Why Boise? It’s the question I keep asking everyone I meet my first time in Idaho’s capital – the couple who retired here after years stationed with the U.S. Air Force outside Death Valley, the front desk manager at my hotel who spent five years away in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the business consultant who left for Stanford and later New York City but came home two decades later. I get a variation on similar platitudes from each of them: Boise is a little city with a big heart; it’s affordable and accessible; its people are outdoorsy and laid-back; its downtown is experiencing tremendous urban renewal.
Yeah, yeah, I press, but what makes it different from cities with similar stories (and similar flight times – just two hours) from Phoenix? I learn that it’s a funky bastion of blue in a traditionally red state like Austin, but not as in-your-face hipster. It’s got a lot of green-living advocates with admirable beards like Portland, but feels decidedly less crunchy. It caters to the outdoorsman and ski bunny like Denver, but it doesn’t get as much snow, or weed. My cornered sources shrug. Boise is great, they seem to say, take it or leave it… though they really do hope I like it.
And I do. I just can’t put my finger on why. So off I go to find out.
McCall Day Trip
You won’t have much need for a car if you’re staying in downtown Boise, since most attractions are a quick walk, bike ride or cab ride away. But the picturesque drive up to McCall may be worth the rental, if you can tack an extra day onto your stay. A two-hour’s drive north through lush farmland, ponderosa pines and lingering glimpses of the gurgling Payette River, McCall is a year-round playground on Payette Lake known for snow skiing in the winter and water skiing in the summer. Keep your eyes peeled for deer and fox while hiking Ponderosa State Park. Refuel with an elk burger and award-winning Udaho Gold ale at Salmon River Brewery (salmonriverbrewery.com) before soaking up the sun at one of the public beaches around town. A big-as-your-face scoop of local huckleberry ice cream from Ice Cream Alley (208-634-1136) is optional but highly recommended. discovermccall.com
“Idaho and Boise is really unusual compared to the rest of the West,” my Walkabout Boise ($12, preservationidaho.org/tours-events) tour guide Barbara Perry Bauer says, in that early east-to-west pioneers passed through the area’s golden rolling hills in search of greener pastures in neighboring Oregon but circled back in the 1860s when gold and silver were discovered here. The city of Boise, perhaps named by a French-Canadian trapper who exclaimed “Les bois!” (“The trees!”) when he saw the verdant river basin, was incorporated in 1863 in an area appropriately named Treasure Valley.
In the late 1800s, immigrants from the then economically depressed Basque region of northern Spain and southern France began arriving in hopes of striking it rich in the mines. But the farmers and fishermen somehow ended up becoming sheepherders instead. “The first Basques did an awesome job at herding, and it opened the flood gates,” says Dan Aizpitarte of the small, well-curated Basque Museum and Cultural Center (611 W. Grove St., 208-343-2671, basquemuseum.com). Today, Idaho – a state of only 1.68 million people – has the largest per-capita concentration of Basque-Americans in the country. Many live in Boise, a city of about 220,000.
You’ll find this entirely unique culture most concentrated in the downtown Basque district, which posts signs in both English and Euskara and hosts community events like pelota (a cross between handball and racquetball) leagues and folk dances. Tony Eiguren met his wife at such a dance. They now own The Basque Market (608 W. Grove St., 208-433-1208, thebasquemarket.com), a long-running institution of serve-yourself pintxos, or small snacks, made from Eiguren’s family recipes (the meatballs are especially tasty), wine, beer and cider, a Basque specialty. On Wednesdays and Fridays at noon, Tony prepares fresh seafood and meat paella on the front patio in a pan big enough to serve 75. A gracious host who checks in on every table, he says he loves Boise because “it’s a place where people still hold the door for each other.”
Indeed, Boise is an exceedingly friendly place. Even downtown, so often the most impersonal of city neighborhoods, is full of people who smile and say hello when you pass. It’s impossible even for me – a noted skeptic fluent in sarcasm – to not respond in kind. In the last five years, I’m told downtown Boise has experienced a huge revival with an influx of new restaurants and events, including two Saturday farmers’ markets.
The Boise Farmers Market (through October 28, theboisefarmersmarket.com) is your best bet for fresh produce, meat and seafood (and the best made-to-order beignets I’ve had outside New Orleans). Meanwhile, the larger Capital City Public Market (through December 16, capitalcitypublicmarket.com) features block after block of local artisans and food and beverage vendors such as Meriwether Cider Co. (meriwethercider.com). Try their subtly sweet and tart alcoholic blackberry cider.
It’s not all potatoes. This spring, Vogue called Boise a “culinary hotspot” thanks to a wave of creative young chefs, brewers and winemakers unburdened with “culinary pretension.” The best introduction to this treasure chest of gastronomic delights is on a food tour with Indulge Boise (208-505-9757, indulgeboise.com).
“Everyone called me the ambassador of Idaho,” owner Angela Taylor says of her 20-plus years away from home working in the sports and entertainment businesses, primarily in California and New York. She moved back and started Indulge Boise as a way to re-familiarize herself with the town and introduce visitors to its up-and-coming foodie scene.
There are several themes, including Sunday brunch, which takes guests to five different restaurants with a dish and optional alcohol pairing at each. We pair smoky pork belly pastrami and potato latkes with minty jalapeño sangria at Saint Lawrence Gridiron (saintlawrencegridiron.com), followed by a refreshing lemon and gin concoction with a creamy pesto and goat cheese scramble at Juniper (juniperon8th.com). We cap off brunch with a marionberry milkshake at Moon’s Kitchen Café (facebook.com/moons.kitchen).
On the beer front, Boise is brew central, with at least 15 breweries located in the city proper. Sample some renowned Idaho hops (the state is the third largest producer in the country, according to the Hop Growers of America) at Payette Brewing (733 S. Pioneer St., 208-344-0011, payettebrewing.com). Started by a former Boeing industrial engineer from Seattle, Payette’s taproom offers more than 20 draft beers, wine and cider, plus a vast outdoor space with lawn chairs and cornhole.
For something special, try the new Richard’s restaurant at the Inn at 500 Capitol (500 S. Capitol Blvd., 208-472-1463, richardsboise.com). The menu is regionally inspired Italian food, which given our surroundings may seem like we’re about to French fry some pasta, but seasoned Boise eaters know it means ultra-fresh produce paired with wild-caught seafood and local meat. Think bite-size, gorgonzola-stuffed figs wrapped in prosciutto you’ll want to consume by the handful, melt-in-your-mouth burrata with sweet heirloom tomatoes, surprisingly light rabbit ragù on pappardelle with summer root vegetables, and seared Alaskan halibut in decadent brown butter over handmade ravioli. Ask your server for wine recommendations. Richard’s offers more than 30 wines by the glass, affordably priced from $6.50. Many are local from the nearby Snake River Valley.
Boise is big on outdoor recreation, notably for skiing in nearby Bogus Basin. But summertime sports are also popular, and on warm summer evenings when dusk doesn’t fall until 9:30 p.m., you’ll find Boiseans biking, kayaking and running through the city’s many parks. The place feels like one big REI, designed to get everyone outside.
Beginners should start with biking. The town is largely flat, nestled as it is along the Boise River valley. Bikes are available to rent for $5 an hour through Boise GreenBike (boise.greenbike.com) grab-and-go kiosks throughout the city. Or, my hotel, The Modern Hotel and Bar (1314 W. Grove St., 208-424-8244, themodernhotel.com) – a popular mid-century hangout in a remodeled Guest Lodge motel – loans cruisers for free to guests. Take one for a spin along the Boise Greenbelt, a pristine, shady 25-mile stretch along the river. Stop at Boise Whitewater Park (607 N. Whitewater Park Blvd., boisewhitewaterpark.com) and gawk at the kayakers and surfers riding the manmade waves created by a diversion dam along the river.
The more adventuresome can find a wet escapade just north of the city rafting the Payette River. Cascade Raft & Kayak (7050 Highway 55, Horseshoe Bend, 208-793-2221, cascaderaft.com) offers half- or full-day whitewater rafting trips ($45-$110) every day in the summer season, which typically lasts through September. My guide Tango, remarkably perky for someone who camps every night, coaches us on proper paddle strokes and how not to get thrown overboard. She assures us the rapids are only class III (intermediate) but it’s still exhilarating bouncing through the icy churn.
Find thrill-seeking of a different kind at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (5657 Warm Springs Ave., 208-336-9221, idahoshakespeare.org), which presents five plays each summer – two Shakespeare, one Broadway musical and a wildcard. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Aug. 4-Sept. 3; The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sept. 8-Oct. 1.) The lovely open-air amphitheater is located just outside the city, with the stage framing the foothills to the east. BYOB (and food) is encouraged and the café on site offers elevated picnic items like shrimp Louie salad.
I get a backstage tour from managing director Mark Hofflund, whose enthusiasm for the theater is mirrored by the actors I wouldn’t fault for being much less friendly and polite 20 minutes to curtain. Afterward, I settle in for a rousing musical performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Munching on a French brie and tomato sandwich on crusty baguette from the café, I’m enchanted as the sunset slowly turns the golden foothills beyond the stage into a deep purple. And then I get it: Boise is something else.
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