by Pankaj Upreti
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Salem is the capital city of the state of Oregon of the United States. Salem is located at the center of Willamette Valley in Marion and Polk counties of Western Oregon.


Just an hour drive away from Portland, Salem is the second largest city of Oregon. Famously nicknamed as the “cherry city”, tourism in Salem is popular for its scenic beauty alongside the banks of Willamette River. From hosting numerous festivals, fairs and events to having a rich culture and history, Salem has a distinct place in Oregon Travel Guides.

From sports lovers to history fanatics, there are plenty of things to do in Salem for all types of travelers and visitors.


The university town of Salem is definitely worth visiting for people who want to enjoy their time off in a laidback sub-urban area. Salem, OR has an idyllic waterside that has many parks and recreational spaces. Not only that, there are many museums and other places of historic importance that are worth visiting. The impressive State Capitol is also worth checking out.

Below is the list of mostly free but best things to do in Salem, OR curated for you to have a blasting time during your travel to the city.


RIVERFRONT PARK | Photo Credit – Ian Sane

It is a 23-acre nature park located in front of the Willamette River. It used to be an industrial site. The park has many attractions, including Riverfront Carousel, A. C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village, an amphitheater, an Eco-Earth Globe, an outdoor sculpture, and a community art project. It has facilities like hiking trails, playgrounds, boat docks, etc.

The park is one of the best places for recreational activities with friends and families with kids like picnics, bird watching, photography, etc. Visitors can stroll along with the stunning views of the river landscape or just enjoy views of floating cruises from the Peter Courtney Minto Island pedestrian crossing bridge that links the Salem s Riverfront Park with Minto Brown Island Park.

The Riverfront Carousel has detailed carved scenes representing the farming culture of the region. It has intricate and beautiful decorations. Because of these decorations, guests will be able to see the history of the Willamette Valley on the horses and wagons of this carousel. The movement of the carousel coupled with the organ music makes for an exciting experience on this waterfront park.

Riverfront Park also hosts numerous events and festivals throughout the year. World Beat Festival and Dragon Boat Race in June and Bite of Salem in July are hosted here. Apart from that, annual 4th celebrations and fireworks are also hosted here.

Willamette Queen Sternwheeler is popular dining cruise on the banks.


Oregon State Capitol is one of the most remarkable places in Salem

Made of glistening marble stone, Oregon State Capitol is one of the most remarkable places in Salem, OR. It is the third house of the Oregon State Government. The building follows a modernist art deco stripped classical style of architecture that has the Gold Man perched on top of it. The Gold Man symbolizes Oregon Pioneer and is an eight-and-a-half ton bronze sculpture with a gold leaf finish. 

Surrounding the Capitol is well maintained trimmed gardens called Oregon State Capitol Park. these gardens are dotted with artwork, fountains, and flora including native trees, shrubs, state trees i.e. Douglas fir, and state flowers i.e. Oregon grape. The gardens are open to the public to explore. 

The capitol building is also open to the public for self-guided tours during working hours. It can also be explored by taking a guided tour on weekdays between 10:30 am and 2:30 pm. The more popular attractions here are the Capitol Rotunda, the Senate history room, Capitol Art Collection, and the Governor’s portrait hallway. The infographics and artifacts once explored shall satisfy the historian you. 

The Observation Deck Tours takes the guests on a height to enjoy the view of the Oregon Pioneer.


ENCHANTED FOREST | Photo Credit – Ben Brooks

The Enchanted Forest is an amusement and theme park located on wooded hilly land in Turner, Oregon. It is only 20 min drive away from Salem. It is the place to enjoy the beauty of nature in a fairytale setting. The park was built and expanded by Robert Tofte singlehandedly. Its working is still maintained by the Tofte family. There are many attractions that host activities popular among families with kids.

The Storybook Lane, the Tofteville Western Town, the Old European Village, and the Summer Comedy Theater are a few of the many attractions worth exploring here. The Summer Comedy Theater is a comedy theater. There also many live music performances hosted here. 

It also has rides for all ages like Ice Mountain Bobsleds roller coaster, Haunted House, Big Timber log ride, Challenge of Mondor, etc. The log ride is one of the largest rides in the Pacific Northwest. The Challenge of Mondor’s ride features dragons and monsters.


Minto Brown Island Park is the largest park in Salem
Minto Brown Island Park | Photo Credit – Sean Fornelli

Another park to experience nature at the riverfront in Willamette Valley, Minto Brown Island Park is the largest park in Salem. It has 307 acres of area, making it larger than the central park in New York. It is situated on the west side of the city in Marion County and is home to different eco-systems including wetlands, woodlands, and prairie. 

The park has facilities for various things and activities like a playground, a reservable shelter, 29 miles of walking, jogging, and bike trails, picnic areas, a dog park, several fishing spots, and a paddle boat area.

The park shelter can fit up to 64 people. It is one of the perfect places to host guests for an intimate private family affair on the banks of a river. Walking, jogging, picnicking, birdwatching and photography are popular activities of the park. There are observation platforms from where you can enjoy observing water birds like waterfowls and other wildlife of the region.

Various wetland creatures including blue herons, ospreys, squirrels, and rabbits can be seen by the visitors here. The Riverfront Park can be accessed via a beautiful pedestrian and biking bridge called Peter Courtney Minto Island Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge.


Gilbert House Children s Museum | Photo Credit – Glen Bledsoe

The Gilbert House Children s Museum, a.k.a  AC Gilbert’s Discovery Village, is a children’s museum inside Riverfront Park in Salem. Kids experience learning here through the museum’s interactive and innovative exhibits and facilities that spark them with curiosity. The Gilbert House Children s museum offers 16 hands-on S.T.E.A.M. exhibits, field trips, STEM Workshops, membership opportunities, summer camps, and educational programs in the sciences, arts, and humanities.

Other attractions include a 20,000 sq. ft. Outdoor Discovery Area that has a giant replica slide, the largest in the world climbable erector set, and more. It is home to many exhibits dedicated to inventor AC Gilbert. The museum also hosts summer camps, birthday parties, and outreach programs. 

The museum is located inside three Victorian-style homes including a life-sized replica of Winson Durbin House. The three houses are Gilbert House, Rockenfield House, and Parrish House. The museum host many events and programs including Summer Block Parties, Science Night for Adults, and various classes and workshops, etc. throughout the year. Visit their website to know about these events being hosted here at the time of your visit.


DEEPWOOD MUSEUM AND GARDENS | Photo Credit – Travel Salem

The Deepwood Museum and Gardens is a historic house in Salem, Oregon. Also known as Dr. Luke A Port House or Historic Deepwood Estate, the house and gardens are maintained and managed by Friends of Deepwood. This place, with Povey Brothers Studio stained glass window, is a study in Queen Anne architectural style. 

The museum and gardens add a special star to the scenic beauty of Salem. It has had a long history of residents but is now open to the public for tours as a house museum with explorable public gardens, and a rentable event venue. 

Guided tours are available from Wednesday to Saturday every week. The surrounding five acres of colorful, trimmed gardens shall make up for a peaceful stroll any day. These gardens also host many special events including Easter egg hunts, jazz music festivals, open holiday houses, etc.


Hallie Ford Museum of Art | Photo Credit – Travel Salem

One of the biggest art institute in Willamette Valley, Hallie Ford Museum of Art was founded by Willamette University to support the Ford Family Foundation. It is located just across the street from State Capitol. The museum has donated artifacts centering around the history, art, and culture of Oregon. It is in a 27,000 sq. ft. International building.

There are a total of six art galleries here, two of which host a revolving exhibition of local and international artists for the guests. The artifacts here cover all mediums including sculptures, paintings, basketry, and prints. Artwork includes Native American art, European paintings, American art, and contemporary art. The popular attractions among visitors here are 1900’s Native American Baskets, Mark Sponenburgh’s European and Asian collection of approximately 250 pieces.


Another historic building in downtown Salem
Reed Opera House | Photo Credit – Travel Salem

Another historic building in downtown Salem, the Reed has served as a place for hosting performing arts performances and shopping malls since the 1870s. This Italianate architecture was a historic opera house. Now it has been turned into an aesthetic multilevel shopping center that hosts local vendors selling a variety of goods. You’ll be able to find offices, tattoo shops, specialty shops, eclectic bakeries, bars, restaurants and cafes, spas, salons, vintage and antique stores, and even a ballroom here. 

La Perla Tapatia is a popular taco place located here. The Trinity Ballroom is one of the most elegant places to host weddings, proms, conferences, and social gatherings in a historic setting in Downtown Salem. The Cyrus Reed Theater also has the Verona Studio where you can experience a powerful black-box theatre. 

If shopping and theater is not your jam, visit this place to enjoy the beautiful architecture for free.


To delve into the history and culture of the city of Salem, visit this 5 acre Willamette Heritage Center. Here you’ll not only know about Salem but it is a good place to start the exploration of Willamette Valley. 

The Willamette Heritage Center has many infographics, artifacts, and exhibits around the Willamette Valley. There are around fourteen historical sites located here. All these sites provide a glimpse into the past settlements including education and settlement pioneers of mid-Willamette Valley, Oregon Trail travelers, etc. 

Willamette Heritage Center has a scenic setting with beautiful gardens, pioneer buildings, and museums. The popular attractions include The Methodist Parsonage (1841), the Jason Lee House (1841), an old Presbyterian church (1858), the Mission Mill Museum, etc. The centerpiece is the historic bright red building of Thomas Kay Woolen Mill. It houses many authentic artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries. 

A map of the valley can be found here. Visitors will also be able to see local retailers selling various tib bits, outlets, and other shopping and dining places.



It is one of the places that have a ghost structure that depicts the first mission of Native Americans in the west. It is now a state park located about four miles north of Keizer adjacent to the Wheatland Ferry and east of the Willamette River. 

The Willamette Mission State Park offers fun activities and things to d to all of its visitors. From things like birdwatching, horseback riding, wildlife photography, and disc golfing to kayaking, anyone can make a day at this park doing these fun things. The park is home to the largest 250 years old Black Cottonwood tree in the United States. 

It is a perfect place that hosts families for a picnic. The park provides amenities like electricity, restrooms, barbecues, tables, and water faucets. Reservations can also be made for things like volleyball, horseshoes, softball, and soccer.


It is a family-owned business of the Roth family. Willamette Pie Company is a leader in producing berry products in the Northwest. Raspberries, boysenberries, blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, and the local Marionberries are procured here. It is then offered in a milkshake, ice cream, or smoothie, or pies at their retail store. They also host many family-based festive activities during the spring season here.


ELSINORE THEATRE | Photo Credit – Sheila Sund

The historic Elsinore Theatre is one of the last examples of classic Tudor Gothic Theater. It was named after Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the theater has an architecture inspired by Elsinore Castle in Denmark. 

The theater boats decorated the ceiling and lobby. Elsinore Theater has 1,300 seats and their events range from classical shows to Broadway, ballet, and even live rock music. It used to host silent movies and performances but has gone through many renovations to become what it is today.

It adds a charm to downtown Salem. Situated just two blocks away from State Capitol, a visit to Elsinore Theater can make up for an eventful evening in Downtown Salem. Go through their website to get access to their annual calendar.


WILLAMETTE UNIVERSITY | Photo Credit – Sheila Sund

Across the street from the State capitol in Downtown Salem, Willamette University is the oldest university in the western United States. Apart from providing quality education in the Willamette Valley, the university campus also adds an aesthetic appeal to the city’s environment.

The university hosts many events and programs throughout the year. They are worth checking out. You can also visit the university to explore its beautiful campus.


Experience the scenic beauty of Salem and Keizer from a bird’s eye view by Balloon Flying Service of Oregon. It has been providing one of the most fun things to do in Salem, i.e. hot air balloon rides, since 1989. These hour-long rides are scheduled daily. The visitors can choose from various flight packages. These packages include a standard flight with a pilot plus four to five passengers, a more private Romance Flight, and more. 

In-flight weddings with a private launch site for the guests are also offered here. Rides depend highly on good weather to maintain the company’s perfect safety record.


BUSH S PASTURE PARK | Photo Credit – Ian Sane

This urban public park is home to the Bush House Museum that was built just after the settlers arrived at the Oregon Trail. The Bush House Museum now hosts many of Salem’s artist’s work. 

The surrounding Bush s Pasture Park is a 100-acre wooded area that hosts many things like sports activities and musical events. There are even nature trails here that can be explored. The 90-acre park also includes a conservatory, an art center, walking trails, and a rose garden.


Aprt from the Reed Opera House, Salem has many other places for hosting the shopping fanatics. The Lancaster Mall in North Salem and Salem Center Mall are two of most popular shopping places in the city.

The Lancaster Mall also features Regal Cinemas and Best Buy. it is slightly larger than the Salem Center Mall. At these places, you’ll be able to find various goods from clothing to beauty products to local retailer goods.


From Salem, you can easily go out on many happening day trips. Visit the Cascade Mountains to enjoy some of the best hiking trails in the Northwest. Sister is a fun little town with the look of an old western village complete with wooden sidewalks, small boutique shops, and restaurants.

It is almost two hours’ drive away from Salem, Oregon. #0 minutes away in North-East direction from Salem, you’ll find Mt. Angel. Mt. Angelis a german village. This village is famous for it Oktoberfest which is hosted in the month of September. Silver fall is another place that you can visit from Salem to get your adrenaline fix in the historic Oregon farmland.

Please also read the best things to do in Virginia Beach.

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