 mile road race held in the Willows every year on Halloween morning.

Forest River: Forest River Park is just down the street from my college and I used to come here all the time to escape dorm-room life. This park is bigger than the Willows and has more shady green areas to kick back and relax, with none of the frill of restaurants or arcades. There are some small beaches with gorgeous views, a pool that gets filled with ocean water in the summer, playgrounds, and a big concrete slide that my friends and I kids slide down on pieces of cardboard. This is a great park to walk or run through because of its large size and multitude of paths, plus it doesn’t get nearly as crowded as the Willows in the summertime. During the summer you can also check out Pioneer Village here, which boasts itself as America’s first living history museum. The museum showcases various 17th century life and architecture with structures like wigwams, thatched roof cottages, and a blacksmith’s shop.

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One of Forest River’s multiple beaches.

Honorable mention: Salem Commons. If you visit the Witch Museum (and you probably will), you’ll notice a big green square across the street. There’s a small playground, a gazebo, and usually a lot of walkers and runners. When it’s tourist-free, I like to run here for the soft and even surface, but during October food vendors take over the square. One of my favorite Haunted Happenings events is the weekly movie night that’s hosted in the Commons. One of the movies they usually show is Hocus Pocus, which is pretty cool because parts of the movie were actually filmed in this park.

Food

You can expect a forthcoming blog all about food in Salem soon, but until then, here are a few suggestions.

Coffee Time: Though the name may imply otherwise, this local family-owned bakeshop is so much more than coffee. Their bakery is to die for. They have the typical donuts, cakes, and muffins, all of which are delicious, but their specialty lies in their bismarcks and paczkis. These babies are loaded with fruit and homemade whipped cream. It’s not the cheapest coffee shop, but it’s so worth it. Moving into an apartment just down the street from here was one of the best (so delicious!) and worst (shrinking wallet and growing waistline) things I’ve done. And for you fur-parents out there, Coffee Time also sells homemade dog treats and keeps water bowls outside of the building for thirsty pups.

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A paczki: the richest, sweetest doughnut on the planet.

Flying Saucer: My biggest disappointment when I moved to Salem was the lack of good pizza. Until I found Flying Saucer, that is. The pizza is not only delicious but it’s available as gluten and/or dairy free and there are options that’ll please any age group. My personal favorite is the mac & cheese pizza – carbs on carbs on carbs, with cheese. I personally don’t drink very much, but Flying Saucer does have a great beer selection. And the decor is awesome. The restaurant’s walls are decked out in movie posters and memorabilia, sci-fi reruns are constantly playing on the bar’s TV, and the names of dishes on the menu are all movie/space-themed. Flying Saucer is also located right by the Samantha statue from Bewitched, a common selfie spot for tourists.

Life Alive: Vegans rejoice! Life Alive, a little hippie restaurant that uses mason jars as drinking glasses, offers healthy and filling vegan and vegetarian food and drink. I usually get a bowl like their signature Goddess bowl, but almost anything is available as a wrap, too. Brown rice, veggies, and home-made sauces are the staples of a Life Alive dish, and you can add egg, nuts, quinoa, tofu, etc. if your meal doesn’t already include it. I’m incredibly picky with my veggies (which is apparently rather ironic for a vegetarian, or so I’m told), so I usually modify my order quite a bit, and that’s not a problem. They also have a children’s menu and serve smoothies, juices, teas, and lattes, for which they make their own almond milk.

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Life Alive: Pros at making veggies taste good

Howling Wolf: I don’t even like Mexican food but I love the Wolf! They’ve got all the typical foods you’d find at a Mexican restaurant and it’s all soo good, and the portion sizes are pretty generous. The bar is always packed, they (usually) don’t skimp on the alcohol in drinks, and I’ve never had bad service. The owners help promote local artists, too, by hanging pieces on the wall that are for sale. The Wolf does have a rather college-bar vibe at night, probably because a good amount of both the servers and the patronage are college students, but if that’s not your scene, the food and drinks are still worth the trip.

Nightlife

If you’re already from Massachusetts, then you know that nightlife here ends early; the bars in Salem close at 1am.

Opus: Catch live local music at Opus almost any night pf the week. Every Thursday is reggae night, which usually draws in a decent crowd, and Tuesdays are karaoke nights, but the other nights you can listen and dance to anything from hip hop to jazz soul, from funk to R&B.  It’s a pretty cool layout: the top floor is the restaurant, but you can go downstairs to Opus Underground where there is a bar and some cozy seating.

Gulu Gulu: This is another popular place to catch some great local music. They have open mic nights periodically that are quite popular, and they feature musicians nearly every night. I’m not a big drinker but from what all of my friends tell me, their drink menu’s pretty impressive. It’s not the kind of place that you’ll be dancing to top 40 hits, but a great spot to kick back and relax while listening to music.

Edit: I told myself I would not include this place because I worked there for nearly a year and had a miserable experience, but if you’re the kind of person that enjoys dancing to remixes of Top 40 hits while drunk men grind on you, then Murphy’s in downtown Salem is probably your only option (and hence the only reason I included it at all).

Museums

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The Phillips Library at Peabody Essex Museum

Peabody Essex Museum: One of the longest running museums in the country, PEM hosts local exhibits about New England and international exhibits from around the world. The museum was put together by a group of sailors in 1799 who brought back artifacts from their travels in the Americas, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and India. You can actually still see these original pieces in the East India Marine Hall in the museum. There are constantly rotating exhibits from different parts of the world – last time I went, it was “Asia in Amsterdam” – as well as some constant exhibits, like the Chinese Yin Yu Tang house. You can buy tickets ahead of time online, or at the door upon arrival.

Salem Witch Museum: This museum is hands down one of the biggest tourist attractions in Salem, and for good reason. You’ll begin your tour with a brief history of the Salem witch trials during which puppets and a narrator describe the events of 1692. It may not sound very exciting, but for those who are interested in the history, it gives a solid account in a short period of time. But my favorite part of the museum was learning about the present culture in Salem.  You’ll learn during the Witch Museum tour how real witchcraft originated and transformed, and how Wicca has become a big part of Salem.

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Source.

New England Pirate Museum: It’s a museum about pirates, what else do I even have to say? Yes, there were pirates off the coast of New England, and you can learn all about them and their lives and journeys here (including the infamous Blackbeard), without any of the Hollywood improvisation. Some of the mannequins and artifacts seem rather worn, but this is a very unique and fascinating history lesson that, in my opinion, more than makes up for some outdated aesthetics. Oh, and all of the guides dress like pirates, so there’s that.

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Paintings of pirates scaling the side of the museum walls.

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Off the beaten path:

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Hocus Pocus House (8 Ocean Ave.): Who doesn’t love Hocus Pocus, the 1993 hit Halloween movie starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Bette Midler, and Kathy Najimy? I think we all wanted our own lookout tower like the one in Max’s house. That tower, and the house, exists in a waterfront Salem neighborhood. It’s someone’s home now, so you can’t tour the inside (how cool would that be?), but you should definitely walk or drive by and snap a photo. During tourist season there are constantly people taking selfies outside, but just remember that it’s someone’s home and to be respectful of their property!
Side note: If you want to see more Hocus Pocus spots, check out this blog that a wonderful woman put together of her “Hocus Pocus Walking Tour” of Salem.

Cinema Salem: This local movie theater shows some current hit films, but what makes Cinema Salem so special is their unique local productions, including live performances. They frequently hold concerts of various genres, Rocky Horror Picture Show nights, Sh*t Faced Shakespeare (soo funny), local documentaries, and various other events targeted at various audiences. I highly recommend that you check their upcoming events while planning your itinerary. Their performances are always worth a visit.

And that’s a wrap! Honestly, there are so many interesting places in Salem and I’m really just skimming the surface. My best advice for anyone who’s visiting is to leave yourself a free, unscheduled day to simply explore. Walk through Pickering Wharf, a cute little plaza of local stores and restaurants on the water, or wander into a bookstore or coffee shop on cobblestoned Essex Street. Take a stroll through a local neighborhood and just admire the beauty of 19th century New England homes. While there are plenty of sites worth adding to your itinerary, you’re likely to find some hidden gems if you just wander the city’s streets for a while.

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