As the capital of Utah, Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by early pioneer settlers, led by Brigham Young. Today, it is a vibrant city with a rich history, diverse culture, trendy restaurants, lively events and art. Salt Lake City is also surrounded by beautiful natural landscapes, making it a great intersection between nature and city living.
The Weekend Trip to Salt Lake City
Frequently referred to as the “Crossroads of the West,” Salt Lake City is a popular pass-through place for travelers en route to the neighboring national parks, such as Yellowstone or Zion National Park. Whether you are specifically visiting Salt Lake City or just passing through, the city is no doubt a great place to hang out for the weekend. I personally did this trip just as a one-time visit to Salt Lake City, which was equally fun!
This itinerary is based on my weekend trip and begins on a late Friday and lasts through Sunday, incorporating natural landscapes such as the Bonneville Salt Flats, the Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Antelope Island; historic sites such as Temple Square and the This is the Place Monument; cool and fun spots such as City Creek Center, Museum of Contemporary Art and the Tracy Aviary, along with many restaurant recs and bonus things to do. You certainly do not have to visit during the weekend – any day works! Just be sure to check opening hours for the places you’d like to visit.
Before We Begin
Here’s an outline of the trip over 3 days and a map giving a sense of the locations (double click to zoom in):
- Day 1: Arrival and the Bonneville Salt Flats
- Day 2: Temple Square, Liberty Park & Tracy Aviary, Big Cottonwood Canyon
- Day 3: Antelope Island / Great Salt Lake, This Is The Place Monument or Gilgal Sculpture Park, City Creek Center
Day 1: Arrival and the Bonneville Salt Flats
Begin the trip by arriving into Salt Lake City and settling in. If you don’t already have a car, be sure to rent one for this trip as it is the easiest mode of transportation.
Bonneville Salt Flats
Located about 110 miles to the west of Salt Lake City, the Bonneville Salt Flats are remnants of the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville. The site is absolutely grand in scale and is a stunning natural gem to visit.
From the city, it takes about 1 hour 40 minutes of driving. The path is relatively straight and takes you along a scenic view of the landscape as you approach the site. Once you arrive, park your car at the parking lot and walk towards the salt flats.
The view at the salt flats can vary dramatically depending on the weather. There’s no bad time to visit, however, as the salt flats look majestic in any weather. When we visited, the skys were cloudy and the winds were strong, as if a storm was about to approach, which made the landscape seem almost apocalyptic. An hour later, the sun began to shine through, which brought another different ambiance. You can spend as much time as you like here, although an hour should be plenty of time for photos.
Drive back to the city in time for dinner. If you’re feeling an upscale dining experience, try out HSL, a chic and contemporary spot offering healthy American fare with well-crafted cocktails. If you’re feeling more low-key, try out Vessel Kitchen, a casual, bright, and authentic “fast food” chain offering fine, delicious and healthy selections of flavors from around the world.
Day 2: Temple Square, Liberty Park & Tracy Aviary, Big Cottonwood Canyon
Breakfast at Eva’s Bakery
Start the day early by enjoying a delicious breakfast at Eva’s Bakery. Eva’s Bakery is a lovely spot serving French pastries made from local-sourced flour, a variety of sandwiches, full breakfast plates and tasty coffee. The spot is perfect for either a quick grab-and-go, or a sit down meal as it offers indoor dining in a relaxing cafe setting.
Afterwards, if you are walking, go towards Temple Square, a 10-acre complex, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with many historic sites to visit. You can walk through City Creek Center on your way there, which is an open-air mall featuring cool fountains and a simulated creek.
Also on the way to Temple Square, stop at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Originally built in 1911 as the Utah Hotel, it was world-class lodging facility for 76 years. The building features Renaissance and Classical Revival styles of architecture, and was renovated and reopened in 1993 as the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Today, the building houses 3 restaurants with many banquet halls, and also serves as administrative offices for the church. It’s a magnificent, grand place to visit, and you can read more about the building here.
Next, walk to Temple Square, a site housing nearly 20 attractions related to Mormon pioneer history and genealogy, including the Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Family History Library. The square was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964, and is the most popular destination for travelers to visit in Salt Lake City.
If you are interested, be sure to see a live organ recital at the Tabernacle. These 30-minute organ recitals are a century-long tradition, and are given each day by the Tabernacle and Temple Square organists as well as guest organists. The organ recitals start at 12 p.m. on Mondays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays (check out the schedule here). The recitals are completely free, requiring only your complete attention as no phones or pictures are allowed during the recital.
After the organ recital, spend more time walking around the area and explore on your own.
Museum of Contemporary Art
If you finish touring Temple Square quickly like we did, consider also spending an hour visiting the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s a 5 minute walk from Temple Square and located right next to Abravanel Hall, a refined concert hall featuring cool architecture, a dramatic lobby and is home to the Utah Symphony.
The Utah Museum of Contemporary Art is a small museum space exhibiting contemporary works by local & national artists in paint, photographs, sculpture & more. The museum is free entry (donation suggested) and can be viewed within an hour. We saw some really cool collections while we were there and really enjoyed the experience overall. Check out their recent exhibits here.
Liberty Park & Tracy Aviary
In the early afternoon, visit Liberty Park, a serene landmark featuring a lake with ducks and paddle-boat rentals. When we visited, there was a festival going on with lots of craft and food vendors, and the whole park was extremely lively. There is even a mini ferris wheel if you are up for a fun ride.
One of the main highlights of Liberty Park is the Tracy Aviary. The largest and oldest of only two free-standing aviaries in the nation, Tracy Aviary is home to over 400 birds representing over 135 different species. It’s a really fun place to explore as you spot different birds while navigating through ponds, forests, green houses, cabin and pavilions.
We saw a beautiful peacock just casually taking an afternoon stroll, which was absolutely fantastic.
For more information about the Aviary, check out their website here.
Big Cotton Wood Canyon
In the late afternoon, get on the car and start driving towards Big Cottonwood Canyon. Located about 40 minutes to the east of Salt Lake City, the Big Cottonwood Canyon is home to numerous rock climbing routes, ski resorts, hiking and mountain biking trails, and beautiful camping and picnic areas.
It’s already scenic to just take a drive through the ancient canyon created by both glacier and stream erosions. As we visited in the summer, there were many people enjoying their time at the campgrounds. It’s an all-around great place to relax.
Due to our time crunch, we decided to just do one trail, which was the Silver Lake Loop Trail. The trail is an easy 0.90 mile, loop trail around Silver Lake, which is an absolutely stunning lake surrounded by exquisite mountain summits. If you are travelling in the summer months, expect to see beautiful wildflower displays. Every step we took led us to breathtaking views, especially with the water that reflects the sky so cleary and the tranquility of the mountains in the backdrop. The Silver Lake trail will enchant you whether you spend an hour or a day and I highly recommend it. If you stick around, you may even experience the sunset.
Head back to the city afterwards and enjoy dinner at one of the many restaurants on my list located at the end of this guide.
Day 3: Antelope Island / Great Salt Lake, Free Time to Explore
Breakfast at Gourmandise
Start the day by having a delicious and relaxing breakfast or brunch at Gourmandise, a French-inspired cafe with an all-day menu. Their pastry and cake selection is out of this world, and so is their breakfast/lunch selection. It does get busy, so I recommend coming here early if you can.
Embark on a day trip to Antelope Island, which lies in the southeastern portion the Great Salt Lake and becomes a peninsula when the lake is at extremely low levels. Antelope Island is home to many hiking trails offering spectacular views of the lake and island scenery. It is also home to free-ranging bison, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and of course, antelope.
The 2 hour and 10 minute drive from Salt Lake City to Antelope Island is very scenic. Start by stopping at the Antelope Island State Park Visitors Center, then try the easy and quick Lady Finger Point Trail to get a nice view of Bridger Bay and Egg Island.
If you are up for the challenge, make your way to Frary Peak by taking the Frary Peak Trail, a strenous 6.6 mile hike that leads you to the highest point of the island, offering the best view to take in the beauty of the island, Great Salt Lake and surrounding Wasatch Mountains. Read more about the trail here.
Besides hiking, stop by the water to get closer to the Lake. The view is stunning, in which the water blends in with the sky and becomes one.
If you have time, also check out the Historic Fielding Garr Ranch, established in 1848 by Fielding Garr, a widower with nine children who was sent by the LDS church to manage the church’s tithing herds of cattle and sheep on Antelope Island. Step back in time as you walk through the ranch, exploring each house, barn or room and relive the history of those settlers.
Free Time to Explore
Due to the distance from Salt Lake City, I recommend a day trip to Antelope Island. If you end up with extra time like us, you can return to the city earlier and explore some other sites in the bonus section below. For us, we returned in the late afternoon, and made a quick stop at This Is The Place Monument and Gilgal Sculpture Park, then spent the rest of the day getting food and shopping at City Creek Center.
There are many other things to do in Salt Lake City, so be sure to check them out depending on how you pace your travel and how much time you have. Here are the bonus things below:
Things To Do
- This Is The Place Heritage Park, a historic site showing This Is The Place monument, dedicated to the Mormon pioneers as well as the explorers and settlers of the American West. It tells a lot of history, and you can find more information about the park here.
- The Gilgal Sculpture Garden, an interesting small garden tucked away in the middle of the block behind houses. It houses 12 original sculptures and over 70 stones engraved with scriptures, poems, and literary texts. It’s definitely a fun garden to explore.
- The Red Butte Garden, which houses a beautiful botanical garden, arboretum, and amphitheatre operated by the University of Utah.
- The Pioneer Memorial Museum, home to the largest collection of artifacts belonging to pioneer people who migrated 2,000 miles west across the plains from Nauvoo, Illinois to Salt Lake Valley. It’s a great place to step back into history, and we unfortunately were not able to visit as the museum was closed during Pioneer Day when we were in town.
- Paragliding tours, which seem popular as a local activity. Soar through the air and get a calm, relaxed view from high above the ground with one of the many tours in the area, such as Point of the Mountain or Nice Sky Adventures.
- The Leonardo, a cool science and art museum. If you visit, be sure to also check out the next door Les Madeleines bakery, a highly rated, cozy French-style spot.
Restaurants to Explore
Salt Lake City has such a great food scene that’s not to be missed. Here are a few more restaurant recs in addition to the ones already mentioned:
- Ruth’s Diner: a popular, historic local institution located to the east of the city, serving American fare in a scenic locale with canyon views
- Pig & Jelly Jar: southern-inspired place known for its chicken & waffles
- Mom’s Kitchen: an eatery offering a mix of traditional Taiwanese & Chinese dishes
- Bombay House: an acclaimed eatery serving traditional Indian cuisine
- Pretty Bird Chicken: a fried chicken specialist serving jumbo sandwiches & platters
- Table X: an upscale, modern restaurant offering refined tasting menus
- Red Iguana: a restaurant offering “killer Mexican food” where you have to be prepared for a long wait
- The Park Cafe: a relaxing and buzzy cafe serving homestyle breakfasts right by Liberty Park
This was a quick weekend trip to Salt Lake City, packed with a wide range of activities, from historical landmarks to bird watching to great natural landscapes to museums, shopping and dining. Salt Lake City is such an interest place to visit, so definitely make the most out of your time there!