There’s a false yet common sentiment I hear all the time among Portlanders: There’s just nothing to do in Salem. How shortsighted is that?
In fact, there’s so much to do in and around Oregon’s capital, that you might as well book some lodging and spend a full weekend exploring all you can. Even then, you’ll probably wind up driving back there for more.
The state Capitol building is perhaps the best-known landmark in Salem, topped by the bronze “Oregon Pioneer” statue, but don’t let it distract you from all the other attractions in the city: places like beautiful Riverfront City Park, the many manicured gardens that bloom every spring or the food carts and restaurants that make up a vibrant dining scene around town.
Expand your field of vision to the surrounding towns just outside of Salem and you’ll find even more: incredible waterfalls, riverside trails, mountain views and one of the best wine regions in the Pacific Northwest.
There’s more than enough to pack into a single day trip — especially if you take advantage of long spring and summer days — but do yourself a favor and spend a few days around town.
You might say there’s simply too much to do around Salem. Here are the 20 best places to visit while you’re there.
Considered the crown jewel of Oregon’s state park system, Silver Falls State Park truly is a magical place. Whether you stop by to see towering South Falls or hike the entire Trail of Ten Falls, it’s a must-visit park for some of the best natural beauty in Oregon.
Open dawn to dusk daily; located off Oregon 214 in Silverton, about 23 miles east of Salem; 503-873-8681.
Riverfront City Park
A sprawling urban park in downtown Salem, Riverfront City Park features riverside paths, large grassy areas, a sternwheeler, a carousel, play areas and the Eco-Earth Globe sculpture. Beside the globe you’ll find a beautiful pedestrian bridge that leads across the Willamette Slough to Minto-Brown Island Park.
Open dawn to dusk daily; 200 Water St. N.E.; 503-588-6261.
Minto-Brown Island Park
The 1,200-acre Minto-Brown Island Park features 29 miles of trails and bike paths that wind through forests, past open meadows and along the Willamette River. The park also features a 30-acre dog park and a reservable picnic shelter. Conveniently, the bike paths connect directly to Riverfront City Park and downtown Salem.
Open dawn to dusk daily; 2100 Minto Island Road S.E.; 503-588-6261.
Bush’s Pasture Park
What used to be land owned by the Asahel Bush family is now Bush’s Pasture Park, a 90.5-acre city park with walking paths, playgrounds, sports fields and the beautiful manicured gardens that surround the original Bush family house, now operating as a museum (the interior of the museum is currently closed due to the pandemic).
Open dawn to dusk daily; 600 Mission St. S.E.; 503-588-6261.
Willamette Mission State Park
The site of a former Methodist mission established in 1834, Willamette Mission State Park is now a scenic nature park along the Willamette River with hiking trails, bike paths and a disc golf course. It’s also popular among boaters and fishers.
Open dawn to dusk daily; located off Wheatland Road Northeast in Gervais, about nine miles north of Salem; 503-393-1172.
Ankeny and Baskett Slough national wildlife refuges
A pair of national wildlife refuges just outside Salem offer good opportunities for bird watching or a quiet nature walk. Ankeny is found south of town, and features miles of dirt trail with boardwalks and bird blinds. Baskett Slough is west of town and provides habitat to dusky Canada geese.
Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge is open dawn to dusk daily; located on Ankeny Hill Road Southeast, about eight miles south of Salem; 541-757-7236.
Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge is open dawn to dusk daily, some trails closed Oct. 1-March 31; located on Coville Road, about 13 miles west of Salem; 541-757-7236.
Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway
The 134-mile Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway is a popular destination for long-distance bike rides, following the Willamette River through Salem and beyond. The bikeway begins at Champoeg State Heritage Area in Wilsonville and ends at Armitage Park in Eugene. Find a route map and other resources at traveloregon.com.
Oregon State Capitol
The inside of the Oregon State Capitol is closed to the public due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the Capitol grounds (officially State Capitol State Park) are worth a visit on their own. Walk among the gardens, visit the various monuments and get a good glimpse of the famous “Oregon Pioneer” statue atop the building.
Oregon State Capitol State Park is open dawn to dusk daily; 155 Waverly St. N.E.; 800-552-6949.
Salem is the garden capital of Oregon, filled with public gardens, private gardens and garden spaces at area nurseries that all come alive each spring. Stop by Deepwood Museum & Gardens, Gaiety Hollow, Schreiner’s Iris Garden or any of the other beautiful spaces around town.
An 80-acre botanical garden in nearby Silverton, the Oregon Garden is one of the best garden spaces in the region, with more than 20 specialty gardens showing off the amazing growing potential in the verdant Willamette Valley. The garden is designed to allow visitors to discover something beautiful any time of year.
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m., daily (hours vary in fall and winter); 879 W. Main St., Silverton; admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for students and $6 for kids; 503-874-4294.
Oregon State Hospital
A hospital may seem like an odd attraction, but the Oregon State Hospital is worth a stop. The Museum of Mental Health (currently closed due to the coronavirus pandemic) houses a fascinating, albeit troubling, collection of artifacts from the former mental hospital. And on museum grounds is the touching Oregon State Hospital Memorial, which houses patient cremains that were never claimed by families.
Museum of Mental Health temporarily closed; hospital grounds open 24 hours daily; 2600 Center St. S.E.; 503-945-2800.
The beloved fairy tale-themed amusement park south of Salem has endured a lot of hardships over the last year, and currently it remains closed to the public. Once Enchanted Forest reopens, however, it promises to once again claim its place as one of the most popular destinations in the area, with family-friendly rides and the many handmade sculptures that fill its forested grounds.
Temporarily closed; 8462 Enchanted Way S.E., Turner; 503-371-4242.
Oregon State Fair
The Oregon State Fair is easily the biggest annual event in Salem, drawing thousands of people from across the region for its many events, concerts, rides, food and competitions. Organizers of the state fair have yet to announce whether it will return in full force for 2021, but they have already set aside dates at the end of the summer: Aug. 27 to Sept. 6.
FOOD AND DRINK
Salem is in the thick of Willamette Valley wine country, right next door to the Eola-Amity Hills region just west of the city. There are more than two dozen wineries spread out across the wine region, many with tasting rooms and beautiful views. Find a map and a full list of wineries to visit at eolaamityhills.com.
The Baton Rouge-inspired Noble Wave specializes in fried chicken alongside a host of Louisiana delicacies including alligator, beignets and their King Cake Bread Pudding. Their real claim to fame might be the Bin-yay Fried Chicken Sliders: fried chicken tenders served between beignets as buns, dusted with powdered sugar.
Open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 189 Liberty St. N.E.; 971-304-7974.
Warm churros and ice cream are a match made in heaven, and nobody seems to understand the potential of that combination quite like Don Bigote. The churreria is anchored in a food cart on the north end of Salem, serving a dozen different churro desserts alongside ice cream, crepes and savory snacks. The Churro Sunday — a scoop of ice cream with a chocolate shell, toppings and a ribbon of sweet churro — is particularly inspired.
Open noon-9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, noon-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3390 Portland Road N.E.; 503-990-4860.
Xicha Brewing is Salem’s first Latin American brewery, holding down a popular restaurant at a spot in West Salem. The food alone is worth a visit, with a menu that ranges from croquettes to empanadas to hot wings. Try the Piquillos de Pollo (chili peppers stuffed with chicken) or keep it simple with tacos and beer.
Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; 576 Patterson St. N.W.; 503-990-8359.
Valiant the Sandwich
Valiant the Sandwich advertises “big, fat sandwiches” and does not disappoint. Their surprisingly wide variety of meaty, cheesy concoctions make the sandwich shop a perfect stop for lunch. Try the Farley Burger, The Reuben or A Roast Beef Sandwich Has No Name.
Open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; 315 High St. S.E.; 503-689-1821.
Salt Creek Cider House
A simple cidery set in a bucolic setting just west of town, Salt Creek Cider House is a great place to spend a sunny afternoon. The small-batch cider is served inside a retrofitted barn on their orchard, but the outdoor seating area is the real destination, with picnic tables on a shaded deck, a grassy lawn beside a still pond and a play area for kids.
Open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. daily; 14500 Salt Creek Road, Dallas; 503-831-8006.
–Jamie Hale; email@example.com; 503-294-4077; @HaleJamesB
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