There are many magical things about Salem, Massachusetts, and yet the seaside town’s biggest claim to fame—witches—is least among them. On a visit, bypass the aggrandized pull of Witch City attractions: think a black-cat-black-hat themed amusement park minus the roller coasters plus talking points that include psychic prowess, herbal lore and modern day Wicca.
Of course, there’s a history lesson here, that of the ‘possessed’ Puritans who got hanged—or, in one case, crushed to death—for the crime of witchcraft in 1692 in Colonial America’s most notorious early outbreak of mass hysteria. Take in a historical sight or two, like the Old Burying Point Cemetery, the Witch Trials Memorial, and the Salem Witch Museum, and mark the 325th anniversary on your moral compass. Then head out to explore Salem’s true charms.
From Old Masonry to Bold Modernity
Art and design are intrinsic elements of Salem’s heritage, and for a one-stop lesson on how, the Peabody Essex Museum is your destination. The 200-year-old institution, established by a society of 18th-century sea captains, is one of the fastest growing art museums in North America. Among its treasures is an extensive collection of Asian art, much of it the product of Salem’s trading relationship with East Asia following the American Revolution. One of its star attractions is the Yin Yu Tang House, the authentic ancestral home of eight generations of the Huang family, rebuilt during the same years as the museum. The home was dismantled in southeastern China, brought to Salem—along with some massive koi fish still swimming in its courtyard pools—and re-erected at the museum in 2003, retaining the effects of its most recent inhabitants from the 1980s.
Peabody Essex Museum curators do not overlook modern and contemporary art movements. Case in point: “WOW World of Wearable Art,” an exhibition spotlighting 32 fantastical pieces of attire created by sculptors, costume designers, textile artists and makers for New Zealand’s annual design competition. “Ocean Liners: Glamour, Speed and Style” (May 20-October 9)— co-curated by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum—features 200 works of the model, wall panel and poster ilk. Venture out of doors for a final sweep of Salem’s artistic side.
Fancy Stickwork and Self-Guided Tours
Just down Essex Street “Stickwork” by North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty clusters on the front lawn of the Crowninshield-Bentley House: It's an installation of larger-than-life fairy house-style structures made from woven tree saplings that have little girls and their parents oohing and ahhing. Then head out to walk the McIntire Historic District, where 400 years worth of architecture flashes across your retina during a 45-minute, self-guided tour.
Tea, Cake and Literature
Salem boasts an incredible community of creative pioneers that is largely overlooked by the average traveler. Browse its boutiques and restaurants, and you’ll unearth part of it. Caramel Patisserie serves the authentic French éclairs and crushes resistance to temptation with its brightly colored glazed confectionary. Glass jars of loose-leaf tea scent the air at Jolie Tea Company, where the owner is more than happy to share his expertise on the healing properties of the Restore blend, for example.
The adorable Wicked Good Books boosts its inventory with whimsical kitchen towels, spy pens and $1 paperbacks. Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie stakes a claim as America’s oldest candy company and still hand-makes its signature Gibralters the way it has for 200 years. The often packed Gulu-Gulu Cafe is known for its nightly live music and European-inspired menu featuring goulash, crepes and polenta pie. Naumkeag Ordinary restaurant elevates the local dining scene and offers a great selection of craft beer. Jaho brews specialty coffees that it roasts onsite.
Top-Notch Craft Brews
Notch Brewery operates a tap room that, despite being tucked off-street at the rear of a commercial building, is so packed on a Sunday afternoon there’s a wait to get in. There are games for kids, and adults; snacks like cheese and pickled eggs, in addition to occasional food truck specials; and an open-air beer garden that overlooks the South River basin. It's the perfect spot to glimpse a passing seal and reflect on the refreshing discovery that there’s far more to Salem than pointy hats and broomsticks.