12 Top Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Salem and Cape Ann
The colonial port of Salem was once a far more important shipping city than Boston, and a primary player in the China Trade. Today, it preserves an astonishing number of fine homes that once belonged to sea captains and wealthy merchants. Walk along Chestnut Street and others in the neighborhood to admire them, and gain insight into the lavish lifestyle of their former residents with a tour of the Stephen Phillips Memorial Trust House. But Salem - for better or worse - is best known as the scene of the infamous Witchcraft Trials of 1692, and this has been exploited in a number of modern made-for-tourist attractions seeking to recreate this grisly past. It's a shame that in this modern witch hysteria, many visitors fail to see one of America's finest museums - the Peabody Essex Museum, and the wealth of genuine historic homes and tourist sights Salem has to offer.
The entire North Shore area, which includes beautiful and equally historic Cape Ann, has been designated as the Essex National Heritage Area encompassing 34 villages and communities that claim "more historic structures per acre than anywhere else in the country."
See also: Where to Stay in Salem and Cape Ann
1 Peabody Essex Museum
At the extraordinary Peabody Essex Museum, you can see collections of maritime art, American decorative arts, and historical and contemporary arts from China, Japan, Korea, India, Africa, North America, and the Pacific Islands. Perhaps most outstanding is the chance to explore inside the Huang family's two-century-old ancestral home, brought here and reassembled from China's Huizhou region. Also part of the Peabody complex are several historic houses open to visitors, including the 1684 John Ward House, the 1727 Crowninshield-Bentley House, and the brick Gardner-Pingree House (1804) with an elegant interior including work by master builder Samuel McIntire.
Address: 161 Essex Street, Salem, MA
2 Salem Maritime National Historic Site
The Salem Maritime National Historic Site includes about nine acres along the waterfront and twelve historic buildings preserving Salem's late 18th- and 19th-century maritime history, which helped establish economic independence in the fledgling United States. This is also the permanent home of the tall ship Friendship, a reconstructed 18th-century commercial sailing vessel, which you can tour in the summer. At the historic site, you can view exhibits, watch two free orientation films, and glimpse into the lives of author Nathaniel Hawthorne or America's first millionaire, Elias Hasket Derby, during hour-long free guided tours. Derby's 1762 home is also open to visitors.
Address: 160 Derby Street, Salem, MA
3 House of Seven Gables
The House of Seven Gables site is a collection of colonial homes including one of the oldest surviving 17th-century wooden mansions in New England, built in 1668. Nathaniel Hawthorne used the House of Seven Gables as the setting for his famous novel of the same name. Guides will lead you up curving, secret staircases and recount the history of its former occupants as you view period artifacts, photos, and paintings. Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1804 birthplace, which has been restored to its 1808 appearance, has been moved to the same grounds, which also include four other houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Address: 115 Derby Street, Salem, MA
4 Stephen Phillips Memorial Trust House
The Phillips House is a Federal-style home featuring Chinese porcelains, Persian carpets, paintings, and early American furniture. The collections span five generations of the Phillips family highlighting African woodcarvings and Native American pottery. What you'll find most fascinating about the Phillips House is the way it shows how a real family collects in a home, generation after generation, instead of stripping away all the later years and leaving only the items of a particular period. This house shows the home's use throughout much of Salem's history, with furnishings and family collections from all eras.
Address: 34 Chestnut Street, Salem, MA
5 Witch House (Corwin House)
Judge Jonathan Corwin, one of the magistrates in the witch trials, lived in this large house, built in 1642. It's the only structure still standing in Salem with direct ties to the Witchcraft Trials of 1692. Witch House has been preserved in its original appearance, and is an excellent example of Salem's 17th-century architecture. You'll find the guided tours here especially interesting, blending information about lifestyles, furnishings, and architecture of the time with insights into Corwin's role in the events of 1692.
Address: 310 Essex Street, Salem, MA
The red fishing shack with its lobster buoys is so often painted and photographed as the iconic New England fishing harbor that it is known as Motif #1. Art galleries and studios still dot the streets of the picturesque little fishing town. The Sandy Bay Historical Society and Museum, the Old Castle, and the James Babson Cooperage Shop will interest the historically minded. The greatest local curiosity is the Paper House, built in 1922 entirely of newspaper, as is the furniture inside.
The sea, boats, and fishing have occupied this work-a-day Cape Ann fishing harbor for centuries, a tradition commemorated in the bronze statue of the Gloucester Fisherman on the waterfront and in the five-day St. Peter's Festival, organized by Gloucester's Italian American community in late June. Stop by the excellent little museum of the Cape Ann Historical Association to see works of artist Fitz Henry Lane and others, as well as furniture, decorative arts, and maritime artifacts and exhibits. Gloucester's picturesque artists' colony of Rocky Neck is still filled with studios.
8 Beauport (Sleeper-McCann House)
Beauport was built by Henry Davis Sleeper in 1907 as a summer home and expanded for the next 27 years until it reached its present 40 rooms. He filled these with his collections of American and European art, curiosities, folk art, china, and colored glass gathered from his travels and his work as an interior designer. He also collected entire room interiors, which he incorporated into the ever-expanding home. Along with seeing the eccentric house, you'll enjoy hearing about Sleeper himself and his equally colorful friends as you tour the rooms.
Address: 75 Eastern Point Boulevard West, Gloucester, MA
9 Hammond Castle Museum
Hammond Castle was built between 1926 and 1929 by inventor John Hays Hammond, Jr. in the style of a medieval castle to house his personal collection of Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance artifacts. While he was gathering these on his frequent trips to Europe, he also collected architectural bits and pieces, as well as interior features that he incorporated into the building. It's fun to see how he combined local granite with ancient and medieval stonework to create his own seaside castle.
Address: 80 Hesperus Avenue, Gloucester, MA
10 Essex Shipbuilding Museum
During the 19th century, more two-masted vessels were launched from the town of Essex than any other town in the world. The Essex Shipbuilding Museum, in an 1835 schoolhouse and a shipyard on the riverfront, houses a collection of some 8,000 tools and other items relating to that industry. More than 3,000 photographs portray vessels, landscapes, history, and architecture. Essex River Cruises can take you on narrated tours where you'll see estates, farms, and historic ship yards in a landscape of salt marshes, islands, barrier beaches, sand dunes, winding rivers, and abundant wildlife.
Address: 66 Main Street, Essex, MA
Ipswich is a popular town with antiques enthusiasts, who revel in the shops and galleries along High Street. The shore estate of Castle Hill is a fine example of those built by wealthy families in the early 20th century, and its grounds include walking trails and the long shore of Crane Beach. You can tour the Great House from late May through mid-October. Two other historic houses are filled with fine antiques: The John Heard House is a Federal style mansion built around 1800, with Asian and American furnishings, art, and a collection of carriages and sleighs. Built in the mid-1600s by a sea captain, the John Whipple House contains period furnishings and other antiques.
- John Heard House: 54 South Main Street, Ipswich, MA
- John Whipple House: 1 South Village Green, Ipswich, MA
Just north of Salem, Beverly was founded in 1626, and the Beverly Historical Society maintains three historic homes that you can tour. The brick Cabot House was built in 1781 by John Cabot and was the site of the Beverly Bank, the nation's oldest community bank, from 1802 to 1868. Permanent exhibits include dolls, portraits, art, and military and maritime artifacts. Built in 1636, Balch House is one of the oldest in the country, and has been restored to as close to its original design and furnishings as possible. Hale Farm was built in 1694 and owned by Reverend John Hale, who was involved in the witchcraft trials of 1692 when his wife was accused of being a witch.
Address: 117 Cabot Street, Beverly, MA
Where to Stay in Salem and Cape Ann for Sightseeing
Most of the tourist attractions in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester, as well as restaurants and shops, cluster close to their historic harbors. But the entire coast is dotted with scenic points, parks, and sandy beaches, so anywhere you stay on Cape Ann will be near plenty of things to do. These highly-rated hotels in Salem and Cape Ann are convenient for sightseeing:
- Luxury Hotels: Family-run Bass Rocks Ocean Inn sits on Gloucester's rocky shore, with sea views, a large pool, free breakfast, parking, free bicycles, and Wi-Fi. Also with a large pool, Beauport Hotel sits right on the beach overlooking Gloucester harbor. Watch the surf break on the rocky shore from the long porch of the historic Emerson Inn in Rockport. There's a pool, free breakfast, free parking, and sidewalks all the way to the harbor and shops, as well as a scenic cliff path to Halibut Point State Park.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In a residential district of historic homes, the beautifully appointed rooms at Salem Inn have amenities like fireplaces and whirlpool tubs; breakfast is included. In the midst of all Salem's attractions, dining, and shops, the historic Hawthorne Hotel has free parking and well-decorated traditional rooms with a boutique feel. Walk to all Salem's attractions or hop onto the tour trolley right in front of The Salem Waterfront Hotel & Suites at Pickering Wharf, where the spacious, modern rooms include free parking.
- Budget Hotels: On weekends, the trolley takes you sightseeing from Rockport Inn and Suites, three quarters of a mile from the center, with an outdoor deck and pool, free parking, and breakfast included. On the point just across the bridge from Beverly and a 15-minute walk from Salem's attractions, Clipper Ship Inn has well-kept rooms in a quiet neighborhood. Between Gloucester and Rockport, the low-key Captains Lodge Motel is a good base for touring Cape Ann, with large rooms and passes to local beaches.