Credit: Ron Cooper
Salem is the capital of Oregon, though it doesn’t look the part. The government and medical enterprises take up most of its trade. Few buildings exceed one story in height. The town opts for horizontal expansion, but if you drive for an hour in any direction, you’ll find yourself in the country.
That said, writing Salem off as another sleepy berg in Anytown USA would slight it unfairly. Salem squirrels away its best stuff in the suburbs, but that stuff is there.
My wife and I relayed some hot tips about Portland in a different article. In this one, we’d like to do the same for our stomping grounds. Whether you’re visiting for work or dropping by, here are a few stops you can’t miss.
We have marked with an asterisk anything that is closed for pandemic reasons at the time of writing, but all the businesses mentioned are healthy and still standing.
Nature: Minto-Brown Island Park
Bigger than Central Park, Minto-Brown stretches for 1,200 acres. Not only that, but it boasts a more diverse landscape and ecology than New York’s famous strolling grounds. Copses of trees give way to rolling fens. One path runs alongside the Willamette River and snakes through dense foliage, leading to yellow fields and rich earth. Birds twitter and frogs dart along the banks of Mill Creek. You can see a glittering array of colors in any season. Neon green algae coats the water in spring and yellow stalks of tall grass dance at the edge of its lush dog park. Minto-Brown owes its wildlife diversity to its floodplains and temperate climate. It’s a microcosm of what makes Oregon’s ecosystems special.
Culture and Curiosities: Reed Opera House
The centerpiece of Salem’s downtown area, the Reed Opera House deserves attention from culture-seekers and shoppers alike. For those interested in landmarks, the building itself is a well-preserved artifact of the Pacific Northwest’s upper society during the 19th century. In the 1870’s, Salem was shedding its frontier reputation and assuming the luxuries of the urbane east coast and Great Britain.
Credit: Marion County Hist. Society
Cyrus Adam Reed, a member of the Oregon Legislative Assembly, intended to house the state’s legislature, supreme court, and library within this building, but the contract ran into trouble and he changed his intent. He put shops on the first floor, an opera house on the second and third, and turned the rest into a hotel. The result quickly became early Salem’s premiere hub for social gatherings, a Windsor Hotel for the uncultivated west.
Credit: Ron Y., Tripadvisor
Christo’s is a little less romantic and more congenial than higher-class restaurants. Arguably, it’s all the better for it. It has dusky lighting, comfy booths, and Italian food, but its specialty is pizza. As such, it’s suitable for one-on-one dates, but can serve as an outing for chums, chaps, and chappesses. It’s a versatile ambiance that may not be as opulent as Chira’s, but is equally charming in its own way. According to this author, it has the best pizza in the U.S.A., Canada, and the Boot. During my last meal at Christo’s, I tried a pizza inspired by a chef’s own visit to Italy. It was the work of an artisan, not a mere cook-for-hire. These guys love pizza. More than that, they love what pizza can become.
Nature: Bush Park and Conservatory
Credit: City of Salem
After Christo’s, you should take the skip and a jump to Bush Park. Like the Reed, Bush Park is a product of the Industrial Revolution and Oregon’s rising fortunes.
The park itself is a serene and gentle stroll through undulating hills and carefully maintained shrubbery. It’s the perfect setting for any time of day (or for bellies full of good food and in need of some exercise). The star of the show, of course, is the venerable greenhouse which lies near the modest art conservatory. Possibly the oldest greenhouse in the Northwest, it epitomizes the character of the park itself. It is small and as true to its history as possible, carrying a selection of plants typical of Victorian greenhouses. In the hotter months, workmen cover it with white paint that dissolves with rainfall in order to protect it from the heat. Both the selection and the paint are traditional practices and add to the historicity of the structure.
The rest of the park conveys this same Victorian energy. It is a tamed garden of small streams and hillocks, of white-lattice benches and picnics. Some days call for nothing else.
Obscure: f/stop Fitzgerald’s Public House
Credit: Michael V, Yelp
What makes a bar a “dive”? Is it the omnipresent video lottery? Is it the HD TV running sports 24/7? Is it the cracked linoleum in the restrooms? People usually shrug and answer, “You know one when you see it.” Well, a similar distinction exists between a bar and a pub. Many towns in America have bars, dives, or even taverns, but no pubs.
f/stop Fitzgerald’s Public House is, therefore, a welcome surprise. It’s a house-turned-business buried in a residential area. While it has the amenities of a tap house, it opted to keep its domestic trappings. In place of hard chairs and long tables are fuzzy sofas and recliners. The dining room usually holds groups playing D&D or board games. Two rooms on the first floor are perfect for entertaining groups of three to ten. For solitude, a table and two kitchen chairs are in a tiny second floor foyer. The pub proper holds more traditional booths and tables. Books and board games ranging from the genuinely interesting to the hilariously bad line shelves throughout the house. A fenced patio attached to the pub holds garden furniture and a gas-powered fire pit.
As day becomes night, f/stop assumes one of the most congenial atmospheres I’ve ever seen. The staff fire up the pit, patrons begin to drift outside to the patio or upstairs to a charming home theater. Strangers become friends, at least for a while. Fitzgerald’s lulls them into a camaraderie and security that rarely co-exists in the everyday world.
That, my friends, is a pub.
Nature: Riverfront Park
Credit: City of Salem
Riverfront Park is not wonderful in and of itself, but it acts as a sort of connective tissue between several remarkable experiences, namely the Riverfront Carousel and The Gilbert House Children’s Museum.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile on its own, though. It plays host to kayaking, fishing, and boating. It also offers a beautiful view of the Willamette River. A quaint steamer called The Willamette Queen* chugs along the river’s length and provides a memorable dining experience. A newly built bridge lets you travel from the park to the far end of Minto-Brown, forming a trail loop that runs for miles upon miles.
Kids: Riverfront Carousel
Credit: City of Salem
Nevertheless, Riverfront’s greatest delights are for children. The Riverfront Carousel’s horses are individually named, painted, and carved. You could spend hours picking out all the details: carved roses; freehanded illustrations of manor grounds; banners; tasteful pastels as well as sportier flashes of red and navy blue. It’s a spectacle made brief by the fluffy substance of carousels — the time we spend on them never equals the time spent crafting them — but it’s a spectacle nonetheless.
Credit: Dawn, Best of the Northwest
The Gilbert House
Credit: Anna Reed, Statesman Journal
Located near Riverfront’s parking lot, The Gilbert House will absorb your childrens’ attention for hours. Founded in 1989, it’s a museum dedicated to the art of child’s play. Instead of weighing down your kids with lectures or data, it attempts to inspire natural curiosity about the world through hands-on demonstrations and innocent fun.
In a bubble room stocked with blowers and soap, hula hoops soak in suds and wait to be lifted to make a big, bubbly cylinder. Greenscreen rooms introduce children to digital fantasy scapes. A room set up to teach about aerodynamics has tubes of pressurized air and foam noodles. Some exhibits act like gigantic dollhouses: one has life-sized plastic cows and props so that children can re-enact a farmer’s day; another uses those same replicas to learn about veterinary practices.
But the best part has to be the gigantic Erector Set in the Outside Discovery Area.
Credit: Wikpedia Entries, public domain
A tangled weave of sturdy wood and metal grilles, it’s an engineer’s take on what a treehouse can be. It’s perfect for tag, hide-and-seek, or just hanging out.
I myself explored this museum as a tot. From personal experience, I can say that The Gilbert House will make their lives wider, brighter, and better.
Family and Friends: Ticket to Play Board Game Cafe
Credit: Nathan and Robin Perry
Board games occupy a special place in our social lives. In times past and outside a few hold-outs like poker or chess, perhaps they were relegated to children’s play and the youth market, but now they have become a multigenerational pastime. No matter whether you’re part of a family or among your peers, there is a game that can bridge the gap between you. Now, games can intrigue adults with rulebooks as large as twenty pages and as small as half a page. Their subjects can be as pleasant as the growth of succulents or as sophisticated as the growth of stocks, and they innovate more every year. Believe it or not, the industry is undergoing a huge growth spurt.
As a result of their newfound popularity, they’ve given rise to venues that combine that social experience with the old joy of breaking bread. Board game cafes are an accepted concept nowadays.
Ticket to Play is a family-friendly, small-town version of the concept. It has delicious sandwiches, pizzas, salads, ciders, and drafts. Their menu features the greatest hits of luncheonettes: reubens, paninis, B.L.T.’s, quesadillas, and more. $5 a head will buy you table space and access to a library of over 300 games. If you don’t have time to stay, they have a rental program. If you’re at a loss or having trouble making a decision, proprietors Nathan and Robin are excellent guides for gamers of any skill or interest level.
Credit: Nathan and Robin Perry
Speaking of Nathan and Robin, they’re really what makes this place hum. Nathan’s a knowledgeable gamer and an experienced line cook. Robin is a bubbly and gracious hostess with a talent for confections and goodies: her cookies and pretzels are local favorites.
In short, Ticket to Play has the services of a metropolitan board game hotspot like Victoria, B.C.’s Interactivity Board Game Cafe. It has great food, not just diner fare. It has a great selection of titles. At the same time, it has the irreplaceable mom and pop charms: staff you know on a first-name basis; the homemade touch; the ability to slip past your defenses and let your hair down.
Awesome but Out of the Way: Mt. Angel Abbey
Credit: Mount Angel Abbey official site
You can go to Mt. Angel for its yearly Oktoberfest* and excellent German food. You can go to Mt. Angel Abbey for its architecture and the biggest collection of Civil War documents on the west coast. You should go to Mt. Angel Abbey for serenity.
The incline to this Benedictine monastery lifts you above the noise and drudgery of the modern world. The campus rests on a high plateau. Immaculate tiled paths flow between equally immaculate buildings and downy fields of grass. Besides the infrequent footsteps of its forty-nine monks and the twittering of birds, nothing stirs.
Nothing stirs . . . and that’s a bigger shock to the system than you’d think. Even amidst the wilderness, you can hear the crunch of gravel, the sound of flowing water, the roar of distant cars, and all sorts of white noise that passes beneath daily notice. In the morning, it assumes an aura of mystery. Dew clings to the branches of the evergreens and to every stalk of grass. The earth seems to breathe.
For that reason, you go to Mt. Angel Abbey.
Credit: Andrew Parodi
Las Vegas and Los Angeles revel in the larger-than-life. Los Angeles’ popular barcade Dave & Buster’s is practically the size of a military compound. The grandest man-made creations will always reside in cities. Salem won’t fulfill that thirst for bigger and “better.” It doesn’t have beaches like Seaside, Oregon or the allure of the coast (although it’s not too far from Lincoln or Pacific City).
Instead, Salem provides something small, something graceful, something well-formed. Sometimes the grandest things in life aren’t cathedrals, but crosses on a hill.
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