Best Historic Sites in Salt Lake City

10 Best's Top Choices for Salt Lake's Mormon - and Minority - Historic Sites

When you’re shopping around for historic sites to visit within Salt Lake City, you’re naturally going to come across many, many instances pertaining to the historically dominant group in the region: the Mormons. After all, these were the very people that founded the city back in 1847, and this is the culture that would remain #1 in Utah for many decades to come.

However, in the intervening years since the arrival of Brigham Young & Co., global industrialization brought many groups to Salt Lake City on its coattails. The 1869 completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad near Tremonton, Utah, not only connected the Utah Territory to the rest of the world - but it also left behind a huge influx of railroad workers in the area. Many of these workers would settle in Utah, naturally bringing with them their cultures and religions.

The mining frenzy of the late 19th Century, too, had its hand in Utah’s diversification. With it, eager prospectors came to Utah’s mountains from around the world. And though mining would eventually dry up, it would leave these folks a permanent part of Utah’s population.

So today, when you’re visiting Salt Lake City’s historic sites, you’ll not only see the enormous and immaculate Temple Square, but you’ll also see influences of other cultures. So consider a stop at the Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine and St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in conjunction with your tour of the Beehive House. 


Joseph Smith Memorial Building

A $45-million renovation transformed this building from a spectacular hotel into office space for the Mormon Church. Visitors may take guided tours to learn about the building and its uses over the past 70 years. Beyond its history, the building will dazzle you with its spectacular architecture and opulent decor. The Family Search Center in the lobby can help genealogists find information about family roots. Guests are encouraged to attend a popular film about the history of the early Mormons - but it's best to call ahead for reservations. Afterward, grab a bite to eat at one of the three on-site restaurants.

Local Expert tip: Restaurants located within the building are The Garden, The Roof, and The Nauvoo Cafe.

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The Episcopal congregation of Salt Lake dates back to 1858 - a rather impressive fact, given that Utah's first settlement occurred at the hands of Mormons just 11 years earlier. One of Utah's oldest standing non-Mormon churches and the third oldest Episcopal cathedral in the United States, the Church of St. Mark dates back to the 1870s - quite an unpleasant time for non-Mormons to live in Salt Lake City. Plans for construction were laid in 1858 but, due to the outbreak of the Civil War and insufficient funds, construction was not resumed until 1868, or completed until 1875. The church's pipe organ, built in Scotland and dating back to 1854, is said to be the oldest in Utah.

Local Expert tip: For an impressively detailed and interesting history of the church and its congregation, check out the church's website.

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Local literature praises Bingham Canyon Copper Mine as the "richest hole on earth," and with good reason. More than 3/4 of a mile deep, the mine has yielded about 16 million tons of copper since digging first began. And that's not all - the mine also produces 400-ounce gold bars (500,000 troy ounces of it each year!). See the giant machinery used to dig out and transport the copper; some pieces are capable of lifting more than 98 tons at a time. The Kennecott Company operates the mine and has a visitor center chock full of interesting exhibits. Visible from outer space, this enormous open-pit mine is an astounding man-made wonder.

Local Expert tip: Bingham Canyon Copper Mine is arguably Salt Lake City's most interesting and bizarre historical site.

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Beehive House

The Beehive House was one of many owned by Mormon pioneer leader, Brigham Young. By visiting this thoroughly preserved home, you will get a glimpse into the life he shared with his family at the time he was president of the Mormon Church and territorial governor of Utah in 1854. The name "Beehive" was given to the home due to the beehive sculpture that sits atop the roof. Guided tours of the home reveal interesting stories about the antique furniture and other memorabilia on display. Banquet rooms and catering are available for special events in the Lion House Pantry.

Local Expert tip: Tours last about 30 minutes only, so are suitable for children as well as adults.

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Though the Mormon Church is undeniably the historically and culturally dominant religion in Utah, it certainly isn't the only. This dramatic Roman Catholic cathedral, completed in 1909, was built to mimic Romanesque style on the outside and Gothic style on the inside. The structure features gargoyles, vibrant murals, finely executed wood carvings, and magnificent stained-glass windows. Chapels, shrines, bells, screens, and other decorative and functional elements add to the cathedral's majesty. Stop by the office between 9am-5pm to pick up a self-guided tour booklet, and remember to treat the working sanctuary and worshipers with respect when you visit and marvel.

Local Expert tip: The Cathedral is located within a few blocks of Temple Square; if you're interested in religious sites, it would be a shame to miss this one.

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In 1902, wealthy Senator Thomas Kearns constructed this phenomenal residence, which is currently home to Utah's governor and family. Located on South Temple Street, this grand home shares its environs with many other grand, historic homes. Visitors may take a guided tour to view the refurbished mansion and appreciate its history, architecture, and furnishings. Among its attractions are a beautiful domed ceiling, a magnificent three-story staircase, and a lovely ballroom that has hosted an array of celebrities and notables. Located east of downtown, and at the far southern end of the Avenues neighborhood, the Mansion offers visitors relatively easy parking and pleasant, tree-shaded walking.

Local Expert tip: If visiting the Governor's Mansion, park and walk; you'll be able to see many other historic mansions in the vicinity.

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Lake Bonneville
Bonneville Salt Flats
Photo courtesy of CountyLemonade

The Bonneville Salt Flats, about an hour west of Salt Lake City (on I-80), are a peculiar natural phenomenon that has earned global fame as the site where land speed records are set. These flats, which occupy roughly 30,000 acres, formed when Lake Bonneville disappeared. This massive, ancient body of water formed during a much cooler and wetter climate. Roughly the size of Lake Michigan, it covered much of northwestern Utah. Roughly 14,000 years ago, an earthen dam on its northern shores burst, sending its water across southern Idaho in a catastrophic flood. Today, the utterly smooth Bonneville Salt Flats stand at the former bottom of that lake. With soils inhospitable to life and a perfectly flat surface, these flats have been the location of world land speed records for more than a century.

Local Expert tip: Keep your eyes peeled to see ultra fast cars on the Bonneville Speedway during the summer months.

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Built in 1947, this monument marks the place where Brigham Young and the first wave of Mormon pioneers, after months of extremely rugged travel, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. It was here Young stood on a high vista and told his followers, "This is the place." And so it was that Salt Lake City was founded - and at the same time became the new home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Today a monument marks the spot of Young's declaration. Within the same park, Deseret Village offers living history demonstrations of what it was like to live in Utah during the 1800s. Informative guided tours show historical homes and memorabilia common to the time period. Included in the various attractions is Forest Farm Home, which once belonged to Brigham Young.

Local Expert tip: After touring the grounds, consider hiking along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail System, an access point for which is just north of this park.

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Utah State Capitol Building
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boren

This awe-inspiring building proudly sits high on Capitol Hill overlooking the city. A stately Corinthian, neoclassical revival-style building, the Utah State Capitol Building was constructed mostly of native granite, quarried in the surrounding area. Built between 1912-1916, this structure today houses the offices of the Utah Governor, as well as the Utah State Legislature. Inside, visitors may wander from room to room or take a guided tour to learn the significance of seagulls painted on the 165-foot domed ceiling - or to find the historical meaning behind the painted murals. Additional points of interest within the building include a Hall of Governors, an impressive 6000-pound chandelier, and a gift shop.

Local Expert tip: After a massive renovation, this building is now fully open again.

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Salt Lake City has been the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since their arrival to the Great Basin in July 1847. Temple Square itself is the spiritual and symbolic center of this unique religion. Covering 10 acres, the square contains the Mormon Temple, the Tabernacle (in which the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir rehearses, performs, and creates broadcasts), Assembly Hall, vast amounts of gardens, the Seagull Monument, and dozens of other significant structures and artworks. Temple Square is open to the public (with the exception of the Temple itself) during daylight hours, and costs nothing to enter. Outside of Temple Square you'll find many other related buildings and attractions like the Family History Library, Church History Library, and LDS Conference Center.

Local Expert tip: Don't be afraid to approach a missionary for a tour; these are free and informative.

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Meet Christine Balaz

Christine Balaz began her unexpected writing career in Salt Lake City with her first book on Wasatch Skiing and Travel in 2006. On the subject of Utah, Christine has written numerous...  More About Christine