Twenty reasons to visit Salt Lake City

Ticket to ride: Ready to carve some turns at AltaSnowbird.
Ticket to ride: Ready to carve some turns at AltaSnowbird. Photo: Richard Cheski

1 MEET THE MORMONS

Mormons no longer make up the majority of Utah's capital, originally founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, but do account for about 40 per cent of today's Salt Lake City population. Young women and men on their mission are recognisable as Mormon by the "uniform", while many locals will openly identify as being some variation on that theme: recovering Mormon, convalescing Mormon, ex-Mormon or Jack Mormon (the equivalent of the "Christmas and Easter Christian"). Locals often abbreviate Latter-day Saints to "LDS", but practise saying this in private first or it'll come out as Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

2 TABERNACLE TOURISM

High view: Snowbirds scenic aerial tram up Little Cottonwood Canyon.
High view: Snowbirds scenic aerial tram up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Photo: Adam Barker

The Mormon Tabernacle has such remarkable acoustic qualities that a pin being dropped on the pulpit can be clearly heard from the back of the enormous oval-shaped room. Young women from all over the world serving their mission at Temple Square take turns to perform this half-hourly acoustics demonstration, which is part of your free tour of the Tabernacle and nearby grounds. Stirring organ recitals and Tabernacle Choir performances are also open to the public and free of charge (mormontabernaclechoir.org). The Temple itself is out of bounds to all but the most devout Mormons. visittemplesquare.com

3 FINDING YOUR WAY

Let the spirit guide you around Salt Lake - most of the roads on the city grid are named according to their direction and distance from the Temple, situated on the corner of Main and South Temple streets. Once you get the hang of how the "co-ordinates" work, you'll be able to comfortably navigate the city without constantly referring to a map or GPS.

Summer fun: Concert in Pioneer Park.
Summer fun: Concert in Pioneer Park. Photo: Dave Brewer

4 PEOPLE WATCHING

It's only natural that deep-seated conservatism in some people brings out the complete rebel in others, so Salt Lake City footpaths carry an almost equal ratio of ripped jeans and multiple body piercings to white short-sleeved shirts and name tags. Everyone else falls somewhere in between, but you'll find concentrated pockets of extreme diversity at markets and festivals. Being out west means you're also likely to see the odd cowboy loping around town.

5 SIGNS OF SPIRITUALITY

Off piste: From the slopes to the stage.
Off piste: From the slopes to the stage. Photo: Andrew Strain

There are few United States cities in which roadside billboards battle for your spiritual attention, but in Salt Lake you're encouraged in enormous letters to call "855-FIND-TRUTH" to learn about the Holy Bible or are simply spoken to directly from above: "Well you did ask for a sign - God". Atheist groups, such as Freedom from Religion Foundation, struggle to buy billboard advertising in the church-dominated state but sometimes manage to get their message out, such as "Don't believe in God? Join the club".

6 BLASPHEMOUS BREWS

Local breweries have taken to satirising the fundamentalist Mormon image as a marketing angle. Squatters have a Provo Girl Pilsner (the world's largest Mormon missionary training centre is in the nearby city of Provo) while Wasatch produces Polygamy Porter with merchandise that reads: "I tried Polygamy in Utah". Apparently the T-shirts sometimes outsell the beer. wasatchbeers.com

7 JAILHOUSE CROP

Pick up some seasonal fruit or veg directly from an inmate of the Salt Lake County Jail. A recently developed horticulture program teaches select prisoners how to tend to the jail's organic garden and sell what they produce at the Downtown Farmers Market (slcfarmersmarket.org). Salt Lake County Corrections has just taken the program a step further and introduced monthly garden tours for interested members of the public who are aged 16 and over. slsheriff.org

8 DOWNTOWN REVAMP

The Mormon Church recently reached into its back pocket for a billion bucks or so to replace the two former downtown malls - described by locals as being "like prisons: dark and enclosed" - and replaced them with the City Creek Centre and Harmons Grocer. Along with the shops, dining and off-street parking of any modern mall, City Creek is refreshingly open air with a fish-filled pseudo-stream running through it to simulate the original creek that flowed from City Creek Canyon. shopcitycreekcenter.com

9 MAKING A SCENE

In the last two years the city's restaurant scene has taken off, with more than 35 new restaurants opening. Standouts include the Copper Onion, Pallet, Eva's and Forage, though don't overlook old favourites like Bambara Bistro. It's not just the inspired menu and classic booth-style seating that makes Bambara enduringly fabulous, but waiters who pride themselves on doing what they do so well as a serious career (bambara-slc.com). For something more quick and casual try Squatters, Sette Bello, Pie Hole or Frida Bistro.

10 URBAN EXERCISE

Salt Lake's city blocks are bigger than average - walk five and you've covered a kilometre - so increased incidental exercise is a way of life. Give the recently launched bike share program a whirl, designed for "short trips in the city by people wearing regular clothes and carrying ordinary stuff" as the GREENbike website explains (greenbikeslc.org). Walk up Ensign Peak from where the city's founder, Brigham Young, and other pioneers surveyed the valley back in 1847. Today it offers the best view over Salt Lake without leaving the city limits (mormonhistoricsites.org).

11 THE LEO

The Leonardo is a contemporary museum that combines science, art and technology in a way that is fun, interactive and exciting. The museum also offers a surprisingly broad selection of programs, classes and workshops. Leo Libations: Wine and Food Pairings happens on the first Thursday of every month and the Leo also hosts a monthly Salt Lake Gallery Stroll. theleonardo.org

12 TRUE COLOURS

The Utah Undie Run was conceived by young locals determined to shift the world's belief that everyone who lives in Utah is as boring and uptight as the state's laws (utahundierun.com). The Undie Run is now a yearly event you can organise your visit around, or there's the Arts Festival, Jazz Festival, Wasatch Wildflower Festival, Holiday Festival of Lights, Oktoberfest, Greek Festival and one of the country's best Gay Pride parades.

13 THE CAPITOLS

Two Salt Lake City capitols await your visitation: the Utah State Capitol and the Capitol Theatre. The house of government, on Capitol Hill, welcomes visitors daily. Look out for the statue of Philo T. Farnsworth - the Utahn potato farmer who invented the all-electronic television (utahstatecapitol.utah.gov). Downtown, the Capitol Theatre was originally a vaudeville house and now, a century later, holds everything from classical ballet to Broadway musicals (arttix.org).

14 LUNCHTIME SPECIALS

A sandwich at Tony Caputo's Market & Deli (in three city locations) is not a sandwich as we know it, but an Italiano-American-style roll you can't possibly get your mouth around gracefully. Expect plenty of change from $10 for tasty lunch specials like meatball and gorgonzola sandwich (caputosdeli.com). Granato's and Cucina are along a similar vein while local institution Grove Market & Deli totally rivals Caputo's for sandwich size (grovemarketdeli.com).

15 MUSICAL CHAIRS

Salt Lake City is a natural touring stop for bands travelling between Denver and the West Coast, so you can often find great acts in small downtown venues like the Depot, Urban Lounge and the Stateroom (see cityweekly.net/utah). During summer, pack a picnic and join the locals in Red Butte Gardens (pronounced "beaut") for performers like Chris Isaak, Bon Iver and Norah Jones for a bargain admission price of around $10/adult (redbuttegarden.org).

16 NATURAL HISTORY

The Natural History Museum of Utah wishes to engage all your senses. Sit in the round and listen to the voices of the Navajo people, handle genuine specimens in the palaeontology hall, or walk a Perspex path over ancient bones lying in the configuration they were discovered in. Art and artefacts merge seamlessly in the museum's three-storey collections wall. nhmu.utah.edu

17 ROAMING BISON

Antelope Island is the largest of the Great Salt Lake islands and accessible by road bridge. Mule deer, big horn sheep, pronghorn antelope, coyote and bison inhabit the mountainous 9000-hectare state park. Head out on horseback from Fielding Garr Ranch. stateparks.utah.gov

18 SUMMER FUN

There are loads of hiking trails on the outskirts of Salt Lake (utah.com). For swimming and other water sports, give the not-so-fresh-and-clean Great Salt Lake a miss and head to East Canyon Reservoir or to Jordanelle Reservoir, where you can hire a stand-up paddleboard, kayak, jet-ski or small boat (jordanellerentals.com). Spend a long summery day or two at Snowbird, in Little Cottonwood Canyon, zooming downhill on an alpine slide or gliding up to the 3353-metre summit of Hidden Peak aboard the aerial tram (snowbird.com).

19 WINTER PLAYGROUND

Salt Lake was chosen to host the Winter Olympics in 2002 for a reason and the event only improved its winter sports infrastructure. There are 11 ski resorts within an hour's drive of this capital city. These include Brighton, Snowbird, Solitude, Alta and Deer Valley, the latter two of which are ski-only resorts.

20 SIN CITY AND SUNDANCE, KID

Originally a mining town, Park City was always Sin City to its more pious low-lying neighbours. Over time it's spread into suburbs and exclusive ski villages, but its restaurant-lined main street retains the historic charm of its mining past. Park City hosts the Sundance Film Festival every January (sundance.org) and has the world's only ski-in distillery (highwest.com).

The writer was a guest of Utah Office of Tourism (travel.utah.gov).

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