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'Disneyland for the Dead': What to do in Salem

Posted by Alex Pearlman  September 27, 2011 09:22 AM

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IMG_0298.JPGLocated just 16 miles north of Boston on the Newburyport/Rockport MBTA commuter rail line, Salem, Mass., like many New England towns, has a vibrant yet dark history stretching all the way back to colonial times. While Salem remains best known for the hysteria surrounding the Witch Trials of 1692, in which 20 innocent people were accused of and executed for witchcraft, that’s only the start of the city’s history.

In the 1700s, murderous pirates like Captain Kidd and Blackbeard terrorized the seas off the eastern coast of the American colonies, and during the American Revolution, Salem became a center for privateers authorized to capture and loot British merchant ships. Salem would eventually grow to be the nation’s busiest port during the 1800s, turning sea captains and merchants into America’s first millionaires whose legacies live on today.

With so much to see and do, here’s what the city guide and residents recommend to visitors.

IMG_0320.JPGBrush Up on History. The award-winning Salem Witch Trials Memorial is a must-see. Each victim’s name and method and date of execution is inscribed into a set of cantilevered benches overlooking Old Burying Point Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the city and the resting place of, among others, witch trial judge John Hathorne. The memorial serves as “a reminder of all who stood in mute witness to the hysteria,” according to the Salem Award Society.

Then head over to the New England Pirate Museum, where you can learn about the 60-plus pirates that called this area home, including New England’s only known female pirate, also the last woman hanged in Massachusetts. Yelp-ers agree that the tours led by costumed guides are “kitschy fun” but informative and worth the relatively inexpensive admission, especially as part of a combination museum pass.

IMG_0303.JPGYou’ll also want to check out the Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously operated museum in the country. The museum is the legacy of Salem’s millionaire sea captains, whose artifacts and memorabilia from all over the world serve as the basis for the museum’s collection.

If you’ve got one more museum in you, visit The House of Seven Gables. The beautifully preserved (read: low ceilings) property includes the novel’s namesake mansion and as the birthplace of its famed author Nathaniel Hawthorne. And to connect the historical dots: Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name to distance himself from his ancestor who presided over the infamous 1692 trials.

Get Scared. Beginning Oct. 1, Salem celebrates its macabre heritage with a month-long spooky festival known as Haunted Happenings. The city turns its downtown into a carnival, parades zombies through the streets, and offers special theatrical productions.

IMG_0313.JPGBe sure to bring your ghost-hunting shoes, as many of Salem’s locales are allegedly haunted. A local word of caution: Beware the ghost of Giles Corey, the man pressed to death during the trials for refusing to enter a plea. His ghost is said to predict disaster for the city, having last been spotted before the Great Salem Fire of 1914.

Less supernatural but no less scary is the Derby Square Bookstore, whose books are all half off the cover price -- if you dare. The entire place has books stacked floor to ceiling, which may make you a bit claustrophobic or convinced you’re about to be buried like the Pompeii of books.

People Watch.If the New England fall is mild enough, grab a seat at any outdoor cafe while you eat. You’re likely to see, well, just about anything during October. If it’s late or too chilly outside, stake a claim by a window. Recently at dinner at The Old Spot, my friend interrupted me with, “I’m sorry, but is that a pilgrim over there?” Yes, yes it was.

Grab a Bite. All that excitement should make you hungry. For breakfast, head to Red’s, voted the North Shore’s best breakfast place by locals several years running. Later on, Pickering Wharf is home to several excellent seafood restaurants like Finz and Capt’s. The Gulu-Gulu Café is considered a “hipster” spot but is a chill place to grab a sweet or savory crepe. Caffeine addicts can fuel up at Jaho, which boasts a unique siphon coffee machine that “vacuum brews” your house-roasted beans.IMG_0299.JPG

Believe. Although there were no “witches” in the Salem Witch Trials, Salem is now home to a practicing Wiccan coven and a variety of individuals who claim to have a range of psychic abilities, from seeing a person’s aura to predicting the future to contacting the dead. Visit the Annual Psychic Fair and Witchcraft Expo or any of the operating psychic parlors and magic shops to get a tea leaf reading, have your tarot cards read, or even participate in a seance.

IMG_0321.JPGThe city has officially adopted a broomstick-riding witch as its mascot and the slogan “Still Making History” in an effort to promote tourism in the city. While Salem is great city to visit year-round, it earns its reputation as “The Halloween Capital of the World” throughout October and especially on Halloween night itself, when tens of thousands of costumed people regularly flood the streets of Salem to parade and revel. With Mardi Gras-meets-Nightmare Before Christmas practically in your backyard, what are you waiting for?

Check back with TNGG Boston later in October for much more Halloween coverage. In the meantime, tell us: What are some of your favorite things to do in Salem? Have you ever gone to one of the psychics? Ever had any ghost encounters?

By Rachel Pennellatore -- I'm a tiny gal with big ideas who's always on the move. One day I'm going to use my vast amount of otherwise useless trivia knowledge to beat Ken Jennings' Jeopardy score. Likes: hula hooping, all things involving the 80's, delicious martinis, sunshine, proper grammar, baby animals. Dislikes: math, being cold, spiders, most vegetables, things in places I can't reach.

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