The flight into Salt Lake City, Utah is not one to sleep through. Flying over the canyon, across the Great Lake, and over wetlands provides a unique patterned landscape unlike anywhere else, all set against the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains. While the city started with humble beginnings from Mormon laws, those conservative practices concerning booze and gay rights are gradually being shed. Salt Lake City is right on the cusp of becoming a hot destination in both the summer months and the well-known winter. We got to know the northern Utah city and discovered the best things to do in Salt Lake City for your first visit.
Steph Ridhalgh | Skye Gilkeson
The Best Things to Do in Salt Lake City Utah (2023)
There are so many fun things to do in Salt Lake City from historic sites to outdoor activities, dining, and shopping.
This is a list of the must-see Salt Lake City attractions on your first visit.
1. Visit the Great Salt Lake
The lake after which the city was named, the Great Salt Lake is one of the best things to do in Salt Lake City.
The largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, the Great Salt Lake.
About 17 miles (27 km) from Salt Lake City (depending on where you view it from), the lake is interesting wildlife and bird species and spectacular scenery.
Sadly, the lake is in decline and may dry up within the next five years. So, make sure to try to get to this iconic Salt Lake attraction on your first visit.
2. Visit Temple Square, America’s version of Vatican City
Temple Square is an important part of not only Salt Lake City but Utah’s history.
Home to the Church of Jesus Chris Latter Day Saints, more commonly known as Mormons thanks to a little play called The Book of Mormon, it is the spiritual heart of Utah.
Whether you are a history buff or a fan of architecture, the 35-acre complex is free for the public to roam except in Salt Lake Temple, which is reserved for members of the Church only.
It is also home to the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
The oval structure has a dome top and is known for its excellent acoustics, which is demonstrated by the sound of a dropping pin echoing throughout without the use of a microphone.
If you have always wanted to get on ancestory.com, head to the Discovery Centre.
Temple Square houses the largest genealogical library in the world, the Family History Library, and is free (operated by FamilySearch), to use for those looking for family ancestry.
3. Tour the Utah State Capitol Building
Tour this grand historic building and learn about the building’s construction, architecture, and upgrades, government, and more about Utah.
There are docent-led and self-guided tours that can be booked online.
4. Wander around Beautiful Red Butte Garden
Spend a lazy morning wandering around the gorgeous grounds of Red Bute Garden.
The Garden has been open to the public since 1985 and welcomes guests daily (except public holidays).
It’s located at the edge of the University of Utah grounds and is about 15 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City.
One of the best ways to have lunch if you are visiting Utah with kids, pack a picnic and settle in at one of their picnic tables on the grounds.
Or, for those with more energy, there are hiking trails accessible from these botanical gardens too.
If you are visiting Utah in Summer and you are a fan of live music, grab tickets to the Outdoor Concert Series held in the Garden
5. Go Hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon
Utah is brimming with outdoor activities for all fitness levels and Salt Lake City is no exception.
Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, which offer sublime ski runs during the winter, also offer dozens of hikes and trails to discover in the summer.
The scenery is just extraordinary, from snow-capped mountains that bleed into pointy pines, to silver tree trunks that glisten in the sun.
Most venture to Donut Falls for a bit of waterfall fun. But, if you are excited by a little challenge, head over the road and take North Fork Trailhead.
Probably a little more demanding of a trail, but the lake at the end is so exquisite, it’s worth the sweat and aching calves, which is nothing compared to what the mountain bikers riding up go through.
The trail up to Dog Lake is mostly uphill with a few reprieves here and there.
The best way to think about that though is that it’s easier on the way down unless you have bad knees.
The last kilometer is tough on the glutes, calves, and quads, but totally worth it.
As you ascend to the top, the crystal blue lake mirage will appear on the horizon except it’s real, and it’s likely you will have it to yourself.
It’s worth a dip if you dropped a few kilos in sweat.
6. Have a Drink at a Bar X
The liquor laws of Utah are notoriously whispered amongst travelers and misconceptions spread.
Contrary to popular belief, you can buy a drink in Utah.
While the state laws in the past were reflective of Mormon beliefs, Utah now has ‘normalised’ liquor laws.
So, they no longer have some of the ‘quirkier’ laws such as an ‘iron curtain’ – a partition to block the view of alcoholic beverages being mixed, mainly to shield kids.
You can’t buy a beer higher than the standard 3.2% sold in grocery stores which are perfect, given the explosion of great breweries and distilleries in the area.
If there is one bar you check out, head downtown to Bar X.
This is one of Salt Lake’s oldest bars that opened right at the end of prohibition.
It has a speakeasy-style and is one of the best places to get a cocktail in town.
Bonus points if you see Ty Burrell AKA Phil Dumphy from Modern Family. He is a part owner of the Salt Lake City bar and known to stop by once in a while.
7. Feast on Some Delicious Seafood
It sounds bazaar to tout a landlocked city to be thriving in seafood.
But, thanks to the proximity to the International airport, seafood is delivered fresh daily to SLC for locals and visitors to enjoy.
Set in an old Ford car dealership, the industrial-chic design of this warehouse is a transformation you would never expect.
Glass, exposed brick, and support beams lend themselves to appearing like the hull of a ship with large windows and an open kitchen visible to diners at Current Fish and Oyster restaurant.
If raw fish is on your radar, the Two Minute Ceviche is fresh and light to start with.
The Smoked Clam Dip is completely underrated simply due to its name, but delicious nonetheless with a creamy texture.
The Sea Scallops take on an Asian flare through the carrot-ginger nage.
8. Spend an Afternoon at the Natural History Museum of Utah
The Natural History Museum of Utah is located in the very impressive Rio Tinto Center.
The museum itself is vast, at 163,000 square feet covering numerous floors, featuring 12 permanent exhibits with changeable traveling exhibits that rotate throughout the year.
There are interactive exhibits and fun educational programs to keep the kids interested.
Choose one or two exhibits to view, grab a snack, and don’t forget to visit the gift shop.
They feature artisan-made souvenirs and unique jewelry that will make a great gift to take home.
The museum is also right next to Red Butte Garden, so you could visit both in the same outing.
Read Next | What to Do in Summer in Park City Utah
9. Visit Antelope Island State Park
Antelope Island is about 41 miles (66 km) north of Salt Lake City.
A great way to see some local wildlife, Antelope is home to its namesake animal as well as bison, deer, coyotes, and many other beautiful animals.
Grab a map from the visitor center and try mountain biking around the trails to take in the stunning scenery, including the famous Great Salt Lake.
For keen hikers, the challenging Frary Peak trail is about 11 km out and back.
But, you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views from the island’s highest point.
The best time to hike is from November to March to avoid mosquitos and biting gnats.
10. Bonneville Salt Flats
One of the most unique things to do in Salt Lake City is to drive out to the Bonneville Salt Flats.
The flats cover 46 square miles with a 5-foot thick crust.
Despite being about an hour and a half out of Salt Lake City, the flats draw tourists for a couple of obvious reasons:
They offer both a beautiful natural setting and an incredible Utah photo opportunity.
Summer is Autumn are great times to visit the flats. Be mindful that during the warmer months, the flats can be scorching.
11. Go to the Pioneer Memorial Museum
For those curious about the founders of Salt Lake City, visit the free Pioneer Memorial Museum on N Main Street.
The museum is full of interesting artifacts and memorabilia from the original pioneers.
12. Visit Utah Olympic Park
Take a drive to Park City to visit Utah Olympic Park, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics.
Just 40 minutes from Salt Lake City, the park has a huge range of activities suitable for the whole family.
The huge 400-acre facility has a sliding track, Nordic jumps, canyoning, ziplining, and more. It even hosts summer camps for kids.
This is one of the many fun things to do in Summer in Park City.
13. Go Horseback riding at This is The Place Heritage Park
Near the mouth of Emigration Canyon, amusingly named, This Is The Place Heritage Park pays tribute to the location where Brigham Young first saw the Salt Lake Valley and decided it was the new home for his people.
Young reportedly came through the Canyon, overlooking the Salt Lake Valley, and said the words, “This is the place.”
With that, the settling of Salt Lake City began.
The facility replicates and shows what life was like back in the day when the Mormons settled in Utah.
Check out the This is the Place Monument before taking on a trail ride.
Release your inner cowboy or cowgirl and hitch a ride through the base of Emigration Canyon along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail.
This is a great place to take in the spectacular views overlooking Salt Lake Valley.
14. Watch the Utah Jazz Play Basketball
Cheer on the Utah Jazz at a home game at Vivint Arena.
The area is just 10 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City and is a fun evening activity whether you are a keen basketball fan or you just want to experience the energy of the Utah fans in the stadium.
Check the schedule and buy tickets here.
15. Get Active at Liberty Park
Liberty Park is a city park with running paths, a swimming pool, tennis courts, and plenty of activities for kids.
In winter, the ground is frosted with snow so you can have some fun sledding or tubing with the locals.
16. Clark Planetarium
If you are visiting Utah with kids, they will love the Clark Planetarium.
Ideal if you are caught on a rainy day in Salt Lake City, there are exhibits about space, with interactive elements and a full IMAX theatre.
17. Take a Road Trip to One of the Famous Utah National Parks
Utah is famous for its incredibly picturesque national parks.
Arches National Park (near Moab) is about 4 hour’s drive from Salt Lake City.
So, if you are planning on doing a road trip in a day, you will need to start early. This is particularly important as this is a popular national park, so the traffic can be heavy over the summer.
Gateway to the stunning This is the Place Heritage Park, Utah. Image © Steph Ridhalgh
Salt Lake City FAQs and Visitor Information
How to Get to Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City International Airport welcomes more than 26 million passengers a year. It has flights to 95 nonstop destinations. So, it is super easy to reach by plane.
It is 5 miles from downtown Salt Lake City and very easy to transfer to your Salt Lake City hotel.
Lyft and Uber operate from designated areas at the airport.
Why is Salt Lake City so popular?
Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by pioneer Brigham Young.
While it remains a center for Mormon culture in the US, it is also well-known as a hub for snowsports and hosted the 2002 Winter Olympic Games.
It’s also a popular destination for those who love snowsports, celebrities visiting for the annual Sundance Film Festival held in Park City, and outdoor lovers who visit in the summer months.
Can you live in Salt Lake City and not be a Mormon?
There are Mormons, but not as many as Everyone Thinks
Most people associate Salt Lake City with Mormons and while the headquarters of the religion is based there, populations are shifting.
While the city used to be a ratio of 60/40 Mormons to other faiths, members of the church have left the city and relocated to Utah.
The Fit Traveller was a guest of Visit Utah for this trip. As always, the opinions, words, and images are authentically our own.
Hailing from ‘down under’, Steph Ridhalgh is a journalist, producer, and blogger who suffers from a serious case of geographic schizophrenia.
Currently fulfilling her dream of living in New York, you can usually find her wandering the city streets, camera in hand.