Discover History & Culture in Downtown Salem
See Salem’s storied past in the heart of the city.
Salem’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places and is among the state’s most picturesque. Historic buildings house small boutiques, antique shops, cafes, theaters, vintage diners and more – with the Willamette River and Salem’s Riverfront Park just a stone’s throw away.
The history of the city is also tucked into the architectural beauty of the Elsinore Theatre and the Grand Theater, home of Enlightened Theatrics. Salem’s theater scene includes community theater at Pentacle Theater to musical theater and entertainment from nationally renowned performers.
The walkable core of downtown Salem offers easy access to both the Willamette River and the 22-acre Salem Riverfront Park which is home to a variety of interesting and unique points of interest and culturally relevant events. Salem is an innovative city and an example of that innovation can be seen in the south end of the park where an old, industrial metal container has been adorned with thousands of hand painted tiles to replicate the world – a huge Globe known as Eco Earth.
Another innovation is the Peter Courtney Minto Brown Island Pedestrian Bridge that was constructed to connect Riverfront park to 1,200 acres of natural area - Minto Brown Island Park. Toward the middle of Riverfront park rests the whimsical Salem Riverfront Carousel decorated with spectacular hand-carved horses and carvings that illustrate cherries, iris’ and other iconic symbols that Salem is known for.
The north end of park is anchored by the Union Street Railroad Bicycle and Pedestrian Bridge. The community converted the historic Southern Pacific railroad bridge into a through-way for pedestrians to cross the Willamette River and access Wallace Marine Park on the west side of Salem.
The Union Street Bridge is adorned in colored lights throughout the year, representing the seasons, and the bridge grants access for great urban strolls between both parks. Nestled in the north end of Riverfront Park is the Gilbert House Children’s Museum that inspires learning through creative play. The museum’s outdoor discovery area is a paradise for kids as well as energetic adults.
A few blocks east of downtown is the gorgeously landscaped Oregon State Capitol Park. While the historic portion of the Oregon State Capitol Building is closed for renovations until January 2025, you can explore the beautiful grounds and surrounding park. The 23-foot gold leaf Oregon Pioneer that stands atop the Capitol dome looks west representing the route of the Oregon Trail pioneers and their arduous trek to find “Eden” in the wild west. Willamette University, the oldest school of higher learning west of the Mississippi, is directly across from the Capitol building with expansive grounds and a history of its own. Hallie Ford Museum of Art is one of the Northwest’s best museums and is located on Willamette’s grounds. European, American and Asian art, as well as work by prominent Northwest artists and stunning array of American Indian baskets and regalia, are on permanent display.
Oregon’s history is woven throughout the city, and a perfect place to learn about the history starts at the Willamette Heritage Center. Buildings dating back to the 1840s help tell the story of Oregon’s early missionaries and immigrants that settled in the Mid-Willamette Valley, alongside the Kalapuya Indians. The site is also home to the 1896 Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, a National Park Service designated American Treasure, that vividly tells the story of industrialization in the Salem region. Two historic homes, Bush House Museum and Deepwood Museum & Gardens, located in the lush Bush’s Pasture Park, are cornerstones of Salem’s history and offers a peek of what life was like in 1800s Salem. Explore an oft-forgotten part of local history at the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health, housed in the Kirkbride building, which served as the set for the Oscar-winning film “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Salem is located in Marion county, Oregon’s largest agricultural county. So, it is not surprising that this rich agricultural region is home to abundant Farmers Markets. Between April and October, the Salem Saturday Market and Salem Wednesday Farmers Market spring to life downtown with vendors offering locally grown produce and flowers, handmade products, artisan foods and more. Jumping from market to market is a great past time and a delicious way to experience the rural areas of the region.
Located in the cornucopia of Oregon, Salem is a foodie paradise. Restaurants source the freshest ingredients from local farmers and create delights that will please any palate. One of the best things about Salem is the relaxed atmosphere and that includes the new Brewery District, which has bubbled up and added a new dimension to the Salem’s artisan beverage inventory, which also includes wine, hard cider and sparkling spirits.