Roanoke College is located in the town. The NCAA Division III football championship game, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, is played here annually. Salem is also the home to a minor league baseball team, the Salem Avalanche.
Europeans first explored the area of Salem in the 1670s. Fort Lewis was constructed to the west of the town in 1752. The town was founded in 1802, and received its charter in 1806. The Virginia Collegiate Institute, later Roanoke College, arrived in 1847. Salem was attacked twice during the American Civil War, but its Salem Flying Artillery was said to have fired the last Confederate shot of the war.
Salem annexed South Salem in 1953 and an eastern tract in 1960, giving it a population of 16,058 and thus making it Virginia's largest town at that time. Salem officially became a city on December 31, 1967.
According to the United States Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 37.8 km² (14.6 mi²). None of the area is covered with water.
As of the census of 2000, there are 24,747 people, 9,954 households, and 6,539 families residing in the city. The population density is 654.9/km² (1,696.4/mi²). There are 10,403 housing units at an average density of 275.3/km² (713.1/mi²). The racial makeup of the city is 91.88% White, 5.88% African American, 0.13% Native American, 0.97% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.25% from other races, and 0.86% from two or more races. 0.83% of the population are Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There are 9,954 households out of which 28.2% have children under the age of 18 living with them, 50.9% are married couples living together, 11.5% have a female householder with no husband present, and 34.3% are non-families. 29.0% of all households are made up of individuals and 12.2% have someone living alone who is 65 years of age or older. The average household size is 2.32 and the average family size is 2.84.
In the city the population is spread out with 20.9% under the age of 18, 11.7% from 18 to 24, 26.7% from 25 to 44, 24.0% from 45 to 64, and 16.8% who are 65 years of age or older. The median age is 39 years. For every 100 females there are 89.3 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there are 85.5 males.
The median income for a household in the city is $38,997, and the median income for a family is $47,174. Males have a median income of $32,472 versus $23,193 for females. The per capita income for the city is $20,091. 6.7% of the population and 4.3% of families are below the poverty line. Out of the total people living in poverty, 7.0% are under the age of 18 and 8.1% are 65 or older.