Visiting Historic Old Salem

Colonial Life, Tradition, & Culture in a Moravian Village

Original and restored houses and shops in Old Salem provide the visitor with an eighteenth-century experience that focuses on Moravian colonial lifestyle and culture.

When George Washington visited in 1791, he wrote in his diary that “Salem is a small but neat village…” and commented on the industriousness of its inhabitants. Founded in 1766 by Moravian missionaries, Old Salem is a living microcosm of colonial life in central North Carolina. Original structures and costumed interpreters allow the visitor to glimpse early American history and partake in the traditions, foods, and music of that period.

Four Centuries of Moravian Magic

Restored not rebuilt – Old Salem Museum and Gardens show modern-day visitors how life has evolved and seamlessly joins the 21st century.

First, before you read any further, let us get one thing clear: Old Salem Museum and Gardens is not a miniaturized version of Colonial Williamsburg.

The latter is an oft- venerated version museum offering insight into America’s colonial past. Listen to the residents of this Moravian town, begun in 1766, and one phrase is repeated proudly again and again.

“Williamsburg had to rebuild, all we had to do was restore.”

The difference is felt immediately when your feet hit the uneven brick sidewalk. Here the historic area merges seamlessly with modern life. Watch as a high powered SUV attempts to parallel park in front of a house with a 19th century clad interpreter standing in the doorway. Instead of being highly unusual, the transposition is comforting.

The history continues.

Walking Through Old Salem, NC

The walk from the new visitor’s center, opened in 2003, takes visitors to Old Salem’s main street. Cobble-stoned sidewalks meander past original and restored structures, many reflecting the artisans and merchants that made Old Salem an important colonial trade town. Several of the houses are privately owned residences but many structures such as the shoemaker’s shop, Winkler Bakery, Brewery, and Tannery are open to the public. Both the Toy Museum and the Children’s Museum should be included in any Old Salem visit.

George Washington spent two nights at the Salem Tavern which today offers lunch and dinner and is regarded as one of Winston Salem’s finest restaurants. Moravian chicken pie tops the list of entrees and desserts include Tavern-made lemon ice cream and Moravian gingerbread. The Tavern also functions as a museum.

T. Bagge Merchant was built in 1775 and today serves as the village shop, selling crafts and memorabilia of the eighteenth century. The shop also offers educational toys for children, Moravian and period music, Christmas novelties, and books about the Moravian faith. Several other stores sell home decorations, candles, and hand-made colonial hats.

Established in 1799, the Winkler Bakery still bakes bread and Moravian sugar cake in the wood-burning ovens. Visitors can purchase Moravian Love Feast buns as well as a variety of Moravian sugar cookies. Specialty bread like the basil-garlic bread is offered on different days of the week, usually selling out within hours.

Who were the Moravians?

Persecuted Protestants from what is now the Czech Republic who first settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania before pioneering their way south to North Carolina and settling a 98,00 tract of land called “Wachovia”. Salem became just one of a few settlements.

Things to See in Old Salem, NC

Old Salem marches to a cadence rooted in the past, celebrating the present and anticipating the future. You are invited to join in.

While anyone can roam the streets for free, a ticket is required for entrance into any of the four distinctly different museums found in less than a two-mile radius and some of the buildings in the historic area.

Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts

Among its highly respected facilities is MESDA (The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts). From 24 decorated rooms and a series of galleries, regional artisans from the late 17th to early 19th century of Chesapeake, Low Country, and the Backcountry of seven states are celebrated. Like the elegance of a low country Charleston home or the rougher yet still refined furnishings of a mountain Kentucky or Tennessee cabins.

For Kids

In the same building, you will also find the Children’s Museum where colonial life is highlighted for children through fun activities. And for those with the inner child alive and well – perhaps a tour of the Toy Museum is just the ticket to a nostalgic journey of playtimes past.

Back on the streets of the historic area, it is an easy and enjoyable sojourn to the past.

Among treasured stopping points are St Phillips, the state’s oldest African American church building, the Single Brothers and Single Sisters Halls, the various trade shops like the shoemaker’s where you will learn, from a working demonstrator, the cost of a single pair of shoes could be up to a week’s salary.

John Volger’s home demonstrates how a skilled silversmith, over the years, began to appreciate the speed and skill under the Industrial Revolution. Brother Volger sold less of his own creations and more of manufactured works from Philadelphia. One of his handcrafted objects though is filled with romance. A ring for his wife features two clasped hands with the inscription “with God and thee, my joy shall be.”

Winkler’s Bakery

The all-time favorite stops while in the Historic Area is Winkler’s Bakery. A beehive oven continually offers fresh bread, cakes, or of course the famed ginger-infused Moravian cookies in a series of varieties.

Old Salem Tavern

For more Moravian fare – get yourself to the Old Salem Tavern and if weather permits sit on the back porch or under the grape arbors. Here time slows to a leisurely pace, the costumed wait staff is friendly and the food sublime. Hint: try the warm gingerbread with lemon ice cream. Your mouth will thank you. Also do not be shy – visit with your fellow diners and you might just discover locals with some interesting insights on Old Salem.

Home Moravian Church

A functioning church, Home Moravian is the primary church for the denomination’s district. It is open to the public. Visitors are welcome to participate in the Christmas Love Feast every December 24th as well as the New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” service. Every Easter morning, thousands of visitors gather at the church for the Sunrise Service, an unparalleled experience. Brass bands from many local Moravian churches are positioned throughout Old Salem and rotate playing Moravian hymns, many of which are familiar Protestant tunes. At sunrise, throngs of visitors walk to God’s Acre, the old Moravian cemetery, to hear an Easter sermon.

If attending the Sunrise Service, visitors should plan on arriving early, between two and three o’clock in the morning, and dress warmly. Be prepared to park in areas that entail a lengthy walk to Home Moravian Church as Old Salem lots fill very quickly.

Special Events and Educational Experiences

Throughout the year, Old Salem offers many opportunities to better understand colonial life and the Moravian tradition. Special events include:

  • Historical Cooking
  • Music Programs and Concerts
  • The Candle Tea

On Halloween, an organ concert treats the visitor to spooky tunes while a special evening tour, “Legends and Lanterns,” a type of ghost tour, focuses on mysterious events that occurred in some of the buildings.

Old Salem is one of the best-preserved Early American villages with a particular focus on the Moravians and Southern tradition. A visit to Old Salem rewards the visitor with a restful stroll through a peaceful village nestled in the busy city of Winston Salem. Old Salem tours provide a superior educational experience. Tours are guided as well as self-guided. Entrance fees provide access to all buildings although many structures, including the Winkler Bakery, Tavern, and shops, are free.


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