A Blend of Historical Charm, Modern Attractions and Excellent Coffee
Clay’s son and our daughter-in-law live(d) in Salem, so we’ve visited a few times before. Those were for occasions though — Thanksgiving and a graduation — so we didn’t have a ton of time to explore this beautiful area.
For this trip, we scheduled two weeks where we got to live on a farm, and it was positively luxurious. Though we’re working full-time, we did have time to explore some of Salem’s historical landmarks, a few restaurants and coffee shops and the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen.
Gray and Chase also took us to Portland a couple of times to see a soccer game and to visit a very cool immersive art show. And, of course, we had more excellent food there. They moved back to Reno just as we were leaving Salem, so we enjoyed having the opportunity to be shown around as they said goodbye to the town they love.
A Brief History
Before Salem became Oregon’s capital, it was home to the Kalapuya people, who lived off the land by hunting, fishing and gathering in the fruitful Willamette Valley. But things took a turn in the 19th century when European settlers began pouring in, and let’s just say they weren’t great neighbors to the Kalapuya. With the newcomers came diseases and policies that drastically reduced the Indigenous population. By the 1840s, those same settlers founded Salem. Fast forward to 1851, and it was crowned the capital of the Oregon Territory, and then in 1859, the state capital. While Salem’s grown and changed a lot over the years, we can’t forget the Indigenous people who shaped its early history.
The city’s name, “Salem,” is derived from the Hebrew word “Shalom,” meaning peace. Once we discovered that the name means peace it made so much sense, as you can see the word integrated into artwork and signage throughout the city. And it is very peaceful.
It’s easy to see how the Kalapuya (and later European settlers) thrived in this lush area. It’s a different shade of green wherever you look, and some plants I’ve spent a lot of money on grow as literal weeds in Oregon.
the land of Pinot Noir
Wine grapes are also abundant throughout the Willamette Valley, and I grew very spoiled with the delicious pinot noir everywhere we went. We’ve been wine tasting in the Willamette Valley before and we knew we needed to go again, but we were a little overwhelmed by all the nearby choices. When our Airbnb host shared a bottle of the Willamette Valley Winery Rosé of Pinot Noir, we knew that’s where we needed to go. Their Estate Tasting Room is a gorgeous place to taste a variety of their wines, along with delicious food pairings. You also get an amazing view of the Willamette Valley and it’s only about a 20 minute drive from Salem. We went in determined not to buy any wine and we left with only half a case, so I consider that a win.
Salem Riverfront Park
Clay had run with his kids in this lovely green space on a previous visit and was excited to share it with me. The 26-acre park is located along the Willamette River and is a favorite for tourists enjoying the carousel, playgrounds and kayaking, as well as people like us taking a mid-day break from our laptops.
About That Waterfall
Just about everyone we talked to about our adventure told us we had to go to the Silver State Park, which is just about an hour from Salem. Toward the end of our trip, we caught an afternoon with no rain, so we trekked over there to see what all the fuss was about. Wow. Just wow.
It offers hiking trails for all levels, though even the easy ones are a little steep and damp, which offers additional challenges if you happen to be a klutz. But it’s totally worth it when you come around a bend and see the South Falls. And you continue hiking until you’re standing behind the 177-foot curtain of falling water.
There’s another seven miles to get around to all of them, but if you’re willing to put in the (moderate) work, you’ll get to experience ten waterfalls. We totally get why it has the reputation of being the crown jewel of the Oregeon State Parks system. This is definitely a must-see when visiting this area.
Coffee Shops, Libraries & Laundromats
While we loved our Airbnb, it was not set up for digital nomads, so that gave us plenty of opportunities to explore the surrounding coffee shops and libraries. Our favorite workplace was IKE Box, named for Isaac, a young son who was lost much to early.
In addition to being housed in a historic building and serving delicious coffee and snacks, it’s a training ground for divested youth to learn the skills they need to create a successful life. Isaac’s House (another coffee shop in Salem) and IKE House were created by Mark and Tiffany Bulgin as a tribute to their son Isaac, who died only two months after being born in 1998. We didn’t know any of this when we went their the first time, but the overall atmosphere was so welcoming and peaceful that I spent some time on their website, where I found this:
“Our mission is for young people, but our vision is restored community. Everybody knows that we can’t have truly healthy young people without an engaged, caring community, but we also assert that we can’t have a truly healthy community without engaged, caring young people.”
Yes, we truly found the right place.
Since we couldn’t stay in one place the whole time, we took in other coffee shops recommended by the kids and our Airbnb host: Archive Coffee & Bar, Broadway Coffee House and, of course, the Governor’s Cup Coffee Roasters, which we discovered on our first trip to Salem and it’s been a staple ever since.
Something we recently discovered in Reno, is the power of libraries. And Salem has an absolutely gorgeous public library. It’s three stories high, full of meeting rooms and other nooks and crannies perfect for working, and it even has its own parking garage. It was nice the day we showed up at opening time to see a line of people waiting to go in. We can tell you, from experience, how important libraries are for local families, students, people needing power and a place to sit, and digital nomads. If you need a place to work, go visit yours. I promise you won’t be sorry.
Of course, one of my very favorite places to work in Salem was the New Wave Landromat. It’s been awhile since I’ve been in a laundromat, and I was not expecting the level of sophistication we experienced. Of course, the power and WiFi were very handy, but the laundromat itself was high-tech. No more fishing for quarters; you pick a machine and pay with your debit card at the kiosk. If you’re a regular, you can also use an app.
Mustn’t Forget the Food
The Salem-Portland area has a reputation for great food and we were determined to experience that for ourselves. On our first day in Salem, we met our guides, Gray and Chase, at The Ram to enjoy sports and bar food. When our first attempt at wine tasting got rained out, we headed back for more sports and more bar food.
We met one of Clay’s former clients and his wife at Riccardo’s Lake Oswego, a lovely Italian restaurant with the best lasagna I’ve had in my life. And I’ve enjoyed it in Italy.
We enjoyed catching up with an old Sparks High School classmate, Steven, at Basil and Board. The pizza and salad that we ordered to share fed us deliciously for the next two days.
We drove past Nancy’s Jo’s Burgers every day for almost two weeks before I wondered out loud if they really were award-winning or if that was just a marketing line they posted on their sign. Trust us that it’s a reputation well-earned and the fries are just as good, especially with Nancy Jo’s special sauce.
A Couple of Side Visits to Portland
Portland is less than an hour from Salem, so we also took the opportunity to explore the City of Roses.
Gray and Chase are big Portland Timbers fans, so they took us to a game where we got to enjoy some first-class soccer (and a win!). We also got to join in the fun of the Timbers Army, a passionate group of die-hard fans leading the crowd in chants and songs. You can literally feel the stadium shake when the team scores and everyone joins in singing “You Are My Sunshine” and waving their green, gold and rainbow flags.
Before catching the game, we stopped in at another Gray and Chase Pick, Top Burmese, where we enjoyed samosas and tofu tots before sharing a family-style meal of Tea Leaf Salad and a sampling of chicken, beef and eggplant curries. Writing those words is giving my tastebuds a most excellent flashback.
Hopscotch Immersive Art
Sometimes Instagram serves up the just right ad at just the right time. The week before we showed up, Chase saw an ad for Hopscotch, an immersive art experience where we spent a delightful Saturday afternoon.
There are 14 immersive installations curated by local, national and international artists. They all include a unique combination of light and sound, forcing you to fully immerse yourself in each exhibit. I especially enjoyed the Secret Garden, where we stood under artistic canopies and heard real people sharing their real secrets. While there was a certain voyeuristic appeal to it, I also heard the relief in their voices as they finally said out loud the thing that had been haunting them. There was a telephone-sized booth for sharing your own secrets, or a QR code if you’d prefer to do it online later.
In Augmented Normalcy, we put on a pair of VR glasses that allowed us to see ourselves from above as we attempted challenging tasks like shooting baskets or sitting on a couch. Gray and Chase had a blast on the Augmented Trampoline, which changed colors as they jumped. There was also an ice cave made out of such realistically designed plastic bags that you expected them to be cold. Hopscotch also has a restaurant and bar, so you can make a day of it.
On that trip, we also enjoyed Eem Thai Food & Vacation Drinks, “the best restaurant in Portland,” according to Gray. While I haven’t eaten at all the restaurants in Portland, I’m inclined to agree with him. Since he’s very good at it, we let him order for the able and we quite enjoyed the White Curry with Brisket Burnt Ends, the Sweet & Sour Fried Chicken and other deliciousness. We all picked our own drinks and I enjoyed my Yuzu Bliss, aka Approved by Chef, consisting of cucumber, yuzu shrub and ginger lime soda.
The Rose Garden
After Hopscotch, we dropped Gray and Chase off to see their friends and then we visited the other must-see location we had been hearing about for two weeks — the International Rose Test Garden. Nestled in Washington Park, the 4.5-acre park is home to more than 10,000 individual rose bushes, representing more than 610 different varieties.
While the primary purpose of the Garden is to serve as a testing ground for new rose varieties, it’s also another peaceful getaway for more than 700,000 visitors annually. It’s not just about the roses though; the beautifully manicured lawns, the bubbling fountains and the tranquil atmosphere make it a peaceful retreat from the city’s hustle and bustle.
We’re really glad we had the opportunity to spend time so much time in this beautiful area — it’s a great getaway, whether you have a long weekend or a couple of weeks like we did. We’re exploring the Oregon coast next, on the way to stay in Brookings for a week, where my sister and brother-in-law live. Conveniently enough, they also own an Airbnb. I expect that review to be even more fun.