The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum: A European Palace of Art in the Heart of Boston

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston is one of the most unique museums that I’ve ever been to.  And you should trust me because, as a history buff, I’ve been to a LOT of museums! You are, probably, most familiar with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum from the art heist of 1993 when 13 pieces were stolen in a still unresolved crime.  Leaving mental scenes of movie-like robberies aside, if you’re ever in Boston, I strongly encourage you to visit in order to see not only the immense art collection but also to take in the incredible setting: a mock 15th century Venetian palace! Where else are you going to be able to see that in the United States?!

As you enter the museum, the first striking visual is the exceedingly gorgeous garden courtyard filled with blooming flowers and tropical plants surrounded by four walls that incorporate Gothic and Renaissance architectural structures.  The heavenly enclosure is most definitely a place to get your photo taken or to snap a selfie.

All of the magnificently decorated rooms of the three-floored palace surround the courtyard.  Each contains a fabulous array of paintings, tapestries, furniture, lighting fixtures, sculptures and other works of art from all around the globe.  Weaving in and out of rooms, you’ll discover treasure after treasure.  

After her father’s death in 1891, Isabella Stewart Gardner received a large inheritance and began  seriously collecting pieces of art. Working alongside an architect, she designed the current museum as a home in the style of a Venetian palace.  Many visitors believe that the building was disassembled in Italy and then moved, piece by piece, to Boston. In fact, the structure was constructed, in its current location, out of concrete and was crowned with a lofty glass roof held up by steel supports.  To give it a rich, historic feel, antique architectural elements were worked into the building. When it was finished, Gardner installed her art collection and opened her unique museum home to the public on January 1, 1903. Due to its location in the Fens district of Boston, it came to be known as Fenway Court.  Isabella welcomed many famous artists and intellectuals into her home, where they drew inspiration from the phenomenal surroundings. Today, the museum holds over 7,500 individual pieces of art, 1,500 rare books, and 7,000 archival objects that span the entire course of world history from ancient Rome and China to 19th century France.  Wow!

As you wander around the marvelous structure, you’ll encounter stately rooms full of imposing architectural and artistic pieces.  However, you’ll also come across more intimate spaces that are cordoned off so that only a limited number of people are allowed in at one time.  In those less monumental spaces, you’ll experience close encounters with the most iconic pieces of art, such as Whistler’s “Harmony in Blue and Silver”, Degas’ “Portrait of Josephine Gaujelin”, and Matisse’s “The Terrace, St. Tropez”.  The museum also contains many works by John Singer Sargent who was a frequent guest of Isabella Stewart Gardner. Perhaps, the most famous pieces in the collection are Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait”, Botticelli’s “Story of Lucretia”, Fra Angelico’s “Death and Assumption of the Virgin”, and Titian’s “Rape of Europa”. 

When Isabella Stewart Gardner died in 1924, she left behind a large endowment and specific instructions that her home and collection be put on permanent display “for the education and enjoyment of the public forever”.  Thanks to her passion and generosity, we can continue to enjoy such incredible works of art today.

However, I need to be completely honest with you. I’m no art connoisseur. I know very little about the subject, and, believe it or not, I don’t usually spend too much time in art museums.  However, I found myself really taking my time when exploring the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. I felt like, for a few hours, I had left Boston and been transported to Europe, where I was the guest of some historic noble family in their majestic Renaissance palace. I’ve never before visited a museum that evoked that kind of sentiment.  That’s why I believe the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is an exceptional artistic and historic experience for those visiting the city of Boston.   

Location

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is located at 25 Evans Way in Boston, Massachusetts.

If you’re already in the city, the easiest way to get there is by public transportation. Take the Green Line of the MBTA (or the “T” as, we, Bostonians call it) to the Museum of Fine Arts stop. From there, click the link above to get walking directions.

If you’re driving in from outside of the city, click on the link above to get directions. If you’re visiting on a weekend, you may find metered parking spaces outside the museum. If not, I would advise parking in the nearby garage of the Simmons School of Management at 86 Avenue Louis Pasteur. The museum allows you to receive a discounted rate. See their website for more details.

Fantastic Metal Beasts and Where to Find Them in Salem

Looking for something free and extremely out of the ordinary to do in Salem, Massachusetts?  How about a visit to a yard full of metal sculptures? Yes, you read that correctly.  If you’re visiting Salem or live nearby, you should stop by this outdoor sculpture gallery located in, yes, someone’s front yard.

The remarkable sculptures range from recognizable to, well, rather abstract.  Each of the peculiar pieces of art is made from recycled and reused metal materials that the owner-artist has salvaged or saved.  From giant insects to robots riding rolling machines to mechanized fountains, you can’t help but smile when admiring the rather unique display.  There’s even a large collection of antique and whimsical door knockers assembled on the yard’s fence. Both adults and children will surely be amused by this curious collection.

If someone is home, they’re happy to let you wander around the yard to get a close up look.  If not, you can easily see everything from outside the fence, as we did.

Things to Know

The home is adjacent to a parking lot for the Salem Ferry, but the parking is not free.  You may be able to find a space on the adjacent main road. Otherwise, pull the car over, put on your hazard lights, and enjoy for a few minutes. 

Location

The yard of metal sculptures is located at 10 Blaney St. in Salem, Massachusetts. Click on the link for directions.

Follow the signs for the Salem Ferry 

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead: Historic House of a Falsely Accused Salem Witch

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is one of the best places to learn about the Salem Witch Trials, but what might surprise you is that it’s not located in Salem, Massachusetts.  Today, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is located in the town of Danvers. At the time of the trials, Danvers was known as Salem Village and was the epicenter of the beginnings of the witch hysteria.  In addition, the Rebecca Nurse Homestead is the only home of a person convicted in the Salem Witch Trials that’s open to the public. If that’s not enough of a reason to visit, let me tell you a bit of Rebecca’s story which is sure to make you want to.

Despite the fact she was 71 years old and that she was a well-respected and extremely pious member of the community, Rebecca Nurse was convicted and executed for witchcraft in 1692.  After a warrant was issued for her arrest on March 24, a petition signed by 39 members of the public (which is a lot of people in a small village) was presented to the court in support of Rebecca.  Nevertheless, her trial began in June. The accusations levelled against Rebecca were based on so-called “spectral evidence” which involved a witch sending her spirit to torment and torture others. Many prominent people in Salem town (modern Salem) and Salem Village (modern Danvers) testified in her defense.  However, when the young girls, who were paraded in front of the court in every trial, entered the courtroom and saw Rebecca, they broke out into fits and claimed that she had afflicted them right then and there. Not convinced by the evidence, the jury found Rebecca to be innocent. However, those who were supposedly plagued by Rebecca’s spirit continued to be afflicted, and the judges and jury were called back to review her case.  After additional deliberations, which were surprisingly legal at the time, the jury found her guilty of witchcraft on June 30, and she was sentenced to death. On July 19, Rebecca, along with four other women, were hung until dead at Proctor’s Ledge.  

My friend, her two children, and I visited the Rebecca Nurse Homestead on the anniversary of her death.  The homestead consists of the original house, several outbuildings, and 25 acres (of the original 300 acre farm) of land.  You’ll begin your guided tour in a reproduction of the Salem Village Meeting House where many of the initial hearings of the Salem Witch Trials were held.  The recreation was originally constructed in 1984 for the film “Three Sovereigns for Sarah”, which I highly recommend if you are interested in the Salem Witch Trials.  

Being a historian and educator, I’m not easily impressed by tour guides, but the female staff member of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead was both extremely knowledgeable and exceptionally passionate about Rebecca’s past and the history of the witch hysteria.  In the meeting house reproduction, she began the tour by giving us a very detailed history of the witch trials and a look into the minds of the accused, the accusers, and the people of that community. Although her explanation may have been too comprehensive and lengthy for some, my friend and I were engulfed by the story.  Following the recounting of the trial and execution, we were led into the Nurse home. The tour included four of the oldest rooms of the house. Our guide explained the history of the home, the everyday jobs and lives of the various family members who lived there during colonial and revolutionary times, and the uses of many of the historical reproductions that have been placed in the house to make it come alive for visitors.  My friend’s children, later, stated that the tour of the Nurse home was their favorite part of the tour because they enjoyed seeing where and how people lived in the past.

The grounds of the Rebecca Nurse Homestead also contain a gift shop, located in an old barn, and the family graveyard.  There, you’ll find a number of graves, the Victorian Era monument placed where Rebecca is supposedly buried (see below), and another monument dedicated to George Jacobs.  During the Salem Witch Trials, Jacobs was executed for witchcraft in 1692, but his bones were only discovered, in a drawer of the Danvers Historical Society, in the 1970’s, tested and believed to be authentically his.  Based upon those results, he was reinterred on the Nurse Homestead (since he once lived nearby) during the 300th anniversary of the trials in 1992. The Nurse Graveyard remains the only truly known burial site of someone convicted during the Salem Witch Trials.

In fact, no one actually knows what happened to the bodies of the accused witches.  According to the law and to Christian beliefs of the time, the convicted could not be given a proper burial because they were executed for witchcraft.  Most likely, family members secretly took the bodies away to be buried at undisclosed locations. For example, it is believed that Rebecca’s husband and son whisked her body away from Proctor’s Ledge and buried it in the family graveyard.  Today, a memorial, that was built in 1885, stands at the place where she was supposedly buried.

All of this brings to mind the question: Why was Rebecca convicted of witchcraft after having been deemed innocent? Well, you’ll have to visit the homestead, hear her entire story, ask questions, and find out for yourself.  

Location

The Rebecca Nurse Homestead is located at 149 Pine St. in Danvers, MA. Click on the name for driving directions.

If you plan on visiting, be sure to check their website for their hours since they depend on the season and the day.

The Punto Urban Art Museum: An Unconventional Art Gallery in Salem

The Punto Urban Art Museum is an outdoor gallery of colorful murals painted onto the sides of buildings and walls in the Point Neighborhood of Salem, Massachusetts.  We tremendously enjoyed walking around and checking out the vibrant, visually-stimulating, and thought-provoking pieces of art spread over just a few city blocks. Walking along the waterfront and in between various buildings in order to find each of the murals was like an artistic scavenger hunt that even kids would enjoy.  There’s also an app that you can download that provides a handy map of the murals, basic details about each piece, and links to other works by each artist. Just type “Punto Urban Art Museum” into the App Store or Google Play Store.

While one may appreciate the pieces for simply the creative expressions that they are, the outdoor museum is so much more.  Created as a social justice art program, the Punto Urban Art Museum preserves, retells, and displays, the ancestral and immigration stories of over a century of immigration in Salem.   Artists, community members, educators, and non-profit organizations have collaborated to produce the visual storytelling of the various cultures and communities that have called the Point Neighborhood home.  The organizations and individuals that have helped to fund and support the program hope that the artwork will bring new visitors into the neighborhood and will instill a sense of pride of community in its residents, especially the children growing up there. 

Whether you’re a lover of art, an urban explorer, or just a person, like me, who appreciates something out of the ordinary, you will tremendously enjoy a visit to the Punto Urban Art Museum.  Come to see the imaginative and playful artwork and, at the same time, support an incredible community project. 

The Punto Urban Art Museum is located at 91-1 Peabody St. in Salem.  Be aware that Peabody Street is a one way, so you’ll have to go up Ward St. and then turn onto Peabody St.  Click on the link for directions.

Witch City Eats: My Top Places to Nosh in Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, Massachusetts may be a small city, but the variety of restaurants is impressive.  Here are my favorites, listed in order of greatness, in the Witch City.  Don’t visit Salem without eating at, at least, the first two.

1. Caramel

I’m starting with dessert for a very good reason . . . I can honestly tell you that I haven’t enjoyed French pastries this good outside of Paris.  As soon as you enter, your eye will be drawn to the long, glass counter filled with meticulously made pastries of every shape and color.  Just admiring them is a feast for the senses.  I always take several minutes to decide what I want because there are too many good choices.  I’ve also been known to order two desserts just for myself!  Before making your selection, be sure to wander over to the case of scrumptious macarons in a variety of flavors.  The master chef at Caramel comes from South Central France, and the techniques that he uses to magically create the pastries have been passed down to him from his great grandfather who opened a patisserie in France back in 1931. If you love French pastries as much as I do, then run (don’t walk) to Caramel.  If you visit Salem without stopping there, you are seriously missing out!  

2. Boston Burger Company

Do you love a juicy, delicious, big-as-your-head burger as much as I do?  If so, there’s no better place in Massachusetts to get one than at Boston Burger Company!  Mind you, these are not your everyday burgers.  From the “Killer Bee”, with a stack of beer-battered onion rings, honey, BBQ sauce, and American cheese, to the “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, piled high with mac and cheese, pulled pork, onion rings and BBQ sauce, to “The King”, featuring peanut butter, bacon, and fried bananas, to the “Sophie” topped with prosciutto, goat cheese, candied walnuts, fig jam, greens, and a balsamic reduction, the large menu has something for everyone in your group.  Boston Burger also offers a variety of lip-smacking frappes (milkshakes) and a plethora of options to crank up the flavor on their hand-cut fries.  Why eat regular fries when you can have them covered with bruschetta, garlic parm, Greek or nacho toppings, caramel and cinnamon, or even clam chowda’?  Boston Burger Company also offers appetizers, salads, boneless wings, and sandwiches, but I always stick to their namesake.  The restaurant is very popular, but if you have to wait too long for a table, don’t skip eating there.  Just call in an order for take out and then find a bench or a nice piece of grass to settle in.   Boston Burger is so good that you should resort to all options to eat there!

3. The Clam Shack

If you love classic New England fried seafood, then the Clam Shack is the place for you.  Located in the grounds of Salem Willows and overlooking the ocean, eating at the Clam Shack is a no-frills (think outside picnic tables) experience for your taste buds.  Please do not let the outdoor seating put you off, the seafood here is the best!  The menu ranges from perennial favorites like whole belly clams or clam strips to flaky haddock to (my favorite) fried calamari.  Can’t make a decision?  Then order the Captain’s Combo.  The Clam Shack lets you decide how hungry you are, or in my case, how hungry I think I am!  Choose from a roll, a box, a basket, or a full dinner plate portion.  They even have non-seafood options for you landlubbers. The best thing about the eating there (other than the food, of course) is that you can combine your meal with an enjoyable afternoon or evening at Salem Willows.

4. Flatbread Company

Seafood not your thing?  Do you have people in your group with special diets or food allergies?  Don’t worry because I’ve got you covered!  Flatbread Company serves pizza (and more) made from organic ingredients, that are sourced from local farmers, cooked to perfection in a natural, wood-fired clay oven.  They’re happy to make substitutions in any of their meals and have menu items that cater specifically to vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free diets.  Try “Mopsy’s Kalua Pork Pie”, with smoked pork shoulder, free range chicken, mango BBQ sauce, pineapple, whole milk mozzarella, parmesan, garlic oil and their own herb mixture.  If your mouth isn’t watering yet, imagine digging into the “Punctuated Equilibrium” featuring a ton of veggies and imported Kalamata olives or the “Jimmy’s Free-Range Chicken” with black beans, cilantro tomatoes, roasted corn, mozzarella and parmesan, jalapenos, and a sour cream lime drizzle.  It makes me want to phone in an order right now!  You can also design your own pizza from a wide variety of organic toppings, and Flatbread even has gluten free crusts, that my friend attests are the best she’s ever had.  If all of this wasn’t enough, you can enjoy waterside, outdoor seating, and . . . get ready for it . . . connected to the restaurant is a small candlepin bowling alley.  How fun!  Make a day, an afternoon, or even a date night out of it.  Flatbread Company is my number one choice for pizza in the Witch City, if not in the entire North Shore of Massachusetts!

5. Passage to India

Looking for something more exotic and full of Asian flavors and spices? Passage to India will take you on an amazing food journey from the northern to the southern parts of the Indian Subcontinent without ever having to leave your seat.  Every meal is served fresh and features spices that are ground in-house.  I recommend starting with the vegetable pakoras, the meat samosas, or the delicious coconut soup.   For a main course, I recommend the flavorful Chicken Mango or the creamy Lamb Korma.  If you’ve never tried a dosa before, I highly encourage you to order one.  Picture a thin and very long crepe, made of ground lentils and rice, stuffed with meat and/or vegetables of your choice, and served with sweet coconut chutney.  I dare you to try finishing it in one sitting!  I may have once or twice J.  Passage to India also offers a plethora of vegetarian options, and don’t forget to partake in some made-to-order naan bread with your meal.  Go for the Kashmire Naan that’s loaded with raisins, cashews, and coconut.  I think it’s more like dessert than a side course, but that’s an even better reason to enjoy it!

6. Turner’s Seafood

For slightly more upscale seafood dining, my “go to” place is Turner’s Seafood.  Turner’s began as a wholesale fish company in 1954, and one of their fresh fish markets continue to exist today right inside the restaurant located in the old Lyceum Hall building.  Whether you’re enjoying lunch or dinner, start with fresh-shucked oysters, steamers, tuna sashimi, lobster or shrimp cocktail, or cherrystones and littlenecks from their raw bar.   Alternatively, try the award-winning lobster bisque or cherry pepper calamari.  For main courses, Turner’s has a variety of fish dishes, fried seafood, pastas, and even a sandwich board.  They also feature New England lobsters (both regular and lazy-man’s, as I call it), a made-to-order New England bouillabaisse, and many gluten-free options.  If you’d like to have a lovely, sit-down, New England style dinner, you can’t beat Turner’s Seafood.

7. Ye Olde Pepper Companie

No, I’m not sending you to store that sells peppers or spices.  Ye Olde Pepper Companie is actually the oldest candy company in the United States (since 1806).  If that’s not enough of a reason to visit, their chocolates, fudge, salt water taffy, caramel corn, and other old fashioned candies are hand-made using original recipes that have been passed down through the generations.  I dare you to walk into the store, take in the intoxicating aroma of chocolate and sweets, and leave without buying anything!  If you plan on visiting the House of Seven Gables, Ye Olde Pepper Companie is located right across the street.  How convenient!

Locations

Click on a name to be taken to a driving or walking map.

Caramel is located at 281 Essex St. in Salem, MA.

The Clam Shack is located at 200 Fort Ave., Salem Willows Park, in Salem, MA.

Boston Burger Company is located at 133 Washington St. in Salem.

Flatbread Company is located at 311 Derby St. in Salem.

Passage to India is located at 157 Washington St. in Salem.

Turner’s Seafood is located at 43 Church St. in Salem.

Ye Old Pepper Companie is located at 122 Derby St. in Salem.

The Ropes Mansion: A Hidden Gem in Salem, Massachusetts

Looking for something free to do in Salem, Massachusetts?  Built in 1727 and renovated in 1894, the Ropes Mansion is a historic home that is owned by the Peabody Essex Museum and is open to the public on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for free self-guided tours. 

I consider the Ropes Mansion to be a hidden gem of Salem because the interiors remain intact, meaning that all of the furniture, furnishings, art, and personal items of the family are still contained in the house today.  As you wander around the first and second floors, you won’t find any ropes (no pun intended) separating you from what you see.  That means you can get close up to everything, including the dining room table set with pretty Chinese porcelain and glassware from 1847, the gorgeous 1833 piano and beautiful parlor game table in the ornately decorated drawing room, and the family’s extensive China collection in the cupboards.  After a fire damaged the mansion in 2009, the Peabody Essex Museum restored the home using the family’s extensive diaries, records, and letters so that visitors can experience the home as if they were guests of the Ropes family.

In fact, each room of the Ropes Mansion tells a part of the nearly 150 years-long story of the family.  To me, the most interesting part of that history was that the last of the Ropes heirs, several brothers and three sisters, all remained unmarried.  I enjoyed theorizing with the many friendly and knowledgeable docents about why they remained bachelors and spinsters.  In any case, the three unmarried sisters, Sarah Ropes, Mary Pickman Ropes, and Elizabeth Orne Ropes, inherited the home and returned from Cincinnati to take up residence in Salem. 

Between 1893 and 1894, the sisters renovated the mansion in the popular Colonial Revival style and updated the bathroom and kitchen with the latest technologies.  As you explore that 1894 bathroom, make note of the original fixtures, and in the “modern” kitchen,  marvel at the state-of-the-art (for the time) interior plumbing, hot water heater, copper storage tank, and gas-burning stove.  Now that’s what I call a late 19th century fixer upper! 

Upon the death of the last of the sisters in 1907, the mansion and its contents were turned into a trust, which specified that the home be opened as a museum.  That’s why the Ropes Mansion is largely intact today.

Heading upstairs, you’ll find two bedrooms that appear as if the family has just stepped out.  The original four-poster beds are still made up with the family linens and bedspreads over the original mattresses.  Books line the shelves, washing pitchers and basins stand ready to be filled by servants, and personal beauty and grooming items are laid out for the morning routines.  The sadder of two bedrooms belonged to Elizabeth Ropes Orne who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24.  Her room contains many of her personal possessions including a heart-warming collection of seashells from her travels, and, chillingly, a medicine box with a recipe for a cough remedy, that may have provided her with some relief before her untimely death. 

Unlike the bedrooms, the other upstairs rooms are set up in a museum format to display a collection of the family’s keepsakes, valuable furniture, and precious items.   To me, the most intriguing artifacts are several tourist souvenirs from mid-19th century Salem, including a silver spoon featuring the image of a witch and a wooden cup from what is now called Witch House.  On the other hand, the creepiest items have to be a set of mourning jewelry and a portrait of one of the sisters that was painted after she died.  The Victorians definitely had a strange, but intriguing, fascination with death!

After your tour of the inside of the Ropes Mansion, don’t leave the grounds without enjoying the gorgeous formal garden, that was added to the home in 1912.   Like the house, the botanical garden was designed in the Colonial Revival style by the botanist and horticulturist John Robinson.   He planted more than 150 different varieties of plants, some of which were very rare and provided by the Arnold Arboretum of Boston.  Today, two of the plants which have survived from that time are the rhododendrons along the walkway fence and the huge copper beech trees in the side yard.  Continuing in that tradition, the staff of the Ropes Mansion have maintained the stunning garden which you are highly encouraged to explore.  In such a beautiful setting, take the time to savor a quiet moment of serenity in the busy tourist city of Salem.

Location

The Ropes Mansion is located at 318 Essex St. in Salem, Massachusetts. For more information, about the house and other surrounding historic homes visit their website.

Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle

Did you know that you can see the Changing of the Guard far more close up than at Buckingham Palace?  Head to Windsor Castle where you can watch the lead up to the ceremony for free outside the castle or the entire event inside the majestic structure.  If you want to watch for free, the guards parade up Sheet St., march up High St., and file into the castle in approximately 10 minutes.  Standing on the elevated steps of the Guildhall will give you a great vantage point.

Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle

However, I highly recommend touring the castle and watching the ceremony there.  Purchase a ticket to get inside the walls of the Queen’s sprawling home, and then you’ll be able to watch the entire, approximately 30 minutes-long Changing of the Guard Ceremony.  It usually takes place in the Lower Ward outside of the guardroom. The guards will enter the castle through the Henry VIII Gate. If you want to find the absolutely best spot, ask a uniformed warden to give you a suggestion.  Alternatively, try standing by the railings outside St. George’s Chapel. When I was there several years ago, I couldn’t believe how close the guards were! It was much more thrilling than watching the ceremony at Buckingham Palace.

However, be aware that if the Queen is in residence (check to see if the Royal Standard is flying above the Round Tower), the ceremony will take place on the lawn of the Quadrangle.  In that case, the guard will enter through St. George’s Gate and march all the way up Castle Hill. I recommend claiming a spot near the railings at Engine Court.

Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle

Wherever you choose to watch the ceremony, it’s extremely important to note that the Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle is weather dependent and only occurs on certain days that change each month.  Before you go, check the schedule at www.householddivision.org.uk.  In addition, if you want to see the Changing of the Guard ceremony inside the castle, arrive no later than 10:00AM to get through security and find a good spot from which to watch.  You’ll have an amazing view no matter where you’re standing and will create a travel experience that you won’t soon forget!

Guardsman at Windsor Castle
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