Best Sightseeing in Salt Lake City

History, religion, and bizarre landscapes: sightseeing as diverse as it is interesting

For a big city, Salt Lake is rather small, and has a fairly short history. However, its petite size and youth do not make it boring. Rather, Salt Lake City, boasts an interesting and unique past that it proudly displays. And despite the relatively modest size of its downtown, it is rich with historic and cultural sights. And given the city's impressive and distinctive natural surroundings, much of the area's sightseeing is found outside of the city limits.

Those wishing to check out the urban sights would be well served to head downtown. In the very heart of it all, you'll find the number-one sightseeing attraction in the entire valley: Temple Square. Within the grounds are the the Salt Lake Mormon Temple itself, the Tabernacle and its famous choir, and numerous other structures and monuments. Immediately outside of the Square are a number of LDS outposts, including the Family History Library and the LDS Conference Center.

Northeast of Temple Square you can find other historic structures like the impressive Cathedral of the Madeline, the historic First Presbyterian Church, and the Utah Governor's Mansion – where the governor and his family actually live today.

If you have the means to leave town, consider heading northwest to Antelope Island State Park. Occupying the largest island in the Great Salt Lake, this island features open grasslands and mountains in the middle of this vast body of water. If you travel west on I-80, you'll wind up at the Bonneville Salt Flats, an incredibly empty stretch of utterly flat land on which all the modern world land speed records have been set.

Whether you're into history, religion, or bizarre landscapes, you'll find the sightseeing in and around Salt Lake City to be as diverse as it is interesting.


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 décor. 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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This magnificent Gothic Revival church was constructed of locally quarried red sandstone. Though construction on this church began after that on the Mormon Salt Lake Temple, this church officially opened "for business" nearly 20 years before the Temple - in 1874. This was a remarkably speedy job, as Utah's Presbyterian heritage dates back to 1871, just three years before this church's completion. The grandeur of this church is particularly impressive, given Salt Lake City's animosity toward non-Mormons in the 1870s. Plans for the church were modeled after northern England's castle-like Carlisle Cathedral. Noteworthy architectural features include beautiful stained glass windows, crenelated bastions, and a rectangular tower. The building can accommodate more than 500 persons.

Local Expert tip: The cost of the lot and building was just $29,500.

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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.

Read more about This Is The Place Heritage Park →


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: Check online for special seasonal offerings.

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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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Constructed over the course of four years and completed in 1867, the Tabernacle is home to the world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Its 11,623-pipe organ looms 30-plus feet over the congregation, and a curved ceiling enhances the building's acoustics. The sacred structure is open to the public primarily for concerts and meetings, but visitors are encouraged to attend a weekly choir rehearsal or a Sunday broadcast. In addition, year-round Tabernacle tours leave from the north or south gates every 15 minutes and last about a half-hour. If you're interested in seeing the world-famous Tabernacle Choir, check out the concert and rehearsal schedule online, and be sure to arrive early.

Local Expert tip: All concerts and rehearsals at the Tabernacle are free; however, some require reservations.

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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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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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Antelope Island State Park

A trip to Antelope Island is like a journey to another planet -or at least a journey back in time. This island, the largest in the Great Salt Lake, stands northwest of Salt Lake City and contains almost no infrastructure whatsoever on all of its 28,000 acres. Named "Antelope Island," this was where John C. Fremont hunted that species in the mid 1800's. Today this island is the home to numerous other species like coyotes, pronghorn, elk, waterfowl, raptors, and even bison. Originally introduced to the island as a heard of 17 in 1893, this group has grown to roughly 600 individuals in size. If visiting the island, you'll likely want to spend some time hiking, exploring a 19th Century homestead, or possibly biking.

Local Expert tip: Bring your bug spray; swarming gnats can occasionally be intense during the summer months.

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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.

Read more about Temple Square →


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