Play the Hits: Exploring Salt Lake City's Iconic Sights
You’re a curious traveler, right? You like to understand the places you go. Well, have we got a story for you. Utah has one of the most unique histories in the United States. Unlike most of its neighbors — which were mainly founded by pioneers chasing mining booms, or timber and ranching opportunities — Utah was settled in 1847 by the Latter-day Saints (commonly known as the Mormons). Church leader Brigham Young led more than 20,000 pioneer families on a harrowing trek to the Salt Lake Valley seeking a place where they could practice their religion in peace. It’s a true and uniquely American story that combines a struggle for freedom of conscience with an epic frontier journey and its legacy can be seen everywhere in Salt Lake City.
For the curious traveler, no trip is complete without a dive into this singular history and, of course, there is more to Utah than its founding story. There are rich tales of native peoples and earlier explorers — trappers and Catholic missionaries — to be understood. The Salt Lake Valley itself is a geologic treasure where you can literally see the high-water marks of an ancient lake called Bonneville. (We call it the “bathtub ring.”) And as Utah joined the United States, more settlers of all colors and creeds came with the railroad adding stories to this diverse tapestry.
Let this itinerary be your guide to an enlightening three-day tour of the highlights of Utah’s cultural, natural and historical landscapes. Salt Lake City is easy to explore on foot, by car, light rail, bus or with our easy-to-use GREENbike bike share system. (The Utah Transit Authority uses the Transit app to plan your trip and GoRide to pay for fares with your smartphone.)
However you chose to explore, you’ll experience this great western city from its early beginnings to its modern-day state.
Jeremy Pugh is a writer living in Salt Lake City who, in one way or another, has been writing about culture, history, and the outdoors in Salt Lake City for more than a decade. Pugh is the author of the book 100 Things to Do in SLC Before You Die.
- LDS Temple Square
- Utah State Capitol
- Memory Grove and City Creek Canyon
Salt Lake City’s grid system was laid shortly after the Mormon’s arrival. Thus, all roads lead to LDS Temple Square. Start here and witness the early industry of the settlers. Venturing uphill to the Utah State Capitol building, you’ll enjoy views of the city below (you can see the grid!) and then drop down into the protected natural area, City Creek Canyon, where you’ll walk along its bubbling creek in the undeveloped foothills.
Foodie pick: The Roof Restaurant atop the Joseph Smith Building offers commanding views of LDS Temple Square.
Car-free SLC: Download Utah Transit Authority apps to plan your trip on public transit and pay your fare:
Take a guided or explore the beautiful grounds on your own. Highlights include the acoustically focused “pin drop” tour of the old tabernacle, Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Christus statue in the North Visitors’ Center and the tour of the massive underground LDS Conference Center plus its rooftop gardens.
Enjoy the views and statuary on the grounds (including Clyde Ross Morgan’s stirring Vietnam memorial) and then venture into the seat of Utah’s government, an excellent example of the neoclassical revival style, patterned after the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
From the capitol, walk down into Memory Grove, a bucolic park filled with memorials of important moments in U.S. and Utah history. The footpath to the north takes you into the canyon itself to enjoy the quiet of the foothills just minutes away from the city’s urban center.
- Utah Museum of Contemporary Art
- South Temple’s Mansion Row
- Library Square
At the turn of the 19th Century, a silver boom created the Silver Barons. The mining magnates built beautiful mansions along South Temple, one of which, the Kearns Mansion, serves as Utah’s gubernatorial residence. On West Temple, you’ll find the center of Utah’s modern art scene, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA). Venture further to visit what some consider to be the city’s secular heart, the beautiful Salt Lake City Library, designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie.
Foodie pick: Stoneground Kitchen, just to the north of Library Square, offers modern Italian fare and an excellent wine list.
Located near Salt Palace Convention Center, adjacent to the Salt Lake Visitor’s center UMOCA is a cornerstone for contemporary culture in Utah, with an ever-changing line up of cutting-edge exhibits. Check the museum’s website to see what’s current. While downtown, use this map to find some of Salt Lake's unique murals and street art.
The South Temple mansions display opulent architectural styles, built to the tastes of the Silver Barons. Start at the corner of State Street and South Temple with the Alta Club, a private club founded by the magnates. Preservation Utah offers downloadable self-guided walking tours.
At the Salt Lake Library, ride the glass elevator inside the main atrium and visit the rooftop gardens with their panoramic views of the city and gothic City-County Building to the west. Walk down the grand staircase into the square and let the kids play in the fountain (you can too).
- Natural History Museum of Utah
- Red Butte Garden
- This is the Place Heritage Park
Salt Lake's eastern bench (aka "the foothills") was created by prehistoric Lake Bonneville. Discover this rich natural history (and dinosaurs!) at the Natural Museum of Utah. Visit Red Butte Garden and amphitheater, home to a popular summer concert series. Nearby, the mouth of Emigration Canyon, where the Mormon pioneers entered the valley in 1847, marks the spot where LDS leader Brigham Young famously proclaimed, “This is the Place.” Learn more at This is the Place Heritage Park.
Foodie pick: Ruth’s Diner, located up Emigration Canyon, is a classic diner on the banks of Emigration Creek. Don’t pass up the “mile-high” biscuits.
A literal walk through the eons, the Natural History Museum of Utah’s main path, will take you from the age of dinosaurs all the way to the sky above. Start either at the bottom (again, giant dinosaurs) or the top for a fascinating journey through the state’s natural history.
Sprawling grounds in the foothills of Salt Lake feature carefully tended displays of native flora along with perfect places to picnic in the shade. The garden’s amphitheater offers a beloved summer concert series. Be sure to check the lineup for an unforgettable night under the stars.
At this important spot in Utah history, history comes alive with displays of frontier crafts and trades like blacksmithing and pottery, along with old-timey games for the kids. The park’s gift shop offers a collection of art and unique-to-Utah goods.