Although it is often overlooked in favor of nearby Portland and Eugene, Oregon’s state capital of Salem is certainly well worth visiting in its own right. Besides its striking State Capitol building, it has a handful of great museums and lots of pretty parks and nearby natural tourist attractions in Salem for you to visit.
Set alongside the Willamette River, the laidback university town is surrounded by vast swathes of fertile farmland with the whole region being renowned for its wonderful wines. Aside from taking tours around its wineries and vineyards, there are also a couple of charming towns for you to check out nearby. The spectacular Silver Falls State Park is also one of its main draws.
With countless things to do in Salem and its surroundings, the state capital certainly makes for a great day trip destination or quiet weekend away.
12. Minto-Brown Island Park
If you’re looking to enjoy some outdoor activities when you’re in Salem then head to the popular and picturesque Minto-Brown Island Park. The largest recreation space in the city, its lush woods and wetlands can be found just five minutes drive southwest of the center.
Lying alongside the winding Willamette River, the park has lovely green spaces for visitors to explore. Paths meander their way about its flower-filled meadows and forests. Aside from walking, running and cycling, you can fish along the river or rent some paddle boats.
There are also observation platforms scattered about where you can spot waterfowl and other birds amidst its unspoiled scenery. With playgrounds and picnic areas also on offer, Minto-Brown Island Park is well worth visiting for its amazing activities and nature.
11. Deepwood Museum
Now preserved as part of a museum, historic Deepwood Estate showcases extraordinary architecture and lies amidst gorgeous grounds and gardens. Located just five minutes drive south of the center, the pretty property offers the perfect mix of history and nature and also boasts fantastic views over downtown Salem.
Built in 1894, the historic house exhibits exquisite Queen Anne-style architecture with elegant turrets and gables on show alongside stained glass windows and a wraparound porch. On tours of its well-preserved rooms, you can see fabulous furnishings, period pieces and decorative arts from the early twentieth century.
Its expansive grounds are just as delightful to explore as nature trails wind their way here and there with its Victorian-style garden being the undoubted highlight.
10. Mt. Angel
Just half an hour’s drive to the northeast of Salem you can find the lovely little town of Mt. Angel nestled away. While it is most known for its fun Oktoberfest celebrations, the picture-perfect town’s German heritage can be seen in everything from its clock tower and churches to its culture and cuisine.
Located in the Cascades Mountain region of the state, Mt. Angel was first settled in 1850 with large numbers of Bavarian immigrants later moving in. As such, the town has a charming Old World look and feel with Gothic churches and a Glockenspiel belltower set alongside charming shopfronts and a beautiful Benedictine abbey.
Aside from taking in its appealing aesthetic and ambience, you can also enjoy some delicious German dishes and beers in its plentiful bars and restaurants. The best time of year to visit, however, is during Oktoberfest when lederhosen-clad locals and tourists make merry in its quaint village streets.
9. Schreiner’s Iris Gardens
On the way back into town from Mt. Angel it is well worth stopping off at Schreiner’s Iris Gardens which lie just fifteen minutes drive north of downtown. Home to a staggering array of colorful flowers, it’s a picturesque place to visit with gorgeous vistas wherever you look.
While the stunning display garden was fully developed in the 1990s, its roots begin almost seventy years’ earlier when avid gardener F.X. Schreiner first began collecting and cultivating Iris. Over the years, the award-winning gardens have expanded considerably with generations of the Schreiner family having successfully grown both the flowers and business.
Nowadays, the gardens are pleasant to stroll around with tall, bearded Iris and daylilies lying alongside Japanese, Siberian and Louisiana Iris. In addition to enjoying the thousands of flowers, you can also buy some to take home with bloom season taking place in May of each year.
Another town near Salem that is worth checking out is Silverton, which is situated in a scenic spot amidst the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Delightfully known as ‘Oregon’s Garden City’, it lies just half an hour’s drive to the northeast of the center and makes for a great day trip destination or quiet weekend getaway.
Named after the small creek that flows through town, Silverton is most known for its magnificent botanical garden and the many murals scattered about its streets. Aside from taking in all the incredible artworks and flowers, people come for its creekside dining as many restaurants have patios extending out over its waters.
On top of all this, the town acts as a gateway to the amazing scenery and nature of Silver Falls State Park that lies nearby and offers up a wealth of excellent outdoor activities.
7. Enchanted Forest
Set just twenty minutes drive south of Salem you can find the Enchanted Forest – a fun, family-friendly theme park, which has lots of rides and attractions for guests to enjoy. Located in a lovely spot amid rolling hills and woodland, it has long been popular with locals and out-of-towners alike.
Since opening in 1971, the amusement park has delighted countless generations with its fun, themed areas, such as Storybook Lane, Western Town and Old European Village. In each part there are fun rides for you to try out with its Haunted House and Big Timber log ride being particularly popular.
In addition to all its attractions, the Enchanted Forest has picnic areas and eateries while water light shows, comedy theater and music performances also take place in the summer months.
6. Riverfront Park
Riverfront Park lies right next to the historic center alongside the Willamette River. Aside from gorgeous green spaces and nature trails, it boasts one of the most beautiful carousels in the country with countless other attractions and amenities also on offer.
Once an industrial site, Salem’s riverfront was revitalized and re-imagined over the course of several decades with a pretty pavilion, playgrounds and paths popping up next to lush lawns and an outdoor amphitheater. In addition, the impressive Eco-Earth Globe sculpture and outstanding Gilbert House Children’s Museum can also be found within its scenic confines.
The park’s standout sight however is undoubtedly its charming carousel, which is intricately carved with scenes that celebrate the state and city’s farming heritage.
5. Take a Wine Tour
As Salem is set in the Willamette Valley – one of the top wine producing regions in the world – no trip to town can ever be complete without sampling some of its wonderful wines. With over five hundred wineries located in the valley, it is well worth taking some time to visit its vineyards or going on an unforgettable tasting tour.
While the region is particularly renowned for its Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, many of its estates also produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Viognier. Thanks to its fertile vineyards and perfect grape growing climate, the valley is often called ‘Oregon Wine Country’.
On tours of its wineries you can learn how the wines are produced and sample some in atmospheric tasting rooms before buying a couple of bottles to take home. With so many delicious wines to try and so much sublime scenery on show wherever you go, a wine tour really is a must when in Salem.
4. The Oregon Garden
Located just half an hour’s drive to the northeast of Salem you can find the stupendous scenery and nature of The Oregon Garden. Set on the outskirts of Silverton, the beautiful botanical garden has over twenty scenic sections for you to explore that are home to fantastic flowers, plants, and trees.
First conceived of in the forties, the garden opened in 1999 with its attractive exhibits and areas focusing on the flora of the Willamette Valley and Pacific Northwest. Nowadays, it has more than twenty specialty gardens for guests to visit with children and pet-friendly ones lying alongside a water garden, tropical house, and bee aviary.
Amidst its scenic confines you can also find a fabulous Frank Lloyd Wright house and a resort hotel with tram tours, talks, and cultural events all regularly taking place.
3. Gilbert House Children’s Museum
One of the main tourist attractions in Salem is the excellent Gilbert House Children’s Museum which can be found within Riverfront Park. Set alongside the Willamette River, its interactive exhibits and hands-on activities offer an interesting look at everything from nature and art to science and technology.
Established in 1989, the museum is named after the American inventor Alfred Carlton Gilbert with several of his inventions being on show. Housed within its fetching Victorian-era buildings are lots of fascinating displays and fun activity areas which encourage children to engage with their learning in a curious and creative manner.
While its amazing outdoor Erector Set with its swings, bridges and climbing structures is certainly its standout sight, guests will also find numerous play areas dotted amidst its educational exhibits.
2. Silver Falls State Park
As Silver Falls – the ‘crown jewel’ of Oregon’s state park system – lies on Salem’s doorstep, no trip to town can be complete without checking out its wonderful waterfalls. Located just half an hour’s drive to the east of the center, it also has epic outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy among its incredible scenery and nature.
The largest and loveliest of Oregon’s state parks, Silver Falls was founded in 1933 and now attracts almost a million people a year with its wealth of sparkling falls and nature sights. Along its scenic Trail of Ten Falls Loop, for instance, visitors can see, not just the striking South Falls which towers to 54 meters in height, but others such as North Falls and Winter Falls, too.
While these fabulous falls are undoubtedly the park’s main draw, there is also some brilliant hiking, horseback riding, and camping to be had amidst its endless forests and hills.
1. Oregon State Capitol
The most important and impressive building in the city, the stunning Oregon State Capitol is located just a short stroll from the center in Wilson Park. Surrounded by gorgeous grounds and gardens, it exhibits exquisite Art Deco architecture with most of its interior and exterior coated in bright white marble.
Remarkably enough, it is the third state capitol to stand in the same spot after two earlier editions burnt down. Erected in 1938, it looks delightfully different from other state capitol buildings thanks to its stripped classical design and distinctive dome topped by the glittering gold Oregon Pioneer sculpture.
Inside is just as alluring as magnificent murals depicting important moments from Oregon’s history line the interior of its rotunda. Aside from exploring the beautiful building and enjoying fine views from atop its roof, you can also amble around its lush grounds which are dotted with fountains, artworks, and memorials.