Salt Lake ~ City of Surprises

My image of the Salt Lake City prior to my recent visit was simply “the mountain-ringed capital of the Mormon church,” as the Guardian recently described it.

But Salt Lake City turned my stereotypes and pre-conceived notions upside down and inside out. It is funnier, friendlier, smarter, more engaging and more international than I ever expected.

Here are just a few of the things that took me by surprise:

• Arab women in black abayas and hijabs gleefully driving brightly colored bumper cars at an amusement park

• Living, breathing architecture that reacts to your presence

• Restaurants offering Vietnamese & French tappas

• Flokati rugs covered in Manic Panic punk hair dyes, hanging in an art museum

• A taxi driver from Sudan working on his masters degree in electrical engineering; geopolitical lessons about Bhutan, Nepal, and Bosnia from Buddhist and Muslim Uber drivers

• A public library with its own florist shop, butterfly garden, art gallery & hair salon

• And, not too far away, street art by none other than Banksy.

All of this, plus the biggest and most exotic vintage clothing store I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t been to Salt Lake City recently – or at all – it may surprise you, too.

First impressions

Expecting a city of normal proportions, my first thought on the drive in from the airport was – why are all the streets so darn wide?

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According to the Deseret News, Salt Lake City’s 132-foot wide streets were created at the request of none other than Brigham Young, the man who led Mormon settlers to Utah back in 1847. It is said he wanted the streets wide enough so that a wagon team could make a U-turn without “resorting to profanity.” For someone who lives on street that is just 24′ wide, this took some adjustment. I calculated that I could cross my own street 6.75 times in the time it takes to cross just one of Salt Lake City’s downtown streets. Despite Young’s best intentions, according to locals, traffic on Salt Lake City’s downtown streets continues to inspire its share of profanity – (some of which may be my own contributions.)

A Lively Art Scene

As you can see in the photograph above, the street art scene is alive and interesting in Salt Lake City – and also in nearby Park City, where three pieces of street art by a world famous artist draw particular interest.

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They are thought to be genuine creations of Banksy as they appeared overnight during the 2010 Sundance Festival, the year “Exit Through the Gift Shop” – the story of an eccentric French shop-keeper and amateur film-maker who attempted to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have Banksy turn the camera back on him – premiered there.

But that’s not the only surprising art here.

Where might be the last place in the world you would expect to see blown up photographs of Arab women clothed head to toe in traditional black clothing thoroughly enjoying themselves at an amusement park?

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Flokati rugs died with Manic Panic punk hair colors? Stained glass ‘windows’ made from sieves and colanders? I wasn’t even aware such imaginings existed, let alone that they would be showcased in Salt Lake City.

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But the night I wandered into the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, they had not only a fascinating exhibit on Saudi Contemporary Art entitled “Cities of Conviction” on display – including works by Anna Betbeze and many other surprising women artists – they were also offering beer-pairings with the art!

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Beer? In Salt Lake City?

That’s right. In the state with the lowest beer consumption in the US, there are at least a dozen local breweries, including five medalists from 2013’s Great American Beer Festival, in categories ranging from English Summer Ales to “Experimental.”

A Foodie Fantasy

Another surprise, Salt Lake City is quickly becoming a ‘foodie’ destination. From coffee shops (yes, you can get caffeine here!) to dozens of intriguing restaurants, there is plenty to keep both your eyes and your tastebuds happy –

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including culinary treats like the Rose Establishment‘s “Chia Bowl” – coconut rose chia served with peach & rose jam and house granola, and sprinkled with fresh flower petals. Not into Chia? Try their Smashed Avacado Tartine on their own toasted five-seed bread. Brunch goes until 4 pm everyday!

“The Rose is perfect. It feels special and everything is delicious,” enthused a visitor from Canada on Yelp, echoing my own thoughts. “I would like to live there and eat avocado toast and rose cookies everyday.”

The food at Eva, a Mediterranean-inspired tapas style restaurant with specialty cocktails, is so delicious, I ended up there with friends two times in four days.

Just to whet your appetite, here’s their small plate of charred beets with whipped goat cheese, mint and citrus oil.

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Other plates that proved irresistible included their “French Pizza” with Brie, pear, spiced walnuts, arugula and maple vinaigrette (so delicious we had it twice) and Roasted Winter Squash & Yams with lime créma, serrano vinaigrette and pumpkin seeds.

A Thinking Person’s Town

Salt Lake City has plenty to entertain your mind as well as your tastebuds.

The moment you walk through the doors of the Leonardo Museum (or The Leo, as it’s called here), you have the opportunity to interact with The Hylozoic Veil – an enormous, fanciful installation of ‘living architecture’ hanging about your head – a living veil that combines art, technology, science and “an enormous amount of creativity.” According to sources at The Leo, this unique three-story sculpture is a “living, breathing,” fully responsive environment that combines physics, chemistry, sculpture, engineering, and even hints of artificial life. It reacts to your presence and paves the way for the responsive architecture of the future.

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Created in celebration of the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci – artist, engineer, scientist,  architect, musician and humanitarian – the museum’s statement reads, “Leonardo’s famous curiosity was a more important tool than his paintbrush.” He made no distinction between art and science and “saw the interconnectedness of all things.”

At its core, the Leo’s exhibits take Leonardo da Vinci’s love of learning how to learn and peels it open for kids and adults.

Upstairs, for example, you can experience the ‘Terror of Infinity” in their Hall of the Eternal, and the Illusion of Reality in their newest exhibition, “Perception.”

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Filled with parents and kids participating in three stories of hands-on experiments and experiences, the Leo is a place “to wander and wonder.”

And they even have a Tardis!

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Just steps away from The Leo, across an art-filled courtyard, lies the architecturally incredible Salt Lake City Public Library.

Designed by Israeli/Canadian/American architect, Moshe Safdie, in partnership with VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City, the five-story curved glass structure is topped by a rooftop terrace with a butterfly garden overlooking the Wasatch Mountains.

Inside, in addition to the vast collections of books, there are cafés, an art gallery, a hair salon, and a delightful gift shop selling literary-themed treasures. I never imagined I would be buying Alice-in-Wonderland souvenirs in Salt Lake City, but it almost seems an apt metaphor for some of my experiences there.

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More diverse than you might think

In a city already abounding with expectation shake-ups, I was further surprised to learn that non-Mormons outnumber Mormons in Salt Lake City – and, that it has one of the largest LGBT populations in the US. Salt Lake City was actually voted “Gayest City in the USA” in 2012 by The Advocate, the oldest and largest LGBT publication in the United States.

Contributing to the city’s growing diversity is its large refugee population. The International Rescue Committee has a large presence here. Using Uber to transport myself out and back to Park City one day gave me the opportunity for lively conversations about Bosnia, Bhutan and Nepal – not exactly what I had expected in Utah, but fascinating nonetheless. On the short ride into town from the airport, I learned how to say “What’s your name?” in Amharic, Hebrew and Arabic from my taxi driver – an immigrant from Sudan in the process of getting his Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering.

World class accommodations 

In what cities might you expect to find a hotel with beautifully handcrafted Richelieu furniture, Murano glass chandeliers, original works of art, a shit ton of marble from Italy? Add Salt Lake City to anything that just came into your mind.

While in Salt Lake City, I had the incredibly good luck to stay at the fabulous Grand American Hotel thanks to the conference I was attending.

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How on earth did this hotel come to be in Salt Lake City?

Back in the early 1990s, Salt Lake City was in the running to host the Olympics but International Olympic Committee members turned up their noses at the city’s unimpressive hotel accommodations.

So Earl Holding, a Salt Lake City native and self-made billionaire, and his wife Carol volunteered to build a hotel “fit for Olympic royalty.” With its copper roofs, bronze balustrades and greenery by the Aga Khan’s former landscaper, the Grand America is just that.

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The hotel’s 350,000 square feet of granite were quarried in Vermont and shipped across the Atlantic to be cut in Spain. More than 150 full-time painters worked with tiny brushes to detail the hotel’s woodwork. The hotel even has a small toy store reminiscent of FAO Schwartz in New York City and and big chocolate chip cookies at check-in.

Vintage treasures

Just around the corner from the Grand America is Decades Vintage Clothing.

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Inside, its absolutely astonishing array of unusual vintage clothes and shoes for both women and men have attracted designers from Anthropologie to Ralph Lauren for inspiration.

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Night Life

I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of things to do at night, including the lively Clark Planetarium, which was packed with kids and parents actively engaged in a slew of hands-on activities the Friday night I visited. Four theaters offered an astonishing range of films like “Accidental Astronauts” to “Extreme Weather 3D” in addition to late night shows of Pink Floyd and LedZeppelin classics in a 5.1 surround sound, dome environment.

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“To Space & Back,” narrated by James May of Top Gear, explores the extraordinary story of human ingenuity and incredible engineering and the ways each of us has been changed by the discoveries made by the international space program. “You never forget your first trip to space,” the Planetarium’s website states irresistibly. Nor your first trip to this amazing planetarium.

Family Trees

There’s too much to do to pack it all into a single week – and I haven’t even touched upon outdoor activities. But no visit to Salt Lake City would be complete without a visit to the Genealogical Society of Utah.

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The main room has a number of engaging state-of-the-art interactive stations, at which you can dock a borrowed iPad with your family information and see it blossom to life in any number of ways – from “What Famous People Am I Related to?” to a “Post & Smile” booth with your likeness dressed in the clothing of your ancestors – all of which is a big hit with kids & adults alike.

If you go, be prepared for some surprising discoveries. I found a ship’s passenger manifesto from the 1920s which listed my grandmother and mother as ‘aliens.’ And three of my friends discovered they were related — cousins 15 or 16 times removed, but still distantly linked by common ancestors. Installing the FamilySearch app on your phone will let you know, wherever you go, if someone nearby is related to you. Scary, or fascinating? I honestly never knew genealogy could be this much fun.

The people

In a city already teeming with surprises, perhaps the most pleasant discovery of all was the city’s sense of humor and the overall friendliness of the locals. In fact, Salt Lake City may be the least tourist-adverse town I’ve ever visited.

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And where else could you get a ‘Polygamy Porter’ (or three) – the beer with the catch phrase, “Why have just one?” 

 

 

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