You know those states where you think you know the capital city because you know the biggest or most famous city in that state and you just assume that’s the capital? Because that really does, in many ways, make the most sense? Oregon is one of those states. Portland may be the biggest city and the one most people outside Oregon have heard of, but it’s the city of Salem – about an hour’s drive south of Portland – that’s really the capital.
Salem sits smack in the middle of the Willamette Valley, and the river that valley is named for runs through the city. Being the state capital, it’s home to all the government buildings, including the state capitol building. There’s a good private university in Salem (Willamette University), as well as Oregon’s School for the Deaf, and Salem makes a good base from which to explore all there is to do in the surrounding valley.
There’s a small airport that serves Salem, an Amtrak station in the city center, and a network of city buses to help you get around a little bit. Public transportation isn’t ideal for visitors, however, as you’re unlikely to want to restrict yourself to Salem’s downtown the entire time, so you’ll probably want to rent a car for most of your stay. And despite the fact that Salem has an airport, you’re most likely to fly into the much larger Portland International Airport (PDX) to the north of Portland. As mentioned, it’s about an hour’s drive from Portland down to Salem.
Here are some of the top things to do in and around Salem.
Enjoy the Bounty of the Willamette Valley
One of the things the Willamette Valley is best known for is its agriculture – and we’re not just talking about cute produce markets where you can get fresh veg in the summer (although there’s that, too). The Willamette Valley is one of Oregon’s premier wine-producing areas, mostly known for its world-class Pinot Noir.
There are so many wineries, vineyards, and tasting rooms within a short drive of downtown Salem that it would take quite a bit of space to list them all (and even more time to visit each one), so if you’re into wine be sure to let Oregon’s Wine Board help you plan your trip. (If you’re not so much into wine, there are also several local micro-breweries producing both craft beers and hard ciders.)
Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a great place to be if you’re a foodie, too, as the area’s reputation for spectacular produce has served as a magnet for outstanding chefs who want to cook with high-quality seasonal and regional ingredients. You’ll find a wonderful variety of cuisines in restaurants all over the valley, many of which make a point of using organically grown local ingredients.
Explore the Great Outdoors
Right behind the wine and food, the Willamette Valley’s reputation for natural splendor is pretty well-known, too. You’d never mistake Salem for anything but a small city, but you don’t have to drive too far beyond the city limits to be surrounded by beautiful forests, gardens, parks, lakes, and wildlife refuges.
Some of the places that can make either a great day trip of hiking (or boating) or a nice couple days of camping are Silver Falls State Park, Champoeg State Heritage Area, Detroit Lake State Recreation Area, and Breitenbush Hot Springs. The latter is especially great if you’ve worn yourself out hiking and you need a dip in a natural hot springs to revive your muscles!
The fertile lands around Salem are particularly beautiful in the spring, when the area’s gardens are in bloom. Depending on when you visit, you could find yourself in the middle of acres of blooming peonies, dahlias, tulips, or irises – all of which have short festivals when the flowers are at their peak. There’s also The Oregon Garden in nearby Silverton, which hosts events at different times year-round.
More interested in the local wildlife? There are a couple wildlife refuges – the Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge and the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge – that have trails and observation areas where you can get a look at the fauna.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that with all the natural beauty surrounding Salem that there would be ample opportunities to get out and into nature as well. The options are nearly limitless, depending on how far you want to go outside the city. You can go cycling, mountain biking, hiking, boating, fishing, and golfing – and then when you want to step up your holiday you can throw in bird-watching, horseback riding, and even hot air ballooning.
You don’t have to be an expert in any of the activities listed above to try them out while you’re visiting Salem, since there are different levels of each one. Consult the list of recreation options on Salem’s tourism website for details on each one.
Learn About Local History
The Western United States is one of the youngest parts of a young country, but there’s still some interesting Oregon history in and around Salem. There are some beautiful old covered bridges in the area, including Oregon’s oldest covered bridge (the Gallon House Covered Bridge) outside Silverton. Silverton itself, founded in 1854, has its own historic walking tour. Just outside Silverton you’ll also find the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in Oregon, Gordon House.
A group of Benedictine monks started the Mt. Angel Abbey in 1882, and it remains a beautiful hilltop spot for a picnic. The town of Mt. Angel itself is fun to explore as well, especially during the city’s annual Oktoberfest (going strong since 1966).
The Reed Opera House in downtown Salem dates to 1870, and is now home to shops and restaurants. You can also enjoy a cruise on the historic Willamette Queen Sternwheeler, which departs from Salem’s riverfront, and can include a meal along with a guided tour.
For a bit of quirky fun that will certainly appeal to the kids as well, head for the Antique Powerland Museum – it’s 62 acres of historic power equipment with 15 individual museums to explore.
Be a Kid Again
Whether you’re in Salem on a family trip or not, there are all kinds of kid-friendly activities in and around Salem that might make you wish you were a kid again yourself. Right in Salem itself there’s the exceptional A.C. Gilbert House, also known as the children’s museum, but it’s definitely not a stodgy museum at all – it’s hands-on interactive fun for all ages.
Right on the Willamette River in downtown Salem, there’s the Salem Carousel – a beautiful old-fashioned carousel with wood-carved animals that is thoughtfully housed indoors for year-round enjoyment. And if you’re visiting during the summer, Salem is home to the Oregon State Fair.
Just outside Salem is the Enchanted Forest, a quirky old-style theme park set in a forested hillside that’s been providing Oregonian kids with a bit of quirky fun since the early 1970s.