One of the things I really love to do is be in the place that people say never to go, at the time you should never be there. For example, living in Vermont I often hear people warn “don’t go to Vermont on Columbus Day” or an even more clear “avoid New York on New Years Eve”. But the truth is that those places, at those times, usually provide for incredible experiences. That’s why so many people head that direction in the first place. With a little patience and some planning, you can still have a great experience and score some great people watching.
So with that in mind, when Halloween rolled around this year I decided to take the trek to Salem Massachusetts. As expected upon telling friends of the plan I was warned of chaos in the streets, horrible traffic, big crowds, dogs and cats sleeping together…. And I am pleased to say, it did not disappoint.
Salem is wrapped in history. Not just hauntings. Wandering the easily walkable streets leads to discovering a lot of interesting finds. Cemeteries filled with notable persons and mysterious characters and a number of interesting and informative walking tours are easy to find alongside the kitschy and curious shops and “museums”. Some worthwhile stops include
The Witch Corwin House
The “Witch House,” more accurately “The Corwin House”, is Salem’s only building with direct ties to the famous 1692 Witchcraft Trials. Jonathan Corwin, purchased the house in 1675 and would serve as magistrate and judge in the most famous witch hunt in American history. The guided tour is interesting, but a self guided tour is also available. This stop helps ground the experience of visiting Salem as it offers a more reverent and historic perspective of the reality of the witch trials. Allow about an hour for the self guided tour.
There are many different walking tours available in Salem. Two top picks are:
The Salem Witch Walk – if spells, voodoo and witchcraft are your thing, this entertaining stroll around Salem will be right up your alley. This tour leaves Essex Street Thursdays – Sundays at 3 and 7pm.
For something a bit more history focused but still entertaining and informative, try the Haunted Footsteps tour. This is one of the oldest running tours in the area and runs each night at 8pm.
A word of advice – if you’re visiting on Halloween, book one of these tours (or any activity) well in advance. On Halloween night, most of these tours do not operate as the streets are full of people and walking around is slow going. So plan to visit a night or two early to take advantage of these tours and some sightseeing.
The Gulu Gulu Cafe
I started my beer journey at the Gulu Gulu Cafe. This hip and fun spot is right in the heart of downtown Salem and offers up a great craft beer selection. Even better, they have a $10 flight of 4 x 5oz pours of any of their draft beers. I was lucky enough to have some selections from Lost Abbey, the Bruery, Night Shift and even a Gueze. Their selection changes a lot which is awesome, you can see their current beer menu here. The staff were friendly and social and they had live music which just made the vibe even more perfect. To top it off, they are even dog friendly on their patio, so Thor was able to join in some people watching while I enjoyed some great beers. Even the bathrooms sported some funky fun art. I would go so far as to call this a must-visit for any beer lover when in Salem.
The staff at the Gulu Gulu sent me a few doors down for my next beer, to the Naumkeag Ordinary. The ambiance of this spot was more “refined” than Gulu Gulu and the staff equally friendly. The beer list, while not as large, was well curated. The food menu here is always changing as well, with a touted local and seasonal focus. Being it was Halloween in Salem, it would be unfair to critique the food on this visit, but the overall spot and experience would get me back in to sit down and dine another time.
My next stop was Opus. A far more “upscale” spot. The atmosphere was bright and sharp, with a golden backlit bar top. Unfortunately the service here was starting to feel the Halloween pinch and things were a bit curt. I inquired about the downstairs (which looked more casual and had a larger craft beer selection) but it wasn’t due to open for another 30 minutes. I hung out at the bar with a delicious (and go to favorite) Stone Cali-Belgique IPA but were starting to really feel the crowds impact and decided that I didn’t want to camp here for the evening, so I pressed on.
Finally, after some amazing crowd watching, street performances, impromptu dance parties and some photo ops, I landed at the Village Tavern. It was here I scored a bar seat (seriously, fate) and hung out for the remainder of the evening. The Village has a full on sports bar vibe with a big center bar and plenty of TVs. The crowd was fun and loud and there was live music. The beer list was more typical, but they had Long Trail Brewery Limbo IPA on draft and that beer is plain fantastic. The service was rock solid for such a busy spot and they didn’t miss a beat on getting more brews or even filling waters. A massive plate of nachos with pulled pork was delicious and certainly large enough to share. One tip here, ask for the tall beers, a great value and at least on Halloween, served in glass rather than plastic. If you’re looking to watch a game or just for a good beer and some nachos, I’d certainly put this place on your list.
Salem Winter Island Park
Traveling in the Airstream I was excited to find a campground open on Halloween (reservations suggested for sure) Salem Winter Island Park. Operated by the city, Winter Island is located a short distance from the center of town (about 3 miles) and itslef is actually a very pretty stop. I enjoyed the remoteness of it on such a crazy weekend and while the campsites are basic, there are some nice waterside trails, a lighthouse as well as clean facilities and super friendly staff.
Overall Salem Massachusetts is the kind of town you are either into or your not. If you discount all of the witch and haunted content, it still stands up to most towns of it’s size in both walkability and cool factor. When you consider the number of oddities and the history that abounds, it easily becomes a must-visit New England town. For me, visiting on Halloween only made the experience better. Nearly everyone was dressed in costume and having a good time. It was remarkably well organized and the presence of police was obvious, creating an overall feeling of safety. I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again next Halloween.
In this Article
The Gulu Gulu Cafe is located at 247 Essex St, Salem, MA 01970
The Naumkeag Ordinary is located at 118 Washington St, Salem, MA 01970
The Village Tavern is located at 168 Essex St, Salem, MA 01984
Salem Winter Island Park is located at 50 Winter Island Rd, Salem, MA 01970