Best Museums in Salt Lake City

Space, dinosaurs, art, Mormons, and more: an incredible selection of excellent museums

Salt Lake City has quite a story to tell. Fortunately for its residents and visitors, it also has a diverse selection of top-notch museums to illustrate the various facets of its past and present.

If you're interested in how Utah's incredible backcountry came into existence, consider a trip to the Natural History Museum of Utah, at the University of Utah. Here you'll catch exhibits depicting the eons of geologic activity that have shaped this colorful piece of the earth. You'll also see fossils and replicas of great dinosaurs and other ancient life that occupied the Great Basin in bygone millenia. Located in a brand new, top-notch, beautiful facility at the base of Wasatch foothills, this museum will captivate adults as much as children. While on campus, swing by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, a nearly 75,000-square-foot building with a collection spanning roughly 4,000 years.

If the kids didn't get enough at the Natural History Museum, head west to Discovery Gateway, inside the Gateway Center. Totally redesigned and relocated in 2006, this colorful, stimulating facility is a pleasure to visit.

Those interested in the most recent 135 years or so of human history in Utah should take a trip to any of the Mormon museums. The Daughters of Utah Pioneer Memorial Museum details the lives of the early Latter-day Saints who migrated westward to found Salt Lake City. The Chase Home Museum of Folk Art focuses on the handiworks of those original settlers, as well as that of indigenous tribes. Alternatively, you can head back to the University of Utah to check out Fort Douglas and its museum; this structure was built by the U.S. Army, sent to Salt Lake City in 1862 to keep an eye on the Mormons by a nervous President Abraham Lincoln. 


Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Museum of Church History
Photo courtesy of heyjohngreen

Of all the major world religions, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the shortest history. Founded on April 6, 1830 by Joseph Smith, this religion is not even 200 years old. However, brief does not make boring! Starting in western New York State, this religion forcibly migrated westward through the central United States. Rejected every step along the way by their neighbors, the Mormons eventually set their sights on Utah - a place where they could enjoy solitude, and practice their own religion without harassment. This museum details the history of the religion from its founding in New York, through its westward journey across the United States, and into its settlement in Utah. Various artifacts depict each phase of this story, casting light on the lives of the Mormons throughout the religion's existence.

Local Expert tip: Whether a Mormon or not, you are sure to find this unique religion's history interesting.

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Chase Home Museum of Utah Folk Art
Photo courtesy of AnnaKika

Operated by the Utah Division of Arts & Museums, the Chase Home Museum of Folk Art sits in the center of Liberty Park. Though this might seem strange, Liberty Park was, in fact, once a 110-acre pioneer farm settled by none other than Mormon leader, Brigham Young. The actual Chase Home structure was built by Young in the early 1850s; it remained a private home until 1888, when it became Liberty Park. In 1987, this became the Utah State Folk Arts Collection's permanent home. Today the arts of Utah's indigenous peoples, as well as its early European pioneers, is on display. Basketry, rugs, toys, musical instruments, and tools illustrate the Navajo, Goshute, Shoshone, Paiute, and Ute lifestyles; quilts, rugs, handicrafts, pictures, books, and recordings reveal pioneer life.

Local Expert tip: The museum is open by appointment only during its business hours; call ahead to schedule a visiting time.

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Mormons were the first permanent settlers to arrive in Utah, founding Salt Lake City in 1847. Attracted by the utter lack of other people, this religious group intended to found a nation of their own. However, the U.S. Federal Government denied their repeated petitions for independence. In the uneasy years leading up to the American Civil War, the government began fearing that the Mormons would side with the Confederate States - and fight against the Northern states - in order to be granted independence. After the war finally broke out, President Lincoln sent soldiers to Utah to monitor the activities of the Mormons. This fort was constructed by those soldiers in 1862, and served as a home to the US Army troops until 1991. The museum today illustrates Fort Douglas' long and rich history as a military center.

Local Expert tip: Combine this visit with a trip to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts or Natural History Museum of Utah, also on the University of Utah Campus.

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Daughters of Utah Pioneer Memorial Museum
Photo courtesy of tracie7779

The Daughters of Utah Pioneers is an international organization committed to preserving the history of Utah's early settlers. This museum contains four stories, each dedicated to illustrating different aspects of the human history that shaped Utah and Salt Lake City. The main floor focuses on Mormon leaders Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. Doll exhibits can be found on the second floor, and the basement contains military memorabilia and artifacts. Additional displays can be found in a separate building called the Carriage House. The historical artifacts contained within the collection span roughly two decades, from the 1840's - the time the first Mormon settlers entered the Salt Lake Valley - to the date the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah, in 1869.

Local Expert tip: This museum is dedicated to the pioneers who trekked more than 2,000 miles to reach Utah.

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Red Butte Garden and Arboretum
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boren

When most people imagine a museum, they envision paintings, sculptures, and possibly dinosaur fossils. However, a museum must not be restricted to dead or man-made objects! If you're planning a museum trip in Salt Lake City, consider visiting one of its most interesting educational centers, the Red Butte Garden. Filled with life, and spanning more than 100 acres, the gardens and arboretum of Red Butte contain 11 themed gardens and over 4 miles of foot paths. In the spring alone, over 300,000 bulbs bloom, saturating the grounds in color. In addition to the plants and trees, Red Butte hosts child- and adult-specific events, summer camps, orchid and bonsai shows, and educational tours.

Local Expert tip: If you happen to be around during the summer, be sure to check the Garden's event schedule; the Red Butte Summer Concert Series draws ultra-famous musicians from around the world.

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Clark Planetarium
Photo courtesy of Clark Planetarium

Open 365 days a year, the Clark Planetarium has many attractions. One of its biggest draws is its IMAX theater. This five-story venue hosts the screenings of incredibly vivid documentary and Hollywood films in 3D. In addition to its visual effects, the theater wows audiences with its 14,000-watt sound system. Check out films on the earth's diverse ecosystems or man's exploration of outer space. Also at Clark Planetarium, the Hansen Dome offers 3D, computer animated, digital projection of celestial programs on a domed screen. Yet another reason to come, the Planetarium's Cosmic Light Shows utilize a state-of-the-art projection system and 13,000 watts of digital sound that bring to life musical classics from the likes of Led Zepplin and U2.

Local Expert tip: Outside of the theaters, inspired visitors can check out the dozen or so free space-related exhibits.

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Discovery Gateway Children's Museum
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boren

In 2006, the Children's Museum of Utah relocated to this all-new location. Undergoing an incredible, modernizing facelift, this once drab museum became a colorful, interactive, state-of-the-art wonderland for children and their parents. Now called Discovery Gateway (after the Gateway Center, in which the museum sits), this 60,000-foot family fun center has numerous, stimulating exhibits that encourage children to learn about the world. Whether kids want to explore farm life, construction work, a larger-than-life beehive, or a news room, they'll be able to do so with great enjoyment. Hands-on learning exhibits also include those illustrating storytelling, gardening, and even helicopter flying.

Local Expert tip: Check online for special events like dance workshops and arts and music programs.

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Utah Museum of Contemporary Art

Long known as the Salt Lake Art Center, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art got a new name in 2012. Founded in 1931, it has grown to be a thriving community art hub, offering both exhibits and educational programs alike. On display are the works of international and local artists alike, featuring global and regional themes. If you're in town for a while, check out the “Events” and “Education” sections of the museum's website, which include youth programs, workshops, talks, programs, films, and even galas. Winner of the “Best Museum” award in the Utah Best of State 2011 Competition, this is certainly one of Salt Lake's must-see museums.

Local Expert tip: Offering free admission, this museum can easily be added onto a tour of the neighboring Temple Square.

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University Of Utah
Utah Museum of Fine Arts
Photo courtesy of Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Housing a collection that includes 18,000 pieces and approximately 4,000 years' worth of artwork, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts contains numerous globally and locally relevant exhibits at any given time. In 2001, the museum relocated to the brand-new Marcia and John Price Museum Building, giving it 74,000 square feet of space in which to operate. Here you'll see paintings, photographs, and sculptures by contemporary local artists, as well as that by people long deceased, and from the other side of the world. The museum's collection embraces everything from Thai and Scottish art, to works by Pacific Islanders, ancient Greeks and Romans, and Native Americans. In addition to the displays, the museum keeps a busy schedule rich with lectures, shows, special events, tours, artist talks, and film screenings.

Local Expert tip: Parking is tricky on the U of U Campus; stop in at the front desk immediately upon arrival to get parking instructions and a voucher.

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Natural History Museum of Utah
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boren

Utah has an incredible natural history. From its remarkable red rock deserts, to the peaks of the Wasatch and Uinta mountains, this state contains stunning geology. And throughout time, it has been occupied by dinosaurs and humans alike. The Utah Museum of Natural History is dedicated to telling this story. Situated high on the red foothills of the University of Utah Campus, this museum relocated to the all-new, spectacular Rio Tinto Center in November 2011. This impressive structure features unique architecture and earth-friendly design elements; if you are interested in the actual building itself, plan to come for a free, 45-to-60-minute architectural tour. These take place four times daily during week days (and twice daily on weekends). Check online for free admission dates; the museum typically offers four of these a year.

Local Expert tip: Admission to the museum ends one hour before closing time.

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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