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Insider’s Guide to Salt Lake City Historic Sights

Built in 1916, the Utah State Capitol sits high on a hill with clear views of Salt Lake City’s skyline. (Photos: Kylie Fly)

Home to the “Greatest Snow on Earth,” Salt Lake City is Utah’s high-elevation capital and the state’s most populous city. It lies in a valley surrounded by tall mountain peaks and is adjacent to the Western Hemisphere’s largest saltwater lake — the Great Salt Lake — from which the Salt Lake City name originated.

Founded in 1847 by Mormon pioneers, the city remains the headquarters of the faith today. Many of the landmarks from the city’s establishment still stand, and you can see them all on a tour of Salt Lake City’s most historic sights.

What to See Downtown

Begin your tour in downtown Salt Lake City at Temple Square, the center of the city and its most popular attraction. This sprawling space surrounds the Salt Lake Temple, an iconic Mormon landmark completed in 1893 where religious ceremonies are performed. Known for its dazzling granite edifice and striking neo-Gothic architecture, the temple is the Mormon faith’s largest and its six-spire design is an international icon of the faith.

things to do in salt lake city
Start your tour at Temple Square, the center of the city.

Free tours of the Square are available, but visitors can also freely wander the gardens past a reflecting pool, water fountains and bronze statues surrounded by blooming tulips and daffodils. Stop by the visitor’s center or step inside the Salt Lake Tabernacle — an acoustically perfect building that’s home to the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an 11,623-pipe organ built with hand-carved Utah timber.

Grab a quick lunch paired with a hot, old-fashioned dinner roll at the Lion House Pantry inside the Lion House, the former private residence of Mormon church leader, Brigham Young.

Continue up a steep hill past McCune Mansion, a lavish and elegantly restored turn-of-the-century residence, to the Capitol Hill Neighborhood and the Utah State Capitol. Built in 1916, this landmark is the seat of Utah’s state government and sits high on a hill with clear views of Salt Lake City’s skyline and the surrounding mountains and residential neighborhoods.

Constructed from Utah granite rock with Georgian marble columns, the stunning building is filled with artwork from bronze statues to paintings of early life in Utah in the capitol’s rotunda. Take a self-guided tour any day of the week or a guided one Monday through Friday.

From here, head to the City and County Building, the house of Utah’s local government and a beloved landmark constructed in 1894. Tour this towering structure from basement to clocktower to see the Romanesque architecture and carved gargoyles, animals and depictions of Utah history up close.

Surrounded by flowers, shrubs and shade trees, many of Utah’s signature festivals take place on the building’s grounds. The building was the site of Utah’s State Constitutional Convention, and was the first building in the world to be retrofitted with base isolators to protect it during an earthquake.

Take a break next door at the Salt Lake Library, an acclaimed modern architectural wonder designed with window views of the Wasatch Mountains and quiet nooks for reading or studying. Stop in the lobby for a locally roasted cup of coffee and a fresh pastry from Salt Lake Roasting Company, then take the elevator to the top for views of the snow-capped peaks from the lush rooftop garden.

Experience the wonders of aviation inside the neighboring Leonardo Museum, at their original exhibit Flight. Here you can pilot a flight simulator and hop inside a C-131 aircraft, or study space travel and the possibilities of life outside our galaxy at the Alien Worlds and Androids exhibit.

things to do in salt lake city
Check out the stone sculptures and engravings at Gilgal Garden.

From the Leonardo, visit a popular park hidden in plain sight by renting a GREENbike (Salt Lake’s award-winning bike share) and riding a few blocks to Gilgal Garden. Tucked in a residential neighborhood, visitors follow a stone path through to see 12 original, symbolic sculptures and 70 engraved stones associated with Latter Day Saint (Mormon) themes.

Carved from Utah stone by Thomas Battersby Child, Jr. as an artistic testament to his faith, the creations include a sphinx with the head of Joseph Smith (the Mormon faith’s founder) and hand-carved Biblical figures.

What to Do

Visit the hip 9th and 9th Neighborhood just south of Salt Lake to see where young people gather. It’s the place to shop eclectic boutiques, catch an independent film at the Tower Theatre or dine on farm-to-table cuisine.

things to do in salt lake city
On a warm day, soak up the rays at Liberty Park.

Here you’ll also find the city’s oldest park, Liberty Park, which first opened in 1882. The urban green space features a lake, walking trails, swimming, volleyball courts, playgrounds, carnival rides and Tracy Aviary — America’s oldest and largest bird park. The Isaac Chase Mill, Utah’s oldest stillstanding commercial building, was built here in 1852. During the Famine of 1856-57, it’s said that free flour from the mill saved many Utah families.

From the park, walk a few blocks north to historic Trolley Square. After Salt Lake’s trolley system was removed in the 1950s, this trolley barn was saved from demolition by turning it into a unique shopping, dining and entertainment destination.

Visit the Trolley Square Museum to learn more about Salt Lake City’s Trolley era and shop for new and rare books at Weller’s Book Works. Stop by Cabin Fever for uniquely Utah gifts, eclectic cards and humorous books. Outside, the prominent, restored water tower lights up in an array of brilliant colors, which can be seen from miles away.

things to do in salt lake city
Discover Utah’s extraordinary ancient past at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

From Trolley Square, walk to TRAX, the city’s light rail line, and take the Red Line to the University Neighborhood. Site of the University of Utah, this youthful area bustles with 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students attending classes and is a melting pot of cultures thanks to their diverse enrollment.

A cultural hub for the city, this college neighborhood is home to many museums, parks and theaters. Along with local institutions like The Pie, a basement, candlelit eatery hidden under a pharmacy with incredible made-from-scratch pizzas.

Established in 1850, The University of Utah is Utah’s oldest institute of higher education. See campus buildings dating back to the early days by walking through Presidents Circle, or catch a dance or musical performance at Kingsbury Hall.

Nearby, the Natural History Museum of Utah is the place to learn about Utah’s ancient past. Don’t miss the impressive collection of Utah dinosaur bones and artifact from prehistoric people. Then take in views of the Salt Lake valley and skyline from the outdoor Observatory Deck.

things to do in salt lake city
Lace up your boots and hike the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.

Get a breath of fresh air walking along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail — just outside the Museum’s front door. This walking and biking path is nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains and follows the shore of ancient Lake Bonneville, which once covered much of Utah. For more of the outdoors, take a peaceful walk by rare and well-known flowers, ornamental grasses and shady trees at Red Butte Garden — the Intermountain West’s largest botanical garden.

things to do in salt lake city
Snap Instagram-worthy pics at the Red Butte Garden.

What to Eat

Utahn’s have a penchant for bizarre foods. The state’s claim to fame is inventing fry sauce (a ketchup/mayonnaise fusion served with fries), and Utah’s state snack food is Jell-O— green being the preferred color. Try local dishes at Utah’s oldest continuously operating restaurant, Lamb’s Grill on Main Street, featuring a great breakfast and a traditional menu of U.S. classics served in cozy wooden booths.

Venture west of the city center to the Rose Park neighborhood where you’ll find a crowd gathered outside Red Iguana, one of Salt Lake’s most popular restaurants. A local favorite since 1985, Red Iguana serves up authentic Mexican cuisine and made-from-scratch moles in a small, welcoming space.

For those unfamiliar with mole, ask for the free mole sampler and taste these sauces made from dried and fresh chiles, nuts, spices, herbs and fruits before selecting one to pair with your choice of meat. If you have time, walk west to the Utah State Fairpark where large events like the State Fair are held throughout the year.

This article was published through a partnership with Visit the USA, inspiring travelers to explore America’s boundless possibilities.