Salem, Massachusetts

Salem Village, now known as the town of Danvers, dates back to 1626 when Puritans came to the area from England, seeking religious freedom. The town of Salem, where most of the now famous, and infamous, sites are located is on the North Shore of Massachusetts, about 30 minutes north of Boston, and has a beautiful harbor downtown. It’s most well known for it’s involvement in one of America’s darkest period, the witch hysteria of 1692.

I grew up visiting Salem each October and I have been wanting to recreate some of those memories with my own children. However, I wanted to wait until they were old enough not to be too scared. This year seemed like the perfect time and I started planning back in June. The fall is the most popular time of year to visit Salem (yay for Halloween!) and I wanted to visit early in September. I started my research on Salem.org. This website is the perfect planner: it’s well organized, has frequent updates of events, and plenty of suggestions of places to stay, eat, and explore. I used this website to research every stop we made.

Some general tips for traveling to Salem with children:

1. Watch your feet- many of the sidewalks are brick and very uneven. Best to wear sneakers and definitely bring a stroller for younger children. There’s a red stripe painted on the sidewalk to lead visitors through the Salem Heritage Trail of American history.

2. Most places don’t have a lot of public parking. Park in the South Harbor Garage on Congress Street.  It’s centrally located and charges 25 cents per hour. On street parking meters are free on Sundays and have a four hour maximum every other day.

3. Be on the lookout for bathrooms- our best finds were at the Peabody Essex Museum, the Salem Maritime National Historic Site Visitor’s Center, and the Old Town Hall.

4. It seems like most of Salem opens at 10am; we got there for 9am, grabbed a warm pastry and drink, and took a walk to get our bearings. I would shoot for 9:30am to get situated before heading to a site. Afternoons were noticeably more crowded- on the streets and in the sites.

5. Many of the museums and sites allow young children to visit free of charge. However, many sites aren’t geared towards young children (see my comments below). I am really glad I waited until my kids were seven and nine to visit; any younger and I think they might have been scared, and definitely disengaged for several of our stops. Upper elementary and older children will learn a lot (or have great flashbacks to history lessons in school!)

6. There are a few options to save money if you plan on visiting several of the sites I mention below. Check out discoversalempassport.com for an overview of benefits.

My family’s Top 12 Family Friendly Spots in Salem:

The Salem Trolley, a narrated 45 minutes tour of the town, makes a figure eight around the major sites in town. Grab tickets next to the Old Town Hall, which is a good place to start your visit.

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The Salem Museum is located in the Old Town Hall. It doesn’t open till noon, but is a great introduction to the history of the area. If you’re interested in Cry Innocent (and you should be!) you’ll want to get tickets early (there's a ticket booth outside the museum). The one floor museum tells the full history of the village, famous families, Salem’s influence on many significant events in American history, and has displays of artifacts. Plan on 20 minutes for the museum, another 20+ minutes if you want to see either of the films on the history of the town.

Cry Innocent: The People vs. Bridget Bishop starts outside The Salem Museum with the "accusation" of Bridget Bishop, and then continues inside, on the second floor of the Old Town Hall. The interactive reenactment of the interrogation of Bishop in April of 1692 calls on member of the audience to participate and ask questions of the witnesses and Bishop. The audience votes on whether Bishop should be tried as a witch. Plan on a hour for the experience, and get tickets early in the day! Younger children might have a hard time sitting quietly for the 45 minute reenactment- older kids will love "interrogating" witnesses- my son got to hold the key to Bishop's handcuffs.

New England Pirate Village proves that Salem isn’t ALL about witches! Pirates had a real influence on Salem’s history, especially during the 1650-1750 era. The guided tour will take you through a dimly lit path of mannequin displays showing the history of several famous pirates. Salem actually hired the infamous Captain Kidd to protect the area from the pirate known as Blackbeard. There are authentic artifacts on display; be sure to check out the collection of “Jolly Rogers” aka pirate flags. The last portion of the museum is self guided through a dark, barely lit path. No strollers allowed.  Visitors climb up and down stairs. Younger children will need to stay in a group, but there aren't too many breakable things for them touch. Plan to spend 30-40 minutes for the full tour.

The Witch Dungeon Museum, which starts with a live presentation on stage in an auditorium, is followed by a guided tour of the dungeon, where almost 200 people accused of witchcraft were held. The presentation gives background information of the harsh winter of 1962, the daily life for a family in Salem, and reenacts part of the trial of one of the accused “witches.”  The dungeon recreates the original dungeon where dozens of the accused were held. It is dark, and no strollers are allowed; however, everything in the dungeon is behind bars so there is not much for children to touch. Note: the final portion of the dungeon has a scene depicting the hangings- we had our kids look the other way.  Plan on 30 minutes for a visit.

The Witch History Museum begins in a small auditorium with a short presentation focusing on the history of the town and village before a guide brings visitors downstairs for a tour of mannequin displays depicting many of the events of 1692. This museum is unique in including the history of the slave Tituba, something not discussed in other museums. Younger children might be better suited for this museum since it has wider spaces to navigate for strollers, is better lit downstairs (although still dim), and doesn’t have too many spaces where wandering hands and legs could get into trouble.  Plan on 30 minutes for a visit.

The Witch House, home of Judge Jonathan Corwin, is great for older children (I’d say 7+) who will be amused at the explanation of several of the housewares. No strollers allowed, no bathrooms, and tons of authentic artifacts and furnishings that little children will be very tempted to touch.  Plan on 30 minutes for a visit. See if your older children can “I Spy”:

  • a "brick" of tea
  • collection of dried spices
  • recipes for superstitious potions
  • Baby cradles and children’s period toys
  • an authentic loom
  • The intricate door knobs and keys
  • The “pressed to death” explanation
  • The list of myths that involved eating blood and making soup from bones
  • Children will definitely take notice of the note stating that it was common to eat with your fingers and to use bread to scoop up the meal during the late seventeenth century.

Salem Pioneer Village was originally created in 1930 to celebrate the tercentennial of Massachusetts, and is currently under some construction. They still offer three timed tours to show the daily life of villagers in the late 17th century. Children will be fascinated by the gardens (both culinary and medicinal) and tools used by carpenters and blacksmiths. Plan on spending an hour for your visit. Note: It’s about a ten minute drive from the downtown area and is only open during the summer on weekends. Check their website for updates and schedules.

The House of Seven Gables is a bit of a walk from the main area (quarter mile north from the Maritime National Historic Site) but well worth the steps. There are three buildings on site: the birthplace of Nathaniel Hawthorn (the red house), the Counting House (where the Kids Cove will keep children entertained learning about the time period), and the main homestead, where a guide gives visitors a 45 minute tour of several furnished rooms. The property has beautiful gardens and grounds, and a gorgeous view of the lighthouse. Note: the main home has tight, small rooms and a very steep staircase. No strollers allowed. Younger children will be most engaged in the Counting House. 

Peabody Essex Museum, the oldest continuously running museum in America, is beautiful and a MUST visit for the entire family. We enjoyed our visit so much, I’ll be devoting an entire post to the museum later in the week. Children of all ages will enjoy the bright open spaces, and the vast, permanent collection. There are also several rotating exhibits, requiring a visit to the Peabody every few months to see what's new. Plan on at least 3-4 hours to explore.

Phillips House, home to five generations of the Phillips family, was the surprise of our visit! We were hesitant to bring our children on the tour of the 1821 home, mainly because every furnishing is authentic and not roped off or protected by glass enclosures. However, the tour guide engaged our children in every room of the tour. There are no strollers allowed, and younger children (under 7 yrs) might not be suited for this tour, but older children will be challenged to find items such as Stevie Phillip’s 1915 handwritten letter to Santa Claus, a whale’s tooth in the study, the children’s place at the dining room table, four authentic period phones, four mechanical banks, and period children’s games. Plus they’ll think it’s cool to wear protective booties over their shoes.   Plan on one hour for the tour and a visit to the Carriage House to see the automobiles.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site encompasses many preserved homes and has a great Junior Ranger Program for children. Children are given a guidebook and worksheets to complete, and after taking the oath, earn a cloth bag along with their badge.  The Park Service also has a monthly “Preschoolers in the Park” program that looks super fun! Start at the Visitor Center to grab a map, schedule of tours, and stamp your passport with six Passport Stamps.  You can also explore:

  • Customs House, built in 1819, is the home where ship owners would come to pay taxes on the goods being brought to Salem from around the world. There are ranger guided tour and visitors are allow to look around the home. 
  • Narbonne House is located behind the Customs House and only open during certain hours each day. They’ve got a great collection of artifacts dating back to the late seventeenth century, which were dug up after being buried for centuries (there was no formal trash pick up until the early the 1900s!)
  • The Derby House is under repair and is not open to the public in 2017. 
  • The Friendship of Salem, a replica of an East Indianman ship built in Salem in the late 18th century, is being restored in Gloucester, Massachusetts until early 2018 and is not on site in Salem.
  • Derby Wharf is a beautiful area with a path leading down to Light Station ( the lighthouse itself not open to the public). Note: the space is open with some sharp drops to the water. Watch little wanderers!

Plan to spend about 2-3 hours to fully explore the entire historic site. All sites are free (with the exception of some special programs and events). There is a public restroom located behind the Visitor’s Center.

Eating with the Locals: I spoke with a lot of locals and read many online reviews before our trip, and decided on the following spots for a few meals:

  • Jaho Coffee & Tea has an enticing selection of baked goods and hot drinks. The apple braid and pumpkin scones were our favorites.
  • Fountain Place is a good place if you can’t decide between breakfast and lunch; they serve up yummy versions of both.
  • Gulu Gulu has a boho vibe and lots of yummy salads, sandwiches, and a good selection of adult beverages. Children will LOVE the crepes.
  • Salem Beer Works has a great selection of beers and a really good kid’s menu (reasonably priced, too!)
  • Flying Saucer Pizza Company has large vegetarian and gluten options and uses locally grown ingredients.
  • Victoria Station, located right on the water with beautiful views, has a wide variety of options and reasonable prices. We were a large group (we met family to celebrate a birthday) lunching at peak time, and I was very impressed with how quickly the food came.
  • Ye Olde Pepper Companie is the perfect end to a meal- so many options for hand made chocolates and a HUGE variety of sweets. My kids loved the variety of gummies.

My favorite shop: Roost & Company. There are plenty of tourist shops with the usual apparel and trinkets, but I much prefer the smaller shops with handmade, personal gifts and mementos. The card display in the window of Roost & Co. caught my eye (I have drawers- note the plural- of stationery) and I had to be dragged out of the shop- such a beautiful collection of housewares, stationery, children’s items, and gifts.

One, final note: There is SO much to do, we couldn’t possibly pack it into our two day stay. We chose to focus on events we thought our children would enjoy, which is why we skipped the Salem Witch Museum (I was warned it’s dark, loud, and has depiction of the devil, which I knew would upset my son) and some of the nighttime events. I think it’s a safe bet, though, that teenagers would LOVE checking these places out (along with the Salem Wax Museum, Salem Witch Village, Chambers of Terror). Next time we visit, we also plan on taking at least one of the harbor cruises or boat tours. Salem.org can provide you with the full scoop!

Full disclosure: I was given a Destination Salem VIP Pass to visit most of these sites. However, the views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own.