I had driven by Old Salem Museum & Gardens many times on trips to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to watch Georgia Tech play Wake Forest in football. The journey was only a few hours from my home in Roanoke, Virginia.
But, for one reason or another, I never took the time to visit Old Salem to explore this lovely combination of North Carolina and early American history. Shame on me.
Tips for an Old Salem day trip
It’s one of America’s most authentic and well-documented Colonial sites thanks to the Moravian’s meticulous record keeping. And there’s plenty to see and do.
Discover Moravian history in Old Salem
Who are the Moravians? I use “are” because the Moravian religion is still practiced today.
The persecuted Protestant sect immigrated from Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic) by way of Saxony. The group eventually ended up in America (Savannah, then Pennsylvania) before finally settling in the piedmont of North Carolina during the 18th century—1766 to be exact.
Today, Old Salem village is an intimate, living history museum where costumed interpreters demonstrate trades, crafts, cooking, gardening and the Moravian way of life in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I can’t think of a finer way to spend a day in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
How to visit the Old Salem Historic District
The Old Salem Historic District encompasses 75 acres, offering plenty of opportunities for self-guided or guided walking tours. It’s possible to explore the Old Salem Visitors Center, walk the streets and browse the shops for free.
But I recommend purchasing an all-in-one ticket for access to all of the historic buildings. That way, you can view the living museum demonstrations plus enjoy MESDA’s self-guided galleries, which are fantastic!
Boomer Travel Tip
Visit the official website for hours, fees and current visitor regulations.
Things to do in Old Salem, NC
My Old Salem visit begins at the Visitor’s Center for a quick introduction. And then it’s time to walk through a restored covered bridge to explore the Moravian community.
Residents still live in Old Salem so please respect their privacy and property.
Observe southern craftsmanship at MESDA
My first stop is MESDA for a 45-minute tour of the galleries. The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, or MESDA, offers room after room of furniture, paintings, metalwork, paintings, ceramics and tile work representing southern craftsmanship from the late 1600’s through the early 19th century. Guided tours of the room require a separate ticket (and reservation).
It’s like an intimate walk into someone’s home from another century. Each room is decorated true to historical period including furnishings and decorative arts.
The museum deserves many more hours of my attention, but I only have one day to explore Old Salem. But after my tour, I take a few minutes to peek into the renowned MESDA Research Center and the Anne P. and Thomas A. Gray Library. The library staff strongly recommends appointments for researchers.
Learn about African history in Old Salem at St. Philips Heritage Center
At St. Philips Heritage Center (1775-1952), I learn about Moravians of African descent, both slave and freed, before exploring St. Philips Moravian African Church, the oldest standing African American church in North Carolina. The photos in the upstairs Sunday school room offer a visual history of the children who learned and worshiped here.
Watch live demonstrations at the Single Brothers’ House
Continuing up the street, I stop at the Single Brothers’ House (1769-1786). Inside the pottery workshop, I watch a potter lean intently over the wheel to shape a pot as clay oozes through her fingers.
Other demonstrations include joinery and tailor work. In another room, music from the Tannenberg organ washes over the crowd of visitors.
Taste Moravian classics at the Tavern in Old Salem
All this walking has made me hungry so I step inside the Tavern in Old Salem for lunch (no longer in business). Lucky for me, my group has a reservation (and you should, too). Although the building that houses this family-owned restaurant was constructed in 1816, the food served offers a modern take on Moravian cuisine as well as Southern classics.
Do you like chicken pot pie? Chef Jared Kelper prepares a Moravian chicken pie filled with thick slabs of chicken and a touch of cornmeal. After sampling a spoonful, I can see why Winston-Salem Monthly includes it in a list of 35 Top Foods in Town.
Boomer Travel Tip
The Tavern at Old Salem is closed. Dining at Muddy Creek Cafe is another option.
Visit Vierling House to learn about a Moravian apothecary shop
Thinking that I might need medical advice after the Tavern in Old Salem’s delicious lunch, I stop at Vierling House where an interpreter plays Dr. Benjamin Vierling. Although I don’t find out how to magically work off the calories that I’ve just consumed, I do learn about the workings of the apothecary shop.
The costumed interpreter demonstrates the use of colonial-era medical equipment. An important component of Old Salem’s success as a fledgling community was the community’s insistence on importing a doctor from Germany.
Stop at C. Winkler Bakery for freshly baked sugar cake
Stepping back outside, the aroma of fresh sugar cake calls to me from C. Winkler Bakery. Of course I step inside to see cakes being baked in a dome oven that’s fueled by wood. Yeah, right. I’m here for a taste of the Moravian delicacy, which definitely lives up to its reputation.
Watch the flowers grow at Miksch Garden
There’s just enough time left in the day to walk through Miksch Garden where early Moravian gardening practices are on display. The Old Salem Horticulture Program uses only heirloom seeds or those that are openly pollinated. Costumed interpreters, who demonstrate the seed to table concept, are busy on my visit with fall garden cleanup.
The delicious smell of apple pie wafts into the garden from inside the kitchen at Miksch House. It’s a writer’s duty to step inside to check it out, don’t you agree?
More things to do in Old Salem, North Carolina
With demonstrations, seminars, museums, lectures and seasonal events, a trip to Old Salem could easily become a 2-day event. Although I visited on a crisp, November day when a few colorful leaves carpeted the grounds, I’d like to come back to:
- Walk behind the band of the Salem Congregation in the pre-dawn dark as we make our way up the hill for Easter Sunrise services at God’s Acre, the Moravian Cemetery
- Experience the season by the light of a candle on a Christmas by Candlelight Tour
- Learn about Seeds With Stories at the annual seed swap and potluck.
Where to stay on a trip to Old Salem
- For an authentic experience in the Old Salem village, stay at Augustus T. Zeverly Inn. Read the reviews.
- The Historic Brookstown Inn is close by. Read the reviews.
- I stayed at Graylyn Estate. Read the reviews.
- Kimpton Cardinal Hotel is a great choice in downtown Winston-Salem. Read the reviews.
Things to do in Winston-Salem, including day trips
I packed plenty of active travel into my 4 days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Besides exploring Old Salem, I enjoyed a day on a walking tour of Reynolda Rd, visiting art museums and historical sites.
The next day, I learned to blend wine on a visit to Raffaldini Vineyards. On a tour of Mrs. Hanes Moravian Cookies, I indulged in delicious cookie tasting combined with a lesson about Moravian cookies. Of course a morning working off the cookie calories while hiking Pilot Mountain was greatly needed
Disclosure: Visit Winston-Salem provided this travel experience, however the opinions are my own.