You’ve probably never given Boise much thought as a vacation destination, and maybe even brushed it off as an easy-to-overlook potato town. But if you haven’t been, prepare yourself for a pleasant surprise. The often-overlooked Idaho capital packs a mean punch in terms of dining, culture, outdoor activities and overall sense of community. Its laid-back style combined with a flurry of downtown development and an influx of new arrivals makes it the perfect under-radar city to rush to right now. Here are nine things we love about the city.
Throughout the 20th-century, immigrants from Spain’s Basque region came to Boise. Within the downtown area, this heritage lives on along a section known as the Basque Block. The Basque Museum & Cultural Center offers a wealth of information on Basque heritage ranging from a map of the region to photographs and personal video interviews. Next to the center, a preserved boarding house shows how Basque men crafted a Boise home. Also along the Basque Block, the Basque Market is noted for its paella dinners while Bar Gernika dishes out Basque favorites including solomo — a cured pork loin.
Discover Mother Nature
Boise offers greenery galore. The 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt journeys along the Boise River and through the heart of the city and is frequented by bikers, walkers and even commuters trekking along this tree-lined route that connects to the city’s riverside parks. The oldest of those parks is Julia Davis Park, which has a rose garden, tennis complex, zoo, discovery center, and other attractions including the Boise Art Museum and Idaho Black History Museum. Another neat fact: Boise’s “Ribbon of Jewels” are a collection of nine parks named after prominent city women.
Immerse Yourself in Art
Boise has got some cool street art. Called the largest outdoor mural gallery in the Northwest, Freak Alley Gallery was started in 2002 with the simple painting of an alley doorway and has grown to become a city fixture. Murals are said to rotate about every two years with participating businesses bestowing blessings to use their exterior facades as canvases. Then, there’s Boise’s traffic box program, in which select artists create designs to be turned into vinyl wraps to cover up traffic boxes. Meanwhile, at Jack’s Urban Meeting Place (or JUMP), visitors and locals can get creative through various classes and events.
Have a High-End Meal …
Boise’s food scene encompasses a lot of the state’s agricultural bounty. Within a former bank building, Fork provides farm-to-table dishes with ingredients from local producers such as trout, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, spirits, beers and baked goods. Started by a couple with careers in government, upscale Capitol Cellars serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with some menu prices ending in 43 cents, a nod to Idaho statehood. Wild Root Café & Market offers seasonally-focused breakfast, lunch and brunch with vegan and vegetarian offerings.
… Or a Great Cup of Coffee
If seeking simple meal options, Guru Donuts offers made-from-scratch artisanal (and vegan) doughnuts in a colorful surrounding. For breakfast, go early to Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro or the Moon’s Kitchen Café. Coffee shops like Flying M Coffeehouse and pour-over places Form & Function and Slow by Slow offer the requisite caffeine fix. And if you’re craving some fries, the Boise Fry Company serves its potato sticks in different spud varieties paired with refined salts and sauces that go beyond common ketchup and mayo.
If looking for a nice Boise souvenir, there are stores that showcase made-in-Idaho products and specialty finds. BANANA Ink stocks wearable gear, while Idaho Made reflects its name with various home décor and personal items ranging from candles to beauty products. Music lovers should head to The Record Exchange, a more than 40-year-old institution selling vinyl, CDs, cassettes and DVDs. If seeking labels of the non-record variety, check out clothing boutiques like Fancy Pants or home goods from Hyde and Seek.
Boise’s ties to beer, wine and spirit production are numerous. Bardenay Restaurant & Distillery serves cocktails with distilled vodka, rum and gin. Bittercreek Ale House pours microbrews, while Red Feather Lounge gets inventive with cocktails. At its tasting room, Barbarian Brewing specializes in sour, Belgian style and barrel-aged beers. A publicly-owned, small batch brewery, Boise Brewing uses local honey and fruit among other ingredients. Venture to neighboring Garden City for wine tastings. Split Rail focuses on Rhone varietals; Telaya Wine Co. produces Washington State and Idaho wines; and COILED sources grapes from the Snake River Valley. Or sip on cider made by Longdrop Cider Company or Meriwether Cider.
Go to Jail (Sort of)
Two decades before Idaho gained statehood, the Old Idaho State Penitentiary was opened as a territory prison and housed inmates for more than a century until its shutdown in 1973. Now it’s a museum that provides a full account of the men and women who served time here. Walk through cell blocks, solitary confinement buildings, an area used for recreation, and an exhibition hall. Plus, the entrance features a brief intro film and a chronology wall highlighting its time line and inmates.
Boise is full of reasonably-priced accommodations. Within the downtown area, the full-service and luxury Grove Hotel is connected to the CenturyLink Arena and adjacent to the Boise Centre. Think modern, boutique-style rooms stocked with large-screen TVs, workstations, eco-friendly bath products and Starbucks coffee. For something a bit more edgy, try the chic and trendy Modern Hotel and Bar, where you can wine and dine among stone fire pits on the patio.