by Larry Olmstead, Startle.com
Most leisure travelers think of Salt Lake City as a convenient hub for Delta flights and a gateway to great skiing. Both are valid points: The reliable airport falls among the cold weather hubs least affected by winter weather, and the city is ringed with world class ski destinations, all less than an hour from the airport. Some — like Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Grand America Hotel — are even skiable right from hotels in downtown Salt Lake.
But Salt Lake City offers more than “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” It has quietly been investing in a downtown renaissance — to the tune of $5 billion — and while it has long called itself “the world’s largest ski town,” you might now consider a visit at any time of year.
The marquee downtown attraction has long been Temple Square, Utah’s single most visited site, and the world headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The 35-acre square includes the temple itself (which just happens to be the largest LDS temple on earth), a stunning granite structure that took 40 years to build and was completed in 1893 (interior not open to public), the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, who perform every Saturday and Sunday (and for special events), garden tours and the church museum.
Temple Square now anchors a much larger and more vibrant slice of downtown, whose new highlight is City Creek Center, a $2 billion mixed use semi-encased mall cum park with more than 100 stores, restaurants, offices and new luxury condos. City Creek opened last year and has several features that set it apart from the typical shopping mall — each of its two huge wings boasts retractable glass roofs, and with so many sunny days, the complex is typically a park-like open air experience, but quickly closes up in rain, snow or extreme cold. The mall is atypically dog friendly, as are most of its stores. It is as much a pedestrian path through downtown as a mall, open 24/7, and runs along a quaint trout-filled stream. While the mall affords many name brand boutiques, it strives for local flair, and is home to the country’s only concept store for outdoor gear and clothing manufacturer Salomon (whose North America headquarters is in nearby Ogden, Utah) and a new outpost of the Red Iguana, Salt Lake’s excellent and authentic favorite Mexican eatery famous for its moles, locally beloved for more than three decades.
Within walking distance of City Creek are two new museums, both opened in 2012. The Natural History Museum of Utah showcases everything that has made the state what it is today, from geology to dinosaurs to Native American tribes. The Leonardo is a novel high-tech interactive science and technology museum for all ages. Both are major museums and considerable additions to downtown Salt Lake’s allure.
Ringed by mountains and golf courses, with some of the best skiing, hiking and biking in the country, Salt Lake City has long been an extremely outdoor-oriented destination, and just took this a step further as the latest city to embrace an urban bike-sharing program. GREENbike debuted in early April 2013, with 10 docking stations around the city, none more than a 30-minute ride from the next, where bikes can be borrowed by “members” (from $5 a day to $75 a year) for getting around town.
Visiting the revived downtown Salt Lake is now easier to see than ever, thanks to the brand-new TRAX light rail line that just opened this month, seamlessly connecting the airport with downtown. Trains run every 15 minutes, and the ride takes 20 minutes. This addition is so convenient that passengers with long layovers at SLC can now explore downtown and still easily make it back for their flights.