Capping agents are often used for controlling the size, aggregation, and properties of nanoparticles. To guide the design of improved nanomaterials for targeted performance, one can use mechanistic insights into the interactions between capping agents and nanoparticles. Here, we employ density functional theory (DFT), reactive force-field molecular dynamics (ReaxFF MD) simulations, and optical spectroscopy to study the interactions between salicylate, as a model capping agent, and zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles. We find that salicylate strongly interacts with the nanoparticle via the formation of O–Zn bonds in a distorted six-membered coordination ring structure. We describe the mechanisms of capping of ZnO nanoparticles by salicylate via three different binding modes. Simulations indicate that salicylate undergoes dissociative adsorption at the highly active surface Zn sites via a hydrogen-transfer process, thereby forming a tridentate configuration. The water-mediated interaction also facilitates the dissociative adsorption, leading to two salicylate O atoms coordinating with a surface Zn atom, while the other salicylate O atom bonds with another surface Zn atom. For molecular adsorption, binding free energies indicate that salicylate binds more strongly to ZnO, often in a bidentate configuration, than water does. The formation of the salicylate–ZnO complex is substantiated by UV–visible and Fourier transform infrared spectra. We find that the C═O stretching mode of salicylate becomes softened when it interacts with the nanoparticle, suggesting chemisorption of salicylate on ZnO. Although DFT predicts strong interaction between salicylate and ZnO, ReaxFF MD simulation indicates the moderate interaction between these two components in aqueous solution. Water molecules in close contact with the nanoparticle surface undergo dissociation, thus resulting in a surface hydroxyl, a reactive oxygen species that may influence the nanoparticle’s catalytic properties. The atomic-level information provided here can guide the selection process of salicylate as an appropriate agent for ZnO nanoparticle synthesis when strong interactions of particles with capping agents are required.