13 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Salem, OR

Written by Brad Lane
Updated Dec 23, 2023
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Salem, the state capital of Oregon, is at the heart of the Willamette Valley in the northern part of the state, less than an hour's drive south of Portland. It's a city that boasts many unique attractions, including a gilded Oregon Pioneer atop the State Capitol building overlooking the surrounding landscape.

Visiting public gardens, children's museums, and riverfront carousels are some of the many fun things to do in Salem. And enchanted theme parks, prestigious universities, and the Willamette Heritage Center provide even more places to visit. Several outdoor attractions offer free things to do in Salem, including leisurely commutes through natural areas like Minto-Brown Island Park, where the setting sun often touches down in a sea of color.

Salem has approximately 175,000 residents, but the metropolitan area is much bigger. This moderate population gives the state capital a community feel while still offering a wide range of things to do.

Plan your visit with my list of the top things to do in Salem, Oregon.

1. Riverfront City Park

Pedestrian bridge at Riverfront City Park
Pedestrian bridge at Riverfront City Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Riverfront City Park and the neighboring Minto-Brown Island Park are my favorite spots to visit in Salem. The site is a former mill site, but good luck spotting this industrial past in the current Riverfront City Park. The space now comprises a beautiful open space filled with hiking trails, playgrounds, boat docks, and a stunning view of the Willamette River.

I'm not the only one that enjoys Riverside Park, and it's one of Salem's most popular public spaces. Expect to encounter families, locals, and other visitors enjoying the paved trails, riverfront views, and signature attractions like Salem's Riverfront Carousel.

Riverfront City Park is home to some of Salem's largest festivities throughout the year, including an annual 4th of July celebration and a culturally expanding World Beat Festival. These community events draw big crowds throughout the summer.

Eco-Earth Globe at Riverfront City Park
Eco-Earth Globe at Riverfront City Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Eco-Earth Globe sculpture is another eye-catching attraction of this popular downtown public space, near the aesthetically pleasing pedestrian bridge spanning the water to connect with Minto-Brown Island Park. This area of the park really shines come sunset.

Address: 200 Water Street Northeast, Salem, Oregon

2. Salem's Riverfront Carousel

Salem's Riverfront Carousel
Salem's Riverfront Carousel | Jason Lander / photo modified

At the center of Riverfront City Park and open every day of the year, Salem's Riverfront Carousel inspires a little magic for everyone who visits. It's particularly popular with young families, but anyone can appreciate the fine craftsmanship of the 45 hand-carved seats.

Each ride is inexpensive at this non-profit amusement, and the primary mission of the foundation behind the carousel is to bring the community closer together with a fun thing to do. The carousel is available to rent for large groups, and the Salem Riverfront Carousel organization hosts various adult-themed soirees throughout the year.

Address: 101 Front Street Northeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: http://salemcarousel.wixsite.com/salemcarousel

3. Schreiner's Iris Gardens

Iris, allium, and lupine at Schreiner's Iris Gardens
Iris, allium, and lupine at Schreiner's Iris Gardens

Schreiner's Iris Gardens are world-renowned for their flowering displays, located approximately seven miles north of downtown. A generational love for irises built this family business from the ground up into one of the largest growers of irises in the country. However, one of the main community attractions of the gardens comes every May during the blooming season.

The 10-acre show garden at Schreiner's is open to the public throughout May. For a small price of admission, the park-like gardens are open all day during their full bloom. Expect to see photographers and painters capturing the scene during this colorful display. It's also a popular destination to celebrate Mother's Day weekend.

Outside the Bloom Season, Schreiner's maintains an extensive online catalog of seeds, live plants, and gardening supplies.

Official Site: https://www.schreinersgardens.com/

4. Enchanted Forest

Enchanted Forest Muzium
Enchanted Forest Muzium | Ben Brooks / photo modified

Enchanted Forest is in the town of Turner, a 20-minute drive from downtown Salem. This family-favorite destination combines the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest with the craftsmanship of a fairy tale imagination. It's a family-orientated theme park with fun-for-all-ages rides and explorable attractions, all backdropped by forested surroundings.

A few of the special areas of the park include Storybook Lane, Fantasy Fountains, and Tofteville Western Town. The park also hosts regular comedy theater and live music performances. For those visitors 40 inches or taller, the Big Timber Log Ride is a fun way to keep cool in the summer sun. Other rides include an Ice Mountain Bobsled Rollercoaster, Kiddy Bumper Boats, and a Tiny Tune Train.

A visit to Enchanted Forest is a quintessential experience for many children growing up in Salem. It can easily be an all-day endeavor, and various food options throughout the park help keep energy levels constant. Patrons are also welcome to bring their own lunch. The Enchanted Forest only operates on the weekends and Memorial Day throughout the summer.

Address: 8462 Enchanted Way Southeast, Turner, Oregon

Official site: http://www.enchantedforest.com/

5. Oregon State Capitol

Exterior of the Oregon State Capitol
Exterior of the Oregon State Capitol | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

As someone who enjoys touring and photographing state capitol buildings, I was impressed by the Oregon State Capitol, located approximately five blocks from the Willamette River. Its reflective white marble catches the sun nicely, and the entire campus comprises the landscaped Oregon State Capitol State Park. But what really caught my eye about the Modernist Art Deco design was the gilded Oregon Pioneer perched atop the central tower.

State Capitol Park itself is worth a visit, especially when the weather is nice (and thanks to Salem's location in the fertile Willamette Valley, the weather is usually lovely). Statues, sitting benches, and interpretive information punctuate the space, offering a lovely place to wander.

You can typically take a self-guided tour of the capital during normal operating hours, with guided tours available on weekdays. Special points of interest include the Capitol Rotunda, the Senate history room, and the Governor's portrait hallway.

However, construction projects to ensure seismic security and universal access have closed many of the historic parts of the State Capitol to the public, including the Rotunda, Galleria, and the Observation Deck next to the Gilded Pioneer. These closures are projected to last until January 2025.

Address: 900 Court Street Northeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/capitolhistorygateway/Pages/default.aspx

6. Gilbert House Children's Museum

Gilbert House Children's Museum
Gilbert House Children's Museum | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

This children's museum and play space is adjacent to the north end of Riverfront City Park and offers true immersion into a creative world. This renowned children's museum is designed for kids aged two to 10 and features various interactive and educational exhibits and playscapes. Thanks to its fun energy, accompanying adults also tend to enjoy their visit.

Different areas at the Children's Museum include a Discovery Campground; a build-your-own Fortopia; and an epic Outdoor Discovery Area featuring a giant, climbable Erector Set Tower. Special events at the museum include Summer Block Parties, Science Night for Adults, and various classes and workshops.

Address: 116 Marion Street Northeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: https://acgilbert.org/

7. Minto-Brown Island Park

Cyclist at Minto-Brown Island Park
Cyclist at Minto-Brown Island Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Minto-Brown Island Park is the largest recreation space in Salem. It's on the city's west side and surrounded by the Willamette River waterway. The park has a paved pedestrian path navigating its many landscapes to explore, including wetlands, woodlands, and open prairie. Spotting wildlife at Minto-Brown is a common occurrence because of these varied landscapes, and my entire time spent there was backed by a soundtrack of birds chirping.

An additional 30 miles of trails and bike paths wind throughout the park, which I look forward to exploring more on my next visit. My trip ended on the park's northside at the stunning pedestrian bridge connecting to Riverfront City Park and the rest of the downtown district. Large picnic pavilions throughout the park are available to rent for large picnic get-togethers.

Address: 2200 Minto Island Road Southwest, Salem, Oregon

8. Willamette Heritage Center

Willamette Heritage Center
Willamette Heritage Center | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The five-acre Willamette Heritage Center campus ties together the past and present for a look into Salem's history and current cultural vibe. Informative displays and unique exhibits punctuate its fourteen historical sites, located just east of the Willamette University campus near downtown.

The bright red Thomas Kay Woolen Mill is a historic centerpiece of the Heritage Center and houses many authentic pieces of 19th- and 20th-century machinery. Various local retailers are also at the Heritage Center, including shopping, dining, and souvenir outlets.

The Heritage Center is open Tuesday through Saturday between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. It's a small price of admission to enter with different fees for adults and kids (ages 6-17). Kids 5 and under receive free access. Expect to spend between a couple of hours to the entire day exploring, depending on what catches your eye.

Address: 1313 Mill Street Southeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: https://www.willametteheritage.org/

9. Deepwood Museum and Gardens

Deepwood garden walk
Deepwood garden walk | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The historic Deepwood Estate and surrounding gardens, approximately a mile south of the State Capitol, have provided aesthetic appeal in Salem for more than 120 years.

The Queen Anne-style Victorian home dating to the 1890s sets the historical tone. The regal residence has a long legacy serving many residents and is now city-owned and available for public visits and event rentals.

Guided tours of the home museum are available Wednesday through Saturday on top of every hour between 9:00 a.m. and noon. Tours include detailed information about the history and artifacts within the home. It's recommended to call ahead to reserve your spot.

Tours have a small admission fee and are the only way to see the inside of the estate outside of special events. The five acres of formal gardens surrounding the estate are free to stroll during the daylight hours. Special events at Deepwood Estate include Easter egg hunts, jazz festivals, and holiday open houses.

Address: 1116 Mission Street Southeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: https://www.historicdeepwoodestate.org/

10. Elsinore Theatre

Elsinore Theatre posters
Elsinore Theatre posters | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The Elsinore Theatre debuted as a vaudeville theater and silent movie house in 1926. Today, after an upgrade in technology and equipment, the Elsinore Theatre has evolved into a community performance art center, attracting thousands of patrons each year with a year-round lineup of live music, theatrical productions, and classic cinema screenings.

The Elsinore Theatre adds to a downtown experience, just two blocks from the State Capitol and minutes away from a variety of restaurants and eateries. Dinner and a show at the Elsinore make for a romantic and fun date, and the surrounding area provides plenty of avenues for things to do at night.

Address: 170 High Street Southeast, Salem, Oregon

Official site: http://elsinoretheatre.com/

11. Bush's Pasture Park

Bridge at Bush's Pasture Park
Bridge at Bush's Pasture Park

Bush's Pasture Park covers nearly 100 acres of wooded space at the heart of the city and is a popular spot for organized sporting events and unplanned afternoons in nature.

Numerous paved and unpaved hiking trails stretch throughout the park, connecting other fun areas, including the Crooked House Playground and the Rhododendron and Rose Gardens. Athletics within this urban natural space include four lighted tennis courts and a softball field with bleachers available for rent.

The Bush House Museum is also onsite, offering a unique look into the influential life of Asahel Bush, a founding editor of the Oregon Statesman. Free guided tours are offered of this historic home Thursday through Saturday in the afternoon, with tickets available at the nearby renovated Bush Barn Art Center.

Address: 890 Mission Street Southeast, Salem, Oregon

12. Willamette University

Easton Hall at Willamette University
Easton Hall at Willamette University | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Willamette University was founded in 1842 as the first university established in the Western United States. Its gorgeous campus is across the street from the Oregon State Capitol, where its long-standing legacy rings from its brick buildings and landscaped lawns.

The university adds a collegiate appeal and vibrant student population to the community, and its campus benefits students and residents alike. Willamette Bearcats athletic events are always fun to check out, and community institutions like the Hallie Ford Museum of Art add cultural appeal.

Address: 900 State Street, Salem, Oregon

Official site: http://willamette.edu/

13. Cascades Gateway Park

Walter L. Wirth Lake at Cascades Gateway Park
Walter L. Wirth Lake at Cascades Gateway Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Cascades Gateway Park is a bit of a hidden gem. This 100-acre park is on the city's southeast side near Interstate 5, about three miles away from the hustle and bustle of downtown. It's a great place to beat the summer heat or enjoy the changing seasons.

The park features accessible hiking trails; an 18-hole disc golf course; and the inviting Walter L. Wirth Lake, which is excellent for fishing or paddle sports.

It's a popular family park, especially around the recently installed playground equipment. Canine companions enjoy the off-leash, fenced-in dog area within the park. Shelters and picnic pavilions are also available to rent, accommodating up to 160 people.

Address: 2100 Turner Road Southeast, Salem, Oregon

Where to Stay in Salem for Sightseeing

A few of the more luxurious places can be found close to the central downtown district, though most hotels in Salem are located east of the city near the Interstate 5 corridor.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • For a stay in central downtown, The Grand Hotel in Salem features amazing access to the city and fine furnishings. Besides underground parking and spacious rooms, guests at The Grand Hotel enjoy an attached restaurant, an indoor heated pool, and quick access to the Salem Convention Center.
  • East of downtown and near the interstate, Best Western Plus Mill Creek Inn is another great option that doesn't skimp on service. With quick access to Willamette University, the Best Western Plus provides spacious rooms, free breakfast, and an indoor pool and spa.
  • Near the Best Western, Hampton Inn & Suites Salem also has a great reputation for first-class service and larger rooms, perfect for extended stays or just a little more space.

Budget Hotels:

  • For more affordable options in Salem that don't sacrifice service and cleanliness for value, places like Best Western Pacific Highway Inn are a good bet. Located along the I-5 corridor northeast of the city, this Best Western receives high ratings thanks to its air-conditioned rooms, friendly front desk service, and its strategic location across the street from the Original Pancake House.
  • South of the city and near the Enchanted Forest, Phoenix Inn Suites, Salem is a large hotel complex with nearly 90 large suites available and a full breakfast bar with each night's stay.
  • Near the center of the city off Interstate 5, Comfort Inn & Suites is another reliable choice that provides plenty of space for affordable rates.

Map of Attractions & Things to Do in Salem, OR

Salem, OR - Climate Chart

Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Salem, OR in °C
8 1 11 2 13 3 16 4 19 7 23 9 28 11 28 11 25 9 18 5 11 3 8 1
Average monthly precipitation totals for Salem, OR in mm.
148 129 106 70 54 37 15 17 36 77 162 164
Average monthly snowfall totals for Salem, OR in cm.
6 4 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 6
Average minimum and maximum temperatures for Salem, OR in °F
47 33 51 35 56 37 61 39 67 44 74 48 82 52 82 52 77 48 64 41 52 38 46 34
Average monthly precipitation totals for Salem, OR in inches.
5.8 5.1 4.2 2.8 2.1 1.5 0.6 0.7 1.4 3.0 6.4 6.5
Average monthly snowfall totals for Salem, OR in inches.
2.2 1.5 0.2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0.3 2.2

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