Marblehead, Massachusetts: America’s best preserved historic town?

marblehead massachusetts Tourism boards across the country have long struggled to find innovative ways to market destinations large and small, inviting and mundane. We have “historic districts” that have been turned into vast parking lots; towns that play up tenuous connections to living and deceased celebrities; states that promote Amish tourism even though the Amish simply want to be left alone; hokey festivals; and any number of other contrived gimmicks to try to get you to come visit.

West Virginia is Wild and Wonderful. Pennsylvania promises that You’ve Got a Friend There. New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment. In Kansas, There’s no Place Like Home. Louisiana is a Sportsman’s Paradise. Virginia is for Lovers (and pathological drivers, in my estimation).

Massachusetts likes to call itself The Spirit of America. That might sound a bit grandiose but there is a town on Boston’s North Shore that I think is the best-preserved historic town in America. The American landscape gets more homogenous by the day, but Marblehead, perched on a dramatic finger of land on the Atlantic Ocean just thirty minutes north of Boston, was founded in 1629 and has improbably managed to retain many of its historic homes, cemeteries and churches.

Tourists descend on Colonial Williamsburg like packs of hungry hyenas on the trail of a fresh carcass, but somehow, Marblehead’s atmospheric streets remain largely tourist free. The town is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy and remains one of the east coast’s premier yachting centers, with three yacht clubs and a host of regattas. It isn’t close to a highway or train station and that’s probably why it has managed to avoid the strip mall scourge that’s plagued so many old towns around the country.

On the edge of Marblehead you’ll find a Starbucks, a CVS and some other chain stores, and there are big box retailers ten miles away, but Marblehead’s historic core is filled with independent shops and restaurants with nary a national chain in sight. Everything is pretty much Wicked Local. But the town’s biggest draws are the colorful 18th and 19th century homes, many with nameplates showing the name and occupation of their original inhabitants, and its spectacular natural setting on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marblehead is an undeniably upscale place with its fair share of millionaires but unlike other cutesy historic enclaves, it also has its share of lower income residents and budget friendly dining and drinking options. I have family members who live in Marblehead, so I’ve been visiting this town for more than twenty years and I never get tired of it. Aside from the beauty and the charm, it’s a real community where people know each other well and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

Here’s what to do in Marblehead.The Muffin ShopIn a town filled with history, you might wonder why I’m sending you to a muffin shop. Well, for the muffins, obviously, but this place is more than just a damn good place to add to your waistline with homemade muffins or lobster rolls made fresh each morning. It’s the heart and soul of the town and if you want to meet locals, you’ll find them lingering here in groups over breakfast every morning. But come early because they never seem to bake enough to keep up with demand.

old town marblehead massachusettsOld Town – Get lost on the backstreets of Marblehead’s Old Town. There is no single neighborhood in the country that gives one a better flavor of what life was like in Colonial America.

Shops along Washington Street – There are a host of interesting, if pricey, shops here including the new Atlantis & Cloudveil outdoor specialty shop.

Crocker Park – A great place to sit and watch the boats go by.

The Driftwood – One reviewer on Yelp called this hole-in-the-wall eatery “Swamp Yankee territory,” and I couldn’t agree more. Another great spot to meet locals.

Devereux BeachThis great little beach is dramatically situated at the foot of a little body of land referred to as Marblehead’s Neck.

marbleheadHit the Neck – Take a drive or bike ride out to the very end of the Neck and enjoy the unbelievable view from the benches in Chandler Hovey Park next to the Marblehead Lighthouse. On the way back to town check out the Old Corinthian Yacht Club. Just try to look like you belong and you probably won’t be asked to leave.

Old Burial Hill Cemetery – One of the most atmospheric old cemeteries in New England and it offers a spectacular view to boot.

Fort Sewall – This was an armed fort used to defend against British invaders in the War of 1812. If you have kids, they’ll enjoy sitting on top of the cannons and looking out onto the Atlantic.

Dark and Stormy on the Waterfront – Have a tall 16-ounce dark & stormy, rum and ginger beer, cocktail at Maddi’s Sail Loft and visit the Barnacle for an early, harbor-side dinner.

old tombstone marbleheadGetting there – You can take Express Bus 441 or 442 from Haymarket downtown right to Marblehead’s Old Town but it takes a good hour. If you drive, follow route 1A, which isn’t quite as straightforward as it sounds. Signs on this twisting road can be elusive.

Images by Dave Seminara, Rick Harris and Garden State Hiker on Flickr.