Your Visit to This Underrated Western City Is Long Overdue

More than just a stopover to natural splendor, SLC is a destination unto itself.

aerial view SLC
Get ready to have your expectations shattered. | Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock
Get ready to have your expectations shattered. | Maciej Bledowski/Shutterstock

The sharp, imposing Wasatch Mountains of north-central Utah tower more than 6,000 feet above the valley below. Nestled in the foothills lies one of busiest travel hubs in America: Salt Lake City. Utah’s capital boasts a brand new international airport that sees more than 26 million people roll through in a normal year. Unfortunately, a lot of those travelers are on their way to… somewhere else.

Here at the crossroads of I-15 and I-80, within easy reach of three other states and over 10 national parks, many dismiss Salt Lake City as a necessary launch pad for some of the West’s greatest adventures. But spend a weekend here and you’ll realize this is a city worth sticking around for… maybe even permanently.

As the city grows rapidly, SLC is shedding its reputation as a conservative, homogeneous bastion of Mormonism. You’ll find a surprisingly progressive mix of college students and nature-loving young professionals here, as well as growing immigrant and LGBTQ+ communities (fun fact: SLC hosts one of the largest Pride parades in the entire country).

So what’s the secret? A high-energy downtown teeming with events and legit delicious restaurants, a cost of living that doesn’t swallow your paycheck whole, and unbeatable access to a natural playground offering year-round fun: skiing, rock climbing, mountain biking, fishing, hiking, you name it. Prepare to have your expectations shattered: Here are the best things to do on a visit to Salt Lake City.

You can't beat the views at the Grand America Hotel. | The Grand America Hotel

Where to stay in Salt Lake City

Give a courteous nod of approval to the re-designed airport, then hop in a car (or the easy-to-use TRAX light rail, which will get you most places within the city's center) towards downtown. Here in the living breathing heart of SLC, you can splurge for stunning downtown views at the opulent Grand America Hotel right on the TRAX line, or opt for the comfortably classic Peery Hotel, or go old-world-chic at Hotel MonacoCloser to the historic buildings of Temple Square, you’ve also got the Plaza HotelAnd of course, there’s always Airbnb.

Catch basketball games, comedy shows, buskers, ballet, live music, food festivals... | Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Find endless entertainment in the historic downtown

For a city its size (just shy of 200,000), SLC’s cultural calendar is surprisingly full. You can see a basketball game at Vivint Arena, get fancy at the ballet, or catch live comedy shows and talks with luminaries at the Eccles Theatre. At Gallivan Centeryou’ll find rotating events held in the outdoor plaza, like the city-sponsored Twilight Concert Serieswhich brings big names like St. Vincent to the stage in late summer.

Summer weekends are packed with art, music, and cultural festivals like Utah Pride and Living Traditionswhich celebrates the city’s diverse populations with dozens of food booths and traditional dance performances held in Liberty Park. Catch street performers on weekends during Open Streets SLC, when Main Street shuts down to car traffic and hungry locals flock to the area's 100+ bars and restaurants. And if crowds aren't your thing, you can always meander up City Creek to the monument-laden Memory Grove Park for a chill picnic spot.

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Vegetarians will be very happy in SLC, with tons of options like Zest. | Zest Kitchen & Bar

Come hungry for SLC’s best restaurants

It's non-negotiable: You may not leave town without a visit to the legendary Red Iguana, easily the best Mexican restaurant in Salt Lake City. Their Oaxacan dishes attract such long lines, they had to open a second location two blocks away. No less iconic is the deli empire Caputo's, a must for Italian sandwiches (try the Old School) plus cheese, charcuterie, dry goods, and a frankly astounding selection of craft chocolate bars.

Trendy downtown options include small Mediterranean plates at Eva, or next door, oysters and comfort food at White Horse. Chef-driven spots like SLC EateryArlo, and the tasting-menu at Table X all prioritize fresh local ingredients. And while a landlocked state might be the last place you'd expect incredible sushi, Takashi has their fish flown in daily.

There's Korean and Japanese-inspired bites at Nohm, Spanish tapas at Finca, and even Taiwanese, Ethiopian, and Polynesian cuisines to be found. But perhaps most surprising is the sheer volume of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Salt Lake City. Veg-heads are covered for breakfast at Vertical Diner, lunches at Bud's Sandwich Shop, dinner at Zest, and even dessert at the “anti-dairy” Monkeywrench.

While Utah isn't famous for its alcohol culture, many are working to change that. | T. F. Brewing

Sip award-winning brews and cocktails

Utah's craft beer scene has exploded, with most of the damage in the Salt Lake area. Head to what’s known by locals as the “Brewery Mile” and you can hop between Fisher, Templin Family, and Kiitos, all within a few steps of each other. Walk a bit further and you'll find Desert Edge, Bewilder, and RoHa; head down further south, and visit award-winners like Shades Brewingfamous for their fruit-heavy beer slushies and sour Kveik ales—and Level Crossing.

Cocktail bars are also enjoying a well-deserved renaissance across the city, with mixologists flexing serious muscles and often incorporating unique local spirits (look for the herbal amaros from Waterpocket Distillery, or grape-based vodka from Holystone). Yes, some quirky outdated laws still exist (like you can’t order a double, or get high ABV beer on draft). But increasing demand from the thirsty populace has seen regulations loosen up, and the bar scene here mostly operates like anywhere else. You have your pick of dark dives like Bar X, sophisticated cocktail dens like Copper Common, and the friendly funky local favorite, Water Witch.

Opportunities for adventure are nearly endless. | JFunk/Shutterstock

Hit the trails in SLC’s scenic foothills

You won't need to travel far to find a good hike in SLC. Stretch your legs on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, which wraps most of the city’s north and east sides in a path that's walkable and bikable. For a little altitude, the “Living Room Hike" near the Red Butte Botanical Gardens is a dog-friendly jaunt that gets its name from a series of flat, sandstone rocks resembling chairs and love seats—sort of like a Stone Age-era living room where you can kick back and look out over downtown. For more sweeping city views, it’ll take you about an hour or so, round-trip, to summit Ensign Peak.

A bit further south, canyon hikes in Millcreek and the Cottonwoods (both Big and Little) provide unparalleled natural beauty and dozens of listed routes for rock climbers. Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon is a short but spectacular hike with a gorgeous waterfall that flows straight through a hole in the rock (hence the donut name). Quick dips in the brisk waters of the pool below are technically not allowed, but...

Utah’s license plates rightfully brag about their "Greatest Snow on Earth.” | NG-Spacetime

Ski the greatest snow on Earth

Thanks to its unique geography and weather patterns, from November to as late as May you'll find the best powder snow on Earth falling in the Salt Lake area—a fact proudly spangled across Utah's license plates for decades. 

The Cottonwood Canyons are home to four of Utah's best ski resorts. Little Cottonwood's Snowbird is enormous, with over 2,500 acres of skiable terrain and literally thousands of feet of vertical. In Big Cottonwood, Brighton is a local favorite and a snowboarder's paradise featuring nearly limitless backcountry, as well as always-changing terrain parks with as many jumps and rails as you can stomp. It's less than an hour's drive east to Park City, or north to Ogden, where you can choose from another half dozen resorts, including former Olympic venues like the luxurious Deer Valley and best-kept-secret Snowbasin.

Take to the the water in Echo State Park, northwest of the city. | Traveller70/Shutterstock

Save time for some of Utah’s most iconic natural wonders

Utah is lousy with top brass national parks. Arches, Zion, and Canyonlands are all among the most beautiful spots in the world, and SLC provides access to all of ‘em within 3-6 hours of driving—not to mention Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone beyond.

But the state also has dozens of smaller state parks that are less busy, arguably more interesting, and for our purposes, much closer to the city. Perched on the edge of the Great Salt Lake itself, Antelope Island State Park is famous for wildlife—it has its own resident herd of bison—and overnight campers will be rewarded with astonishingly bright stars, as this is also an International Dark Sky Park.

Further west are the Bonneville Salt Flats, which hosts world-record trials for land speed and provides a surreal backdrop for your Instagram. In the summer months, East Canyon State Park and Echo State Park are ideal for paddleboarding or boating; by winter, spots like Wasatch Mountain State Parktransition into playgrounds for cross-country skiiers. The opportunities for outdoor adventures here are, essentially, endless.

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Rio Connelly is a contributor for Thrillist.