American promised land: Heaven and earth in Salt Lake City

Credit: Douglas Pulsipher / Utah Images

Driving the short distance into Salt Lake City from the airport a visitor is treated to a truly sumptuous tableau. Straight ahead, sticking out among the office blocks, are the six glistening spires of the Salt Lake Temple, signifying to all that something holy is happening here. Slightly to the side is the massive granite dome of the Utah State Capitol building. And towering behind them, like a curtain stretched across the horizon, are the snow-crested peaks of the Wasatch Range.
The one thing you don’t see are any salty lakes, which seems strange under the circumstances. Yet of course there is one, and it’s huge, but it’s some 60-km away, nowhere near the downtown.

All of that seems perfectly fitting in retrospect, as this is a place where things aren’t exactly as anticipated. Yes, this is the epicentre of the Mormon faith, yet the city is flourishing with brew pubs and new distilleries, neither of which are Mormon passions. Nor is the community particularly keen on ‘alternative lifestyles’, yet Salt Lake City’s Pride Festival, now in its 43rd year, is one of the biggest in the country. (And to this list of oddities, you could add the city’s most famous sports team, the NBA’s Utah Jazz. An unlikely name, given that there’s no history of jazz in the state. However at least here there’s explanation: The team moved from New Orleans. And, in fairness, the city’s music scene is now fast catching up.)

Credit: Steve Greenwood

A mecca in the midtown  

Surprises aside, this is still, unambiguously a Mormon stronghold. The city literally revolves around Temple Square, a four-hectare, spotlessly-maintained sanctuary smack in the centre of downtown. All of the main streets and avenues in the city are numbered and labeled – north, south, east or west – according to their proximity to this spot.

The square is the area’s most popular tourist attraction, drawing up to five million people a year. Indeed, it’s besieged with so many tourists that there are now two separate – and immense – visitors’ centres, as well as multiple smaller museums.

Without question the most intriguing building, at least among the open ones – the actual temple being off-limits to the public – is the Tabernacle, the 7,000-seat oval-shaped home of the famed Mormon choir. It’s said to be the most acoustically advanced auditorium in the world, a point championed during tours with the ritual dropping of a pin at the pulpit…. and then a hush as the sound reverberates along the backs of the furthest pews. I can only imagine how powerful it would be to experience the 360-member choir perform here. Unfortunately they’re frequently on the road and rehearse only on Thursday nights when they’re in town. (There is, however, a daily organ recital on weekdays and Saturdays at noon.)

Credit: Ben Crosby

Outside of the Tabernacle, the Temple Square is an incredibly tranquil setting, especially early in the morning before the tour groups arrive en masse. The grounds are scrubbed clean and gardens meticulously groomed. There are fountains, reflecting pools and plenty of quiet, shaded spots to sit down. Yet as soon as you land on any benches, a few hard truths will become quickly apparent. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the official name of the Mormon faith, and the owners of everything within sight, don’t want people to simply visit the square.  They want them to convert. So unlike, say, when you go to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Tibet’s Potala Palace or the Vatican in Rome, here you will be quickly approached by a church member “hastening the work of salvation” as they say. And here, that’s exclusively women’s work. While all young Mormons are strongly encouraged to spend two of their teen years working as missionaries, only ‘sisters’ are permitted to do their stint in Temple Square. If you’re a visitor interested in learning more about the church, know that you’ll not have to wait long.

Credit: Adam Barker

Bike, don’t walk  

Leaving the front gates of the grounds, the downtown stretches out around you. And I mean really, really stretches out. That Salt Lake City’s streets are extremely wide and the blocks incredibly long is not a new observation. Every visitor’s guide immediately points that out. However it bears repeating in case you’re inclined to sightsee on foot. Be warned that “a couple of blocks” can be a very sizable walk, especially in the summer when the temperature regularly soars into the 100s. (But don’t be alarmed, it’s a very dry heat).

That doesn’t mean you need a car to tour around. Cycling should certainly be seen as an option. Partly because the city is mostly flat, and the hills that are here are fairly gentle. Yet also because of width of the streets, which were originally designed to ensure a wagon team could turn their cart around without “resorting to profanity”, according to city legend.

If you’re up for exploring by bike, do check out Salt Lake City Bike Tours, which offers trips ranging from one to three-and-a-half-hours in length, all on single-speed bikes at an extremely relaxed pace. And while it wouldn’t be fair to call it a non-Mormon take on the town, it is reasonable to say the views expressed by our guide definitely do not come straight from church scripture. Indeed, his Salt Lake City includes all-comers; Mexican migrants, Democrats, ski bums, the poor, the gay community, and, of course, Mormons as well. But like many we speak with here, our guide wants to make clear that the city is much more than just an evangelical mecca.

This morning the tour takes us around Liberty Park, 32-hectare oasis of playing fields, splash pads and an aviary tucked in the southeastern corner of town, then over to the wildly eccentric Gilgal Sculpture Garden, home to an ‘ancient’ sacrificial altar and a miniature sphinx with Mormon Joseph Smith’s face on it, among other hard to fathom oddities. From there, it’s on to the small though promising bar district, past the public library (more on that in a moment), and then across to City Creek Park, next to Temple Square. And here it’s necessary to pause because this discreet, unadorned nook is the start of a trail system that leads directly out of the downtown and into the wilderness. Within three well-shaded kilometres you can go from the centre of Salt Lake into the foothills of the Wasatch Range.

Credit: Steve Greenwood / Utah Images

The other religion here

This split between the sacred and the profane, the adherence of the faithful and the almost equally passionate embrace of all things athletic, goes to the heart of this community. This was the city, after all, that played host to the last Olympics held in the U.S., the Winter Games in 2002. That dates back 16 years now, so it’s no longer a central feature of the landscape. Indeed the only obvious legacy of the event is Olympic Cauldron Park, on the University of Utah campus, well removed from the downtown. It’s hard to fully appreciate looking back, though it seems less like the Olympics transformed Salt Lake, and more that the city seemed an obvious place to stage a massive celebration of winter sports.

Like in all Games, much of the action was held miles away, in the mountains that surround Salt Lake. And today, of course, that’s where all of the skiing and snowboarding continues to happen, in resorts like Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude, all within a 30-minute drive from downtown. Yet that aura of the alpine life feels tangible throughout Salt Lake, even in the middle of summer. You get the sense that your barista at Starbucks or store cashier is just waiting for their shift to end to race up to the mountains. It lends a very animating vibe to the place, knowing that many of the ‘locals’ specifically chose to come here, consider the place heaven, and can’t wait to get back outside.

City Creek Center Fountains;

SLC specialities

This isn’t to suggest that everyone here worships either God or snow. Culture and the arts clearly play a role too. This seems especially true of architecture and urban design. It’s almost as if local planners feel compelled to atone for the size of the streets. Examples abound. The City Creek shopping center, an LDS Church-owned development that stretches across multiple blocks downtown, is an incredibly inviting space that seamlessly integrates indoor and outdoor elements. It’s signature feature is a 1.2km stream that flows into the property, winds through the buildings, and then keeps going. By creating a destination that works equally well during frigid winters and broiling summers, the mall is credited for largely resuscitating Salt Lake’s once-struggling downtown.

Not even remotely on the same scale, though still worth making the short walk over from the mall to behold is the 30-foot-high sculpture by Dale Chihuly just inside the entrance to the Abravanel Hall for the performing arts. The US$900,000 blown-glass piece was designed for the Olympics, and then made available by Chihuly for a dramatically reduced price on the condition that it remain in the Hall yet visible to anyone walking past.

There are other must-see sights, of course including the 150 road signs assembled in front of the Salt Palace Convention Center, next door to Abravanel Hall, that capture duelling themes: “Could Should”, “Object Subject”, “Carrot Stick”, “Suppress Express”. And painted across the signs in the centre, in big red block letters, You Are Here.  

Lastly, is the public library, a building that’s interesting and imaginative, but not especially noteworthy unless you’ve also seen Vancouver’s Public Library, in which case you’ll feel a distinct deja vu. Both buildings were designed by Moshe Safdie, with Vancouver’s opening eight years earlier in 1995. It’s almost as if Salt Lake City’s governors said “we want one of those, indeed exactly that, just build another one here.”

Credit: Salt Lake City Public Library / Utah Images

Last call

The sense of catching up extends in even more palatable ways downtown, especially in the bar scene. Until relatively recently, the city had some of the most stringent liquor laws in the country, due mostly to the influence of the LDS Church, which holds an exceedingly dim view of alcohol. Until the law was repealed last year, “Zion Curtains” preventing diners from seeing drinks being made were required in all restaurants. Similarly, strict rules governed the size and number of drinks allowed to be served, and as even further hurdle, demanded that food also be ordered.

The rest of this article could be devoted to the intricacies of local liquor laws though suffice to say the lid is finally being lifted and distilleries and breweries are fast emerging in celebration. The downtown’s ‘bars and nightlife’ is now a big selling feature for tourism officials, a notion that would have been inconceivable even a few years ago.  

Equally unlikely would be the notion Salt Lake being a hotbed for hip hop. As with jazz, there simply had been no history of more predominantly African-American styles of music here. Once you got outside the Tabernacle, things quieted down considerably. Not anymore. The week we were in town, Iron Maiden blew through town on their Book of Souls world tour, playing in front of 20,000 devotees at the Usana Amphitheater. Thankfully, we didn’t have an opportunity to attend, though we did catch The History of Hip Hop, the next night at the Jeanne Wagner Theatre, an incredibly raucous and rapturously received mix of music and athleticism.

Grand America Hotel

Where to stay  

Definitely not the budget option, though if you’re in Salt Lake for pleasure and want to pamper yourself, the Grand America Hotel definitely tops the list. It’s the kind of place where the president would stay were he to swing through town, and indeed the hallways are lined with photos of the dignitaries who have slept here. On our stay, the celebs in house are all young, staggeringly tall and wearing sweatpants. Three NBA teams are staying here now as part of a summer league tournament in the city.  

Credit: The Great Salt Lake / Marc Piscotty / Utah Images