Salem is the Captial of Oregon and its second-biggest city. When looking for things to do in Salem, most of them revolve around history and nature. This is a beautiful place to visit.
Salem is a modern, cosmopolitan city with a country town feel. As a country boy myself, this appealed to me straight away. there is a sense of down to earth honesty amongst the people here that made me feel right at home.
The population of Salem is edging closer to 200,000 people. That’s in the city itself. The surrounding metro area which covers counties such as Marion and Polk is closer to 400,000.
As I mentioned earlier, Salem is a historically significant city. Native Americans called the area home, literally, for thousands of years before Europeans arrived. The Kalapuya called the area “Chim-i-ki-ti”, which means “meeting or resting place”.
European settlement dates back to animal trappers in the early 1800s. The first settlement was established in Salem in the 1840s and it was declared a city in 1857. Salem was already the capital of Oregon when it won statehood in 1859.
My favorite time of year in Oregon is Fall (Autumn for those readers in my home country of Australia). The colors and climate of this season in Oregon are perfect. However, there are plenty of things to do in Salem all year round. Let’s get into the list.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Food and Wine
Bethel Heights Vineyard
The rolling hills of northern Oregon provide a great setting for a winery. Bethel Heights Vineyard combines a scenic setting with quality wines and great food. As a result, this should be top of the list of places to visit for wine lovers visiting Salem.
Located just 12 miles North West of Salem, the short 20-minute drive to Bethel Heights sets the scene for what you will find when you arrive. This place has a country feel and rustic charm that is evident from the moment you arrive.
The site was originally slated to become a trailer park however brothers Ted and Terry Casteel had other ideas. In 1977 the relocated here from Seattle and set about planting 14 acres of Pinot Noir vines. They added their own winery in 1984 and the label has grown in popularity ever since.
The cellar door is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. Massive glass windows allow guests to enjoy the view across the vineyard while sampling their trademark Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
There are several tour options from you choose from, or simply sample their work at the Cellar door which is open daily. Check out the Bethel Heights Vineyard website and Facebook page for more details on opening times and tours.
This historic winery is the oldest in Oregon. Honeywood Winery was founded in 1933 and originally produced fruit brandies, cordials, and liqueurs.
The switch to making premium wines proved successful and the label never looked back. Today Honeywood Winery produces over 50 different wines. As a result, you’ll need a full afternoon to enjoy a proper wine tasting here.
What makes Honeywood unique is its location. Just 5 minutes from the Salem CBD, visitors to Sale can catch public transport or simply walk from their hotel to the cellar door. Even being so close to the City, the venue is still just minutes away from its vineyard!
Also sold on-site is a great range of gourmet foods and chocolate products. If you love fine wine and gourmet food this is the place for you.
**BONUS** Prestige Wine Tours
If you have a full day to spend on sampling the region’s best wineries Prestige Wine Tours is your best option. Tours are offered across the Willamette Valley including Eugene, Salem, and Tigard.
There are several tour options to choose from including wine tasting tours, wines and waterfalls, and even multi-day excursions. Prestige Wine Tours offers visitors to Salem an opportunity to take in everything the Willamette Valley has to offer.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Arts and Culture
Willamette Heritage Center
The Willamette Heritage Center is a non-profit museum located just off 12th street. The Center was formed following the merger of the Mission Mill Museum and the Marion County Historical Society. As a result, the WHC collects, showcases, and promotes the history of the entire region.
This historic, 5-acre site features several buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These include
- Thomas Kay Woolen Mill
- The Jason Lee House
- Methodist Parsonage
- John D Boon House
- Pleasant Grove Church
Many of these historic buildings were moved to the current WHC site for preservation. You will find displays of late 19th and early 20th century machines and photos here. In addition, other permanent exhibitions include the Oregon Trail, early missionaries in the area, Native American displays, and early Industry and Agriculture.
You will lose an afternoon wandering around the site and learning more about the history of the Willamette Valley region. Check out their website and Facebook page for more exhibition details and opening times.
Hallie Ford Museum of Art
Art lovers will love a visit here.
Salem is home to The Hallie Ford Museum of Art (HFMA). The museum opened to the public in 1998. However, it has been in operation for much longer than 20 years.
The museum is the home of Willamette University’s liberal arts studies. I wrote a full review of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in this article which covers the best museums in the great state of Oregon.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Family Friendly
Enchanted Forest Theme Park
This park has been entertaining local and visiting families for nearly 50 years. It opened in 1971 and has improved its attractions over the years. As a result, it is more popular today than ever.
Its such a family-friendly experience and you’ll find the kids are full of questions during the tour.
Park attractions include “Storybook Lane”, which focuses on popular stories such as Alice in Wonderland, the lady who lived in a shoe, and other popular nursery rhymes. In addition, you’ll find the Tofteville Western Town, the very popular Old European Village, and the fantasy fountains light show.
The Enchanted Forest Theme Park is also littered with rides, mainly for kids. Rides on the site include the big timber log ride, the ice mountain rollercoaster, bumper cars and boats, an awesome carousel, and a scary haunted house.
Gilbert House Children’s Museum
This museum is specially catered for kids, but I am sure many adults will learn just as much by visiting here. The Gilbert House Children’s Museum was originally founded in 1989 and, at one time, housed the National Toy Hall of Fame.
The Toy Hall of Fame may have moved on, but the museum has continued to expand. The museum’s committee describes its mission as “Inspiring Children to Learn Through Creative Play”. As ar result, it currently hosts 16 different interactive displays that cater to kids of all ages.
The Museum is named after local legend, A.C. Gilbert who was an inventor, Olympic gold medalist, entrepreneur, and magician.
Gilbert was the proud inventor of the Erector Set. A giant outdoor Erector Set is the highlight of the 20,000 ft² Outdoor Discovery Area.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Sights and Landmarks
Salem’s Riverfront Carousel
I’m actually getting a little emotional just trying to write about this experience. A carousel doesn’t sound all that special, let’s face it, many communities have them.
This is more than a Carousel. This attraction is the heart of Salem. The community comes together here. Committee members, who once rode the Carousel as kids themselves, help to maintain it.
The love, care, and spirit of the Salem community can be tangibly seen in this attraction. You MUST come here when visiting Salem. I urge you to watch every second of the video below and learn more about the story of this very special piece of Salem. I’ll post the website and Facebook page links below it for more info.
Oregon State Capitol Building
While the Carousel gives Salem its soul the State Capitol Building Building gives the City is purpose. Salem is the capital of the great state of Oregon and the Capitol building is where the business of state happens.
The current capitol building is the third structure in Salem’s history. The first two were destroyed by fire. However, the third time has proven the charm. The current capitol building was built in 1936, at the height of the great depression. It was remodeled and extended in the 1970s.
You can’t doubt the grandeur of the complex. It is awe-inspiring. In addition, it proves as a great drawcard for tourists who scramble for photos in front of its beautiful water feature.
The Oregon State Capitol Building broke new ground in 2002. It became the first state capitol in the country to produce solar power. The grounds feature a replica of Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell which is always a big drawcard for tourists.
Tours are available however booking early is the key to seeing this building up close. Check out the Oregon State Legislature website for more details on tours.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Bars and Restaurants
Santiam Brewing Company
Founded in 2012 the Santiam Brewing Company has quickly become a favorite with locals. It’s not hard to see why. They brew fifteen separate craft beers and ciders on location. In addition, these are all on tap along with a selection of guest wines.
The menu is classic pub fare with Traditional British and American dishes prepared using local produce. It’s a great place to bring the family for a traditional pub meal with minors allowed on site until 9 pm every night.
In addition to being a great, fun venue all year round there are two regular events that need a mention.
“Rock the Cask Bar” is Santiam’s annual party celebrating the anniversary of their opening. It is held in July.
In December they host their “End of the World” celebration. This event was meant to be a one-off special event in 2012 marking the Myan Apocalypse prediction. The original party was so popular Santiam Brewing Company decided to make it an annual event.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Getting back to Nature
Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
This venture into the great outdoors is highlighted with blasts of beautiful color. Schreiner’s Iris Gardens are set over 150 acres on the city’s northern outskirts. Four generations of the Schreiner family have worked these lands since the Gardens were opened in 1925.
The Hardens have received numerous Iris awards, including the highest award, the Dykes Memorial Medal, 11 times. Schreiner’s Irises are considered by collectors to be among the finest in the world.
For visitors to the Gardens, the colors of these beautiful plants can’t be ignored. The peaceful surroundings make exploring the site a pleasure.
The best time of year to visit the Schreiner Iris Gardens is Bloom Season, from early May through early June. As a result, special events are held here during Bloom Season. The Gardens are open from open dawn to dusk.
Bush’s Pasture Park
This public park also houses botanical gardens and several historically significant sites and buildings. Bush’s Pasture Park covers 90.5 acres of open meadows, walking trails, and sports venues.
The Lower Leffelle Picnic Area can be hired by the hour for family gatherings. In addition, the area is close to restrooms and a playground for kids.
The Rose Garden Gazebo is a popular site for wedding ceremonies and birthday parties. The Amphitheater is a powered site that includes three picnic tables and has a capacity of 100 people.
Bush’s Pasture Park also is the site of the Asahel Bush House, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The walking trails in the park are great to explore in Fall as the leaves begin to change color. The colors in Fall here are spectacular. Check out the details on-site hire and how to book via the City of Salem website.
Things To Do In Salem Oregon: Shop till you Drop
River City Mall
Salem has some unique shopping experiences and this is no exception. This vendor mall has over 8000 square feet of space and houses over 100 different vendors.
The variety of vendors is massive! They include
- Vintage pieces, collectibles
- Baby gifts
- Childhood treasures/stuffed animals
- Cards/ unique gifts
- Handmade gifts
- Craft items
- Traditional modern and funky decor
- Country charm and rustic finds
You will spend hours searching through each vendor stall and exploring this incredible site. Check out the River City Mall Facebook page for details on opening times, vendors, and how to get there.
The Reed Opera House Mall
This building dates back to 1869 and began its life as an Opera House. In addition, it was also set to house the state legislature, the Supreme Court, and the State Library.
When the newly elected Oregon State officials decided to pull out of the plan, these spaces were converted into seven, ground-floor shops.
Today it houses locally owned stores and shops including restaurants, bars, and bakeries. It’s the only Shopping Mall I have ever seen with a functioning Ballroom!
The new layout includes several retail boutiques and restaurants on the lower level, first floor, mezzanine, and second floor.
Things to Do in Salem Oregon: Vacation Vine “Wild Card Selection”
Oregon State Hospital – Museum of Mental Health
This museum is dedicated to the memory of mentally ill patients who suffered terrible treatment in Hospitals like this.
In addition, the museum is famous for being one of the shooting locations for the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.
The permanent exhibits in this museum also give an insight into what life was like for inmates here. I have written a full review of the Museum of Mental Health in a previous article titled “Best Museums in Oregon”. Check out that article here.
Things to do in Salem Oregon: Conclusion
Salem Oregon is a great place to bring the family on vacation. There are many things to do in Salem that have a family feel. Salem also strikes me as a terrific place to raise a family.
If you are looking for an outdoors orientated place to visit with plenty of activities, Salem is perfect. I love Oregon and its natural beauty, but Salem offers something more.
I mentioned earlier that I am a country boy at heart. Salem has that unique, rustic charm country towns are famous for. In addition, Salem offers everything you would expect from a modern city.
When choosing your next holiday location, have Salem at the top of the list. You will love it as much as I do.