Creativity, a laid-back vibe, and good old-fashion American soul make this capital city a national treasure.
It's easy to imagine that Boise is the kind of city that Kris Kristofferson would sing about it. It's got a hearty, wholesome Americana spirit at its core, that much is true, but it's also rebellious enough in a sassy way to warrant a tribute from Pat Benatar and full of the kind of characters that only Tom Waits could do justice to. Situated toward the western end of Idaho surrounded by farms and 190 miles of trails, the nearest metropolis is Salt Lake City, a five-hour drive away, and that's a very good thing. Boise's isolation is a bear hug, an invitation, a warm welcome. After spending a week in this compact, walkable city, I was hardly restless. In fact, it didn't even feel like I saw or did or ate half the things I had hoped to. And it became quickly apparent why Boise regularly ends up on all sorts of lists. In addition to often being called out as the being among the best American cities to raise a family and to retire to, the downtown has been recognized as among the country's best and the people are among the healthiest. Bike Magazine deemed it the country's best mountain biking town. Not bad for a city of less than 225,000.
Outdoorsy types are at home amid the 190-mile preserved trail system that goes from the Boise River Greenbelt to the Boise Foothills that surround the city. The Payette River, 30 minutes north, has intense Class V rapids, ideal for all sorts of sports. Culture vultures can choose from a range of museums, from history to art to birds. Oenophiles appreciate that nearly half of the state's 50-plus wineries are within a 30 minute drive. And pretty nearly everyone offers a ready smile and easy conversation. Here are just a few things to put on your itinerary when you book a trip to this delightful capital city.
1. GO NUTS AT CITY PEANUT SHOP
This local institution makes a variety of unique custom-seasoned nuts. (Courtesy City Peanut Shop)
On first glance, the City Peanut Shop is just a good old fashioned American nut store, the kind that evoke the penny candy shops of yore, what with cases of nuts to choose from and the smell of fresh peanut butter being made in the back. That’s what Dan Balluff, who once worked for Hewlett Packard, had in mind as a model when he opened the store in 2009, but it’s grown into something far beyond. It’s a showcase of the city’s various craft producers. Sort of. Dan has made it his signature to collaborate with other businesses. So in addition to the hand-pulled brittle (“I burn my fingers making it every time,” he says matter-of-factly) and all sorts of uniquely seasoned fresh-roasted nuts, from apple pie almonds to vegan maple bacon cashews to Virginia redskin peanuts made with Carolina reapers, which clock in at 2.2 million Scoville units, he custom designs nut seasonings to pair with local breweries’ beers. Add to that the jars of honey from a local beekeeper, and chocolate bars with craft beer and locally made chocolate, and you have some serious local pride.
2. RETAIL THERAPY
Local artists, many of whom make comic-book- and sci-fi-themed objects and accessories, take center stage at Re-POP Gifts. (Liza Weisstuch)
Well-known chain stores are few and far between in Boise’s lively downtown. Yes, you can get home goods at West Elm and comfy threads at The North Face, but other than that, if you’re a shopper like myself, plan to spend extra time browsing in unfamiliar stores. And that’s a very good thing. I came home with quite a bit of loot: a laser-cut wood cassette pennant from the Record Exchange, which bills itself as Idaho’s largest independent music store and features expansive rooms full of vinyl and CDs and novelty gifts and books. There’s the cocktail shaker and 1960s-era sunglasses I bought at Atomic Treasures, an eccentric vintage store and “No Bar Too Far,” a bar-hoppers guide to Idaho (so many bars, so little time!) from Rediscovered Books, a gem of an independent book store. And there’s the cayenne pepper olive oil and 18-year-old barrel-aged balsamic vinegar from Olivin Olive Oil and Vinegar Taproom. I promised myself to get a grip after that, but then I stumbled upon Re-POP Gifts, a terrifically groovy shop about two miles from downtown where owner Millie Hilgert stocks many items locally made by retro-minded artists, like bow ties, notebooks and jewelry made of LEGOs, cheeky greeting cards and coasters, and skirts made of comic book print she calls “fan skirts.” I was particularly struck by the Nerf Super-Soakers appropriated to look like comic book weapons, but I thought taking it on the plane wasn’t the brightest idea. The store is worth the trip, as it’s done up with all sorts of fun props, like a Dr. Who phone booth and a furniture arranged to replicate the retro living room in “Stranger Things.”
3. THE ART OF THE MATTER
Boise is one of just a few cities in the US with a city-run department devoted to promoting arts and history. In 2001, in fact, the Boise City Council passed an ordinance committing 1.4% of all capital project funds be used to integrate public art into city facilities. So by the city’s WaterShed you’ll find a life-size tree made of metal scraps; the City Hall and the airport are just a few of the venues where images by local photographers are on display. But the thing I found the most enchanting is the Traffic Box project. Local artists were commissioned to the decorate drab, industrial-looking mailbox-size structures that house the city’s streetlight wiring throughout downtown. I found a fun treasure hunt aspect to it, stumbling upon a box with a fresh design around every corner. From cartoonish illustrations to whimsical scenes to landscapes to tattoo-like paintings to vibrant pop-art inspired imagery, it’s all there. It’s estimated that the public art is valued at $4 million.
4. EAT YOUR HEART OUT
The restaurant at the Modern Hotel and Bar showcases the region's seasonal bounty on its ever-changing menu. Apple Bread Pudding with caramel, vanilla ice cream, and cinnamon walnut tuile is a taste of winter. (Courtesy The Modern Hotel and Bar)
When I told my friends I was traveling to Boise, every one of them made some wisecrack about all the potatoes I’d eat. I am happy to report that I did not eat a single potato. Creative chefs and bartenders are giving celebrated restaurants in bigger cities a run for their money, to be sure. I credit that to the chefs and restraurateurs being able to take risks in smaller cities that they can’t take in super-ultra-competitive markets with sky-high rent prices, like New York, LA and San Francisco. Also, this is where locavore, which big city chefs wear as a badge of honor, is a necessity. The Modern Bar, part of the Modern Hotel and Bar, a hip refurbished Travelodge, is a perfect example. Manager Remi Courcenet, a French expat who oversees the restaurant and the top rate cocktail program, told me that even the caviar is local. I still find this astounding. On the menu here, French and other European influences as well as a smattering of North African flavors meld to form something uniquely American. For more local indulgence there’s Fork. Located in a refurbished old bank with the original gorgeously carved stone archway over the entrance, the eatery is best described as a high-end tavern, but not too high-end! The vibe is casual and the food is sublime. Asparagus fries (read: asparagus tempura) and tomato basil fondue and grilled cheese are signatures. The local bounty is also showcased at Juniper on 8th, a laid-back eatery with exposed brick walls that give it a warehouse-chic vibe. They offer elevated renditions of pub grub, like pear-fig grilled cheese, spicy duck ramen and even roast beef dip. (Just in case you don’t feel like cutting up a steak that day, I guess.)
5. DRINK UP
The lively taproom at Payette Brewing Co. is just one of the many spots to kick back with excellent local beers. (Liza Weisstuch)
Any city with a creative class these days will have a plenty of breweries and taprooms to choose from and probably a distillery or two, too. When it comes to the latter, Boise has a major claim to fame: the first distillery restaurant in the United States. Since Bardenay opened in 1999, they’ve been making their own spirits in a compact still room set behind glass in the back. And, of course, the cocktail list features many cocktails made with the house vodka, gin, rum and liqueurs. The kitchen turns out elevated pub grub (cider-brined pork chop, black bean and quinoa sandwiches, vegan selections). For beer lovers, Boise is an embarrassment of riches. Payette Brewing, which takes its name from the river named for a thrill-seeking fur-trapper, turns out creative beers in a brewery retrofitted into a spacious old gymnasium. (Yes, that loop up towards the ceiling, that’s the track that encircles the basketball court where the brewing equipment now sits.) The taproom feels like your neighbor’s house party. There’s a comfy bar area, tables where you’re likely to see people stationed for hours with their computer, and lots of room for dogs and children to meander on any given day. (And for the record, there are more dogs than kids on most of the time.)
But if Payette is your neighbor’s living room, Woodland is the community center. This husband-and-wife-owned brewery on the edge of downtown produces seasonal one-offs and creative collaborative beers in addition to their ones that made them a local favorite in the first place. You can hang out in the industrial-chic tasting room, but note that the brewery sometimes hosts other events, like yoga classes.
6. SHOP THE MARKETPLACE
The Capital City Public Market features made-in-Idaho food and crafts every Saturday from April through December. (Courtesy Visit Idaho)
Downtown Boise's wide streets and scenic pavilion make it an perfect site for the Capital City Public Market, which takes place Saturdays from April through December. I visited two weekends before Christmas and observed Idahoans' true frontiersmen mettle in action. How else to explain the fact that everyone was out showing off their wares while the temperature hovered around 17-degrees? I browsed handmade soaps and playful Southwestern-style pottery, whimsical silver jewelry and and rugged leather accessories. I drank hot cider and chatted with a high-school student working at a stand selling spiced meat pies his mother makes. He told me of coming to Boise as a refugee from Somalia. He liked growing up in the city, but is applying to colleges in bigger cities, he told me. I made off with a chunky knit scarf made by a woman from Guatemala and a small bottle of intriguingly smokey jalapeno-laced wine from Potter Wines. In the spirit of giving, I supported the Boise Local 149 firefighters with a $25 donation which scored me a wall calendar so that every day of the year a beautiful Boise boy can remind me of my days in this excellent American city.