As you’ll discover if you order a cocktail in a Utah restaurant, the Zion Curtain is a real thing. It’s a legally mandated 7-foot-2-inch wall—usually frosted glass—that blocks patrons from viewing the mixing and pouring of alcoholic drinks. Designed to shield the abstemious from temptation, the state law elicits mixed reactions (a recent poll found that 45 percent of respondents wanted to take down the walls), but the Mormon church is a powerful determinant in culture and commerce. Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of bars in Utah where you can raise a glass of Polygamy Porter.
You might start your visit in Temple Square, which occupies nearly 10 acres of exquisitely landscaped grounds in the heart of Salt Lake City. Here you’ll find two visitor centers, the Mormon Temple (the only building closed to the public), the Museum of Church History and the dome-shaped Tabernacle building made famous by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It’s also home to the Family History Library, where visitors looking to trace their lineage have access to more than 300 computers, a staff of trained volunteers and research specialists and the world’s largest collection of genealogical information.
More far-ranging histories are the focus of the Natural History Museum of Utah, located about 15 minutes outside the city. A gorgeous copper-clad building offering panoramic views of the Salt Lake Valley and the Great Basin, it boasts more than 1.5 million objects, from spectacular geodes to a vast array of dinosaur skeletons, along with saber-tooth cats and giant sloths. One particularly compelling video exhibit poses three paleontologists’ theories of extinction, including the “bloat and float” scenario.
Now that you’re hungry, try one of Salt Lake City’s most deservedly popular restaurants: Red Iguana. It’s worth the wait you’ll often find at this family-owned Mexican eatery. Bright orange walls, vivid oilcloth atop the tables and a vast menu will consume your attention. To help you choose from seven (!) housemade moles, the friendly waitstaff will provide a complimentary sampler plate. There’s not a misstep on the menu, and if you’re not up for the “killer cócteles,” try a refreshing aqua de horchata or a locally brewed (non-alcoholic) apple beer.
Another good option is Omar’s Rawtopia in the city’s Sugar House District. Since 2005, the eponymous Omar has served Middle Eastern-inspired raw foods in a no-frills storefront setting. Everything is organic, gluten-free and vegan (with the exception of local honey), and most of it is delicious by any standard. Try the creamy kale salad with goji berries and herbed cashew sauce, or a falafel bowl whose “falafel biscuits” are made with nuts and seeds. For dessert, don’t miss the “chocolate superfood fudge ball,” chock-full of cacao, carob, chia and almonds. Speaking of chocolate, a few miles from Rawtopia but light years away from its philosophy is the retro building housing Cummings Studio Chocolates. Enter, and you’ll be plied with a plethora of luscious samples by the exuberant staff. Try a delicate orange cream, bite into a chocolate-dipped grape and order a pound to take home as a souvenir.
Feeling more upscale? Check out Pallet, a cozy, romantic “new American bistro” downtown with a menu that’s constantly evolving. Always on offer are on-trend favorites, such as pork belly and charcuterie, as well as inventive takes on classics, such as Wagyu beef tartare with fennel, dates and olive emulsion. There’s plenty for vegetarians as well, such as the squash conserva with sunchoke, radish and “vegetable dirt.”
It’s easy to find accommodations to fit your needs. The Radisson Downtown is inexpensive, comfortable and steps away from Temple Square. The Hotel Monaco is a playfully luxurious boutique hotel where even the lobby offers amenities: complimentary bicycles, hot chocolate with marshmallows and peppermints, and an oversized playable Scrabble game on the wall. And atop Capitol Hill, the Inn on the Hill is a sumptuous 13-room bed-and-breakfast in the style of an English manor.
Consider a day trip. North of the city, Antelope Island is the biggest island in the Great Salt Lake, home to pronghorn antelope, mule deer, bobcats and Plains bison. Hiking trails range from easy to challenging, and vistas are spectacular from every point. Farther north, Ogden is a funky Western town with a checkered past—Historic 25th Street was originally dubbed “Notorious Two Bit Street” for its bars and bordellos. Today, it’s an artsy center where highlights include Peery’s Egyptian Theater, built in 1924 and recently restored to its art deco glory, along with independent galleries, stores and eateries like the must-visit Farr Better Ice Cream and Pig & a Jelly Jar, which features Southern comfort food and PBR “cocktails” that prove it’s not too hard to catch a buzz in the Beehive State.
-Traveling between the SLC airport and downtown is easy: Take the TRAX/light rail Green Line, which runs every 15-20 minutes and costs only $2.50.
Antelope Island State Park, stateparks.utah.gov; Cummings Studio Chocolates, cummingsstudiochocolates.com; Farr Better Ice Cream, farrsicecream.com; Historic 25th Street, historic25.com; Hotel Monaco, monaco-saltlakecity.com; Inn on the Hill, inn-on-the-hill.com; The Natural History Museum of Utah, nhmu.utah.edu; Omar’s Rawtopia, omarsrawtopia.com; Pallet, eatpallet.com; Peery’s Egyptian Theater, egyptiantheaterogden.com; Pig & a Jelly Jar, pigandajellyjar.com; Radisson Downtown, radisson.com; Red Iguana, rediguana.com; Temple Square, templesquare.com