Salt Lake City proper is a modest sprawling city of about 190,000 people. Most visitors will concentrate their time in the downtown (marked by the Mormon Temple, from which all addresses emanate), east side, and adjacent canyons and mountains. Locals live as far as 10 or 15 miles from the city’s walkable center, and suburbs have created an almost uninterrupted residential metropolis from Ogden (30 miles to the north) to Provo (40 miles south).
Temple Square. Temple Square is the hub of Mormonism, with the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle, but it’s also the cultural hub of this intermountain region, with museums and restaurants. An emphasis on green spaces by past and present city planners means you won't experience the claustrophobic feeling found in many big cities.
Downtown Salt Lake. The heart of Salt Lake's social, religious, and political institutions is within a few blocks of Temple Square, downtown. The city’s best outdoor gathering places are all here. The $1.5 billion City Creek Center opened in 2012, introducing high-profile shopping (an Apple store, Tiffany & Co., Nordstrom, and more) to an open-air setting and bringing the once-buried City Creek waters back to the surface. Gallivan Center hosts midday and evening concerts throughout the summer and an outdoor skating rink in winter. There’s a farmers’ market in Pioneer Park every Saturday in summer, and City Creek Canyon offers walks, runs, and bike rides near downtown hotels. The main library marks the east end of downtown.
Capitol Hill and the Avenues. Just a few blocks (and one significant hill) up from Temple Square is the state capitol, which was designed to resemble the nation’s Capitol in Washington, D.C., in part to prove the Utah Territory’s loyalty as it emerged from its polygamous roots in the late 19th century. On all four sides of the capitol are residential areas known for historic houses, hidden bistros, and the charm that makes this one of the most livable cities in America.
East Side and the University of Utah. Look for the U on the hillside, and you’ll find one of the leading centers of academia, research, and athletics in the West. Nobel Prize–winner Mario Capecchi put the university’s science department on the map, and the football team did the same for school sports when it won the 2008 Sugar Bowl. Many of the school’s staff and faculty live in the east-side neighborhoods of Federal Heights, Harvard-Yale, and Sugarhouse, which are full of 80- to 100-year-old homes, trees, and thriving restaurants and boutiques.
Great Salt Lake. Salt Lake International Airport lies at the southern tip of Great Salt Lake, the remnants of the ancient Bonneville Lake that covered much of the northern half of Utah. With no place for the mountain stream-fed waters to go, the lake has a salinity level far higher than the Earth’s oceans, creating a unique water world that revolves around brine shrimp. Explore the lake through Great Salt Lake State Park, about 13 miles west of the airport, or Antelope Island (where you’re more likely to encounter bison and birds than antelope), reached by a causeway 37 miles north of the airport.
Wasatch Front. The foothills of the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains form the northern and eastern city limits. Several canyons bring water and cool breezes to the desert, and are the best way to enjoy the wilderness in summer. Trailheads for hikes can be reached from downtown via City Creek Canyon, on the east side in Emigration Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon, and near the city’s southern limits in Big and Little Cottonwood canyons. Four of the nation’s top ski resorts, Snowbird, Alta, Solitude, and Brighton, are a short drive up Big and Little Cottonwood, with summer and winter activities galore.