: Ron Cooper/ Travel Salem

Road Trip: Salem

Take a road trip to Oregon’s capital city for art, food and fun.
November 21, 2013 (Updated January 22, 2024)

Tucked in the middle of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s capital city has a robust museum and culture scene, as well as a slew of ways to play outside with waterfalls and wildlife all nearby. When it’s time to refuel, a great meal at a restaurant or food truck awaits. Here’s how to make the most of a trip to a city that hums with energy. 

A sculpture in the park leading to the front of the Oregon State Capitol building.
Take a tour of the Oregon State Capitol, built in 1938 with modernist and Art Deco flair. Photo by Ron Cooper

Experience a Wealth of Culture and Art

Locals like to say that Salem is the most Oregon part of Oregon, with so much access to great food, inspiring nature and interesting art. The state’s third-largest museum, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in downtown Salem, hosts a permanent collection that includes exhibits on Native American art as well as exhibits from Northwest artists. Leave the car parked when you’re there: The museum sits within easy walking distance of the Oregon State Capitol, which is currently undergoing construction and will reopen to the public in January 2025. In the meantime, visitors can see cherry blossoms in bloom on the Capitol Mall in the springtime.

Visit in the Capitol Mall evenings mid-March through early April during the annual Yozakura experience — the Japanese term for nighttime viewing of the cherry blossoms. Hosted by Oregon Parks and Recreation and the Oregon State Capitol Foundation, the trees will be decorated with lights and Japanese lanterns for a special photo opportunity, and the public is invited to bring their picnic blankets and chairs to soak up the ambiance. 

Art lovers shouldn’t miss the Bush Barn Art Center, where the displays are always free and curated by the Salem Art Association. The center is located at Bush’s Pasture Park, a perfect place to wander a 90-acre pocket of woods, paths and historical structures — including what might be the oldest conservatory east of the Mississippi. If street art is more your style, swing by Salem on the Edge, a downtown gallery where you’ll find a wall dedicated to graffiti that local artists change every year. The city has also created a self-guided walking tour that takes in much of Salem’s public art. 

For a taste of cult-classic culture, visit the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, the location for the film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Inside you’ll find artifacts from the movie as well as fascinating exhibits that trace how our approaches to mental health have changed since the hospital first opened in 1883. The museum is also a stop on  the Oregon Film Trail.

Two hikers on a grassy trail.
Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge lies only 14 miles west of Salem. Courtesy of Reed Lane Photography/ Travel Salem

Head Outdoors for Fun for the Whole Family

For a nature fix, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon’s largest, sits about 24 miles east with great hiking to some of the state’s most photogenic waterfalls. Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 14 miles west, is a great spot to look for eagles. Walkable from downtown, don’t miss Minto-Brown Island Park, at 1,200 acres, a haven for herons and ospreys that’s larger than Central Park and accessible via a footbridge from Salem’s Riverfront Park. A 30-acre off-leash area will make Fido gleefully tuckered. 

Traveling with kids? The renowned Gilbert House Children’s Museum in Riverfront Park has a newly revamped outdoor play area where kids can build toy trucks. There’s also space to pretend to be a veterinarian, build forts and create larger-than-life, colored motion images. A slide here is accessible to children in wheelchairs, too. The riverfront park is also home to an old-world-style carousel featuring hand-carved wooden horses, dragons and giraffes.

The Salem airport, known as McNary Field, houses a B-17 bomber known as “Lacey Lady,” a World War II-era plane that an Oregon gas station owner, Art Lacey, had parked for decades over his pumps in Milwaukie to provide shade for his customers. Today the plane’s being restored at the airport’s Hangar C, home to the B-17 Alliance Foundation Museum, which also holds World War II artifacts like uniforms and machine guns. When you’re done, head up to the Flight Deck Restaurant for a burger and to watch planes take off on the runway outside.

The risotto and scallop dish at Palominos in downtown Salem. Courtesy of Palominos

Where to Dine and Drink in Salem

Salem wouldn’t be quite as Oregonian as it is without terrific craft breweries. Gilgamesh Brewing — with hazy IPAs and light, bright Hefeweizens — serves great burgers and salads. Santiam Brewing offers British-style beer and a pub menu with classics like fish and chips. Head to either North or West Salem for Xicha Brewing, which pairs its brews with Mexican-style favorites — think tacos, taquitos and nachos with housemade chips.

For Asian fare, the new Chopstick Brothers offers classic Chinese-American fare and more unusual offerings like Lanzhou beef noodle soup and pho. Downtown Palominos pleases diners with craft cocktails, risotto with scallops for dinner and seasonal Sunday brunch. Icarus Wings and Things is owned by some of the team behind casual fine-dining hot spot, Black-owned Epilogue Kitchen & Cocktails. The bar specializes in chicken wings and viewing women’s sports, so try the Kansas-Olina BBQ sauce and root for the Portland Thorns women’s soccer team after it kicks off its season in March.

Can’t decide? Try one of the many eateries at two popular gatherings of food carts: Fork Forty Food Hall and The Yard Food Park. Both have numerous vendors and a bar. For more ideas on where to go and what to eat, check out the self-guided Great Oaks Food Trail, and take in Willamette Valley farms, bakeries and even candy stores.

About The

Tim Neville
Tim Neville is a writer based in Bend where he writes about the outdoors, travel and the business of both. His work has been included in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Sports Writing and Best Food Writing, and earned various awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the Society of Professional Journalists. Tim has reported from all seven continents and spends his free time skiing, running and spending time with his family.