Idaho’s capital has a lot more going for it than potatoes. (Don’t skip the potatoes, though.)
My Uber driver doesn’t want you to come to Boise. “I really wish you wouldn’t,” the previously cheery dad says when our small talk reveals I’m in town to write a travel piece. “Then people will visit, then they’ll want to move here, and it will get out of control. We’ll lose what makes this place special, and everything will be crowded and expensive. I don’t want this to become Denver – or Phoenix, look how big you guys are!”
He’s coming in awful hot, but I can’t fault his concern. It’s a dance many destinations are doing now: How do you draw tourists and build a city people want to live in without surrendering its soul, what attracted people in the first place?
This threshold might seem particularly precarious in Boise, a well-organized, astonishingly clean city in southwestern Idaho’s Treasure Valley that exhibits the best parts of outdoorsy urban spots Denver, Park City, Portland and Seattle – read: access to hiking and skiing as well as great restaurants and culture – sans problem areas (overcrowding, rampant homelessness). It’s also, Uber meltdown notwithstanding, the friendliest city I’ve visited outside of the South.
Even my ride in the anti-welcome wagon takes a friendly turn. “I don’t want to discourage ya,” he says, camp counselor vibe restored. “I hope you have a fun time. It is a real beautiful place.”
It truly is. And, no matter what kind of visitor you are, there’s so much to do.
I am categorically not an outdoorsy type, but when in Rome, right? I attempt to summon my inner cyclist and rent a bicycle from Hotel 43 (see sidebar at end of article) for a morning ride along the Boise River Greenbelt (cityofboise.org), a 25-mile paved path that winds along the Boise River and the Ribbon of Jewels, a series of lush, outrageously green parks. Unfortunately, it has been at least a decade since I rode a bike, so I’m wobbly. Doubly unfortunately, there seems to be a marathon of some sort going on and I accidentally plow into a stream of runners. Whoopsie!
Julia Davis Park (700 S. Capitol Blvd., cityofboise.org) is Boise’s oldest park (established in 1907) and features a rose garden, a statue of Abraham Lincoln, a grand plaza, memorials and pavilions. The greenbelt also includes the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial (777 S. Eighth St., annefrankmemorial.org), a tribute to victims of injustice.
I have more success staying upright as I walk along the greenbelt at Boise Whitewater Park (3400 W. Pleasanton Ave., boisewhitewaterpark.com) and Esther Simplot Park (3206 W. Pleasanton Ave.). The former has structures in the river to create rushing waves for kayakers, surfers and stand-up paddleboarders, and the latter is a gorgeous riparian area with fishing, swimming and play areas. I sit on a bench, listen to the water and read – my way to enjoy nature.
Another great place to walk around is Freak Alley Gallery (210 N. Ninth St., northend.org/freak-alley), an urban artery covered in murals. Artist Colby Akers started the project in 2002, and it’s grown to become the largest outdoor art gallery in the Northwest. It’s your spot for selfies, to be sure, but put the phone away for a little while and get lost in a mural.
Egyptophiles will get lost in the gilded details of The Egyptian Theatre (700 W. Main St., 208-387-1273, egyptiantheatre.net), built in 1927 and restored in 1999. It’s the last of the city’s single-screen theaters, and hosts touring acts and film series. The Basque Block (Grove Street, between Capitol Boulevard and Sixth Street, thebasqueblock.com) is similarly transportive. Idaho has the largest concentration of Basques outside of Basque Country, a region between France and Spain, and The Basque Block is a historically preserved yet living ethnic neighborhood. Learn more at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center (611 W. Grove St., 208-343-2671, basquemuseum.eus) and then order pintxos (tapas) at The Basque Market (608 W. Grove St., 208-433-1208, thebasquemarket.com).
For a less happy but no less important glimpse into area history, Old Idaho Penitentiary (2445 Old Penitentiary Rd., 208-334-2844, history.idaho.gov/location/old-penitentiary) is a must. The prison operated from 1873-1972, and its grounds still vibrate with the energy of inmates past. Placards explain prisoners’ stories along with their rap sheets, and visitors can fill out their own intake cards and take mugshot selfies. It humanizes a dehumanizing experience.
Shake off the heaviness with retail therapy in downtown Boise, which is flush with cute shops in a walkable core. My favorites: Mixed Greens (213 N. Ninth St., 208-344-1605, ilikemixedgreens.com), the lovechild of Frances and Anthropologie; Idaho Made (108 N. Sixth St., 208-258-7459, oldboise.com/merchant/idaho-made), which stocks only locally made goods and art; and Rediscovered Books (180 N. Eighth St., 208-376-4229, rdbooks.org), a darling indie bookshop.
There’s a large LDS population in Idaho, but you wouldn’t know it based on the proliferation of boozy establishments in Boise. There are craft breweries galore – 10 Barrel Brewing Co., Boise Brewing, Payette Brewing Co. and Barbarian Brewing, to name a slew – as well as a cadre of cideries, thanks to the Basque influence. Every local I talk to recommends Meriwether Cider Co. (two locations, meriwethercider.com), but when I make it there, it’s closed. Next time!
I spend an afternoon in the Urban Wine District (visitidaho.org), located primarily in Garden City, a suburb a short drive from downtown Boise. There’s a cluster of tasting rooms around Chinden Boulevard, including Split Rail Winery, Potter Wines and Cinder Wines, Coiled Wines and Telaya Wine Co. Most Idaho wineries use grapes from Washington, Oregon and California, but a growing number are slowly transitioning to Idaho-grown fruit.
At Coiled Wines (3408 W. Chinden Blvd., Garden City, 208-820-8466, coiledwines.com; it also operates a wine bar in downtown Boise), owner and winemaker Leslie Preston crafts reds and whites including a big-bodied Riesling, an herbal Petite Sirah and an all-Idaho Petit Verdot blend called Black Mamba. After my proper tasting, I can’t resist a wine slushie: frozen Coiled vintages mixed with artisanal syrups. I slurp my blackberry-almond wine slushie with a paper straw and wonder why every Arizona winery doesn’t do this, since we have such hot summers.
I stroll to Telaya Wine Co. (240 E. 32nd St., Garden City, 208-557-9463, telayawine.com), a woodsy tasting room on the banks of the Boise River. Before embarking on their wine journey, owners and winemakers Earl and Carrie Sullivan had intense careers – he was COO of a pharmaceutical company, she was a veterinarian for exotic animals – and wanted to spend more time with their two sons. Now the whole family works at the winery, which specializes in single varietals and less common grapes, like Counoise and Grenache Blanc (I buy both).
“We get to expose people to different wines on a regular basis and show them that it isn’t just Cabernet and Chardonnay,” Earl Sullivan says. “[We] take that mystery out of it and make it much more approachable.” It’s working: Telaya’s 2016 Turas, a Syrah-based blend, won Best Red in the 2018 Idaho Wine Competition.
Is it cliché to try to eat potatoes at every meal when visiting Idaho? If so, call me trite – I’ll comfort myself with more potatoes. I eat paprika-dusted papas alongside Thai curry chicken tacos at The Funky Taco (801 W. Bannock St., 208-488-4593, thefunkytaco.com); crisp “potato hay” atop short ribs and brown butter mashed potatoes at Fork (199 N. Eighth St., 208-287-1700, boisefork.com); and buttery fingerlings with onions, rosemary and sage on pizza at The Wylder (501 W. Broad St., 208-209-3837, thewylderboise.com). The pinnacle is Boise Fry Company (multiple locations, boisefrycompany.com), which boasts it serves burgers “on the side” of its famous fries. Choose from six different spuds – there are tasting notes to help you decide – and five different cuts, then gussy them up with flavored salts (togarashi cricket is a new offering) and dips (including blueberry ketchup). I go with Idaho reds, which are creamy, buttery and nutty, and the homestyle cut for a good ratio of crisp exterior to plush interior. Perfection.
Waffle Me Up (204 N. Capitol Blvd., 208-412-7253, wafflemeup.com) shares a restaurant space with Boise Fry Company and serves excellent Belgian liege waffles. For a more traditional Belgian waffle, head to Goldy’s Breakfast Bistro (108 S. Capitol Blvd., 208-345-4100, goldysbreakfastbistro.com), a cramped Boise institution. Juniper (211 N. Eighth St., 208-342-1142, juniperon8th.com) is beloved for its use of local ingredients like Idaho trout and Snake River Farms beef.
There are two eateries I wish were in Phoenix: Txikiteo (175 N. 14th St., 208-813-6178, txikiteo.com) and Tasso (401 S. Eighth St., 208-336-2555, tassoboise.com). Txikiteo is a chic watering hole with pintxos-inspired small plates: chorizo with white beans and romesco, meat and cheese boards, lentil salad. Tasso is a dining unicorn: an insanely hip – borderline twee – sandwich place with genuinely kind staff. There’s an old-fashioned popcorn machine with gratis curry popcorn to nosh on while you wait for your food. My Country Devil sandwich is piled with Tasso’s namesake ham (a Louisiana specialty), juicy pork, Gruyère, house-made mustard, mayo and pickled onion. It is one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had. Greek chickpea salad and kimchi coleslaw are fresh and zippy sides that could stand on their own.
Craving sweets? The STIL (two locations, ilovethestil.com) has artisanal ice cream and booze (try a beer/wine and ice cream flight, which pairs four pours with four scoops) and The Chocolat Bar (805 W. Bannock St., 208-338-7771, thechocolatbar.com) has all manner of glorious confections: truffles, toffee, bark and “drops,” circles of flavored chocolate. City Peanut Shop (803 W. Bannock St., 208-433-3931, citypeanut.com) has sweet and savory nuts, popcorn and snack mixes.
On my last night in town, I’m headed back to The Chocolat Bar for one last round of mocha drops and toffee, talking to a different Uber driver. I tell him about the first guy, and he laughs and shakes his head. “Some people,” he says.
“Well, I see where he’s coming from,” I say. “This is a lovely place. I’d feel protective of it, too, if I grew up here.”
He shrugs. “Sure. But we can’t keep it hidden away. You gotta welcome people. There’s room for everyone.”
Two of Boise’s coolest hotels happen to be sister properties – both conveniently located downtown and both offering easy bike rental programs.
I stay at Hotel 43, so named because it sits on the 43rd parallel in the 43rd state. It’s home to Boise’s best steakhouse, Chandlers, which is also the city’s only Forbes-rated restaurant. Chandlers is your best bet for fresh seafood in town, too – fresh catches are flown in daily.
981 W. Grove St., 208-342-4622
The Grove Hotel
Pop in for dinner at Trillium, a gleaming New American restaurant with sleek white subway tiles and an open kitchen, or belly up to the bar for happy hour from 8-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. At that time, Idaho draft beers and wines by the glass are buy one, get one free.
245 S. Capitol Blvd., 208-333-8000