Witch trials, dark romanticism, haunted New England fireplaces and a notorious history of hysterical teenagers—the tiny town of Salem, Massachusetts may very well represent the occult Mecca of the modern world.
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Salem, Massachusetts and Samhain
You guys didn’t really think I was going to let Samhain slip by without posting something cool, right?
My husband and I went to Salem, Massachusetts 8 years ago in November—-a month after the Samhain festival that makes it famous.
Even then, the beautiful seascapes, unique occult shops, cozy grimoire bookstores and scandalous historical context made this one of my favorite small towns in the US.
There are good reasons to visit Salem any time of year.
But I always wanted to go back during October. Halloween/Samhain is to Salem what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. Not to mention, the landscape in New England at this time of year rivals any in the natural world.
The trees burst with brilliant yellows, oranges, and candy-apple-reds.
Most of all, bringing my favorite travel buddy for his inaugural “pilgrimage” to Salem made it super fun this go around.
If you live further than driving distance, flying into Boston usually makes the most sense.
But if you have time for a long drive, or you know where to get a great deal on plane tickets into another airport, consider flying into one of the other major Northeastern cities and making Salem one stop of many.
(Just make sure you don’t inadvertently kill your budget on the interstates. Tolls between DC/Baltimore/Philly/New York/Boston can cost up to $150—–one way. )
When we arrived, a patch of storm clouds rained all over us.
I kind of enjoyed it. The funerary gloominess of the overcast sky added to the atmosphere of Salem and its ghostly reputation.
Plus, the water droplets on the windshield of our rental car made for some cool bokeh lights with my 50mm.
(I mean orbs. We’ll pretend they’re orbs.)
Where to Stay
On the high end, The Hawthorne Hotel certainly bears the most notorious reputation for paranormal activity.
It was also the set of two episodes of Bewitched. Awesome.
Our friend, Emily, got a room on the third floor, so I came to watch her play around with her EMF reader and bask in all the Hawthorne’s bewitched glory.
It definitely had . . . . a vibe.
Room 326 apparently earned a reputation for some wild energy.
I think places like this are creepiest because of the weird things they inspire people to do in them. Like draw these random, upside down crosses by the vending machine on the second floor. WTF.
If you’re a more “off beat” traveler, other equally interesting options abound.
Morning Glory Bed & Breakfast stands out among the b&bs in Salem for its solid reputation, central location and historical significance.
What to See
The people of Salem go way out of their way to accommodate their visitors.
They literally drew a red along the sidewalks that leads you through the major attractions. All you need do is follow it.
Of course, I always recommend you get off the beaten path at some point, but we’ll start with this nifty, low-tech navigation system.
Because I like it.
During the month of October, and especially during the week leading up to Halloween, get yourself a cup of cider or hot chocolate and take a stroll down Derby Street or Essex. And then just people watch. There are plenty of . . . interesting people to watch.
(A quick note on street performers: I love them. I love them all over the world. I love them in New Orleans, Barcelona, Paris, New York and Venice Beach. They give every place they grace with their talents an immeasurable dose of character and nuance.
So please: tip them. Please. Especially if you take photos. Support them, encourage them to come back and be generous. )
The weeks leading up to Samhain in Salem might aptly be dubbed “Pagan Fashion Week.”
Also on the red line, find Old Burying Point cemetery, where a number of historical and interesting grave stones offer unique insight into the time period of those who rest there. Scrawled with poetry and often weird memorial quotes, the cemetery makes a lovely stopping point in good weather.
If you’re looking for a campy tourist experience, the Salem Witch Museum checks this box pretty effectively.
Bear in mind, there are no actual artifacts in this “museum.” The meat of it comes down to a story told with a recorded narration, elaborate sets, theatrical lighting and dummies dressed in 17th-century style clothing.
I think children between about 7-12 find this most entertaining. Or, if you’re not a reader and you want to know something about the history of Salem, this makes a descent introduction.
I rarely shop for pleasure and am generally mystified by people who enjoy it as a past time. But in Salem, I shop. And I like it.
Because most small towns, and even major cities, only have a few shops that truly cater to witches and pagans, variety often proves frustratingly hard to come by at brick-and-mortars.
That’s not a problem in Salem.
My friend, Emily, came to join me for a little retail therapy on Essex. Say hi to Emily.
The red line leads you past a plethora occult shops, cafes, witchcraft-themed museums and novelty bookstores. Here are a few to check out (but there are many more!!):
I imagined I was maneuvering my toddler’s stroller like a pirate ship through a chain of islands full of treasure. (I know, I’m such a dork.)
Many people prefer to hold items they consider sacred (stones, cards, ect) in their hands personally before bringing them into their practice.
I chose a few items to bring home.
One of the quirkier ones was this Ouiji tin of mints. The mints themselves were shaped like the indicator (lol!):
I also found an amazing deck of oracle cards. I instantly fell hard for the art in this deck. Eerie, serene and macabre, the Ceccoli Oracle transports the viewer like a porthole into an alternate reality.
What to Eat
This one is easy: lobster.
While everyone knows Maine for its lobsters, the best Masssachusetts lobster tastes just as scrumptious, and it’s cheaper.
Salem offers a number of excellent seafood restaurant options.
Finz boasts outdoor seating along the harbor and has a kind of trendy vibe.
Turner’s Seafood takes a more conservative, traditional approach. Interestingly, the paranormal investigation series, Ghost Hunters, featured Turner’s on its Salem episode.
If a full shell-and-tails lobster for the whole family is more than you’re looking for, just get a bowl of lobster bisque and a glass of good wine. Delicious.
Getting Off the Beaten Path
I recommend you take your first steps off the red line towards the waterfront.
New England’s cozy harbors and inlets make postcard-worthy photos. (I didn’t get a chance to go down during sunrise/sunset, but if you do, that’s generally the best time for good light.)
Hope this post inspires you to make your own way to this awesome, unique, pagan-friendly destination!
The only time I’ve seen upside down crosses was in the cemeteries in New Orleans. They were drawn on witch’s graves to keep them trapped inside.