Start your Salem adventure at the National Park Service's Salem Visitor Center. From there, it's easy to follow the Heritage Trail, much like Boston's Freedom Trail, a red line that takes you through town and past many of Salem's most popular attractions. Close by, you'll find the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) founded in 1799 and home to fascinating art and history collections. The Phillips Library on the PEM campus (closed for renovations) is a repository for the original court documents from the witchcraft trials.
Move on to the Salem Witch Museum for a compelling retelling of the accusations, hysteria, trials and executions of 1692 through life-size dioramas. This might be a bit frightening for younger children but serves as a terrific orientation and introduction to Salem's blemished history. If you've not yet had your fill of witchy stuff, include the Witch Dungeon Museum on your tour, too. There, actors recreate the witch trials based on the 1692 transcripts.
The witch stuff is fascinating, but it's time to transition to some of Salem's other attractions. Get weaned off witches and onto Salem's sea-shaped past at the Salem Wax Museum of Witches & Seafarers. Meet many of the characters from Salem's past, realistically recreated in wax, and hear another retelling of the witch hysteria story via a multimedia presentation. A discounted Hysteria Pass (not available during October weekends) provides admission to both the wax museum and the Salem Witch Village (we're almost done with witches, I swear!)
The New England Pirate Museum has a fascinating collection of memorabilia from the days when notorious sea-robbers like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd terrorized the waters off Boston's North Shore. Meet the famous rapscallions and hunt for hidden treasure. Also make a stop at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The waterfront site includes three wharves, the U.S. Custom House complex (where Nathaniel Hawthorne opens his novel, The Scarlet Letter), the Derby House, the Narbonne House and the West India Goods Store. View a free movie detailing Salem's maritime past, and take a guided tour of the complex.
Don't miss my favorite Salem spot, the House of Seven Gables. Immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the House of Seven Gables is one of the oldest surviving 17th century wooden mansions in New England. If you're searching for spookiness, you'll love the home's secret staircase and this ghost story. The house in which Hawthorne was born is also located at the site, which is open for tours daily (except January 1-12).
Other attractions you might find of interest include the Salem 1630 Pioneer Village; The Phillips House, a federal mansion filled with artifacts; Pickering House, the oldest house continuously occupied by the same family; The Witch House (had to sneak in one more witch spot... it is Salem after all!), former home of witch trials judge Jonathan Corwin; and The Old Burying Point, Salem's oldest cemetery containing the graves of a Mayflower pilgrim and witchcraft trial judge John Hathorne, ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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