BY KAREN TENENBAUM
During the 12-month Halloween season that precedes the holiday each year, Salem can seem like a one-industry town: witches. There is a Witch House, the Witches Dungeon Museum, witch-themed restaurants, and a play called “Cry Innocent,” in which you, the audience, get to cross-examine the alleged witch, just like in TAW. But it’s also one of the sweet New England towns on the North Shore, reachable by commuter rail.
The train deposits you within a few blocks of the old downtown, which is a combination of historically significant landmarks and a giant shopportunity at witch-related stores. The first thing we did was walk to the Salem Athenaeum at 337 Essex Street. An athenaeum is, essentially, a town library. Salem has a public library as well, so the Athenaeum functions as a warm, quiet reading room and source of historical documents. It’s located in an old house in a historic residential neighborhood. The library began as the collection of the Social Library, a 1760 project of a group of wealthy, educated Salem residents called the Monday Evening Club. The Social Library was free and open to anyone who paid the current equivalent of $1,500 in yearly dues. On Saturday, the Athenaeum had a book sale in its garden for $1 a bag. An entire set of Harvard Library classics was going for $10, which was a really great deal, except it would have meant schlepping 30 really edifying hardback books all around Salem until 6 pm. (At some point you’d pay $10 not to carry Pilgrim’s Progress for one more instant, and suddenly you’re passing the dumpster at Ye Olde Witches Tapas Bar…)
For lunch, I recommend In a Pig’s Eye at 148 Derby St, close to the water. It’s a small, non-touristy restaurant with a bar, serving mostly American and Mexican food, and great clam chowder. The restaurant has live music on most evenings. Another restaurant that looks interesting is Salem Diner, which is about a mile south of the downtown on Canal Street. After lunch, you can walk to the House of Seven Gables, which is America’s 9th most favorite historical house. It was built, renovated, downsized, and rebuilt by some of Salem’s wealthiest families, starting in the 1660s. The house can seem underwhelming at first, but becomes more impressive upon a guided tour. It’s important to see it in the context of the bleak, New England, early American experience, when people painted rooms Kelly green and bought wallpaper to demonstrate their wealth. Adjacent to the house is a great flower and herb garden, as well as Nathanial Hawthorne’s birthplace. There’s also a gift shoppe where you can purchase Scarlet Letter playing cards.
After the House of Seven Gables, we wandered to Derby Wharf, with two replicas of historic ships to visit. It’s overlooked by the “U.S. Custom House,” which, the informational sign points out, is definitely NOT affiliated with the U.S. Government. (Maybe it was a scam up to collect “tariff” money?) From there, it’s a short walk to Salem Common, which is a lot like Cambridge Common, actually, and really pleasant to sit along for a while. Then we unsuccessfully scoured the town for a Starbucks after seeing someone with a Starbucks cup. Dejected, I lost interest in visiting the Peabody Essex museum, so we did a lap through the historic residential district before taking the train back.
How to get there:Take the T to North Station and find the commuter rail terminal. Pay $7.50 for a roundtrip ticket on the Newburyport/Rockport line to Salem. Don’t lose hope when, 17 minutes into a 20 minute train ride, you’re still passing through marshy industrial yards. The center of town is a 3-minute walk from the station.
Travel tip of the week: Going to Newton, Eliot, or Waban? Alright, but suppose that you were: You can get there for FREE. Swipe your Harvard ID on the M2 bus that stops at the gate in front of Toscanini’s. The M2 takes Harvard affiliates to and from the Medical School campus at Longwood, across the river. Tell the driver you’d like to get off at the Fenway stop. When you do, cross the street and board the outbound Green Line (D) for free! There’s no fare at outbound Green Line surface stops (that’s all stops after Kenmore or Symphony). It does, however, cost $3 to get back.