Visitors flock to Temple Square to see the stunning gardens and holiday light displays. (Photos: Kylie Fly)
Utah’s biggest city and capital, Salt Lake City, is bordered by the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake—the Western Hemisphere’s largest salty lake. The city is known for its powdery snow and world-class skiing (it even hosted the 2002 Winter Olympic Games).
Beyond the slopes, Salt Lake’s safe, walkable downtown boasts a vibrant nightlife, diverse restaurant scene and friendly, welcoming locals. So whether you like exploring the outdoors, visiting historic sights or simply touring the city’s many museums, Salt Lake City has plenty to offer budget-conscious tourists.
You can easily traverse many of Salt Lake City’s top sights without paying for parking or cabs by taking TRAX, the city’s light rail, in the downtown SLC free fare zone.
While visiting, here are some free and affordable activities you won’t want to miss.
History and Culture
Tour Temple Square
Take a free 45-minute tour of Utah’s most popular attraction, Temple Square. The site of this square and temple was selected by Mormon pioneers just four days after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley and construction took 40 years to complete.
It is the center point of Salt Lake’s gridded street system and visitors flock here to see the stunning gardens filled with blossoming tulips in spring and the festive lights display during the holidays.
Free tours are offered in 40 languages and explain Salt Lake City’s pioneer history while showcasing the beautiful gardens, reflecting pool and historic landmarks like the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle.
Salt Lake Tabernacle
See the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the world’s oldest and largest choirs, practice during their open-to-the-public rehearsals at the tabernacle most Thursday evenings 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
This award-winning choir is composed of volunteer singers who are members of the Latter Day Saints Church, and through the years has performed for presidents, toured around the world and sold millions of albums.
The Salt Lake Tabernacle is tucked amidst the Temple Square’s tulips and trees, and the dome-shaped auditorium is visible from a distance. And this shape isn’t just for looks, the design is part of why the tabernacle is known for its perfect acoustics. The space’s showpiece is a giant organ with 11,623 pipes—one of the largest organs in the world.
Family History Library and Joseph Smith Memorial Building
Learn about your ancestors at at the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogy library where microfilmed records of over a billion people are kept. Or visit the FamilySearch Center in nearby Joseph Smith Memorial Building for assistance in searching your family records at no charge.
Afterward, explore this ornate, 100-year old building that served as the opulent Hotel Utah—boasting VIP guests and many sitting U.S. presidents in its 76-year run. Many elements, like the intricately-carved wooden railings, Czech crystal chandelier, and gold-leaf adornment date back to its days as a hotel.
Utah State Capitol
Completed in 1916, the Utah State Capitol is home to Utah’s government and is a striking building built from local granite and Georgian marble. This prominent landmark looks out over Salt Lake City and is open daily for free self-guided tours.
Wander through to see bronze statues of Brigham Young, the first territorial governor, and Philo T. Farnsworth, a Utah native who invented the television. Look up into the Rotunda dome to see paintings depicting 19th Century Utah scenes, like the pioneers entering the valley and the the driving of the Golden Spike to complete the the Transcontinental Railroad.
Explore City Creek Center
Across the street from Temple Square on bustling Main Street in downtown Salt Lake City, this world-class shopping center is named for the creek running through the center that’s stocked with live fish. Shop high-end retail shops here alongside local favorites like Utah Woolen Mills, a fine clothing store established in 1905.
Take a self-guided tour of City Creek Center’s impressive architecture to learn about the unique design, from the retractable roof to waterfalls, fountains and a pedestrian sky bridge.
For lunch, grab a hearty turkey sandwich on freshly-baked bread paired with a homemade chocolate chip cookie at Utah fast-casual eatery, Kneader’s Bakery and Cafe. If you have kids, set aside time for them to go wild in the outdoor splash pad.
During the holidays, visit the Christmas Candy Window display at Macy’s to see holiday characters crafted entirely from sweets.
Visit the Salt Lake City Library
Designed by architect Moshe Safdie, this library’s unique curved design and walkable wall that leads to a rooftop garden with 360-degree views make it an architectural masterpiece. Gaze out at the Salt Lake City skyline to the west and the snow-capped peaks of the Wasatch mountains to the east.
The library houses over 500,000 books and is surrounded by an outdoor plaza with water features, gardens, blossoming flowers and plenty of places to lounge outside. Annual community events are held on the grounds, including the Utah Arts Festival and Living Traditions Festival, which celebrates music and culture from around the world.
Tour the Governor’s Mansion
Walk a few blocks east of downtown to see inside one of Salt Lake’s most beautiful historic homes on a free tour of the current residence of Utah’s governor and his family. Built in 1902 as a lavish residence for the wealthy Kearns mining family, this mansion features a stunning gold-leaf dome, intricate wood carvings and chateau-style architecture.
Elaborate parties were held there and President Theodore Roosevelt, a friend of the family, dined in the home in 1903. In 1937, the home was donated by the Kearns family to the state and has been used on and off as the governor’s mansion ever since.
Hill Aerospace Museum and Fort Douglas Military Museum
Learn about Utah’s rich military history and see military artifacts at these museums at Hill Air Force Base and in Salt Lake City. Hill Aerospace Museum exhibits more than 90 military aircraft, missiles and uniforms. See aircraft ranging in size from massive transportation planes to tiny fighters and bombers spread indoors and outdoors through the museum.
Collections are catalogued on a timeline beginning with the birth of aviation, which features a replica of the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer, and feature planes from every major conflict and modern aircraft like the KC-135E, an aerial refueling plane.
The museum is open 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day but Sunday. Visit on a week day to beat the crowds. Admission to the museum is always free.
Natural History Museum of Utah
Located on the University of Utah campus just east of downtown Salt Lake City, this modern copper-covered structure was built at the base of the mountain foothills along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.
Learn about Utah’s past through engaging exhibits on the area’s natural history and geology, a collection of gems and artifacts from the region’s prehistoric people. Most impressive of all is the floor dedicated to Utah’s paleontology discoveries.
Here you’ll find dozens of reconstructed dinosaur skeletons collected throughout the state and the world’s largest display of horned dinosaur skulls.
Outdoor Recreation and Activities
Wander the Salt Lake City International Peace Gardens
Along the quiet banks of the Jordan River, less than 10 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City, sits this little-known peace garden, which pays homage to Utah’s diverse residents. This hidden gem is filled with blooming flowers in spring and beautiful, well-cared-for plots built by 28 participating nation groups, including France, Italy, Ireland, Denmark and Greece.
Stroll through Japan’s traditional garden plot before stumbling on Denmark’s Viking burial mound. Benches and large trees for relaxing under make this serene spot the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.
Walk the Bonneville Shoreline Trail
Hike or run along the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains on this well-used path for incredible views of the Salt Lake Valley and City skyline. The trail extends 160 kilometers (100 miles) and follows the shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville.
In spring, colorful wildflowers and shrubs bloom here, and you can take the path to popular Salt Lake City landmarks like This Is the Place Heritage Park, a monument to the early pioneers that features a replica pioneer village and pony rides for kids.
Utah’s Hogle Zoo, located across the street from the trail, is the place to see over 800 animals like lions, gorillas and bears up close in habitats designed to mimic nature.
Visit Red Butte Garden
Get out into nature by traveling five miles from downtown Salt Lake City on Salt Lake’s TRAX light rail to this botanical garden. Explore 18 acres of diverse flowers, trees and ornamental grasses on five miles of hiking trails.
See 450,000 blooming bulbs in spring along with vibrant daffodils, roses, and towering conifer trees. Take a free guided tour or let kids play in the children’s area. Admission is half off December-February and free on six specific days each year.
Hike Ensign Peak
Watch the sun set and learn about pioneer history on this short hike near downtown Salt Lake City, which features a monument to Utah’s early settlers at the top. See views of Salt Lake City’s skyline and the surrounding mountain peaks on this trail that ascends 398 feet to a hilltop where you can sit and take in the views. Suitable for families and beginner hikers.
Downtown Farmer’s Market
Buy fresh produce, taste artisanal food products and find unique jewelry, pottery and crafts from local makers at this outdoor farmer’s market. Sample artisan cheese from award-winning maker Beehive Cheese, enjoy a freshly shaken limeade from Sweet Lake Limeade, and indulge your sweet tooth with tastes of Solstice’s bean-to-bar chocolates.
The market is held in the sunshine at Pioneer Park on Saturdays from June to October in the heart of Salt Lake City. During winter months, the market moves indoors to the historic Rio Grande Depot, a former train station.
Gilgal Sculpture Garden
Practically hidden in plain sight, this secret garden is free to enter and fascinating to explore. See 12 unique sculptures depicting Mormon history and 70 engraved stones featuring scriptures, poems and literary quotes.
The quirky space was constructed by a devoted Mormon bishop with stones collected throughout Utah and is open to visitors seven days a week.
This article was published through a partnership with Visit the USA, inspiring travelers to explore America’s boundless possibilities.