Salt Lake City, UT, beckons all sorts of travelers from its place beneath the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains. It’s a city that comes with epic ski fields (some of the best in America, in fact!) and more hiking than you can shake a Salt Lake City snow globe at.
This guide to the best things to do in Salt Lake City is a sort of 101 on the must-see, must-try sights and sounds of Utah‘s enthralling capital. Notice that we’ve highlighted some that are better done in the cooler months. That’s because you’re likely to be doing totally different things when there’s a foot of fresh powder in Alta than when the mercury is peaking in the 90s during August.
Let me know if you have any questions as I used to live in Salt Lake City for about 2 years!
No trip to Salt Lake City could possibly be complete without exploring the area at the heart of it all: Downtown. The main part of it spans about seven blocks between North Temple and University Boulevard, going from John Stockton Drive in the west to S State Street in the east. Head there and you’ll be greeted by the busiest and most happening part of SLC as a whole, complete with chic eateries like high-class Bambara, Mexicana taverns like the Blue Iguana, and legendary drinking holes like Red Rock Brewing.
Downtown is also home to the bulk of the famous Mormon sights in Salt Lake City. They all anchor on Temple Square to the north of the district. There, you’ll spy out the imposing Salt Lake Temple, with its 222-foot spires, and the reflective dome of the Salt Lake Tabernacle, a major conference center for the LDS church.
2. Big Cottonwood Canyon
Prepare to be stunned by the sheer beauty of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Even the drive in is sure to take the breath away. You’ll wiggle down the bends of the 190 highway eastwards into the depths of the Wasatch Mountains, watching as the peaks loom ever larger and the valley bottoms drop away to gurgling creeks and pine forests. In all, the trip takes about 35 minutes from Downtown SLC.
Then, it’s time to hit one of the region’s top outdoorsy playgrounds. Hiking trails are the number one draw. They include the route to Lake Blanche, a 6.7-mile back and forth that culminates at one of the most incredible alpine basins in the USA (at least in our humble opinion!). Or you can take the Donut Falls Trailhead, a short 1.5-mile loop that navigates a boulder-dotted creek to gushing cataracts in the woods.
Big Cottonwood Canyon is also one for adrenaline buffs. It’s known as a rock-climber’s mecca and also offers plenty of remote snowshoeing and Nordic skiing routes when the colder months swing around.
3. Great Salt Lake
The Great Salt Lake isn’t just the inspiration behind the name of Salt Lake City. It’s also the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most important geographical features in the Beehive State. It actually begins right on the northwestern cusp of the metropolis and is dotted there with the remains of two mid-1900s resorts, both known as Saltair. They’re now just a shell of what they once were but can be a haunting pitstop to see the old piers and abandoned entertainment complexes.
To really get out and about on the Great Salt Lake, we’d recommend heading north to Antelope Island State Park. That protected area encompasses some of the most beautiful tracts of shoreline, which crumples into tussock hills where bison herds and pronghorn antelopes are regular sightings.
The park also has gnarly MTB trails that scramble to lookout points above the lake. More generally, the whole region is excellent for exploring by kayak – rentals are on offer in the Great Salt Lake Marina and at GoUtahAdventures, close to West Kaysville off I-15.
4. Sugar House District
Straddling either side of Interstate 80, the Sugar House District is one of Salt Lake City’s older and quirkier neighborhoods. The locals are an interesting mix of students and young professionals, many of whom work in the prestigious Westminster College. They fuel an urban scene that eschews strip malls for independent shops; prefers roastery cafés over chain coffee joints.
The hubs of the area are on S Highland Drive and 2100 S. There, the intersections burst with everything from Vietnamese pho kitchens to stylish seafood bistros with in-house oyster shuckers. There’s shopping, too, in the form of upcycled home furnishings and retro clothes and records, along with a nightlife scene that’s powered by a couple of the very best microbreweries this side of the Rocky Mountains.
5. Red Butte Garden
The Red Butte Garden and its adjoining Natural History Museum are a great way to get a feel for the unique geology and ecology of this corner of Utah. Covering over 100 acres of land on the far eastern edge of SLC, this vast enclave of flowering plants and exotic trees is operated and managed by the University of Utah. It’s got all sorts, from insect-buzzing lagoons to sweet-water creeks to medicinal gardens laden with strange herbs and roots.
One of the best ways to experience the attraction is on one of the regular complimentary tram tours. They operate daily between 10 am and 1 pm and take about 20 minutes. They include a dedicated garden guide who will spin tales of the unique flora of the Wasatch Range and the lifecycles of the plants and trees that spread throughout the botanical gardens.
You can also explore on your own, what with upwards of 20 miles of marked walking paths weaving and wiggling through Red Butte. On top of that, there’s an outdoor amphitheater that hosts regular summertime and fall shows, ranging from ballet troupes to jazz acts to country and western quartets.
6. Alta and Snowbird – For powder fans
The conjoined resorts of Alta and Snowbird reign as one of the most snow-heavy spots in the USA. They get a whopping 540 inches of the white stuff on average every year and come in as one of the oldest ski destinations in the whole of the United States (the earliest developments on the pistes here were done way back in the 1930s!).
But snowfall and prestige are just a part of the story. Alta backs that up with a mind-blowing 2,614 acres of skiable terrain, not to mention a dizzying top station that sits at over 3,370 meters above sea level. It’s also one of the few remaining winter resorts that still disallow snowboarding, so it’s pure ski territory.
It takes just under 35 minutes to get to the ski stations at Alta and Snowbird from Salt Lake City’s center. The drive is pretty spectacular, but traffic can get up in the middle of the main winter season (November to March). Alternatively, fork out for one of the ski lodges right at the base of the lifts. They let you get on the gondolas first thing and offer luxuries like hot tubs and spas to boot!
Soom good options are here below:
7. Utah Olympic Park
Salt Lake City was the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The Utah Olympic Park is that legacy of that, offering a glimpse at the daring ski jump and the high-speed luge tracks. Today, it’s a great place to go for all sorts of activities, no matter if you’re looking to get the blood a-pumping on a tandem zipline or partake in a spot of extreme tubing on the make-believe ski slopes.
Despite having been built to host the cold-weather Olympics, we’d say that the Olympic Park is actually better when the sun’s a-shining and the temperature is warm. Most of the adventure activities will be on the menu then, including the climbing wall (built over a splash pool) and the Mountain Challenge assault course hidden on the mountain high above.
Note: If you plan on spending a week or more in Utah, it might be worth your while buying a Get Out Pass. This card is valid for a year and provides free or discounted admission to over 100 attractions in SLC, Provo, Ogden, Farmington and other parts of Utah.
8. Park City – A perfect winter getaway
Salt Lake City is the perfect jump-off point for a visit to Park City. Hidden amid the Rockies around 40 minutes’ drive to the east through some jaw-dropping canyons, this resort town is a true chameleon. First off, it’s got epic skiing. The snow fields of Park City Mountain and Canyon Resort see to that. Together, they clock up over 12,000 acres of skiable terrain, with vertical drops of nearly 1,000 meters from top to bottom. To put it another way: You will not get bored if you come here for winter sports!
But Park City also hosts the prestigious Sundance Film Festival come January. Arguably the most important date in the yearly calendar for film buffs, it’s a forum for A-list directors and screenwriters, actors, and producers. It’s exclusive stuff, but venues across town will show some of the hottest new releases in cinema, and there are loads of related events. But you can just come to do some celeb spotting if that’s more your thing.
Finally, Park City is also just a darn handsome place to while away a couple of days. A far cry from the traffic-choked lanes of bigger towns, this one’s got a historic core that was first raised by the Mormon pioneers during the Gold Rush. These days, it’s a hubbub of charming cafés, wine bars, artisan clothes stores, and skiing outfitters.
Good options for stay in and around Park City are:
- Montage Deer Valley
- Hyatt Centric Park City
- The Chateaux Deer Valley
- Park City Peaks
- Marriott’s MountainSide
9. Hike Mount Olympus
Look up – Mount Olympus is probably the first great peak you’ll see on the side of the Wasatch Range from the heart of Salt Lake City. It’s a sleeping giant of a granite mound, with a prominence of over 4,800 feet when measured from the valley floor to the top. That’s the climb you can do if you’re feeling up to it.
One of the most-traversed routes in the area, the reward will be the sweeping panoramas of SLC, the Great Salt Lake to the west, and the snow-capped Rockies to the east.
It’s not a walk in the park, though. There’s little foliage coverage, so the hike is best done in shoulder-season months like May and September, when lack of shade isn’t such an issue. And, although the path is well maintained, it’s pretty rough going, on rocks, tussock, and uneven surfaces that are always at an incline.
Still raring to go? Good for you! Look for the Mount Olympus trailhead on Wasatch Boulevard on the far southeastern side of town.
10. Hogle Zoo (with kids)
Spread over 42 acres, Hogle Zoo is home to animals from across the globe, from grizzlies to regular bears, from zebras to lions, from apes to wildcats.
All of these animals are homed right at the base of the Wasatch Mountain Range and you can see each of them them in their different environments. The Hogle Zoo is a great place to spend time with kids, especially with the educational programs, train rides, carousels and play areas.
11. Utah State Capitol
Way back in 1888, Salt Lake City donated what was then called Arsenal Hill covering 20 acres of land to the State (which was then a Territory) for the construction of a Capitol building.
Now located at 350 North State Street on Capitol Hill, the Utah State Capitol was designed by local architect Richard K. A. Kletting in 1916 in the Beaux-Arts-style. It rises high above the city, almost 300 feet up, and is a place history buffs will love as much as the architecturally inclined.
Other than State holidays, there are free docent-led tours every weekday from Monday to Friday from 10 am to 3 pm. Make sure to enter through the East Doors.
It’s a truly gorgeous building inside, I actually had my naturalization ceremony there 🙂
12. Ensign Peak
A hike up above Salt Lake City to see it from a bird’s eye view is perfect when the sun is setting on the horizon. The place you want to get to is Ensign Peak, via the Ensign Peak Trail to about a mile’s walk up above the city. To find the traihead, you need to get to the back of the LDS Church House.
The monument laid at the summit is dedicated to Brigham Young and seven other pioneer leaders who planned the city from up there.
It’s usually more crowded at sunset, with probably too many peopl wanting to see the sunset over SLC. But seeing the Great Lake looking all glowy and orangy in color is more than worth it!
13. Thanksgiving Point
50 acres of land that includes lawns, 17 gardens, barnyard filled with animals, a petting zone, golf course and a biosphere.
Event the largest mannade waterfall in America is here at Ashton Gardens in Thanksgiving Point.
The Museum of Ancient Cultures take you back through history, the Light of the World Gardens by artist Angela Johnson take you through the life and miracle of Jesus in sculptures, and the Luminaria take you through the sights, smells and sounds of the holidays from November to end December.
The Trellis Cafe is perfect for an afternoon cuppa with the family and kids. Farm Country provides hands-on opportunities to take part in farm life.
There’s a lot going on at Thanksgiving Point, and all of it is accessible. It’s easy to spend an entire day there.
We loved going to Luminaria there every year. It’s a beautiful light show!
14. Salt Lake City Public Library
A recent addition to Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake City Public Library was opened in 2003. Home to over 500,000 books, it’s a readers’ paradise.
Designed by the famous Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, readers will love the array of books, while the architecturally inclined will love the modern design.
And random visitors or tourists will love the rooftop terrace and the views of the Wasatch Mountains. For open times visit their website here.
15. Cathedral of the Madeline
The Cathedral of the Madeline is the only cathedral in the U.S. under the patronage of St. Mary Magdalene. The church celebrates its feast on July 22 every year, just two days before Pioneer Day.
Cathedral of the Madeline is also famous for being the only co-educational Catholic Choir School in the United States.
Construction of the building took over nine years and the cathedral was completed in 1909, the Neo-Romanesque outside and opulent Neo-Gothic insides are a must-see. These put the cathedral on the national register of historic places.
From the gargoyles outside to the intricately carved baptismal font to the knaves, there is so much beauty everywhere. There is also a small relic of Saint Mary Magdalene resting atop the tomb of Bishop Scanlan in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel.
Admission to the cathedral is free from 7 am to 9 pm. If you want to hear the famous choir sing, attend the 5:15 pm choir mass on weekdays or the 11 am choir mass on Sundays.
If churches are not your type of place, head to the nearby Gilgal Sculpture Garden instead. Built by Thomas Battersby Child in the middle of the twentieth century, these gardens are home to 12 sculptures carved by Child and 70 stones engraved with poems and scripture verses. Identified as “the only visionary art environment in Utah”, entrance to the small garden is free.
So that’s our list of things to things to do in Salt Lake City. Which is your favorite? Comment and let me know!