City guides

Salt Lake City guide: Where to eat, drink, shop and stay in the ‘Crossroads of the West’

Though its small-town feel has given it a reputation as sleepy, Joanna Whitehead discovers a youthful, reinvigorated city that’s not at all far from Utah’s bewitching outdoor adventures

Friday 14 July 2023 18:48 BST
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<p>Salt Lake City – or SLC – is worth adding to your US travel plans </p>

Salt Lake City – or SLC – is worth adding to your US travel plans

Salt Lake City, state capital of Utah and a landlocked region of the US southwest, is a city of surprises. As well as being the world headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – 66 per cent of Utah’s population are LDS followers – it’s also home to a sizeable LGBTQ+ community; it was dubbed the gayest city in the US in 2012, and between 2016 and 2020 was presided over by a lesbian mayor. While these respective communities may not seem like obvious bedfellows, a 2019 poll by Public Religion Research Institute revealed that over three-quarters of Utahns supported laws that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination, evidence of the special culture that has developed in the West Desert region.

Surrounded by the dramatic snow-topped Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains, Salt Lake City is also a major destination for outdoor pursuits with plentiful hiking and biking opportunities year round, and some of the best ski resorts in the world come winter. Around 40 miles outside of Salt Lake is also the birthplace of the country’s biggest independent film festival, Sundance.

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In a country full of exceptional destinations for city breaks, Salt Lake City might not seem the obvious choice for a holiday, but it’s a city with some incredible experiences to discover and a unique charm. And with the state’s only international airport situated in Salt Lake, you’re likely to land here first ahead of any onward journeys within Utah and beyond, so it’s worth extending your stay for a few days to explore what this fascinating city has to offer.

Best things to do in Salt Lake City

Views to savour from Ensign Peak

Take a hike

Salt Lake City’s proximity to nature is a primary reason why people are so attracted to this valley; you can be surrounded by peaceful, verdant mountains within 15 minutes of leaving the Downtown area. Arriving in the city by air offers a hint of the majestic landscape ahead, with planes descending over the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains. Hiking trails abound, with city strolls including City Creek Canyon, the Ensign Peak and the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (great views, flat and good for beginners). More ambitious hikers should opt for The Living Room Trail, Neff’s Canyon, or Mount Olympus, a great spot for watching the sunset.

Listen to the music

A trip to hear the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square is an unforgettable experience, regardless of your religious affiliation (or lack of). Entering this cavernous building to see the choir arranged in front of one of the world’s largest organs (11,623 pipes and counting), uplit in purple lights, is a remarkable sight – and hearing them perform in one of the world’s most acoustically perfect buildings (a pin drop can be heard from one side of the building to another, over 75 metres) is goosebump-inducing. Visitors can join the weekly Music and the Spoken Word event, a Sunday broadcast tradition since 1929, that’s free to enter. Doors open at 8.30am and guests should be seated by 9.15am, when the doors are closed. The broadcast is around 30 minutes long and finishes at 10am. It’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.

Smell the flowers (and check out the dinosaurs)

Red Butte Garden is one of the largest botanical gardens in the Intermountain West and the state arboretum of Utah. There are 100 acres to explore, including five miles of hiking trails, display gardens, water features and plenty of spaces to simply sit and smell the flowers. An annual poetry competition run by the garden sees winning entries positioned around the garden and, in spring and summer, the community-funded garden hosts a busy outdoor concert programme, with upcoming performers including Herbie Hancock and Indigo Girls. A 15-minute drive from Downtown SLC, it’s also adjacent to the Natural History Museum, which has five fascinating floors covering everything from Native American culture, to fossils and dinosaurs; it’s also home to the only set of Ceratopsian skulls in the world. Don’t leave without checking out the killer views from the Sky Terrace.

The new Natural History Museum building opened in 2011

Take a tour

If you’re short on time, the Ultimate Salt Lake City tour bus tour is a great way to get a good overview of the city and its attractions in just a few hours. Gaze at the frescoes in the State Capitol and gawp at the city views from the front, and learn about the history of Salt Lake City from its pioneering origins, pet animals and eat doughnuts at the This Must Be The Place (named after the words uttered by LDS leader Brigham Young upon arriving in Salt Lake City), before finishing off with an organ recital at the Tabernacle. Guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable and keen to answer any questions you may have.

Best time to visit Salt Lake City

Spring, autumn and winter are the best times to visit Salt Lake City, depending on what activities you have in mind. Spring flowers and autumn colours attract many during those periods, while the colder months (November, December, January and February) see winter sports enthusiasts flocking to the region to hit the slopes. Summer is very hot, so those visiting for outdoor pursuits might consider waiting a few more months for the mercury to drop, although it’s a good time to explore air-conditioned museums.

Where to stay in Salt Lake City

Hyatt Regency Salt Lake City, Downtown

Located slap bang in the centre of Downtown, with many attractions in easy walking distance, the Hyatt Regency is ideal for those who like to be in the thick of things. This shiny, chrome edifice opened in 2022 and, with 25 floors, enjoys some excellent city views and panoramas of the surrounding mountains. A 25-metre heated outdoor swimming pool on the sixth floor is an absolute treat, and there’s also a rooftop terrace with fire pits if you fancy a sundowner.

evo Hotel, Granary District

Active types will adore this new hotel, which comes equipped with its own 26,000sq ft climbing gym, skatepark and fitness centre. With something for every budget, rooms come in four different sizes, from bunk rooms and cosy rafter rooms, to a suite with a private balcony and mountain views, a record player and a stack of vinyl. There’s plenty of communal space in which to socialise, including a rooftop bar, blending an industrial vibe (think exposed brick and piping) with big and bold art installations. Winter sports fans can also find 10 ski resorts within an hour of the property.

The Peery, Downtown

This unique property is characterised by early prairie and classical revival architecture, vintage and antique furnishings, and was built in 1910. Well located for Downtown attractions, the hotel also has a number of adjoining rooms, making it a good choice for families and groups. The hotel is also home to two on-site restaurants and a small 24-hour fitness centre.

Best cafes and restaurants in Salt Lake City

Start the day at Eva’s Bakery in Downtown, a French-inspired outlet which bakes delicious bread using local flour. As well as brunch favourites – such as eggs Benedict, avocado on toast and granola with yoghurt, Eva’s also produces a selection of pastries and cakes – don’t leave without sampling the date cake with buttercream.

In the mood for brunch? Visit Eva’s Bakery

Award-winning restaurant Pago has two outposts in the city: one on Main and a second on Ninth and Ninth. With an emphasis on locally sourced, seasonal food, this relaxed restaurant specialises in smart, thoughtful food without the affectation. Popular dishes include a zingy tuna tartare, burrata and rich braised short rib. Don’t leave without sampling a glass of vino; the restaurant’s sommelier seeks out small-scale wine producers from around the world, curating an imaginative and interesting list.

The Copper Onion is a lively restaurant in Downtown SLC overseen by owner and chef, Ryan Lowder, who was previously part of the team at triple Michelin-starred Restaurant Jean-Georges in New York. Thankfully, he’s taken this experience and translated it into casual dining that focuses on delicious food without the fine-dining price tag. Try the rainbow trout with curried lentils, washed down with a seasonal cocktail.

Best bars in Salt Lake City

Wasatch Brewery

One of the most established breweries in Salt Lake City, Wasatch Brewery has been at the forefront of craft beer in Utah since opening in 1989. With pubs in Sugarhouse and Park City, and the West Side Tavern brewhouse, home to 24 taps and brews called Wasatch’s Polygamy Porter, there’s a lot to like.

Beer Bar

Partially owned by Modern Family star Ty Burrell, Beer Bar’s huge beer hall boasts a jaw-dropping selection of ales, lagers, sours, IPAs, ciders and sours. They also serve up a good selection of bratwursts to soak up the booze.

Bratwurst and beer can be found at the aptly named Beer Bar

Why Kiki

This super inclusive bar hosts drag shows five days of the week, with the Sunday brunch edition a particular highlight, but also lip-sync battles and silent discos for days. Despite being run and staffed by LGBTQ+ people, its motto is that it’s “a place for everyone”, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Expect to be entertained, amused and amazed at the quality of talent at this Downtown spot.

Best walks in Salt Lake City

There are plentiful walks and hiking opportunities in Salt Lake City, but if you’re only able to do one, choose the Ensign Peak trail. Clocking in at around just one mile, it offers superb views over the city to the Oquirrh mountains and is a great place to watch the sun set

Best lake views in Salt Lake City

The future of the Great Salt Lake that gives the city its name is looking exceedingly grim. In January, a group of scientists and conservationists warned that without a “dramatic increase” in water, the lake is at risk of disappearing completely by 2028 due to climate change and drought in the American west. Antelope Island State Park enables you to get up close and personal with the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere, where you can walk, cycle or horseback ride around this vast body of water. If you’re not leaving the city, you can also see the Lake from high elevation points, such as The Living Room Trail.

Antelope Island is the largest of the Great Salt Lake’s islands

Where to shop in Salt Lake City

There are shopping centres and then there are shopping centres: Salt Lake City’s City Creek Centre falls is the latter. With over 100 high street stores, designer shops and restaurants – including Gap, Lush, Sephora, H&M, Macy’s and Louis Vuitton – this shiny mall is tastefully designed and light-filled and features waterfalls, sculptures and streams throughout.

Salt & Honey is a makers’ market featuring over 250 independent vendors in three locations throughout the city. Selling everything from vintage clothing to jewellery, fine art to homeware, it’s a great place to visit if you’re seeking a unique gift from a local creative.

Book lovers would do well to stop by The King’s English Bookstore – “matching books to readers since 1977” – an independent and much-loved bookshop. And vinyl fans should make a beeline for Randy’s Records (closed Sundays and Mondays), Utah’s oldest record shop and a veritable treasure trove for the music lover, stocking everything from Motown to electronica, folk to punk.

How to travel around Salt Lake City

Like many US cities, Salt Lake relies heavily on private cars to move around, but it’s not impossible to navigate the region without. Most of Downtown and its attractions (Temple Square, Contemporary Art Gallery, Utah State Capitol) are within walking distance but, for everything else, the city has a comprehensive transport system incorporating light rail and buses. If you’re likely to be using public transport in the city, the Transit app enables you to plan your journey and purchase tickets; a typical one-way journey costs $2.50. For longer journeys, Uber is widely available. And if you’re visiting during ski season, UTA (Utah Transit Authority) provides ski bus access up to the major resorts, including Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons, Snowbird, Alta, Brighton and Solitude. For more information, go to rideuta.com.

‘A city with some incredible experiences to discover and a unique charm’

Architectural highlight

The Salt Lake Temple is the largest temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This imposing building, standing at 68m tall and with six spires, has been closed since 2019 for major renovation, including seismic retrofitting, and is not expected to reopen until 2026, however. The Temple is not to be confused with the adjacent Tabernacle. This unusual building with its aluminium carapace was described by Oscar Wilde as “the shape of a soup kettle with decorations suitable for jail”, while Frank Lloyd Wright dubbed the tabernacle to be “one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world”. Make up your own mind.

Nuts and bolts

What currency do they use?

US dollars. Most places take card but bring some notes for tips.

What language do they speak?

English.

How much should I tip?

Around 18-22 per cent, but this really depends on the context. You can learn more about the complexities of US tipping culture, and The Independent’s travel correspondent, Simon Calder, has written a guide to tipping etiquette for travellers to the US.

What’s the time difference?

GMT-6.

What’s the average flight time from the UK?

Around 10 hours.

What’s the best view?

If you’re feeling energetic, hike the 2.3-mile round trip to the top of the Living Room Trail, which offers incredible views over the city, surrounding mountains and across to the titular lake. If you’d prefer not to break a sweat while admiring the view, head to the Capitol Building, which also enjoys panoramic city views.

Insider tip?

If you’re planning on staying for more than 24 hours, consider purchasing a Salt Lake City Connect Pass, which gets you into 18 of Northern Utah’s most popular attractions with big savings. Sold in one, two and three day increments, attractions include Red Butte Garden, Tracy Aviary, Natural History Museum, Clark Planetarium, This Is The Place Heritage Park, Utah Museum of Contemporary Arts and Utah Museum of Fine Arts. The Salt Lake City Connect Pass starts at $54.99 for adults and $44.99 for children.

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