Salem sits in the middle of the Willamette Valley, northwestern Oregon’s fertile glen that hosts some 70 percent of the state’s population. The Willamette River rolls through the city as it does through Eugene and Portland, Salem’s riverscape becoming especially pretty with the tall riparian cottonwoods of Minto-Brown Island Park: an urban escape for hikers, joggers, and dog-walkers. Salem has plenty to offer anyone looking for a cosmopolitan getaway—with its own distinct charm. Fancy a local brew or some Willamette Valley wine? You got it. Or, duck into a local cafe, pick up some local produce at one of the nearby farms, or find a few things to fill the voids in your suitcase at one of the many boutiques and shops around town.
Nature in general doesn’t feel far away in this midsized city, edged by the Eola and Salem hills: The waterbird wonderland of Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge lies a stone’s throw away, the Coast Range and the Pacific beyond are within easy reach to the west, and the noble cones of Mounts Hood and Jefferson on the eastward skyline suggest the nearness of Cascade forests, rivers, and snowfields. Salem serves as a springboard for several of the Western Cascades’ best-known destinations, including Silver Falls State Park, Breitenbush Hot Springs, and the old-growth rainforest basin of Opal Creek. Speaking of old-growth, the Valley of the Giants in the Coast Range is a more under-the-radar gem.
Once the homeland of the Kalapuyans, Salem was platted in 1847 and became Oregon’s capital in the following decade; an early, Amerindian-inspired name, Chemeketa, lives on in that of the local community college. Willamette University, meanwhile, dates to Salem’s earliest beginnings as a modern city: Established in 1842, it’s the oldest university in the West, and its campus includes a signature Salem attraction, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Ensconced as it is in the Willamette Valley heartland, Salem’s long been an agricultural center: It earned its “Cherry City” nickname honestly, still hosts the grand Oregon State Fair, and shows off rich local produce at its farmers markets and restaurants.
The epicenter of Oregon’s wine country lies within easy reach, too. Oregon claims a very distinctive capitol building in Salem’s squat, Art Deco-style pillar, decorated with scenes of Beaver State history inside (murals) and out (carved reliefs). Whether the capitol grounds and Willamette campus or the stately oak savanna of Bush’s Pasture Park and the verdant gardens of the historic Deepwood Museum and Gardens, Salem abounds with fine places to stroll—in the sunny heat of summer or the mildness of winter. And from the World Beat Festival to the Salem Art Fair & Festival, the city has plenty of annual arts-and-culture celebrations. More entertainment awaits just a short jaunt north at nearby Keizer’s ballpark, where the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes play their home stands. Once you get to know it, Salem’s pretty cool after all: not just as a launch pad for daytrips to the Oregon Coast, the Cascades, and Portland, but also for its appealing small-town feel despite its size and capital status.