As I’ve said in some past blog posts, my wife and I recently relocated to Massachusetts. We are proud to call Salem home and it’s a place that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. This city is amazing and the founding signs say it all: “Founded in 1626.” Take a moment to think about that – about how long that really is with regard to the overall history of our nation. With all of that time comes a lot of history, but there’s really only one thing that a lot of people know Salem for, but that some would rather forget. In the grand scheme of things, the Salem Witch Trials account for a very small portion of Salem’s history. The trials only lasted from between February 1692 to May of 1693, but have left a lasting impression on many people. In fact, that’s what brings many people to Salem, but that shouldn’t be the only reason.
Salem sits on what locals call the North Shore, which is the area along the coast above Boston. This area is pure New England with fishermen going out on their boats for lobster, beautiful homes overlooking the ever-changing water of the Atlantic, and history around every corner for you to uncover. October in this area has several meanings. For most, October is leaf season – a time when you go outside to celebrate the array of colors that fill the trees (we won’t talk about the fact that others are cursing the leaves as they rake them up). For those of us in Salem, October is the busy season. For the entire month, Salem hosts Haunted Happenings. This month-long celebration offers something for everyone and leads up to a huge party on Halloween.
No matter the time of year, the real Salem always seems to get overlooked by visitors who just look at the “Halloween” side of the city, but there’s so much more! Salem is a vibrant and creative city that welcomes visitors with open arms, but it also houses great food, fun things to do, and great places to shop (my wife had a part in finding these). The amazing thing is that none of these have anything to do what that one small part of the city’s history. As someone new to the area, I invite you to visit Salem – my Salem. However, please keep in mind that this list is not comprehensive – I’m still learning about the area and will post new articles with updates as I collect them. This is just a list to get you started.
A & J King Artisan Bakers – Website (48 Central Street, Salem, MA)
If you are looking for one of the best bakeries that you will every walk into, this is the place. Don’t believe me? Think about this. A & J, as my wife and I refer to them, is the closest thing that I’ve found to the bakeries of Europe. Their pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins make you feel as though you are sitting at a cafe in Paris, but one of my favorites is their goat cheese, scallion, and pepper scone. This is a favorite of mine for breakfast, but my wife raves about their sticky buns. Every baked good in this place is handmade in the adjoining kitchen, which is great to walk past early in the morning or late at night when the bakers are plying their trade. The smell will drive you crazy. The food is great, their coffee is delicious, and their staff always welcomes you with a smile. When in Salem, this is the bakery that you have to visit at least once. If you don’t, your stomach will never forgive you. Just remember to get there early because things sell out quickly, but don’t take my last scone!
Ugly Mug Diner – Website (122 Washington Street, Salem, MA)
The Ugly Mug Diner reminds me of what happens when an artist and a chef have a child. This place feeds both your mind and body, but in really funny ways. First and foremost, you must make sure to get here early. Get to the diner before 8 a.m. on a Saturday or Sunday, or risk standing in line for a LONG time. That being said, the wait is worth it if you have to do it. Their menu has a wide variety of really interesting dishes to choose from, but my two favorites are the granola and buttermilk pancakes with bacon or their scotch eggs with a side of hollandaise (you have to ask for the hollandaise, but it really makes the dish). My wife is a huge fan of their Elvis waffle. They also serve delicious lunch and dinner specials (note: bring in your receipt from breakfast for an added discount). Now that you’ve heard about the food, you have to hear about the art. It starts with their mugs – “ugly” mugs that have been collected from thrift stores far and wide. There is a constantly rotating art gallery in the dining area and murals in the bathrooms that seem to always have new pieces added to them. My favorite place to sit is at the counter. It brings back fond memories of breakfasts with my grandfather at the diners we would find on our travels. I think that’s why I like this place so much. The food’s delicious and it stirs up really happy memories.
Scratch Kitchen – Website (245 Derby Street, Salem, MA)
Scratch Kitchen is one of those places that foodies dream about at night. They are closed on Mondays, but the doors are open the other six days of the week. Tuesday through Saturday they serve great lunch and dinner items, many of which have ingredients that have been locally sourced. They pride themselves on using local ingredients and on making as much as they can from scratch – from their own homemade butter and jelly to their delicious house-made bacon. One thing about that bacon, my wife and I enjoy it on Sundays. That’s the one day in the week when the restaurant serves brunch. My favorite on the menu is their Green Eggs and Ham with Goat, but my wife raves about their “Frenched” Elvis, which is an amazing mixture of banana, peanut butter, bacon, and sourdough. They also have a rotating Hash O’ The Day, which offers a wide variety of new flavors to try. This place is definitely worth visiting for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Howling Wolf Taqueria – Website (76 Lafayette Street, Salem, MA)
There are lots of places that offer tacos, but none of them come close to Howling Wolf. We found this place thanks to a few friends of ours and we are so grateful! They offer your traditional tacos like chicken and beef, but also a variety of other tacos that stretch your palate. I really like their fish tacos and their fried avocado tacos, but my wife really likes their fajitas. Along with our favorites, they also offer a menu that would please anyone – from burritos to ceviche. Like other locations on this list, I have to warn you about wait times. Howling Wolf is a very popular place in Salem Thursday through Sunday, which means that lines can be long and it’s not abnormal for us to wait about an hour to get seated. The most coveted seats are the ones that are outside (you can see them in the picture ). We’re big fans of these, but any seat is a great seat at Howling Wolf. Delicious food and great atmosphere make it a must for anyone in Salem.
Red’s Sandwich Shop – Website (15 Central Street, Salem, MA)
Let me just say that we LOVE Red’s! For people who want to eat with the locals, this is your place. The restaurant was suggested to us by the front desk at the Hawthorne Hotel (more on them later) and we were so grateful. The portions are huge, but if you don’t believe me just take a look at a plate of pancakes as it goes to a table – they flop over the sides of the plate and one is more than enough for most people. Their breakfast is delicious and they start serving it bright and early in the morning. We like their pancakes and french toast, but my mom loves their homemade corned beef hash whenever she’s in town. Their lunches also offer huge portions and I’m partial to their Home Style Turkey Sandwich, which was billed to me as Thanksgiving in a sandwich the first time I tried it. Red’s is not fancy, but the food is delicious, the staff is great, and the atmosphere makes you feel like a local if you’re not lucky enough to be one of us.
Things To Do
Salem Maritime National Historic Site – Website (193 Derby Street, Salem, MA)
As with everything else that they do, the National Park Service does a fantastic job of telling the story of Salem’s maritime history in this beautiful history area. Free of charge, you can have the opportunity to walk aboard the Friendship of Salem, a tall-ship that will amaze anyone. You can see the Customs House where Nathaniel Hawthorne worked as he dreamed up the stories that would make his name famous for rest of time. Our favorite thing to do is to walk the half-mile out on Derby Wharf to the Derby Wharf Light Station. This walk offers dual benefits – exercise and a beautiful view of the Salem waterfront. The site offers visitors the opportunity to walk around the waterfront and to experience the history of that area. It becomes very evident to any visitor how connected Salem’s history is to water. This is a must for any visitor.
Salem Common Historic District – Website (District Information)
This is Salem’s front yard – a place for everyone to gather and relax. It has a long history that ranges from grazing animals to mustering militias, but today it features movies in the summer and weddings for couples. From the first moment we stepped foot in the area, we were in love with this huge expanse of grass and trees. It’s a peaceful place that feels safe during the day and at night. The area around the common features some of the most ornate and beautiful homes in Salem. Take some time and walk around the gravel path that circles the common. You’ll get some exercise, but will also meet some of the locals (and dogs) who call Salem home. This is a place where we walk our dogs, walk with our significant others after dinner, and relax on a beautiful afternoon. The best part, it’s free!
Mahi Mahi Harbor Cruises – Website (24 Congress Street, Salem, MA)
I grew up surrounded by water for most of my life, so I love going out on a boat whenever possible. When my mother and grandmother visited us recently, we decided to not only show them around the town of Salem, but to also show them what the coastline of our new home state looks like. There are a lot of cruise companies that offer tours of the area, but Mahi Mahi was great for us for a few reasons: cost, proximity, and tour quality. Their tours are less than $20 (locals can get punch cards for frequent trips, which can equal future discounts) and last for between one hour and an hour and a half. They are also located in the heart of the Salem waterfront. The tours are extremely informative and take you along the coasts of Beverly, Salem, Marblehead, and other towns and islands. For our money, Mahi Mahi is a great deal and a lot of fun. Just make sure to check the weather forecast before you make plans.
Peabody Essex Museum – Website (161 Essex Street, Salem, MA)
I am a huge supporter of the arts, but I grew up in an area that didn’t have much to go and see – I always had to travel to Washington, D.C. or another city. When we moved to Salem I was ecstatic to find out that a world-class art museum was within walking distance of my front door (and free to Salem residents when they show their license, ID, or piece of mail proving their address). From the moment you walk in, the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) will take your breath away. The facility is open and airy, which provides a great venue for the artwork to shine and be the main focus. The collection spans time from very early artwork to modern art, as well as a constantly rotating selection of special exhibits. The first exhibit I visited focused on the work of Joseph Mallord William Turner and it was fantastic! The PEM also makes sure to hold plenty of fun events for people of all ages throughout the year, so make sure to check out their calendar of events to see what’s happening during your visit. This museum, one of the oldest continuously operating museums in the US, is one of the jewels of the North Shore and should definitely be on anyone’s itinerary when visiting Salem.
Cinema Salem – Website (1 East India Square, Salem, MA)
A night out at the movies is a dating must, even if you’ve been married for a while. We really like going out for an early dinner on a Friday night and catching a great movie to start of the weekend (or to make a regular weeknight a bit more special). It’s even better when you can go and support a local movie theater, instead of making your way through the crowds of the local mall. Cinema Salem is a favorite of Salem locals because they not only show new films, but also one-night showings of classic films like Goonies and Jaws. The prices are low (great for families) and the popcorn is delicious, which is a perfect combination for a night out.
Roost and Company – Website (40 Front Street, Salem, MA)
I’m not someone who travels to find shops, but Roost and Company is one of those places that anyone will immediately fall in love with. This is the shop that everyone wishes they had in their backyard – the place that stocks great stuff for men and women with tastes ranging from the outdoors to food, artwork to small batch greeting cards. Since moving to Salem, we’ve made this shop our go-to place for buying funny and beautiful greeting cards (their prices are comparable to those large shops and they have a frequent buyer system that equals free cards). We’ve also bought different gifts for friends and family members, which always gets the reaction of them looking at us and saying, “where did you find this?” The great part is that you can visit Roost and Company without traveling to Salem by visiting their online store. Just make sure to visit often – their stock is always changing.
I hope you enjoy exploring this list of places and activities in Salem. This place is very special to me and I’m excited to share all of the wonderful hidden gems that many visitors never hear about. Have fun exploring!