If we’re going to talk about Ipswich and Essex, we should start with the clams. Both towns sit on the Great Marsh, a sweepingly beautiful and biologically rich wetland that stretches from the New Hampshire border down to Gloucester. And something about the muddy flats of the marsh—the cold water, perhaps, the precise blend of minerals in the mud—has made the soft-shell clams that grow there a coveted seafood delicacy.
The Ipswich clam has become an iconic name, famous for being tender and plump, sweet and briny. But it is Essex—Woodman’s restaurant specifically—that lays claim to creating the fried clam that is an indelible symbol of summer in the area. So we understand if it’s the clams that lure you up to Ipswich and Essex.
Still, if you come seeking clams, you’ll definitely want to take some time to explore the other flavors, views, and experiences the pair of towns has to offer. The two towns share breathtaking views, a quintessential New England quaintness, and plenty of outdoor room to roam. Despite their small sizes, Ipswich and Essex boast a range of restaurants and shops, almost all independently owned—there are almost no chain businesses in either town.
And after a year hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic, the area’s shops and restaurants are eager to embrace the visitors the warm summer and more vaccinated population will bring.
“The businesses are really looking forward and have been very excited and welcoming to people who have been venturing out,” says Donna Roy, spokeswoman for the Essex Merchants Group. “We cannot wait to jumpstart the season.”
If you’re interested in shopping, the antique shops of Essex—more than 20 of them along just about a mile of road—are an obvious place to start. Some stores let you browse carefully curated selections of high-end period pieces, while others give you the chance to search for vintage treasure among their well-stocked shelves and bins. One of our favorites and BONS Home winner is Andrew Spindler Antiques.
For a more contemporary selection, pop into Sea Meadow Gifts and Gardens in Essex for items for indoors and out, many made by New England artisans. Up the road in Ipswich, visit Betsy Frost Designs to shop for organically inspired jewelry created by the owner, browse clothing and gifts, and say hello to the (very well behaved) Great Danes that are often there napping in the sun or greeting visitors.
To explore the area’s artistic heritage, visit Cogswell’s Grant, a restored farmhouse hung with a rich collection of American folk art. Then log on to visitessexma.com to learn more about the painters, potters, and other artisans who currently work in town and to learn when their studios are open to visitors, Roy recommends.
The two towns also offer a wealth of opportunities for outdoor exploration.
“We have beautiful water and views,” says Caitlin Silverstein, one of the owners of The Mill, a new café that opened in Essex last year. “The proximity to the outdoors and nature is one of the main things that keeps our family happy.”
In Ipswich, Crane Beach is one of the most popular beaches on the North Shore, but a reservation system instituted for the pandemic keeps crowd size down. When they’re done swimming and sun-bathing, visitors can step off the sand to explore the adjacent wildlife refuge and the landscape estate of Castle Hill.
To get out on the water, contact Essex River Cruises to join a public cruise along the Essex River and into the marsh, or to charter a private outing (and clambake, perhaps). Feeling active? Sign up for a stand-up paddle board lesson or tour from Cape Ann SUP in Essex; boards are also available to rent.
For a less ambitious outing, Ipswich’s Greenwood Farm features an easy walk and a well-preserved 17th-century house, letting visitors feel like they have stepped into the past, says Peter Pinciaro, director of the Crane Estate, which, like Greenwood Farm, is owned by the Trustees of Reservations.
“It’s really one of the most picturesque scenes in the town of Ipswich and brings the visitor back to colonial times,” he says.
When it’s time to eat and drink, you’ve got options.
Fans of micro-breweries could assemble a low-key pub crawl to sample what’s on tap at Ipswich Ale Brewery and True North Ale in Ipswich, and Great Marsh Brewing Co. in Essex. Expand your palate by adding Ipswich’s 1634 Meadery to the tasting tour.
For a coffee and snack or a light lunch, try Sandpiper Bakery, for tender scones, shatteringly flaky croissants, and salads and sandwiches featuring seasonal, locally grown ingredients. Slurp ramen on the waterfront patio at C.K. Pearl in Essex, try the classic Greek pastitsio at Ithaki in Ipswich, or dig into perfectly executed New England classics at the friendly Choate Bridge Pub.
“You can definitely catch me drinking a Guinness and having a lobster roll at the Choate,” says Susanne Clermont, Ipswich resident and owner of Sandpiper Bakery.
Of course, you might just be drawn to one of the casual fried seafood joints that abound in these two towns. Favorites include the Clam Box in Ipswich and Woodman’s and J.T. Farnham in Essex.
You might want to try the clams.