There is something special about October. Cool temperatures and brightly colored leaves warm our hearts. The month’s end brings spooky celebrations and a chance to be someone other than ourselves. Salem, a sleepy coastal town in Essex County, Massachusetts, is a bucket list destination for many travelers during this time of year. But is visiting Salem in October a good idea for you or not?
Julie and I visited “Witch City” in early October to find out for ourselves. I had a deep fear that the town would feel gimmicky. It does have a bit of that element, but the historical places, quaint dwellings, and festive vibe ultimately outweigh the hokey attractions you will encounter.
Salem, Massachusetts, is renowned for the infamous witch trials of 1692. However, it is much more than that. Like a ghost, the witch trials cast a shadow over the rest of its past.
Salem has a rich maritime history and is the birthplace of the National Guard. The historical coastal town houses the Salem Maritime National Historic Site, America’s first national historic site. It comprises nine acres of land, a downtown visitor center, and twelve landmark structures along the Salem waterfront.
Let me be clear. Yes, Salem is worth visiting. The question remains: is it worth seeing in October? Let’s explore the pros and cons of an October visit. Then, we will outline the best things to do regardless of when you visit.
Cons: Reasons Not To Visit in October
Why should you stay home during Salem’s busy season?
It Is Crowded
Because of its witch lore, urban legend, and spooky festivals, Salem receives most of its visitors in October. It is dubbed the Halloween capital of America for a reason.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the town has approximately 45,000 residents. The city regularly sees a half million to one million visitors in October. There are a lot of additional witches, ghosts, and goblins floating around town this time of year.
Parking Is Limited
Driving is a nightmare. Narrow streets with lines of cars and thousands of pedestrians make it challenging to get anywhere fast.
Parking is atrocious. Good luck finding a spot. If you find a space, be prepared to pay up to $30 daily for that piece of prime real estate.
Prepare To Wait
I hope you enjoy waiting in line. People regularly wait an hour or longer to enter the area stores. Lines start forming in the morning and last throughout the day. Your wait for many local restaurants can be up to two hours.
Accommodations Are Limited
During Salems’ busy season, accommodations are limited. Due to the laws of supply and demand, any available lodgings will be more expensive.
Photo Opportunities Do Not Exist
If you want to capture a perfect selfie or a family photo next to a historical landmark, forget about it. Thousands of other people have the same idea. People swarm to these sites, like an organized photobomb.
Pros: Reasons To Visit in October
Why should you consider traveling to Salem during its busiest month of the year?
Leaf Peeping Season
Although the timing may differ yearly due to weather patterns, October regularly displays gorgeous gold, crimson, and orange hues. Salem and the surrounding New England area look like a picture-perfect painting.
Witch City boasts the world’s largest Halloween celebration. Salem Haunted Happenings, a month-long event, provides festivities and events throughout the town.
If you enjoy people-watching, October is the best time to visit. You will discover some of the most creative costumes you have ever seen.
Salem is somewhat spooky year-round, but October takes things to another level. With so many people in the area, the extra decorations and additional activities generate a contagious energy. You can practically feel it buzzing in the air.
Salem carries a Halloween vibe year-round. Outside of October, the energy is not as electric but still has a witchy feel.
Salem is a walkable city. Yes, October practically forces you to walk. However, you will likely tour the town on foot regardless of when you visit.
If driving to Salem in October terrifies you, Boston provides public transportation alternatives by train and ferry.
The decision ultimately boils down to your interests and goals. Suppose you are an absolute Halloween fanatic, visit in October. Those who want the full-fledged experience of seeing all the festivities, decorations, and costumes should go in October. If you are not crowd-adverse, going during the busiest month is the best way to experience Salem.
For visitors who only care about Salem’s maritime history, I would steer clear of Witch City during its busiest month. I would stay away in October if you are ho-hum about Halloween or dislike crowds. For anyone who does not want the full-fledged experience, there is no reason to visit during the busy season.
Julie and I love Halloween and leaf peeping. I’m not too fond of crowds and driving. Thankfully, Julie does not mind crowds and loves to drive. She has always fancied being a witch, and I envision myself as a crusty old sea captain. So, the combination of witch lore and maritime history appeals to both of us. An October visit was worthwhile for us.
If you plan to visit Salem in October, here are a few tips to help your trip go smoother.
Book accommodations early to secure a room. If you plan to book any tours, reserve those in advance. Attractions and experiences fill up quickly in Salem.
Go Early in the Month
Crowd levels spike in October. They get worse with each passing day, peaking at nightmarish on Halloween. We went at the beginning of the month to get the October experience but to avoid the most significant crowd surges at month-end.
Visit on a Weekday
Weekends (Friday through Sunday) always draw the biggest crowds. If your schedule allows, visit on a weekday.
Head to downtown Salem early in the morning. Try to arrive before 9 a.m. on weekends and before 10 a.m. on weekdays. You gain improved odds of finding a parking space, and crowd levels will be lighter for the first hour or two.
Yes, Patience Is a Virtue
Try to be patient. It is frustrating, but everybody wants to see the same things as you. Go into the day with a patient mindset, and things will feel more relaxed.
Get Into the Spirit
Wear a costume or clothing to celebrate the fall season. You should feel in the right place since many guests dress up. It is all part of the experience and can be fun.
Best Things To Do in Salem, MA, in October
So, what are the top things to see and do in Salem?
- Location: 310 Essex Street
You will discover several houses throughout Salem that don spooky black siding. The most famous of these was once the home of Judge Jonathan Corwin. Yes, he was one of the judges during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692.
The Jonathan Corwin house, usually called the Witch House, is likely the most photographed spot in Salem. It is one of the few structures in town with direct ties to the “witch hunt” and the corresponding trials.
You can take a self-guided tour of the house to learn more about the trials and Puritan life at that time. At the very least, you should capture a photo. Admittedly, that is a challenging task in October.
Salem Witch Trials Memorial
- Location: 24 Liberty Street
One of the most sobering stops in town is the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. Sadly, those accused of witchcraft were executed.
The memorial honors the 20 victims with simple but beautiful stone benches that often contain flowers or trinkets left as a tribute. You can walk through the memorial and see each name carved in stone on the benches.
Mature shade trees grow in the peaceful garden. It is adjacent to the Old Burying Point Cemetery and near many shops and restaurants.
Charter Street Cemetery
- Location: 51 Charter Street
The Charter Street Cemetery, known as the Old Burying Point, sits next to the Salem Witch Trials Memorial. It opened in 1637 and is Salem’s oldest maintained cemetery.
You will discover several notable Salem figures buried here, including accused witch Martha Corey and judges John Hathorne and Bartholomew Gedney.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site
- Location: Derby Street along Salem Harbor
I am a national park fanatic and thoroughly enjoy visiting our national treasures, whether they feature natural beauty or history. Admittedly, I was unaware that Salem houses our first national historic site. Although the area is renowned for its sad history regarding the witch trials, do not skip the maritime history. It is fascinating in its own right.
Salem Harbor houses historic buildings, wharves, and the vessel Friendship. The park site honors one of America’s most influential ports and the traders and sailors who helped shape our country.
With a short, peaceful walk along a narrow strip of land jutting into the harbor, you gain an up close and personal view of the Derby Wharf Light Station. Although only about 20 feet tall, the historic lighthouse, built in 1871, has a unique square design. The walk is lovely, and it is not every day that you can touch a lighthouse.
Essex Street Pedestrian Mall
- Location: Essex Street and Central Street (middle of downtown)
Shopping in the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall is a must. You will find a historic brick and cobblestone road littered with quaint shops, eateries, galleries, and museums. Yes, the touristy district is teeming with costumed tourists browsing for witch-themed merchandise.
Some shops feel hokey, while others are charming. Strolling through the shops and eating at the cafes is part of the Salem experience. As a whole, it is a lot of fun.
Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie
- Location: 122 Derby Street
Halloween is synonymous with candy. It is no wonder Salem houses America’s oldest candy company. Ye Olde Pepper Candy Companie has been making and selling handmade confections since 1806. Although you can purchase modern candies and all sorts of chocolate goodies, I suggest you try the two historic sweets for which the company is known.
Gibralters were the first commercially sold candy in America. Each package contains a sample of both lemon and peppermint. I prefer the lemon. Unlike many sour lemon candies that cause you to pucker instinctively, the lemon Gibralters melt in your mouth with a delightful mild flavor.
The Black Jacks are stick candy with a black strap molasses flavor. I realize molasses is not everyone’s cup of tea. Maybe it is an appreciation of history or a general fondness for candy, but I enjoyed both the Gibralters and Black Jacks. I recommend everyone taste a piece of history.
Elizabeth Montgomery Statue
- Location: Lappin Park (end of the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall)
Although a touristy thing to do in Salem, the Bewitched statue is one of the most visited spots. It honors Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Samantha (a witch) in the hit television show Bewitched. The figure is an excellent photo opportunity. Just be prepared to wait for your turn patiently.
Hocus Pocus Filming Sites
Salem comprises more than one pop culture franchise. I fondly remember watching the movie Hocus Pocus each Halloween with my children. Even though our kids are grown, Julie and I watch it yearly.
The crew shot a few scenes in Salem while making the 1993 film. If you are a fan, you can check out the film locations. Here are some of our favorite spots:
- Dani and Max’s House – 4 Ocean Avenue
- Allison’s House – 318 Essex Street, The Ropes Mansion
- Thackery Binx’s House – Salem Pioneer Village in Forest River Park, 98 West Avenue
- High School – Phillips Elementary School, 86 Essex Street
- Town Hall Halloween Party – Salem Old Town Hall, 32 Derby Square
Relax in Salem Common
- Location: N. Washington Square (heart of downtown)
Salem Common is an 8-acre public park with sprawling green sections, shade trees, paths, a playground, and a gazebo. It is the perfect place to walk, relax, and picnic. During October, you will find many food trucks in the park.
Other Things To Do in Salem
We have provided our suggestions for the top things to do. Undoubtedly, Salem offers many other things to do.
Some of the remaining attractions are more hokey or cost more money than the value you receive for the experience. That said, here are some of the other popular attractions in Salem.
Salem offers walking tours, ghost tours, trolley tours, and more. If you can think of a guided city excursion, Salem likely has it.
Tour the House of the Seven Gables
The setting of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famous 1851 novel, The House of the Seven Gables, is a National Historic Landmark District. You must purchase tickets for a guided tour of the 1688 colonial mansion.
Salem Witch Museum
You get an immersive experience through a narration and life-sized mannequins.
Peabody Essex Museum
The Peabody Essex Museum is one of America’s oldest continuously operating museums.
Salem Witch Dungeon Museum
Witness a re-enactment of the witch trials.
Salem Wax Museum and Salem Witch Village
Exhibits and wax figures provide a history museum and gift shops.
Plan Your Salem Visit
Whether you prefer to dress up as a witch or a crusty old sea captain, Salem has a fascinating history and a festive Halloween vibe. October yields a full-fledged experience with more festivities. Visiting Salem in October may be worthwhile if you can handle crowds and waiting in line. If you only care about Salem’s maritime history or fear drowning in a sea of people, you should visit during another time of year. No matter when you visit, Salem promises a wicked good time.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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About the author
We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.