Salem, Massachusetts, one of America's first cities, is a great getaway for a today's modern family — walking down the charming, cobblestone streets lined with old clapboard homes is a transporting experience. Thanks to the now-infamous Witch Trials of 1692, Salem is known as Witch City, and, not surprisingly, the town is covered with every sort of witch on a broomstick image you can conjure up — even Samantha Stephens of Bewitched fame is glorified with a statue.
Salem is also known for throwing the biggest and best Halloween party anywhere. Their annual "Haunted Happenings" kicks off early in October, and the whole city gets involved, hosting more than 140 festive events during the month. You can join in as Bridget Bishop is accused of witchcraft right on the streets, then follow the action as it moves to Old Town Hall for her trial in a nightly performance of "Cry Innocent." Get spooked on a ghost hunt, seance or walking tour. Or try one of the hundreds of safe, G-rated and family friendly activities, including carnivals, pumpkin carving, costume contests, parades, live music, crafts, fun runs, fireworks and, of course, trick or treating. Approximately 200,000 people from all over the world come to spend Halloween in Salem, fully booking hotels and inns as early as April.
Not to worry though, Salem is a great trip anytime of year, and it's just a quick and easy 17 miles north of Boston. Salem's downtown can be navigated by foot by following a red line painted on the sidewalks, or download their iPhone app to help you. There is also the hop on/hop off Salem Trolley which hits all the cities attractions. Catch the trolley in October when it is transformed into a spooky multimedia trip through the supernatural.
Most visit Salem to learn about the Witch Trials of 1692. The best way to start your exploration is at the Witch Trial Memorial created for the event's 300th anniversary. The stark monument has rock walls and is inscribed with the statements of innocence made by those wrongly accused of sorcery. Walk the inside perimeter to reflect on the twenty granite slabs, one for each of the accused, chiseled with their name, date and means of execution. The memorial is adjacent to the Burying Point, the oldest graveyard in town.
Salem's top attraction, the Salem Witch Museum, housed in circa 1840s church complete with old pews and squeaky floorboards, gives an educational overview of the trials. The museum illustrates the hysteria using large exhibits that light up as their portion of the story is told. The museum explains particularly well possible causes of the bizarre behavior of the young accusers, and presents the witch hunt in easily understood modern day scenarios.
In the Witch Dungeon Museum, the witchcraft trials are brought to life by professional actors and a script based on the original trial transcripts. We loved the spellbinding scene from the trial of Sarah Good, and afterward, my son enjoyed the trip downstairs "to the cool dungeon." The wet, dark, dank and even a little scary recreation is similar to the ones the accused would have stayed in.
The wood-planked home on the corner of North and Essex streets is the only building remaining in Salem that is directly involved with the trials. In the 17th Century, The Witch House was home to Jonathan Corwin, head of a prominent and wealthy Puritan family and a judge for the trials. The museum offers an amazing look at period architecture and puts the witch panic into historical perspective. It describes the culture, lifestyle and strict religious beliefs of the early settlers that made the threat of witchcraft so real to them. The museum is full of surprises, like the exhibit on magic-spell like remedies, such as frogs baked till black, then ground and drank with a cordial taken to cure a number of common ailments. Family friendly programs offered during the year include "eerie evenings" of spooky story telling during October and "17th Century Saturdays" during the summer.
Salem isn't just witches and Halloween, and no trip is complete without a visit to The Peabody Essex, one of the countries first museums, noted for its maritime and Asian art collections including Yin Yu Tang a 200-year-old Chinese house. But it is the family friendly features of the museum that make it our favorite. The museum's impressive Art and Nature center is designed just for families. Here kids can browse the ever changing gallery and open the "please touch" drawers to discover the surprises within — everything from puzzles and scrimshaw to animal pelts and whale teeth. Pick up one of the Gallery Discovery Kits, which give clues to exploring the regular galleries scavenger hunt style. At Halloween the museum throws a Fantastical Creatures Festival on dragons and scary sea monsters that features story telling, crafts and live animal presentations.
Visit the Salem National Maritime Historic Site to learn about Salem's important role as a seaport in the 18th century and take a tour of Friendship, the replica of a period cargo ship. On the ship kids can see how sailors lived in dark, cold, cramped conditions. In season, visit the "Dry Goods Store" selling the exotic imports of the time. Young kids will enjoy the Bonded Warehouse where the imported goods are on display, and older ones may want to tour the U.S. Customs House made famous in the novel The Scarlet Letter.
Salem is the birthplace, home and inspiration for writer Nathaniel Hawthorne. The seaside house that inspired his famous novel The House of the Seven Gables is now a museum. The oldest wood-timbered house in the country is part of a national historic district that includes Hawthorne's birthplace, seaside gardens and other period structures. My 5-year-old son loved the skinny brick-lined secret staircase hidden in the dining room. Make sure to check out the children's maritime center with an orienteering project, a replica bunk, dress up and even a small boat to steer. During Halloween, visitors can watch Hawthorne's cursed families come to life in performances of "Spirit of the Gables" or live scenes from the witch trial played out in the "Legacy of the Hanging Judge."
Salem offers plenty of family friendly restaurants. The Old Spot is a gastro pub with an inventive menu of salads, burgers and pub specialties like meat pies and ploughman's lunch. Kids may want one of New England's classic fluffernutter sandwiches. Victoria Station, the huge, harbor side, train station themed restaurant is a family hot spot with all you can eat items and local specialties accompanied with a fresh and tasty salad bar.
For breakfast and lunch the only place to be is Red's Sandwich Shop. Get there early before the affordable friendly diner gets filled to the brim with politicians, locals and in-the-know tourists. The award-winning diner has been operating in the heart of downtown for more than 50 years and offers most items for less than $10.
Maria's Sweet Somethings is a nice place for a little treat: chocolates, ice cream and desserts are all served up in their café cum gift store. Ye Old Pepper Company, across from The House of Seven Gables, is the first candy store in the country and offers a taste of history with their Gibraltar, the first commercially manufactured confection in the country.
Witch Trial Memorial
Liberty Street between Charter and Derby Streets
East India Square
161 Essex Street
Open Tuesday through Sunday and holiday-Mondays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
$15 (general), free (children). Includes all house tours except Yin Yu Tang, which is $5 extra for adults and children are free.
193 Derby Street
Open daily, April 1 through Oct. 31, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. from
Tours are $5 (adults) and $3 (children 6-16)
115 Derby St.
Open daily, Jan. 15 through June 30, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m.; July 1- Oct. 31, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. $12 (adults), $7.25 (children older than 5)
19 N. Washington Square
Open daiiy, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; July and August, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; extended hours in October
$8 (adults), $5.50 (children older than 6)
16 Lynde Street
Open daily, April through November, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. with extended hours in October
$8 (adults), $6 (children older than 4). Combination tickets with other attractions also available
310 ½ Essex Street
Open daily, May through November, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., with extended hours in October.
$8.25-$10.25 (adults); $4.25-$6.25 (children older than 6)
8 Central Street
Spring and summer, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., limited service in October. Runs seasonally.
$15 (adults), $5 (children 6-14), free, (children 5 and younger when accompanied by an adult)
Performed in and around the Old Town Hall
32 Derby Square
Daily, Oct. 9 through Oct. 31, 1:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. (except Wednesdays and Thursdays); Saturdays and Sundays, 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. $10 (adults), $8 (children 6–12)
The box office cart is located on the Essex Street side of Old Town Hall
121 Essex Street
86 Wharf Street - Pickering Wharf
15 Central Street
Open for breakfast and lunch
26 Front Street
22 Derby Street
July-October: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
November-June: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
18 Washington Square West
Stephanie Ogozalek is an editor for Mommy Poppins, a Website for kids and families in New York City, where she lives with her husband and 5-year-old son.