As a young history nerd and burgeoning occultist raised in Southern California, Salem, Massachusetts, was always on my radar for future exploration, and once I made it to New York, it became my mission to get up there and see it. A few years ago, I finally made the trip with a dear friend, and have been making my way back as often as possible ever since. Every corner of Salem has a story, and the people that make up the community are a mix of descendants of the original settlers and those who have been drawn to the area's rich energy and community. Each resident is proud and protective of the city (rightfully so), but almost everyone I've ever encountered is excited to share their knowledge of the place and experience with it.
I make it a point to go to Salem the last weekend of October because the city is in peak Halloween/witch/ghost mode, but I think it's also crucial to visit in the off-season (like springtime), because going in October is like entering witchy Comic-Con (but with a LOT of baby strollers). Maybe that sounds perfect to you, but if you have any type of crowd anxiety, it can be a nightmare. No matter the season, you can always find something to satisfy your interests, from walking ghost tours to history talks, pub crawls, local artisans (there's a city-wide initiative to keep large retailers out and local business in), and so much good food. Salem also has a substantial wellness and spiritual community—and, of course, witches.
The thing I respect most about Salem is that it does not hide from its dark history, but rather tries to learn from it, and apply the atmosphere of apprehension, divisiveness, and fear prevalent in 1692 to things happening today. A placard at The Witch House breaks down why the witch trials still matter and then asks visitors to consider and reflect on the "overall growing sense of unease and uncertainty in our modern world," before offering a solution: compassion. This sentiment is felt throughout the city, from the "Black Lives Matter" flags I saw hanging from a church to the rainbow signs and crosswalks I saw in and around businesses. While community is valued here, the invitation to explore, with respect, is graciously extended.
Salem has so much to share with any visitor open to its magic. I hope this guide to some of my favorite stops helps you to discover your own path there.
WHERE TO GO The Witch Dungeon Museum: I always like to start a day in Salem with a little reminder of the dangers of fear and mass hysteria by heading to the Witch Dungeon Museum. This experience starts with an explanation of the early happenings of Salem, how corruption and greed led to the deaths of innocent Puritans who happened to own land that the powerful wanted. There's also a reenactment of a scene from the Salem witch trials and a tour of a replica of the dungeon that was unearthed when the telephone company was excavating land for a new location. You'll find out that not only did prisoners have to pay for their own "lodgings," if you were very poor, you got a “coffin cell,” which was so small you couldn’t even bend your knees to sit, so you had to stand in the pitch dark, awaiting trial or death. Exit through the gift shop where you'll find fun witchy trinkets and historical replicas, like a “Witch Test” placard.
The Witch House: This home was not actually owned by a witch, but rather is the last remaining property with direct ties to the witch trials of 1692. The museum offers insight into what Puritan colonial life was like and serves as a well-refurbished time capsule of the era. The floorboards creak with secrets of a time long past, and you can almost hear the city council members whispering amongst themselves. After the mid-18th century, an apothecary used the first floor of the home as a shop, and some of the texts about plant medicine are on display, showing the role that plants played in the healing community of the time.
The Salem Witch Museum: The Salem Witch Museum is one of the most popular destinations in Salem and next to impossible to get a ticket for during October (unless you purchase early in the day, and you must do so on location). It offers two presentations, one of which uses sets, lights, figures, and narration to immerse you in the experience of the trials, and serves as an opportunity to try to understand the community and culture that created the Salem Witch Hunt. The second presentation is a dissertation on how the trope of the witch has evolved, what witchcraft looks like today, and delves into the psychology behind witch hunting.
The House of the Seven Gables: Yes, it is a real and actual place that you can visit, not just the title of a classic work of literature. This historical monument is beautiful and creepy any time of the year; it's clear why Nathaniel Hawthorne felt so inspired to write about it. In October, you can enjoy a "Spirit of the Gables" tour, in which characters from Hawthorne's book are brought to life. During the rest of the year, you can self-guide and learn the history of the home, or enjoy the gardens surrounding it.
New England Pirate Museum: While Salem is known for its witch history, it was also once a bustling seaport that saw the likes of infamous pirates like captains Kidd, Blackbeard, Bellamy, and Quelch. This museum is run by the same organization behind the Witch Dungeon Museum and offers the opportunity to enjoy a live walking tour with guide, visit a (recreated) dockside village and pirate ship, and take a tour through a real 80-foot pirate cave to possibly stumble upon some treasure or the wayfarers who buried it.
Peabody Essex Museum: I always try to find at least one art museum anywhere that I go, because I think you can learn quite a lot about a place and its people from its art. The PEM is full of the works by New England artists and cultural artifacts from across the centuries, in addition to an ever-growing collection of international collection, boasting a Chinese house that is 200 years old. The building is also really pretty and nice to be inside (especially when battling the October crowds).
Now Age Walking Tours: Choose from one of three modestly priced ($25) intimate tours (no more than 16 people per group) of the city. All tours are led by the group's founder, Melissa Nierman, who is a Reiki 2 practitioner, former ghost tour guide, and master of education. "The Witches: 1692-Today" takes you through the history of the witch, touches on the significance of the witch trials, and looks at the rise of witches today, all while touching on historically significant landmarks to each point. "History of Spiritualism" fast-forwards to the Victorian Era spiritualists' part in Salem's history, drops by the first Spiritualist Church of Salem (still active), and offers discussion about the decline of this movement and the resurgence of curiosity about the occult. "Ghosts of Buildings Past" tells a scarier story than any "spooky tour" you'll find in the city. As you are guided through the buildings that no longer are, you realize that, even in Salem, a place so deeply rooted in tradition and passionate about preservation, capitalism can level history in exchange for expanses of concrete and glass.
WHERE TO EAT (AND DRINK) Ledger Restaurant and Bar: As soon as you walk through the doors of Ledger, opened in July, it feels as though you’ve been transported to the 19th century, which is when the building was erected. Originally a bank, the restaurant has converted the money vaults into walk-in freezers, which you can see behind the open-air kitchen. Looking up from the bar, centered as “the heart” of the restaurant, you’ll also spot the remaining original tin and plaster ceiling. The kitchen is one of only two places in Salem (the other is a pizzeria) to use a wood fire grill to pay respect to the former space and the city's history. Assistant general manager Joseph Collins says they're "based in the roots of New England cooking, harkening back to the era in which the building was built—a lot of open flame, a lot of preserves made in the same method they used back in the day." The menu is pretty heavily plant-based (great for an herbivore like me), but don't worry if you're looking for seafood or well-sourced meats—they've got you covered. Executive chef Daniel Gursha is all about great ingredients that "speak for themselves and do what they do." Ledger's team works as closely as possible with as many local farms as they can to find the best products to put on guests' plates.
I'd highly recommend the chef's vegan tasting menu. Smoked beet tartare, wood-grilled shishitos and porcini mushrooms, sliced truffle mushrooms, and double-baked spaghetti squash are just some of the things that I enjoyed. Everything we tried melted in our mouths, somehow tasting like both the sea and forest. The restaurant also has a dedicated pastry chef, and the magic Michelle Boland is doing back there needs to be widely known. Treat yourself to the chocolate sorbet, friends. I don't even like chocolate, but I loved this. In the end, Gursha says Ledger's team is trying to do something different: "We've become very vegetable-based, which may not be something that's really prominent around this area, but we're trying to be more progressive and healthier at the same time."
Life Alive Café: After a morning of wandering the city, this is my favorite spot for a stress-free vegan meal. There is always seating in the large dining area and often a spot in the cushioned nooks in the back. Everything on the menu is vegan, and most of it is gluten-free. The staff is friendly, happy to answer questions and make any necessary modifications, and the smoothie and juice menus offer creations that are truly unique. I always leave here energized, both by the good food and the positive energy and lifestyle that are actually part of the company’s mission to support.
Jaho Coffee Roaster & Wine Bar: With a broad selection of beverages, both caffeinated and non-, this is a necessary place to know about when heading toward the seaport. Another spacious seating area with an extensive tea menu, that includes blends for your zodiac sign, and vegan offerings. We found a hummus pizza that was made with naan, hummus, and tomatoes, and it was the warm hug we needed as the sun started to recede for the day. After-hours, this spot turns the lights down low and serves wine, light dinner bites, and espresso-based cocktails.
Bit Bar: What started as a group of game enthusiasts creating an event called "Bit Fest," in which they would gather "30-plus arcade machines to pop-up in local breweries, a cafe bookstore, and even a hair salon for a day or two," has now become a brick-and-mortar establishment with over 30 refurbished vintage arcade cabinets and pinball machines. (They had Addams Family Values, guys!! I haven't been able to touch this childhood favorite since I left my Sega Genesis behind in California.) There's an executive chef creating all sorts of things I can't eat, like doughnut burgers, and an impressive list of craft brews and spirits from breweries and distilleries nearby. Bonus: They also have a heated outdoor patio.
WHERE TO SHOP
Haus Witch Home & Healing: If you can only go to one place in Salem, go here! Founded by Erica Feldmann, it features art and wares from local makers and everything you need to cleanse your home, both energetically and actually. (Haus Witch has just launched Lighthaus, a line of home cleaning products that are all-natural and infused with gem essences that connect to different chakras, and Hauscraft spell kits to get you started on your merry magick way.) Erica thinks of the store “very much as a living thing; you really have to be inside of it to feel and see how light and bright our witchcraft is.” It remains her goal to take the witch “out of the shadows.” Erica moved to Salem wanting to learn how to “leverage the archetype of the witch as a feminist hero, feminist icon and bring the divine feminine out into the world.” She notes that the two are overlapping more and more and believes it to be the “only chance this broken world really has,” because we’ve been “overrun by this toxic masculinity and yang energy for too long and we have to incorporate the yin and the feminine, and it’s happening. People get that.” It was clear that they do, just from the short time I spent in the store. Many customers came in for crystals, tarot readings, spell books, and candles. “We need a strong figure to lead us right now, and the witch is the one to do it.”
Harrison’s Comics & Pop Culture: Stepping into a comic shop feels a lot like coming home, and every trip I've ever taken into Harrison’s has been awesome. The walls are lined with a pretty balanced collection of indies and mainstream, with tons of back issues, graphic novels, and serials. There are many vinyls, plushies, and toys, and a solid selection of manga and posters. The store is two stories—the downstairs being a gaming floor (closed every day in October except Sundays for a Pokemon league)—and has a predominately female staff, who are all rad, know their stuff, and are always super-welcoming.
Artemisia Botanicals: Whether you are new to the craft or have been practicing a while, Artemisia is definitely an exciting place to visit. They have “over 400 herbs, 100 teas, spices, essential oils and salts,” in addition to “flower essences, tinctures, salves, soaps, and oils to keep the body healthy.” Founded in 1997, this shop has the feel of a place that really cares about what it’s doing. The women that work there are full of information and have a great sense of humor. It feels like family, and the energy encourages you to stay awhile. If you like, you can also visit a psychic or have your cards read here. Make sure to peruse their line of spell candles before you leave; adding one to your next moon ritual never hurts.
Witchy City Consignment: The only consignment store in the area, this shop has all the traditional findings of a thrift store, with an “only in Salem” twist. Here, you can find antique cloaks from classic North East manufacturers, old photographs through the centuries, and, if you need a costume in a hurry, racks curated for the October crowd. I find their VHS collection really fun to dig through, because there are some true gems, though maybe make sure to avoid their doll displays, as they are creepy AF.
Enchanted Salem: Located in the heart of "Witch City," Enchanted is a key place to get to for seasoned witches and the newly curious alike. Like many of the shops throughout Salem, they have many items you might need for magick: "herbs and oils, stones, crystals, peytons (altar tiles), candles and holders, athames, chalices, and offering bowls." This shop is the home of Laurie Cabot, "The Official Witch of Salem," and her daughter, Penny Cabot, and carries the largest selection of handcrafted magickal items in the city. Laurie personally offers classes, workshops, and readings, in addition to other classes, workshops, Reiki, and psychic/tarot readings offered at Enchanted. I personally keep going back for their ritual inventory; this trip alone, I found herbs I've wanted to try for some time, a mini cauldron for a price that I hadn't been able to find anywhere else, tools to make burning a bit safer, and a new ritual book. Also, there is something special about being able to chat with a fellow practitioner about the joys of lighting things on fire, which herbs are best for topical use over ingestion, and what resources they utilize to learn more—and each time I've visited Enchanted, I've only encountered people willing to do just that.
Wicked Good Books: Independent bookstores need us more than ever, so I make it a point to pop in and purchase from them whenever I travel. If you want to learn more about the region, this one has a whole section dedicated to literature about New England, and their new releases section is current and diverse. Wicked Good carries a great selection for YA and adults, with the perfect mix of historical, fictional, paranormal, and spiritual texts, really great accessories and toys, and offers a consignment program through which they support local authors.
Bewitched in Salem: This is by far the most eclectic shop I've visited in Salem. It has all the things you'd expect—crystals, oils, etc, psychic and tarot readings—but what sets this place apart is its collection of books (in addition to more occult texts than I'd ever seen in real life outside of a library; I think they may carry every piece of literature that Anne Rice, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz have ever written), Egyptian and foreign artifacts (authenticity unclear, but they sure are pretty), and rare collector oddities, like Miss Cleo Tarot decks. Apparently, the owner has been in the collecting game for ages and can get you "any coin you're looking for."
WHAT TO SEE If you're on a budget and can't pay for all of the lovely tours, there are plenty of things to do that just involve walking around and enjoying the view:
Punto Urban Art Museum: You don't really get to see much street art in the most highly visited areas of downtown Salem, due to most of the buildings being historical single-family homes, municipal buildings, or businesses, but if you head south toward the water, you are in for a special treat. The Punto Urban Art Museum is a project supported by the North Shore Community Development Coalition, and the goal is to create "a world class urban arts district in Salem's Point Neighborhood... that embraces its rich immigrant and architectural history... creates a beautiful, uplifting environment for Point residents, particularly for children to grow up in, and break down the invisible divide between the Point and the rest of Salem by inviting visitors into the Point to experience world-class art firsthand." What started with two murals 20 years ago, has turned into almost 30 large-scale outdoor and indoor wall murals (in the NSCDC's office loft).
Chief Executive Officer Mickey Northcutt was kind enough to provide us walking instructions to tour the neighborhood: "The murals are primarily on Peabody and Ward streets, with four more on Harbor and Congress streets. There are also five works in the alley between 96 and 98 Lafayette Street. There are about a dozen inside our office space at 96 Lafayette Street, which is open Monday through Friday during business hours." This walk was an exhilarating scavenger hunt, with breathtaking results; the murals are so large and so vibrant! You can tell that each piece was created with passion and love, and they do so much for the energy of the neighborhood.
The Ropes Mansion: Calling all fans of Hocus Pocus. Salem is littered with locations that served as backdrops to the film. If I can only make it to one place, I pass by the Ropes Mansion. It served as the facade for Allison's house in the film and is a visually stunning piece of New England architecture in its own right. It also has a garden that's free to the public and is a nice place to pause, meditate, walk around, or have a seat. Occasionally, the house is open for tours, at a cost. Salem.org has created a comprehensive list of all of the places in town you can spot in the film.
Burying Point Cemetery: A cemetery is one of my favorite types of destination, and this one is Salem’s oldest. It was founded in 1637 and houses the remains of Justice John Hathorne, of witch trial infamy, at least one accused witch (Mary Corey), passengers of the Mayflower, and even a Massachusetts governor.
Pioneer Village: Modeled after Salem in the year 1630, this is the oldest living history museum in America; it also served as the home of Binx in Hocus Pocus! It’s really fascinating to wander through the grounds and wonder at how in the world anyone stayed warm. Again, tours and admission are optional (through September), but you can gain a lot from the outside looking in.
Salem Willows Arcade and Park: This beautiful public park is right by the sea, and offers ample space to take a quiet walk, or put down a blanket for some food you may have packed for the day. There is an amusement park on the grounds that is open seasonally, a video arcade, and places to purchase food, but none of that is necessary to enjoy the visit and find peace.
The Bewitched Statue: This statue was donated to the city by TV Land and officially dedicated in 2005. It features the iconic Elizabeth Montgomery in her role as Samantha Stevens, astride a broom and framed by a moon crescent. It's in the middle of Lapin Park and serves as a fun photo op; I found out many folks have taken to rubbing Samantha's nose for good luck. Sure, why not?