A Day Out in Salem

Every now and then it happens that I wake up Saturday morning and realize I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. On days like this, one of my favorite impromptu rambles is up to Salem, MA. Just 40 minutes northeast of Somerville, you can roll out of bed, read the paper, and still have plenty of time to get up there and explore. And now that Halloween — the Witch City’s Mardi Gras — has come and gone, you shouldn’t have to fight the crowds.

The Peabody Essex Museum is always my first stop. An excellent small museum focusing on maritime and Asian art (since Salem’s wealth historically came from the China trade),PEM always has a great special exhibit on display. One recent exhibit included treasures from Beijing’s Forbidden City, and another featured a sumptuous private collection of Dutch paintings. On display through Nov 6 is “Painting the American Vision,” an array of Hudson River School paintings, including a colossal quartet, Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire.” (The museum is open til 9pm Thursday night if you want to scoot up there after work.) Head up on Sunday early and snag a metered space around the museum — you can park for free and be among the first into the museum when it opens at 10 am. (The last day of the exhibit is sure to be shoulder-to-shoulder.)

A foggy stroll out to a lighthouse.

After PEM, I generally need a pick-me-up. My preference is to find a hot cider at one of Salem’s many attractive coffee shops and then go for a bracing stroll along the waterfront, part of which is a National Historic Site featuring information about Salem’s history as a major U.S. port. If you’d like to keep walking, I suggest these downloadable, free brochures for self-guided walking tours on Literary Salem, Architectural Salem, Maritime Salem, and Generally Historical Salem.

But if you’re itching for more culture (or if it’s raining) the House of the Seven Gables was a favorite spot of mine when young — the house, made famous by Nathaniel Hawthorne, features an evocative secret passage (recently discovered to be a late add-on, and not the Underground Railroad way-station they once thought it was). The Salem Witch Museum will give you a good sketch of the town’s dark episode of mass hysteria, if you don’t mind wax figures.

(Full disclosure: my many-times great uncle was the dour Judge William Stoughton, the witch trials’ toughest jurist. My recommendation of Salem as a fun day trip from Boston should not be taken as an endorsement of Puritans, colonial magistrates, or the use of spectral evidence — in which plaintiffs accused defendants of demonically attacking them via nightmares — in courts of law.)

Since learning dehydrates me, I usually like to finish up with a beer sampler at the Salem Beer Works — personal favorites include Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale (complete with Maine blueberries bobbing happily in your glass), Black Bat Stout, Witch City Red, and Salem American Pale Ale. Fortunately, Salem is so close to Boston that you can be back home in time for dinner — which is a good thing, since I’ve yet to find a really worthwhile place to eat there.

Do you know a good noshing spot in Salem? Let us know and we’ll be sure to check it out next time we’re there.

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