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At the back of the parking lot behind the iconic Essex clam shack, Woodman’s, sit a large rock and a modest wooden bench. Often, Donna Roy, who manages events and catering for Woodman’s, peeks out of her nearby office and sees people sitting on the bench, eating takeout clams, and gazing out over the marsh beyond. 

“It’s a great place to sit and reflect,” says Roy, who has lived in Essex since she was 11. “I see people there all times of the year.”

Woodman’s | Photograph by Shawn Henry

That out-of-the-way bench—right next to a popular destination yet somehow still secluded—is just one of the many hidden gems scattered throughout Essex. Beyond Cape Ann, the town is known primarily for its fried clams and abundance of antiques shops. But anyone who spends a little time getting to know the people and places of Essex will be rewarded with sights and shops and experiences that go well beyond the expected. 

“It’s a town that is still amazingly under the radar for many people,” says Andrew Spindler, who has owned Andrew Spindler Antiques and Design in the center of town for 25 years. 

Andrew Spindler | Photograph by Elise Sinagra

This spring, the Essex business community came together to help get the town—and its many draws—a little more attention. From May 19 to 21, the town hosted Essex in Bloom, a festival of flowers and fun that included floral displays in unexpected spots, window displays, a scavenger hunt, and art installations. Restaurants served spring-themed dinner specials. The event was a collaborative effort by the businesses in town, who were all eager to contribute, Roy says. 

“The minute they got the rallying cry, everyone turned out,” she says. “I love that about Essex.”

Even if you don’t make it for the festival, Essex remains an appealing destination. The town offers perhaps unparalleled opportunities to experience the Great Marsh, the ecologically important 25,000-acre salt marsh that stretches from the New Hampshire border down to Gloucester.

A trip with Essex River Cruises can provide a close look at the stunning ecosystem on narrated boat rides that meander through the town’s tidal estuary. At Cogswell’s Grant, history buffs can tour a Colonial-era house while nature lovers roam the fields, taking in the elevated views of the marsh below.

Allyn Cox Reservation, the headquarters of the Essex County Greenbelt Association, offers a striking combination of art and nature. The property, used as farmland since before the arrival of English settlers, was once owned by artist Allyn Cox, who bequeathed it to the Greenbelt Association in the 1970s. Today, the organization hosts an annual multiday art show, Art in the Barn, on the property (this year’s event will run June 9 and 10). The land is also open to the public, so visitors can walk along the marsh edge, taking in the spectacular views, watching the tides ebb and flow, and tracking the flights of osprey over the water. 

The property highlights the way art and nature are intimately intertwined in Essex, says Greenbelt president Kate Bowditch. 

“People come from all over the country to paint and to experience the beauty of the marsh,” she says. “The experience of being on the marsh is really powerful.”

Back on the main drag, many new shops have opened recently or are coming soon. Diamonds and Rust sells vintage and locally made furniture, clothing, and home goods, and We Dream in Colour offers vibrant jewelry and a curated selection of gifts. Found stocks new and vintage homewares sourced from artisans and makers around the world. Just up the street, near the Ipswich border, B.B. Botanics, the town’s first cannabis dispensary, recently opened.

Fish and chips at J.T. Farnham's

When it is time to eat, visitors needn’t leave the natural landscape behind. Many—perhaps most—of the town’s restaurants offer water views. For clam plates and other fried seafood delights, there are plenty of choices: Woodman’s, J.T. Farnham’s, and Essex Seafood, just to start. Spindler likes to send people to C.K. Pearl for seared tuna tacos enjoyed on the deck. A short drive from downtown, Riversbend serves up creative pizza and cocktails with sweeping marsh views. 

Even if you hit town early, there are still options. The Mill makes mouthwatering breakfast sandwiches (the sausage, egg, and cheddar on a biscuit is standout) and Mayflour Bakery, formerly of Rockport, will be opening in town soon with hot beverages, scones, coffee cakes, and other morning treats. 

The recent changes in town, combined with longtime institutions and the area’s timeless natural beauty, make it an exciting and gratifying place to be, say locals and fans. 

“I feel lucky to be there,” Spindler says. “And I think it’s just getting better and better in many ways.”