Salem draws thousands of visitors in the fall, especially during the town’s month-long Haunted Happenings Festival in October.
As a Salem resident, I’ve seen the small 45,000-person Massachusetts town in all four seasons, and there’s nothing quite like it in the fall.
Best known as the location of the 1692 witch trials, Salem experiences an annual spike in tourism in the weeks leading up to Halloween during its month-long Haunted Happenings Festival.
This year is no different, with over 100,000 visitors on certain days. Here’s what it’s actually like to be in Salem in October, its busiest month.
People who drive into Salem sit in standstill traffic until they reach the downtown area, where there are usually no available parking spots.
I’ve seen frustrated folks sit in stationary traffic for a long time.
When they finally reach the downtown area, they look for an open parking spot that they likely won’t find. By 9 a.m., most of Salem’s street parking and garage spaces are already claimed.
I can’t walk down Essex Street Pedestrian Mall without getting swallowed by the crowd.
If you plan on visiting the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall during an October weekend, prepare to be shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists. There’s no other way to travel down the attraction-lined brick and cobblestone street.
As a mother, I struggle to navigate my child’s stroller here on a normal day, so my stress level rises when I see strollers pass by me when it’s so crowded.
Washington Street gets similarly packed as people make their way to Lappin Park and Salem Common.
I took this photo of large crowds crossing Washington Street on a Saturday afternoon in October. Many were making their way to Lappin Park or the Haunted Happenings Marketplace in Salem Common, where vendors set up tents.
Still, it’s a great way to shop local and get a little more space than you’ll find on Washington Street, Essex Street, and the rest of the downtown area.
The restaurants and bars are packed, and people weather the October chill as they wait for a table or entry.
A lot of stores and tourist attractions close by 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., but don’t expect the lines to disappear or the downtown area to empty out.
Many restaurants and bars are busy throughout the evening and have lengthy waits for tables. If you get cranky when you’re hungry, you may want to pack your own snacks to hold you over.
Salem businesses do their best to accommodate an overwhelmingly large influx of patrons, so please be understanding. Don’t resort to writing bad reviews and make sure you tip the staff.
Or better yet, come back to Salem any month except October to hop around top-notch dining establishments without the lines.
Restaurant wait times can exceed two hours, so many opt for more casual, quick bites at Salem Common instead.
Eating at the food trucks in Salem Common is a quicker option than putting your name down at a restaurant on an October weekend. It’s also easy to find, since vendors are set up along the entrance.
There are usually still lines, but you won’t have to wait nearly as long for your food as you would for a table at one of the popular downtown restaurants.
Historic sites and restaurants aren’t the only places with long lines — people queue up to enter Salem’s downtown stores as well.
Shopping in downtown Salem requires plenty of patience at this time of year, but if you have time to pop into any stores, do it.
Be sure to visit places off of Essex Street, too. One of my very favorites is Nocturne on Front Street. You’ll still have to wait in line there, but you can walk around a little bit more freely than you can in the heart of Essex Street. Pickering Wharf has some amazing stops, too.
Check the hours of operation the day prior and get in line right when businesses open. Be sure to also look out for book readings and other events online before your visit.
If you’re short on time, take photos of storefronts and shop on their website when you get home. Some even offer online shoppers special discounts.
Buskers are an essential part of Salem’s Halloween celebrations, and pedestrians line up to watch their performances and take photos.
If you want to take your photo with some of Halloween’s most legendary characters, you’ll find them up and down Essex Street. However, you’ll need to get through a sea of your fellow tourists first.
Lines form just to get a glance at the performances, but they move quickly and are worth it for memories to take home with you. Don’t forget to tip the buskers.
I found it impossible to get photos of the famous Witch House without getting another tourist in the frame.
The Jonathan Corwin House, better known as The Witch House, is an iconic Salem landmark with direct ties to the witch trials.
You’ve probably seen stunning shots of this beauty on social media, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up if you visit during peak hours. Chances are low that you’ll be able to capture a photo without a tourist in the frame.
Tour tickets can only be purchased online on the same day of your visit, and there’s usually a line wrapped around the building.
Salem police offers are often stationed in the nearby intersection to help car and foot traffic pass through this busy area of town.
The line to enter Ropes Mansion can stretch around the block during peak hours.
Just a few steps up from The Witch House is the beautifully preserved Ropes Mansion, which was featured in the 1993 movie “Hocus Pocus.” Behind the mansion is the Ropes Garden, which is free to explore and open to the public from dawn to dusk.
Peabody Essex Museum runs this museum, which was once a home, and offers self-guided tours of the interiors from noon to 4 p.m. I recommend buying tickets ahead of time.
Still, the entry line gets very long and can even stretch around the block, so bring an apple and sip some cider while you wait.
Many tourists leave behind trash and exhibit disappointing behavior, but city officials have done their best to preserve the city and keep the streets clean.
If you’re going to be in Salem in October, pack your patience. The amount of trash that people leave behind is unimaginable, and some tourists’ behaviors is disappointing.
Still, the city is doing an amazing job of staying on top of the crowds.
Tour guides, street performers, service industry workers, the police department, city employees, and business owners are working tirelessly to share the city’s magic. Thank them when you can and respect our city.
Fall in Salem is magical. I’m glad tourists are able to explore it and boost the local economy.
Overall, I think the city is doing a fantastic job staying on top of the crowds.
If you want to avoid the worst of them, I’d suggest visiting outside the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., when most of the downtown shops and attractions are open.
Personally, I was relieved to find Salem Common mostly cleared out when I visited on a Friday around midnight.