48 Hours in Utah: Salt Lake City and Park City
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“You don’t move to Salt Lake City for the city. You come here for the mountains… the snow… the clean mountain air.”
Utah. When you think of it, you probably immediately think of sprawling red rock formations, mountain biking, snow, and ski resorts. But without a car, and with no mountain biking/snowboarding/skiing experience, I wasn’t here to do any of that.
So, what’s the draw of going to Utah when you’re not going for the snow? A lot, actually.
What I Was Doing in Utah
Unlike most other trips, I actually ended up packing my bags for Utah because of a work meeting. Never having been here before, I knew I didn’t just want to fly in, head to an office, and fly out, so I ended up extending my trip an extra night to explore Utah’s capital city by myself. Without a car (and honestly, with a fear of skiing/snowboarding, especially by myself and for the first time), I knew my plans were going to be slightly different than your usual Utah ski trip, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
I had very little background knowledge of Utah or Salt Lake City going into this trip. But, what I have heard–and can now absolutely vouch for as truth–is that Salt Lake City is often described in sort of a Goldilocks way–not too small, not too big or crowded, but “just big enough.” It’s big enough to have everything you could possibly want out of a city, from attractions and wide open streets and good public transportation, to bars and metropolitan restaurants and coffee shop corners. On the flip side, it’s not so big that you feel overwhelmed (traffic? It doesn’t exist here). A traffic-free city that’s not too small and not too big, situated right in the middle of sprawling snow-capped Wasatch mountains so close that the air you breathe (even in the city center) tastes like nature and freshly fallen snow? Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty special.
How to Spend 48 Hours in Utah
What to Do in Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City is a mesmerizing clash of traditional Mormon faith mixed with metropolitan culture, and since the city was founded by Mormon pioneers just over 150 years ago, the religious undertones are palpable. Whether you’re religious or not, the undercurrents of faith and history are easy to notice as soon as you arrive, and if not for anything else, it’s eye-opening, fascinating, and really educational to behold. Main Street intersects a downtown area dotted with bars, restaurants, and activity, all leading up to the famed Temple Square. With the city’s population being an almost even split between Mormon and non-mormon residents (51 to 49%), it’s a dynamic city full of extremely welcoming and diverse people. The city itself is actually pretty small, but for a quick visit, there’s a surprising amount of things to do and see. If you only have 24-48 hours in this city, here is the bare minimum you should include on your itinerary:
No matter what your religious beliefs might be, a trip to Temple Square really should be priority #1 when you come to Salt Lake City. The Square is the global HQ of the Mormon faith, and is home to the beautiful Salt Lake Temple, the Tabernacle, and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. Within minutes of getting out of my Uber from the airport, I walked over to the Temple to quickly cross it off my list before the meeting I was heading to later that afternoon. I ended up bumping into another traveler visiting the city, and on a whim ended up going to the Temple together. Thanks to him, I learned that you can actually pop into any visitor’s center at Temple Square for a complimentary tour of the grounds, which we did.
City Creek Center
A beautiful open-air shopping mall in the middle of downtown (a block away from the Temple). Unfortunately, thanks to the size of my carry on, I didn’t spend much time here, but I can see how someone would!
Less than a 10 minute drive outside of the city center, Ensign Peak is a short (0.9 mile out-and-back) trail that lets you see panoramic views of the city, the surrounding mountains, and Salt Lake. On my last day in the city, I accidentally slept in and wasn’t sure if I’d have time to actually be able to do this, but I went for it anyway. Thankfully, it really only took about 30 minutes to get up to the top and back down, including the 8 or 10 minutes I spent at the top gawking at the view and teaching other hikers how to use my camera in a failed attempt to get a decent picture of myself on my solo trip to Utah.
Where to Eat in Salt Lake City
This is the restaurant my clients chose when my coworker and I asked them where they wanted to go. It was delicious! The restaurant is very chic and serves refined Italian food and wine. Pro tip: they don’t have bread listed on the menu, but if you ask for it, they will bring it to you (secret menu bread just tastes better, doesn’t it?).
I love checking out hyped-up places to see if they deserve the praise, and Red Iguana was no exception. This little unassuming Mexican restaurant is so good. I repeat, SO good. I’ll probably have dreams about the carne asada burritos smothered in green mole that I ordered here for years to come. The restaurant is famous for mole and just all-around amazing Mexican classics, and I can absolutely vouch for the fact that it’s not another hoaky tourist trap. It’s just amazing food.
I was told that if you go to the main Red Iguana location, which I did, you’ll probably be hit with a long wait to get a table. I didn’t have any problems with this and was seated right away, but if you don’t want to wait as long, they also have another location nearby, aptly named Red Iguana 2.
I actually happened upon Carlucci’s Bakery while Google Maps was taking me to another breakfast spot, but this cute little bakery just looked much more appetizing. I gave it a chance on a whim, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve never had cheesy polenta for breakfast before, but it was awesome. For a somewhat healthy bite, I recommend the tofu scramble with polenta and whole grain toast. Oh, and they serve up their iced coffee with coffee ice cubes. Perfection!
Where to Grab Coffee in Salt Lake City
Eva’s Bakery is a quaint little French-inspired bakery and breakfast joint on Main Street. Beyond the food, pastries, and bread (all of which smells so good you’ll be drooling the moment you walk in), they serve up pretty good coffee, too.
What began as nothing more than a coffee cart just a few short years ago quickly evolved into one of the tastiest places to grab a well-made cup of coffee in all of downtown Salt Lake City. Three Pines is a tiny little coffee shop–also on Main Street–with coffee, pastries, and a cool little back corner filled with vinyls and a record player. Grab a scone to go with your cappuccino. Thank me later.
La Barba is a coffee shop nestled inside of a restaurant, but it’s not difficult to find, thanks to a giant sign outside the brick facade (likely bigger than even the restaurant’s sign itself). The coffee is delicious, the baristas know their stuff, and the window seat made for the perfect spot to people watch from in the early morning hours.
Where to Drink in Salt Lake City
One of the things that undeniably stands out the most about Utah are the liquor laws. Bars aren’t allowed to serve alcohol past 1 am, which is why you’ll notice that every place worth going closes at 12 or 1 at the latest. Tasting beer before you buy a pint will set you back 50 cents or $1 per taste. Grocery stores aren’t allowed to carry anything but low ABV beer, and all other beer, liquor, and wine is dished out from state-governed liquor stores (closed on Sundays). While the laws are heavy-handed compared to most cities in the US, Salt Lake City is coincidentally not lacking in places to grab a drink.
Classy little bar with tasty craft cocktails.
Fun two-story bar with live music and a beautiful view of the downtown area.
Classy wine bar with a moderately older sophisticated crowd.
A dueling piano bar! It was fairly empty when I went (on a Wednesday night), but the music that was playing was really fantastic.
Cozy little pub on Main Street. Sit at the bar so you can order a beer and utilize the built-in ice rail to keep your drinks nice and cold.
Tasty and unique beers, like jalapeño cream ale and apricot hefeweizen.
What to do Outside of Salt Lake City
Visit Park City
Of course, a trip to urban Utah wouldn’t have been complete without a pit-stop in Sundance capital, USA, and I’m so glad I made time for a quick visit. It really is a gorgeous little mountain town less than 45 minutes away from Salt Lake City. Home to the famous Sundance Film Festival (which I thankfully missed by 3 days), this little town is home to a surprising amount of bars, coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques. Unless you’re skiing, plan to spend around 3-4 hours here, which will give you just enough time to walk up and down Main Street, grab a cup of coffee (try Atticus Coffee Shop) have a bite to eat (I recommend Wasatch Brewpub or Cafe Terigo!), and do a little shopping (which, once again, I couldn’t do. Thank you carry on suitcase). If you are up for a ski day, the ski lift in Park City literally leads right onto Main Street, meaning you can hang out downtown and then head up to the mountains without ever having to get in your car.
More Time to spend in Park City? Here are some things you can do:
Ski or Snowboard:
Park City Mountain Resort
Deer Valley Ski Resort
Go Snowmobiling or Snow Shoeing:
Hit Up to Spa:
Take a Yoga Class in a Crater
Even though I didn’t have any desire to take a stab at skiing, that didn’t mean I wanted to leave Utah without doing anything adventurous. In a small sleepy town just 30 minutes south of Park City, you can actually take a stand-up paddleboard yoga class in geothermal water (95-100 degrees year-round) nestled in a crater that’s thousands of years old. I know–what a mouthful. I came across Park City Yoga Adventures a bit serendipitously by skimming through hashtags of things to do in Utah on Instagram, and I knew that I just had to do this. The experience was absolutely unique, and there’s something about doing yoga in near darkness on a paddleboard floating in the water that was extremely therapeutic. I only fell in twice, but I willingly jumped in a dozen more times throughout the class. The bright blue water in the crater felt that amazing!
If you’re willing to try this yourself, a few things to know in advance: plan to book ahead of time (because booking was kind of hard to do–you might have to call a couple times to get through to someone, since their hours vary depending on the classes happening on any given day), and if you show up for a class that’s scheduled before 11:30 am, don’t listen to what anyone tells you about needing to “check in at the Adventure Center” (It won’t be open that early in the morning. I found this out the hard way, so just go straight to the crater. There are clearly marked signs that will take you there). Also, if you’re traveling solo like me, you’ll only be able to book a class if other people are already signed up (classes need to be at least 2 people or more in order to actually happen).
Transportation: Getting Around in Salt Lake City and Park City
Uber works just fine in Salt Lake City and Park City. I’m not sure I’d rely on it outside of these two areas, though.
Salt Lake City has a really efficient light rail tram system that runs from the airport to downtown and the surrounding areas. Called the TRAX, this public transportation system can pretty much take you anywhere you need to go while you’re in Salt Lake City proper.
While you can rely on Uber in Park City, it’s probably going to be harder to get transportation if you’re not in the city center. When I went to the yoga class, it was located in Midway, a small town (population 4,000) an hour southeast of Salt Lake City. Getting an Uber there was no problem, but I was told I’d probably not be as lucky requesting a car on my way out. So, I booked a car in advance with Haute Cars Park City, a black car chauffeur service that organizes everything from airport pickups to ski resort drop offs and downtown Park City ride services. My driver was so sweet and went above and beyond to give me recommendations on what to do, see, and eat while I was in Park City. And, she was even sweet enough to take a picture or two of me for my blog when we arrived! Hey, sometimes I have to take drastic measures to get these shots.
48 hours was a perfect amount of time to soak in all that Utah’s metropolitan areas had to offer. Of course, I am already dying to come back so I can visit Kanab, Zion National Park, and the Bonneville Salt Flats (to name a few). But even if you don’t ski or have a car to take you all throughout Utah’s parks and natural phenomena, Utah’s two main cities are can’t-miss destinations to spend some time getting to know. The culture, location, wide range of activities beyond skiing/snowboarding, and up-and-coming food/drink scenes are unique, enchanting, and definitely not to be overlooked.
Ready to go to Utah?