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Salem, Oregon: 10 Reasons to Visit This Historic Gem

Skyline view of Salem, Oregon.

Don’t confuse it with Salem, Massachusetts! Salem, Oregon has its own rich history that has nothing to do with witchcraft. While this might be a deal breaker for some, we would urge you not to sleep on this Marion County gem.

Located on the banks of the Willamette River between the Cascade Mountains and coast range, this Oregon city has a lot more to offer than you might expect. From scenic parks, to historic structures, the nearly 50 square miles the city covers is brimming with opportunity.

What is the Capital of Oregon?

Like a lot of state capitals, it turns out that the capital of Oregon isn’t its largest city, Portland. Because of its size and popularity, many mistake Portland for the state capital, just like a lot of people think New York city must be the capital of New York state. (It’s actually Albany.)

The city of Salem is in fact the capital of the 33rd state to join the union. It is here in this unsuspecting Willamette Valley burg that the Oregon supreme court and state legislature meet to decide the fates of millions.

Politics aside, below is a list of interesting things that make visiting this capital city well worth it.

10 Reasons to Visit Salem, Oregon

1. The Oregon State Fair

Every year the Oregon State Fair is held in Salem around the end of summer. In addition to the numerous contests held across its expo center and stables, the fair is a great place to enjoy rides, play games, and eat giant smoked turkey legs. Musical acts also play the fair, and it isn’t uncommon for the annual celebration to attract big name acts like Kenny Loggins, Chicago, and Collective Soul, to name a few.

Although the official state fair only comes once a year, the grounds are regularly used for other events. If you’re going to be in the area, be sure to check their website for more information.

2. Enchanted Forest Theme Park

Though it’s a little south of the city, most people consider the Enchanted Forest to be part of the extended Salem area. Of all the things that might draw a well-adjusted adult to the area, this is easily within the top three. The park has fun rides, great opportunities for selfies, and a hauntingly creepy vibe. More than a reason to visit Salem, the Enchanted Forest is THE reason to visit Oregon itself.

3. Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health

Mental health is a serious issue that gains more and more attention in the United States every year. The historic grounds of the famous Oregon State Hospital have been turned into a museum that focuses on educating the public about mental health, institutionalization, and the history of both.

While this all might sound pretty dark, there are some silver linings ? Not only is the hospital structure a beautiful piece of preserved history, it was also the primary shooting location of the famous Jack Nicholson film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

4. Wine Tasting

A lot of people don’t seem to know that the Willamette Valley is one of the world’s premiere wine regions. As such, there are a ton of vineyards, wineries, and tasting rooms all around the Salem area, making a great hub for wine-oriented road trips. If you’re a fan of pinot noirs, you’re in for a treat, as that’s the areas number one crop.

5. Touring the Capitol Building

Before Oregon had achieved statehood, it was known as the Oregon Territory. Back then, the territorial capital was located in the nearby city of Corvallis and administrators governed from a simple statehouse. After the seat of state government was moved to Salem, a new capitol building was built.

Both this and its replacement structure were devastated by fire.

The third and current capitol building was constructed in a stunning art deco fashion and is topped with a golden statue of an Oregon Pioneer. Various tours of the grounds are available.

The capitol building and surrounding Oregon State Capitol State Park set the perfect impression for this tranquil U.S. State. Just make sure to avoid whoever’s protesting and counter-protesting that day and you should have a great time.

6. The Willamette River

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This tributary of the Columbia River is a great place to cool off, picnic, and more. Several parks are located right on its banks, some of which have features like trails and boat ramps. Floating and fishing are always an option when the weather’s right, and a couple golf courses run the river’s length as well.

7. The Willamette Heritage Center

More or less a museum, the Heritage Center has exhibits that include both artifacts and buildings, some of which even belonged to Oregon Trail settlers. In addition to its permanent installations, it has a range of temporary attractions that come and go, giving visitors every reason to return to the capital of Oregon.

8. A Fun Riverfront Area

Also along the Willamette River, along the downtown area, you’ll find the capital of Oregon’s lively Riverfront Park. The park is home to both the city’s iconic Riverfront Carousel and the launch site for the Willamette Queen steam boat. In addition to dinner, lunch, and brunch cruises, the Queen is available for simple excursions and can be booked for weddings.

9. Serene College Campuses

Both the campus of Willamette University and Chemeketa Community College are located within the Salem city limits. If you’re in town looking for somewhere beautiful and peaceful to walk around, but the parks and other tourist areas are too busy, just mosey on over to these ivory towers. Plus, colleges and universities always have a lot of interesting activities and installations to take in, so you never know what you might find.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll fall in love with the schools and decide to enroll. Crazier things have happened.

10. Deepwood Museum and Gardens

If you’re like us, you can never get enough museums. At over a hundred years old, this Queen Anne Victorian-style home is a wonderful way to step into the past. The house contains exhibits featuring interesting artifacts and historical facts, and the grounds include a 5-acre formal garden that is perfect for peaceful strolls. If you’re thinking of going, be sure to check the museum’s website, as a lot of different events come and go, from Easter Egg Hunts, to musical performances.

What’s your favorite reason for visiting the capital of Oregon? Let the world know on our Wide Open Roads Facebook!

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