By car from Marblehead, follow Route 114 west. From Boston, take Route 1A north to Salem, being careful in Lynn, where the road turns left and immediately right. You can also take I-93 or Route 1 to Route 128 and then Route 114 into downtown Salem. There's metered street parking and a reasonably priced municipal garage across the street from the National Park Service Regional Visitor Center.
From Boston, the MBTA (tel. 617/222-3200; www.mbta.com) operates commuter trains from North Station and bus no. 450 from Haymarket (Orange or Green Line). The train is more comfortable than the bus but runs less frequently and is more expensive. It takes 30 to 35 minutes; the round-trip fare is $11. The station is about 5 blocks from the downtown area. The one-way fare for the 35- to 55-minute bus trip is $2.80 with a CharlieCard, $3.50 with a CharlieTicket.
The Salem Ferry (tel. 978/741-0220; www.salemferry.com) operates daily from Memorial Day weekend through October. The 50-minute catamaran trip connects Central Wharf, next to Boston's New England Aquarium (T: Blue Line to Aquarium) to the Blaney Street Wharf, off Derby Street, a 15-minute walk or quick hop on the Salem Trolley from downtown Salem. The peak adult fare (late June to early Sept) is $13 one-way, $24 round-trip, with discounts for seniors, children, and families. The one-way off-season fare is $9.50 for adults.
A good place to start your visit is the National Park Service Regional Visitor Center, 2 New Liberty St. (tel. 978/740-1650; www.nps.gov/sama), open daily from 10am to 5pm. A walking tour map of the historic district is available online.
The city's Office of Tourism, Destination Salem (tel. 877/725-3662 or 978/744-3663; www.salem.org), produces and distributes a free visitor guide that includes an excellent map. Visit the website to see the calendar of events. The Salem Chamber of Commerce, 265 Essex St., Ste. 101, Salem, MA 01970 (tel. 978/744-0004; www.salem-chamber.org), maintains a large rack of brochures and pamphlets, and the staff is up on the latest events. It's open weekdays from 9am to 5pm.
In the congested downtown area, walking is the way to go, but you might not want to hoof it to all the sights, especially if it's hot. At the Essex Street side of the visitor center, you can board the Salem Trolley (tel. 978/744-5469; www.salemtrolley.com) for a 1-hour narrated tour, and reboard as often as you like at any of the 13 stops. It's a good idea if you're spending the day and don't want to keep moving the car or carrying kids. The trolley operates daily April through October from 10am to 5pm (last tour at 4pm); check ahead for off-season hours and special tours. Tickets ($18 adults, $17 seniors, $8 children 6-14, free for children 5 and under) are good all day; they're available onboard; from the Trolley Depot, 191 Essex St. (at Central St.), on the pedestrian mall; at the office, 8 Central St. (at Charter St.); and at other locations around town.
The city's month-long Halloween celebration, Haunted Happenings (www.hauntedhappenings.org), includes parades, parties, tours, and a ceremony on the big day. In August, the 2-day Salem Maritime Festival fills the area around the Salem Maritime National Historic Site with live music, food, and demonstrations of nautical crafts. The festival kicks off Heritage Days, a weeklong event when the city celebrates its multicultural history with musical and theatrical performances, a parade, and fireworks. Contact Destination Salem for details.