Salem's capitol building

Pros and Cons of Living in Salem, Oregon

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Thinking about moving? Salem is close to nature and the urban hustle of Portland, but features a lower cost of living and a slower pace. Here are the pros and cons you should know.

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If you’re a fan of the outdoors, you’ll love living in Salem, Oregon. The mountains, the coast, Eugene, and Portland are all about an hour away by car. You can do hiking trips up to Mount Hood or day trips to Bend – which has one of the highest breweries per capita of any American city.

Other major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Boise, and Vancouver BC are within a day’s drive.

Hiking around Mount Hood National Forest

Weather and Climate

Salem benefits from the same weather patterns as Portland – if you consider it a benefit. Summer months are sunny, dry and moderate, but increasingly warmer due to climate change. During our time in Salem, the area experienced heatwaves and multiple days in the 90s. That said, summer evenings are almost always cool and enjoyable with sunlight lasting until 10 PM at the height of the season.

Winter can be unpredictable, but snow rarely sticks – and dissolves quickly when it does. Expect cloudy skies and drizzly weather from October to April. During those months, you’ll see more rainy days than not. Much like Portland, a SAD lamp is advisable.

Cost of Living

Compared to Portland, Salem’s cost of living is good. By almost every metric, you’ll spend less in Salem – including on housing. And coming from California, everything is cheaper by a long shot with your average restaurant meal ranging $10-15.

When looking for housing, try to live and work on the same side of the bridge. It’s a major chokepoint in the city and traffic can get gnarly during rush hours.

Major Industries

As Oregon’s capital city, the government is Salem’s largest employer with around 30,000 people on the payroll. The largest private employers are in healthcare or the service industries. All in all, expect to find plenty of professionals.

The bridge to Salem's Riverfront Park
The iconic bridge of Salem’s Rivefront Park

Demographics, Politics, Religion

Portland and Eugene are the state’s progressive strongholds. But outside of their city limits, Oregon is a conservative state. In Salem, you’ll see the meeting point of rural Oregon and those Democratic population centers. Resulting in a slightly conservative, but generally unprejudiced town.

In the 2016 election, Marion County (which contains Salem) voted for Trump over Clinton by seven points – and for Romney over Obama by a slightly smaller margin in 2012. So don’t expect a super-progressive culture vis a vis Portland.

Working in downtown coffee shops most days, I found religious organizations on the street corners. They refrain from the fire and brimstone that defines extremist preachers but are closely tied to conservative viewpoints. In conversation, they’ll do linguistic summersaults to avoid answering, “Is being LGBT a sin?”

Growing up in the Midwest, I’m not a stranger to these attitudes or the occasional confederate flag. But was flabbergasted to see a man with a swastika tattoo on his head checking out at the grocery store – and to hear from a friend that he saw a different swastika-tattooed man around town. These problems aren’t unique to Salem and don’t dominate the culture, but are surprising nonetheless.

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On race as a whole, the city is 80% white. That’s about equal to Portland, but at a quarter of the size – you’re going to see fewer black and brown people. Most everyone is well-meaning, but lack experience in casual integration when compared to larger cities.

Inside of Southside Speakeasy, a Salem gay bar
A particularly busy night at Southside Speakeasy, Salem’s only gay bar

Being Gay in Salem, Oregon

Walking around town, I saw an incredible number of young, LGBT people in Salem – more than in Kansas City. Unfortunately, this population is disorganized. Salem has just one gay bar in a business park on the outskirts of town, Southside Speakeasy. But rainbow flags alone don’t make a gay bar, so younger LGBT people often congregate elsewhere.

Being gay in Salem isn’t received with hostility, but it’s not always comfortable. We walked around holding hands and at worst got some extra looks. Enough of the Salem population is gay-friendly – either actively or passively – to hit a critical mass of LGBT-acceptance, in which you shouldn’t be afraid to move here. It’s not Portland, but it’s not a small town either and you can find a community here (Archive isn’t a bad place), albeit scattered.

Charriot buses parked in the Downtown Salem Metro Station
Downtown Salem’s metro station

Getting Around Salem

Salem is a car-dependent city that suffers from mysteriously-bad traffic during rush hour – surprising for its relatively small size of under 200K. This is especially true if you’re crossing the bridge over the Willamette River or commuting north. The drive to Portland can take up to two hours in the morning or evening. If you’re thinking about commuting, you should reconsider.

Local buses are operated by a private company called “Cherriots“, which I used frequently. Budget limits the scope of public transit – with the buses not running on weekends. But on weekdays, they leave on time from the downtown Transit Center. I rarely tried to hop one from anywhere else since most bus stops don’t even have a bench to sit on.

The city has bike lanes on major streets, but it’s not Amsterdam – or Portland. It could be worse. It could be better. People are largely dependent on cars and many lack bike-awareness. If you live in the North Salem or Keizer area, streets are flat. South of town you’ll find more hills.

Downtown Salem Oregon
Early morning in downtown Salem

Getting In and Out of Salem

Salem’s municipal airport, McNary Field, serves only private flights and the National Guard with the last major, commercial passenger flights stopping service in 2008. Nearby Portland will be your main entry and exit point in the region, which isn’t a bad thing. PDX is a great airport and accessible by car in under an hour – when traffic is minimal. If you need a shuttle, Groome Transportation makes hourly trips.

Amtrak’s Cascade route runs through Salem with stops in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver BC. This is a major bonus if you’re looking to explore the region without bringing a car.

Outside of The Governor's Cup in Salem, Oregon
The Governor’s Cup in Salem, Oregon

Where to Eat in Salem

If you ask someone about food in Salem, many will say “Go to Portland”. But we found a few great places to eat. In the morning, Word of Mouth Bistro is a rite of passage for their Creme Brûlée French Toast. Food trucks roll up on The Yard Food Park. Archive has great coffee, a great space, and fantastic food. Finally, W. Wallace was one of the best dinners of our lives – I literally gave my compliments to the chef.

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Things to Do in Salem

Beer, coffee, and the great outdoors. All mainstays of Oregon culture – all found in Salem.

Downtown, The Governor’s Cup (aka “Gov Cup”) and Archive reign supreme for coffee and atmosphere. But you’ll find other local legends, such as IKE Box. Note that drive-through coffee is huge in Salem. And beware that a couple places in the area, such as Cafe Shine and Higher Grounds Coffee Shop are fronts for religious organizations which shun the “homosexual lifestyle”.

I’ve got a whole review on Salem’s coffee shops right here.

On beer, there are more breweries than I could list. But a special shoutout to the Victory Club which has a great patio in a back alley – and it’s surprisingly scenic. Taproot and Coin Jam are the top recommendations for nightlife in Salem among the young professionals and 20s crowd.

Silver Falls State Park offers quick access to the outdoors in under 30 minutes. And if you’ve got kids, the Enchanted Forest is an age-appropriate theme park.

Finding things to do in Salem isn’t impossible, but it can take some extra effort. The Salem subreddit is a good place to start.

Should You Live in Salem, Oregon?

Salem is more of a “big town” than a “small city”. The average Salemite (or “Salemander” as we like to say) is married, religious, and middle-class, but open-minded. Outside of the far-right and religious extremists, people are friendly, non-judgemental, and easy to get along with.

If you’re thinking about moving to Oregon as a whole. Check out my article about the differences you can expect to find here. Good luck and go for it!

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