The trolley bell rings as the old-fashioned bus rolls over cobblestones on Essex Street in Salem.
Sea spray and patriotism fill Old Town in Marblehead, where the harbor and history are never far apart.
“It’s so pretty here,” Etana Matatia, 19, of Stow, said as waves rushed over rocks at a small cove near the head of the town’s historic harbor.
Her mother, Susan, said she had always wanted to visit Marblehead. They poked around shops in Old Town. They stopped for an ice cream. Mostly, they enjoyed sweeping ocean views.
“It’s just such a perfect day,” Susan said, pausing after a photo by the blue, sparkling sea.
The grand homes of wealthy sea captains line their wide and winding streets. They’ve got their own candy and cookies dating to Colonial times.
Salem ships never left port without a supply of rock-hard Gibraltar candy, a modern-day version of which is sold at Ye Old Pepper Candy Companie (122 Derby St., 978-745-2744, peppercandy.net).
Marblehead fishermen took batches of ginger cookies called Joe Froggers on their long journeys.
Each community has cemeteries with headstones carved out of 17th-century stone, The Old Burying Point (Charter Street, www.salemweb.com) in Salem and the Old Burial Hill in Marblehead (enter at Orne Street, www.oldburialhill.org).
They’ve got famous paintings (the Spirit of ’76 at Abbot Hall in Marblehead, 188 Washington St., 781-631-0528) and just about everything in Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (161 Essex St., 978-745-9500, www.pem.org).
For a visitor, there seems to be something to learn at every turn.
“I didn’t know Nathaniel Hawthorne was from here,” said Helen Shaw, 26, a visitor from New Zealand, as she walked along the Essex Street mall in Salem.
Her friend, Kylie McKeown, included a day trip to Salem as a stop on their two-month travel itinerary.
“I’ve always been interested in Salem, “said McKeown, 28, who lives in Australia. “I sort of had a morbid curiosity about all the witch history.”
But she didn’t find anything morbid about the Witch City. “So far, it’s cute,” McKeown said as she made her way up Essex Street to the Witch House (310½ Essex St., 978-744-8815, www.witchhouse.info).
In Marblehead, Ed Hennessey was happy to make a revolutionary discovery.
“Oh, that’s where the Spirit of ’76 is,” Hennessey said as he came upon Abbot Hall with his wife, Janet, and two grown children.
Hennessey, who lives in Thailand, drove for the day from Boston to visit a friend who lives in town.
They admired the Old Town House, built in 1727, where Marblehead patriots General John Glover (whose regiment rowed Washington over the Delaware) and Elbridge Gerry (who became the nation’s fifth vice president) joined others to plot the nation’s path to liberty.
Then the family trekked uphill to the “new” seat of government: Abbot Hall, built in 1876.
As her family headed inside to see the Spirit of ’76, Janet Hennessey said she appreciated the lush garden at the Jeremiah Lee Mansion (161 Washington St., 781-631-1069, www.marbleheadmuseum.org) and flowers blooming outside homes and shops.
Abbot Hall is a great spot to start a walking tour of old town. Head down the hill, and take time to pop into the Marblehead Museum and Historical Society (170 Washington St., 781-631-1768, www.marbleheadmuseum.org). Admission is free.
The colorful work of folk artist J.O.J. Frost, displayed in a second-floor gallery, recalls a time when Marblehead fishing schooners headed to the rich grounds of the Grand Banks.
It’s not too far a walk to the waterfront, where sailboats are tightly moored in Marblehead Harbor. A good view is from a bench at Crocker Park (Front Street, www.marblehead.org).
Just down the road, Fort Sewall (Fort Sewall Lane) offers equally stunning views of the harbor. But here you can also find a windowless dungeon and the bomb-proof headquarters of the Colonial-era military fort.
There’s lots more grand homes and local color to enjoy about town. (A sweet site: a tiny statue of a dalmation in a fire helmet, on Franklin Street.)
But if your feet are tired, head over to Salem. The National Park Service Visitor Center (2 New Liberty St., 978-740-1650, www.nps.gov) is a great place to plan your day.
The cost is $15 per adult, $14 for senior citizens, and $5 for children ages 5 to 14. Children 5 or younger ride for free. Salem residents ride for free until Sept. 30.
The guided tour is full of history and local lore. The Salem Witch Trials Memorial (next to The Burying Point on Charter Street) pays tribute to 20 people executed in the hysteria of 1692. Dead Horse Beach at Salem Willows is said to be named for horses that perished in the Great Salem Fire of 1914.
“He gave a lot of information,” said Barbara Flynn of Connecticut. “I loved hearing all the history and the little tidbits” about Salem.
Flynn, a retired high school English teacher, said she’ll be back another time to visit The House of the Seven Gables (115 Derby St., 978-744-0991, 7gables.org).