If you’re coming from Las Vegas, Arizona, or southern Utah and you’re on a West Coast trip to Yellowstone Park, before heading into Wyoming, you’ll most likely make a stop in Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, which is also home to one of the most popular airports chosen by those visiting national parks.
Known to all as the “Vatican” of the Mormons, this is a relatively small and pleasant city, surrounded by some interesting natural attractions and a number of truly impressive sacred buildings – to us they seemed quite unusual! – that have consecrated this city as the most significant place for Mormonism.
But is it worth spending a day or more in this hospitable city? What is there to do in this city that is usually conceived as a simple stop before visiting the natural wonders of Yellowstone?
From my personal experience, I can say that this city was a pleasant surprise. In fact, contrary to what I often hear, the things to see in Salt Lake City are not just located in Temple Square, but also in the more peripheral areas of the city, not to mention the surroundings, where there are hidden gems. This means that you could easily spend 3 days in the Salt Lake Valley without any regrets… You don’t you believe me? Here are all the attractions that await you!
- Salt Lake City: Things to See in the City
- Foothill Cultural District: East of Downtown
- NBA in Salt Lake City: Utah Jazz
- Places to Eat in Salt Lake City
- The Salt Lake City Area: Tours and Excursions in Nature
- Where to Stay in Salt Lake City
In July 1847, Mormon leader Brigham Young, with the famous expression “This is the place,” chose the Salt Lake Valley as the area where his religious community would be established. This was the birthplace of Salt Lake City, located in the northern side of Utah, just over 60 miles away from the Wyoming border. Its location and important airport make it one of the gateways (along with Denver) to the so-called Real America, the region that includes Wyoming, Montana, North and South Dakota. The main attraction of this region is Yellowstone, which is located north of the city. To the south, however, more than 186 miles away, are the great red sandstone parks of Utah.
Salt Lake City: Things to See in the City
So let’s go and discover the best things to do in Salt Lake City. What are the attractions in downtown Salt Lake City?
Temple Square: Points of Interest
This square is definitely the most interesting place to visit in the city. Temple Square is quiet, orderly, and rational. It is dominated by the imposing Mormon temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the most famous Mormon temple in the world.
You can access the main area of the square from the two entrance gates (S Temple and N Temple, at the two visitor centers) and take advantage of the tours with Mormon guides, who will give you a tour of the buildings and provide you with useful information to dispel any doubts and confusion about Mormonism, the real reason why Salt Lake City exists. Please also keep in mind the 2 visitor centers that have exhibitions that are curated very well. Here is what cannot miss when you visit Temple Square.
Enter the square from the south and head towards Beehive House, close to Eagle Gate, where you will be greeted by a guide who will explain how this house surrounded by trees was one of the residences of Brigham Young, the historic president of the Mormon church, during the establishment religious settlement in Utah. The architect of the Beehive House also designed the Salt Lake Temple. Young’s other house, Lion House, is located close by. The Lion House was built before the Beehive House and now it is also a restaurant. The guided tour is free.
Salt Lake Temple
There is no doubt that visitors will immediately be drawn to the tall spires of the Salt Lake Temple, a majestic Gothic building that cannot be visited inside – since it is entirely reserved for worship – but visitors can still admire its grandeur from the outside as they walk along the tree-lined paths that wind around the gates. The building, modeled after the Temple of Solomon, is most beautiful when it is illuminated at night.
As you walk around the temple, your attention will be captivated by the Tabernacle, a massive oval-shaped building in Temple Square. You are allowed to enter here and I encourage you to do so and to also take a look at the huge organ behind the choir section.
If you don’t want to miss a concert of the ensemble performing in this fabulous setting, you can take advantage of this guided tour of Salt Lake City, which culminates with a concert!
The last important building is the Assembly Hall, located at the southwest corner of the square. The exterior gives it the appearance of a Gothic cathedral, but the interior is not built in the Gothic style – which is a bit disappointing.
Bingham Young Monument
As you come out of the Temple gate again, it’s worth it to go see the statue of Bingham Young, the man who colonized the Salt Lake area in the mid-19th century and inspired the incredible religious fervor of this city. The statue faces the street and gazes up at the temple’s 200 ft tall spires in the background.
Family History Library
The contrast between the Gothic style of the square and the skyscrapers that frame it is striking. One of the modern buildings is the Family History Library, a unique museum with free admission that stands as one of the world’s landmarks for genealogical studies. The records kept here are impressive, and you can find answers about your family. Not bad, right?
Salt Lake City Capitol
From the Family History Library, head to Main Street, which runs parallel, head north of Temple Square for about a mile – you can walk, but it will be faster to drive on this uphill road and there is free parking on-site. You’ll arrive at the foot of a small hill where the grandiose Utah State Capitol Building stands. Walk to the top of the hill and enjoy the view of Salt Lake City surrounded by distant mountains. You can enter for free and take a look at the frescoes on the walls of the State Capitol depicting scenes of early American history.
The green space around the State Capitol is also pleasant, especially the State Capitol’s garden, with the lovely pergola and the Mormon Battalion Monument on the eastern slope of the hill. Here you can relax and take a walk in the shade on the paths along the river of the Memory Grove Garden.
Before returning to the hotel, you can stop by City Creek, an elegant shopping area south of Temple Square. Here you can do a little shopping and mingle with the citizens of Salt Lake City.
Foothill Cultural District: East of Downtown
Foothill, Salt Lake City’s cultural district and location of the University of Utah, is full of museums, parks, hiking trails and green spaces. It is a truly enjoyable area to explore. To reach it you will need to use the car (or rental car). These are the things that I recommend that you visit in this area:
This is the Place Heritage Park
This is the best way to continue your journey to discover the history and culture of Mormons. In the shadow of the mountains, you’ll find the well-kept This is the Place Heritage Park, a park whose name references the phrase Bingham Young used when he arrived in Salt Lake City and chose it as the place of choice for the Mormon religion.
Here you’ll find Heritage Village – a reconstruction of a 19th century Mormon village – and the Statuary Walk, a walk along a path lined with statues evoking characters and episodes from Mormon history. The village is really well done and the costumed figures will help you to immerse yourself in another era. Enter the various houses and have a chat with blacksmiths, farriers, bankers, bankers, innkeepers and many other figures that formed the core of the Mormon community in the past.
Red Butte Gardens
When locals come to these fascinating botanical gardens, they often bring blankets and refreshments as they enjoy peace and relaxation here and admire the incredible variety of flowers that this park has to offer. There are many events organized in the gardens as well as guided tours and activities for children. Check the official website before you go to find out out more details, including the cost of admission.
Natural History Museum of Utah
Paleontological discoveries, including the remains of some previously unknown dinosaurs found in Utah and artifacts of Native American tribes, are the main points of interest of this beautiful museum. Thanks to the museum’s fortunate location, it offers, among other things, a beautiful view of the Salt Lake Valley.
The Living Room
If after visiting the museum you want to find other spots with great views of the Salt Lake Valley, go to The Living Room Trailhead, which is a 5-minute drive away. The trail is 2 miles (round trip) and it will take you to a higher point above the valley where some rocks have been set up like a living room, to allow you to enjoy the view of the valley as if you were in your own living room (hence the name Living Room).
Although it is not very large, Utah’s Hogle Zoo is very popular and among its 1,000 or so animals you can see elephants, giraffes, tigers, gorillas, rhinos, sea lions, lions, zebras, bears and much more …
Utah Museum of Fine Arts
This is not the Metropolitan of New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, but art lovers will still enjoy visiting this museum. The collection ranges from ancient to contemporary art, hosting works of art from all over the world. I would estimate that a complete visit will take about 2 hours. Among the various programs in which it is involved, the museum promotes Land Art, a type of art that directly affects the landscape by sculpting the land itself or creating structures with materials extracted from nature.
Some well-known examples in the Salt Lake Valley are Robert Smithson’s The Spiral Jetty, a large spiral of land standing on the northern side of the lake, and Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels, an installation of four large cylinders arranged in the desert in the shape of a cross. The installations line up with dawn and dusk on the summer and winter solstices. To learn more, take a look at the video below:
NBA in Salt Lake City: Utah Jazz
Have you always wanted to see an NBA game live? If you’re in Salt Lake City, why not take the opportunity to see a Utah Jazz, the team of the legendary John Stockton and Carl Malone?
The home games of the Utah Jazz take place at the Vivint Smart Home Arena (301 W South Temple) located in the heart of downtown, which makes the arena easily accessible. In addition, Travel in USA readers can use a special discount code to save $10 on the ticket price.
Enter the TRAVELINUSA code to get a $10 discount on a minimum purchase of $100
Places to Eat in Salt Lake City
I’ll mention some places I recommend personally:
If you’re looking for a croissant or coffee I recommend Eva’s Bakery, a pastry shop founded by Eva Coombs, a baker renowned for cooking with lots of love and lots of butter, so don’t expect low-calorie cakes! If you’re looking for a good grocery store where you can stock up, I recommend Harmons, which is located in front of the Eagle Gate Parking, a nice parking lot in a strategic position for visiting the city.
If you would like to have dinner in a quaint place with live music and good food, I suggest you get away from the center and head to Emigration Canyon, which marks the route that the first Mormons followed to enter the valley. There you will find Ruth’s Diner, a popular restaurant especially on BBQ nights on Thursdays. Below you can read the story of Ruth, the founder of Ruth’s Diner.
I’ve eaten in 2 other excellent restaurants in the outskirts and I’ll point them out later in the paragraph on where to stay in Salt Lake City.
The Salt Lake City Area: Tours and Excursions in Nature
Visiting Salt Lake City does not only mean going around the city to discover its historical and religious roots, but also exploring its beautiful surroundings to understand the reason behind the name of the city and much more. My advice is to spend at least one day to explore the many things to do around Salt Lake City:
Antelope Island State Park
Leaving behind the ordinary suburbs of Syracuse northwest of Salt Lake City, you can cross a bridge over the Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island. The landscape is truly stunning and the herds of bison camped in the hills make it even more fascinating. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a few antelope, some of the fastest animals on earth.
Hill Aerospace Museum
Located about 30 minutes from Salt Lake City, this interesting museum dedicated to aviation has a remarkable collection of warplanes. The location is strategic and should be seriously considered during your trip to Antelope Island, which is about 40 minutes away. If you are looking for a place to grab a bite, I recommend you stop in Layton at Crown Burgers, a characteristic diner that is the perfect place to stop on a road trip.
Great Salt Lake State Park Tour
So then what’s the reason the town is called Salt Lake City? You will find the answer in Great Salt Lake State Park, where photographers will enjoy spectacular views. However, as you drive on the bridge to Antelope Island, you’ll notice that the vast lake that occupies 1930 square miles of land west of the city is not just salt. Instead, it is filled with water. In order to find out more about the delicate ecosystem of this lake, you can take advantage of a guided tour. The guide will also take you to some places where you can swim and where you can effortlessly float on the water!
Bonneville Salt Flats
Of course, it’s true that the Great Salt Lake has a very high salt content, but to see the actual “salt lake” you need to go far away from the city (about 90 miles away). Drive along the I-80 W and, after Aragonite, you will notice that the landscape around you will transform into a surreal expanse of salt. For about 60 miles it will continue like this until you reach the border with Nevada.
At some point on the right, you’ll find what looks like nothing more than a simple rest area, but it’s actually much more than that. In fact, it is the Bonneville Salt Flats, an impressive expanse of salt stretching as far as the eye can see.
If you’re planning to stay a few days in the area, you could head out on the trails of the nearby Wasatch Mountains, known best for being a winter sports destination. The popularity of the Wasatch Mountains exploded after Salt Lake City hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Since then, skiers have invaded the resorts around the city (for example, Park City) in search of strategic accommodations to enjoy the well-equipped ski resorts in the area. If you want to get a good view of these mountains without straying too far from the city, you can visit the beautiful Red Butte Gardens.
Big Cottonwood Canyon Road
The main reason why people take this road is to get to popular ski resorts, but during the warmer season, it is possible to drive on this road with the windows wide open and to head on one of the trails that branch off from the road. How do you access this road? In Downtown Salt Lake City, you have to head south on Veterans Memorial Highway (I-15), which cuts right through the city, to Cottonwood West.
Kennecott Copper Mine
Outside of the city, there is more than just the Great Salt Lake. On the slopes of the southwestern Oquirrh Mountains, lies Kennecott Copper Mine, the world’s largest open-pit copper mine. This man-made hole in the earth is truly impressive. You can get wonderful views of it from above on a tour that also includes a visit to the Great Salt Lake.
Tours from Salt Lake City to National Parks
The city founded by Mormon settlers can be a great base to visit not only Yellowstone but also Grand Teton. I have written a detailed itinerary which you can find in my article about things to see between Salt Lake City and Yellowstone.
But there’s so much more! Salt Lake City is a good starting point to visit other national parks as well. Of course, they’re not exactly a stone’s throw away, but if you’re on a road trip, you’ll be used to long hours of driving by now. Here are the distances from Salt Lake City to Utah’s top five parks, the Utah Mighty Five:
- Capitol Reef National Park: 3 hours 30 minutes
- Arches National Park: 3 hours 40 minutes
- Canyonlands National Park: 4 hours
- Bryce Canyon National Park: 4 hours
- Zion National Park: 4 hours 30 minutes
For those who do not like to drive too long there are some organized tours available:
- National Park Tours from Salt Lake City -> More information
- Tour of Yellowstone and Utah parks from Las Vegas in 7 days -> More information
Where to Stay in Salt Lake City
If you want to walk around the city and stay overnight in the center of the city, you will need to look for accommodations near Temple Square or downtown.
However, if you’re looking to save money, staying overnight downtown may not be the cheapest option, not only because accommodations are more expensive here than in the suburbs, but also because many hotels downtown will require you to pay for parking as well.
If you have a car (or rental car), which is very useful if you don’t want to limit your visit to the central area of the city, I recommend you to take a look also in the suburbs, where you will spend less on accommodations and you will easily find free parking. You can reach Downtown Salt Lake City in about 15 minutes, which is easy to drive around (you’ll have to pay for parking to visit it, but you’ll still save on night parking) and the distance from the airport will be more or less the same.
I visited Salt Lake City two times and the hotels I stayed in were in these suburbs:
- Midvale: An area with many amenities including Gardner Village, a beautiful rustic outdoor shopping mall with activities for children. Nearby there is a Japanese restaurant, Itto Sushi, where I enjoyed a good meal. I slept at the Staybridge Suites, but there are plenty of accommodations available in the area -> Accommodations
- North Salt Lake: This area is similar to Midvale. Here too I found a great restaurant to recommend. It’s called Ti Amo Pizza, and from the name, you can already guess what it is. Gloria and Mauro are very welcoming and will not hesitate to tell you their beautiful story. You will taste one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten in the US and it is truly authentic. I slept at the Best Western Plus Cottontree Inn, where I had a good experience. If you are looking for other accommodations you can follow this link -> Accommodations
Here’s another area that I haven’t tried directly:
- West Valley: The distance to travel from West Valley, Midvale or North Salt Lake to Salt Lake City is about the same. -> Accommodations