The 6 Things You Need for a Perfect Picnic

By Maya Stanton
April 24, 2018
picnic gear
Ekobo picnic set: Ty Mecham/Food52
We've got the goods to make your next outdoor-dining experience the best yet.

With spring well and truly underway (in our neck of the woods, at least—knock on wood), our thoughts are turning to warm-weather pursuits, and we can’t think of a better way to celebrate the end of winter than by getting out in the sun and soaking up some vitamin D. As picnic season commences, we’ve rounded up great gear that will take your alfresco meals to the next level, so go on, take it outside. 

1. The Cooler

This limited-edition sturdy nylon pack from the Hunter for Target collection may be easy on the eyes, but it’s as functional as it is colorful, with a 17-liter capacity, an outer pocket for odds and ends, a waterproof exterior, a leak-proof interior, and well-padded shoulder straps and top handle. It’ll hold plenty of Tupperware, up to 20 cans of the beverage of your choice, or whichever combination of the two you prefer. Our favorite touch? The  bottle opener that comes clipped to the front of the bag—perfect for the forgetful among us.

Hunter for Target Cooler Backpack in red, $50; for stores.

2. The Blanket

With a seasonally appropriate leafy-green pattern and three layers—polyester, sponge, and waterproof PVC—between you and the ground, this substantially sized Miu Color blanket will have you sitting pretty at all of your spring soirees. And although it folds down to a foot long and just under a foot wide, you won’t have to worry about finding room for it in your bag, thanks to a built-in handle that allows for convenient carrying.

Miu Color triple-layer blanket in Green Leaves, $25;

3. The Place Settings

For a small gathering, leave the disposable dishes behind and step it up a notch with this nifty reusable set from Ekobo. Made from recycled bamboo fiber, it's highly portable, with four cups and deep-edged plates that pack away into a bowl that can be used for serving once you’ve reached your destination, with a lid that doubles as a drinks tray. Think of it as Tetris for outdoor dining.

Ekobo Recycled Bamboo Picnic Set in blues, $64;

4. The Flatware

Why go with plastic when you could be using real utensils? Wealers's stainless-steel cutlery kit comes with four sleek, lightweight forks, spoons, and knives, plus a set of chopsticks, in a neatly rolled, water-resistant bundle. The slim case even converts to an upright stand for easy access.

13-Piece Portable Stainless Steel Outdoor Cutlery Kit, $25;

5. The Refreshments

Wine bottles can take up quite a bit of room in the cooler, but if you’d rather reserve that space for other things, we have the solution. Enter: the wine tote. This one, from Built NY, is made with a cheery red neoprene that will pad your bottles to protect against breakage and keep them cool at the same time. And because it comes with a corkscrew, you won’t find yourself in the middle of the park at party time, desperately Googling “ways to open a wine bottle without an opener.”

Built NY Two-Bottle Wine Tote with Corkscrew in red, $23;

6. The Mood Music

What’s a party without the soundtrack? A rugged, bass-heavy Bluetooth speaker like the Ultimate Ears WONDERBOOM brings the fun—it shouldn’t break when dropped, and its waterproof exterior makes it resistant to rain showers and grubby hands alike. Plus, with 10 hours of play time and the capability to pair with 8 devices at a time, your friends and family can play DJ to their heart’s content.

Ultimate Ears WONDERBOOM speaker in SubZero, $100;

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Budget Travel Lists

7 U.S. Cities You Can Totally Afford

While the phrase “Hotel Price Index” may not sound like an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride, we travel editors look forward to the annual report on trends in, you guessed it, hotel pricing. We like seeing surprising downward price fluctuations in some of our favorite U.S. destinations, and we also enjoy making some discoveries based on unusually low prices in places we haven’t been to yet. Here, seven American cities that belong on your 2018 to-do list. 1. ALBUQUERQUE, NM (average hotel price: $95) The shockingly low average hotel rate in Albuquerque means that New Mexico’s biggest city may be the ultimate value destination right now. With a great art scene, centuries of history, incredible New Mexican cuisine, and even old Route 66 (now Central Avenue) with an iconic neon sign just waiting to be Instagrammed, you may want to book a room today. 2. OKLAHOMA CITY, OK (average hotel price: $97) Oklahoma City surprises visitors, not just with its under-$100/night average hotel rates but with its mix of culture, food, old-West history, working stockyards, and its unexpected nickname, the “Horse Show Capital of the World.” If you’re only experience of Oklahoma has been the classic Rodgers & Hammerstein musical of the same name, 2018 may be the time to get to know Oklahoma City. 3. RENO, NV (average hotel price: $101) Reno may bill itself as the “Biggest Little City in the World,” but its hotel prices are decidedly small. If you want to combine gaming and entertainment with fresh mountain air, this is the place to do it. You’ll love the Riverwalk District, kayaking, hiking and exploring the Sierra Nevada mountains, and, of course, trying your luck. 4. TUCSON, AZ (average hotel price: $108) Tucson is a big city that draws outdoorsy types, which, once you’ve experienced Tucson, makes perfect sense. When’s the last time you navigated a saguaro forest, hiked in the nearby mountains, and then sat down to a world-class meal in a vibrant cultural hotspot? 5. ORLANDO, FL (average hotel price: $116) We know, you think you know Orlando. Think again. Sure, it’s the world’s perfect confluence of theme parks, with Disney and Universal drawing families, couples, and everybody else all year long. But Orlando is also a destination unto itself, with one of America’s up-and-coming food scenes, natural beauty, and incredibly affordable, reliable lodging. 6. LAS VEGAS, NV (average hotel price: $125) Yes, time was you could nab a room in Vegas for practically nothing. Though the city has undergone a makeover in recent years and rates have risen, the average hotel rate of $125 still represents an incredible opportunity to kick back and relax while you soak up the entertainment, gaming, and cultural hotspots such as the “Mob Museum.” 7. PITTSBURGH, PA (average hotel price: $155) Pittsburgh’s hotel rates have been coming down as its profile has been rising, and that’s a very good thing. Home to cultural institutions like the Carnegie Museums and the Andy Warhol Museum (the groundbreaking pop artist grew up here, after all), this is a city that belongs on everyone’s must-see list.

Budget Travel Lists

The Budget Traveler’s Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountain National Park ( is America’s most visited national park (with more than 11 million visitors in 2017), in part because of its proximity to large populations of people, but mostly for its sweeping views, great hiking trails, and opportunities to get up close and personal with the most biodiverse park in America. Must-see highlights include hiking to the top of Clingman’s Dome Observatory and the drive through Cades Cove. In late 2016, some of the most trafficked trails of the park, along with the neighboring town of Gatlinburg, were burned when a wildfire met a windstorm. Both the park and the town have rebounded, offering a fascinating opportunity to see how the natural world rebounds after a wildfire GETTING THERE Straddling the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most centrally located national parks and a manageable road trip from many major urban areas in the East, Midwest, and South. The closest regional airports are Mcghee-Tyson in Knoxville Tennessee or the Asheville regional airport in North Carolina. Both airports have rental car options. And remember when renting a vehicle that you do not need a 4WD vehicle to experience this park. ENTERING AND NAVIGATING THE PARK There is no entrance fee for Great Smoky Mountain National Park, because the state of Tennessee would only transfer the land to the National Park Service if they guaranteed no fee would ever be charged to access the mountains. Please consider donating $20 to the Friends of the Smokies instead (; this is the admission fee for most of the national parks across the country, and funds go directly to protecting the park’s facilities and wildlife. CAMPING IS A BARGAIN Tent camping is the cheapest way to experience the Smokies . For $20/night, there are 10 different campgrounds in the Smokies. Some of them require reservations and are only open during the high season. You can check the pricing and reservation requirements online ( AFFORDABLE LODGING Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee are considered the “gateway to the Smokies” and both have lived up to this moniker by providing ample affordable lodging and a huge variety of activities for families. This area is what I like to call “hillbilly chic” for the way it leans into its heritage.  Physical activities like go-karts, mini-golf, and horseback riding abound, but you can also experience museums of the strange and curious - from the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum all the way to the Titanic museum. And you’ll definitely notice a certain affinity for one Dolly Parton. This part of Tennessee is where the singer/songwriter grew up, and Parton has reinvested in the community by opening up several dinner theaters and her own theme park. Dollywood has several of the best roller coasters in the South and provides a great time. Should you decide to do any of these attractions, be sure to do a search for discounted tickets online before you pay full price at the box office. For the cheapest hotel options, you should consider staying in Cherokee, North Carolina (on the other side of the park from Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge). This area is the Cherokee indian reservation, and has many hotels that get you more for the price. Cherokee is not as kitschy as Gatlinburg, and you’ll have fewer crowds to deal with. EATING OPTIONS ABOUND There are a plethora of restaurants on the Tennessee side of the park. You can find everything from cheap fast food to mountain pancakes to steak dinners. HIKING & MUST-SEE SIGHTS The Chimneys. The Chimneys is a classic hike in the smokies, a steep climb up to one of the best views in the park. This hike is a bit over four miles round trip, and you should plan on a workout. Bring plenty of water and a walking stick. This trail was part of the burn area in the 2015 wildfires, so it can be muddy in places where the brush was burned away. Because of the fire, you can no longer go the final .25 mile to the summit of the chimneys, but the end of the trail still provides a wonderful view. Alum Cave Bluff Trail. This is a moderate 6.5 mile trail that offers some amazing views and a variety of terrain, concluding at a natural cave in the mountain rock. This hike is really fun and is not as physically taxing as some of the other hikes in the park. This is one of the most popular hikes in the park, so be sure to get there early! Clingman’s Dome Observatory. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the park, and has an observatory on the top that provides some incredibly views. The hike to the observatory is less than a mile, with minimal elevation gain. The trail is paved, making this an ideal outing for families with children and those who are disabled. Be sure to bring a jacket as this higher elevation is often cold and windy, even in summer. Appalachian Trail. The appalachian trail is a 2,000 mile adventure that goes right through GSMNP.  Those with an adventurous spirit can meet up with the Appalachian Trail at the Clingman’s Dome parking lot and hike as much or as little of it as they wish. Keep in mind that all overnight backcountry stays in this park require a permit. IF YOU'RE VISITING WITH KIDS... Great Smoky Mountains is one of the most fun parks to visit with children. Here, two options that’ll keep little ones enchanted, and make them want to return again and again: Creek Stomping. There are several places in the park that are great for kids to play in nature. At the trailhead for the Chimneys trail is a rocky section of the creek that offers a good opportunity for kids to climb and splash in the water. Scenic Drive and Picnic. Cades Cove is in a valley surrounded by mountains and makes for a lovely scenic drive. This is the best spot in the park for picnicking, as well as providing plenty of great photos and opportunities to see wildlife. Cades Cove used to be a small mountain community, and the old structures from the 19th century have been preserved for the public to get a glimpse of life. Bears are not an uncommon sighting in Cades Cove, but don’t be afraid - black bears prefer a lazy lifestyle as long as you don’t get too close! Plan on spending at least an hour driving the Cades Cove loop - which can get crowded on beautiful days and weekends.

Budget Travel Lists

7 Things to Do in Asheville, NC

The history of Asheville, North Carolina, is a history of vacationing and just plain getting away from the rush and hubbub of urban life. It dates all the way back to the late 1800s, when George Washington Vanderbilt II became smitten with the mountains-rung town. Among the many draws was the curative mountain climate, which established it as a retreat for tuberculosis sufferers, F. Scott Fitzgerald not least among them. After his first visit, Vanderbilt bought 125,000 acres of land there because you can do that when you're a Vanderbilt. He built a home inspired by French Renaissance chateaus and today it still stands as the largest private residence in the nation. The Biltmore is easily the area’s biggest attraction, but it’s also been a destination for well-heeled travelers like Edith Wharton, Henry James, and an illustrious collection of presidents, from Theodore Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama. But you certainly don’t have to be a celebrity to enjoy the town to its fullest today, as no fewer than 3.8 million visitors discover each year. Its location—a reasonable driving distance from Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Greensboro, Durham, and many other cities—make it a primo pick for a weekend getaway, but thanks to its epic brewing scene, creative culinary pioneers, and all-around laid-back progressive spirit, chances are you’ll need more than a weekend to take it all in.   GROVE PARK INN: HISTORY AND CLASSIC DESIGN ON DISPLAY The posh Grove Park Inn is an architectural marvel that tells the history of Asheville. (Courtesy The Omni Grove Park Inn) The Biltmore is perhaps the city's most high profile tourist attraction, but a sense of early 20th century extravagance is also on display at the Grove Park Inn, which has welcomed guests as notable as Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford. (They're all featured in the portrait gallery in the Great Hall, aka: lobby). Today the inn is a luxury property with a 43,000-square-foot spa, pools, and amenities fit for Saudi royalty, but it also has a museum like quality that's available to anyone. The centerpiece of the Great Hall is an antique grandfather clock worth about $1 million. After you take in the jaw-dropping views from the terrace, head upstairs in the old-timey elevator, complete with an operator, to the Palm Court, one of the first atrium-style hotel lobbies. It's decked out with original Arts and Crafts style handmade furniture as well as photographs that chronicle the circa-1913 construction of this architectural marvel. (Think: mules, wagons, ropes, 10,000-pound granite boulders, and 400 men working 10-hour shifts six days a week.) And while you're there, take note: there's a restaurant on the terrace, so make a plan to stay for dinner during sunset.  BEER CITY, USA There are plenty of people and places that have put Asheville on the national radar as a must-do foodie destination, but easily one of its biggest attractions is its beer. So much beer. It’s often referred to, in fact, as Beer City, USA because there are more breweries per capita than any other city in the USA. Not bad for a city of about 90,000. One of the star players is Wicked Weed. As a northerner, I hadn’t heard of the brewery because its beers haven’t been available far outside North Carolina, but that’s about to change thanks to its recent acquisition by AB-InBev, the colossus that owns Budweiser and Corona. Not to worry, though, it won’t affect the Funktorium, Wicked Weed’s industrial-chic taproom. In addition to being one of the most fantastically named beer joints in America, they are devoted exclusively to sour beers. There’s an astounding selection of sour beers, the style that Wicked Weed made its name with. With barrels aging in the back and a fun gift shop so you can take a few bottles for the road, this is a place where the hardcore beer nerd can geek out (each selection on a menu board includes the pH level and the type of barrel it’s aged in) but it’s laid-back enough that novices can feel comfortable asking questions. The community has become such a leading light that gargantuan brands like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium Brewing have established east coast operations here. Tours are offered and they’re free. Any drinker’s visit to Asheville would be incomplete, however, without a stop at Highland Brewing, the first legal brewery since Prohibition when it opened in 1994 and the largest independently owned brewery in the southeast today. Oscar Wong, a retired engineer who started it as a scrappy operation in a basement, is known today as the regional godfather of craft brewing. His daughter Leah runs the ship today. The family-friendly taproom is vast yet welcoming with live music five nights a week. There are four core beers and up to eight experimental or limited releases on draft at any time. Tours are offered. But what makes Asheville a truly exciting beer town is the multitude of breweries that are a bit more far-flung. (But only a bit. This is a pretty small town, after all.) To whit: The Wedge, located on the ground floor of a building with 20 artists studios upstairs. Founded by a metal artist, it's adorned with eccentric and delightfully creepy art. Station yourself at the bar or on the chill wrap-around porch outside and drink up.  ASHEVILLE PINBALL MUSEUM About 75 pinball machines and a variety of other arcade games are open for play with the price of admission at the Asheville Pinball Museum. (Liza Weisstuch) I hadn’t expected to spend much time at Asheville’s Pinball Museum. I’ve never been much of any kind of gamer. But this game museum, I quickly discovered, is also a history museum, an anthropology study, and a chronicle of technology, too. All this on top of being a nostalgic arcade. The museum opened in 2013 and now boasts about 75 pinball machines available for playing with themes ranging from race cars to the Rolling Stones to the Terminator to super heroes galore, to name just a few. A kind young employee showed me around and explained how machines evolved from analogue, with not a single digital component, to machines with speech. The then-futuristic looking, now quaint, Pin-Bot machine introduced in 1986 was a literal game-changer with the addition of ramps. Then in 1992 came the advent of dot-matrix displays. But about the fun part: the $15 admission ($12 for kids 10 and under) gets you open access to all the machines, no tokens or coins required. There are also all sorts of circa-1980s arcade games and plenty of other treats for 80s pop culture junkies. A snack bar offers beer and soda. Just one note: it can get very busy and there is a maximum capacity. They don’t take reservations so be prepared to wait. BEYOND BARBECUE: REDEFINING APPALACHIAN CUISINE  Take everything you know about “Southern cooking” and toss it out the window. Asheville natives and chefs who’ve gravitated here from elsewhere around the country are redefining Appalachian cuisine. Katie Button, a four-time James Beard nominee, rises to the top of imaginative Southeastern chefs. After cutting her teeth at the acclaimed elBulli in Spain, the native daughter opened the Spanish tapas spot Cúrate, which has an astounding sherry selection to wash down classic Spanish bites, and then Nightbell, which focuses on small plates that showcase seasonal Appalachian ingredients, largely sourced from local farmers. In addition to turning out delicious food and meticulously crafted cocktails, the mission here is noteworthy as well: zero waste. In partnership with Cúrate, the kitchen uses lesser known cuts of meat. Bar director Phoebe Esmon swaps odds and ends with the chefs for pickling, canning, and preserving. The pulp from the house cider is used in a cider/bourbon cocktail makes a cameo in the jam served with the skillet corn bread.  Creativity extends far beyond the plate at the riverside Smoky Park Supper Club, a casual, lively eatery set in a strategically arranged shipping containers. There’s truth in advertising here, as the kitchen specializes in all sorts of wood-smoked morsels, from char-grilled oysters and wood-fired mussels to all kinds of meats. Even vegetarians will be pleased with choices like the charred cauliflower soup. And the cocktails are strong enough to stand up to the food’s intense flavors. WEST ASHEVILLE: SIP, SHOP, SAUNTER Local pride defines the increasingly hip West Asheville neighborhood. (Liza Weisstuch) Every city’s got at least one: it’s the neighborhood whose hip quotient has skyrocketed in just a few short years, thanks to an enterprising creative class. That neighborhood here is West Asheville, which is essentially a single main thoroughfare, Haywood Ave, with boutiques and bars and cafés and restaurants lining both sides for about a mile. I spent about three and a half hours walking from end to end, no small feat when I tell you it was raining buckets the entire afternoon. Nonetheless, I started at the Drygoods Shop, a gorgeous old actual dry goods shop that’s been appropriated as a designers’ collective. Owner Leigh Anne Hilbert, a seamstress who opened the place in 2011, makes leather/waxed canvas bags under the company name Overlap Sewing Studio. She also offers classes. Among the other makers that claim studio space here and sell their wares are New Life CBD Oil and Meri Hennon, who makes stylish leather bags under the brand Night Heron Studio. Just across the street I popped into Flora, a café/florist hybrid that might be the most zen coffee shop I’ve ever come across. The florist actually calls itself a “botanical living boutique,” as it specializes in living wall installations and the like. The shop space opens into the café, which has soaring ceilings, huge windows looking onto the road, and floral displays covering an entire wall. The coffee, pastries and all the trimming are Asheville-centric. After we chatted about her graduate courses in psychology and her sister who lives in Amsterdam, she told me that even the honey they use is sourced from a nearby organic beekeeper. “It’s as local as you can get,” she said. Making my way north, I stopped into Retrocade, which is exactly what it sounds like: a throwback of a spot with vintage arcade games and beer. All-day access to thousands of games fetches just $10. A few storefronts down in a cottage-like setup was On the Inside, a lingerie studio where Elise Olson makes high end unmentionables as well as PJs and accessories. There’s an exquisite delicacy to every piece here. True confessions: because of what had become a biblical-caliber storm, I took an Uber the 1.7 miles for dinner at Pizza Mind. As I dried off, I couldn’t imagine pizza anywhere tasting better.  RIVER ARTS DISTRICT Wander through dozens of artist galleries in the River Arts District. (Liza Weisstuch) Asheville has long had a gravitational pull on creative types. As early as the late 1800s, women came to the region from more northern states and built lives for themselves as craftspeople. They set up schools and became avid practitioners of the Arts and Crafts style. The arts scene is still thriving, as evident in the River Arts District, a once-industrial neighborhood where warehouses and industrial buildings, like a tannery and a cotton mill, have been appropriated by artists. Now, with their cheery, brightly colored facades, most galleries, many of which are also working studios, are open to the public each day. Some even have drop-in demos or drop-in classes. Odyssey Center for Ceramic Arts, for one, offer pot-throwing sessions most Fridays. I spend a solid few hours browsing delicate pottery, electric-hued landscape painting, and eccentric wax sculptures. And where artists go, affordable eats follow. Check out the globally-accented tacos at White Duck Taco and grab a cappuccino at one of the many laid-back cafes.   GINGER BEER TAKES CENTER STAGE  Ginger's Revenge features a variety of housemade ginger beers in a lively industrial-chic setting. (Courtesy Jack Sorokin) I’ve walked into many a’specialty bar over the years—a sherry bar in New York City’s East Village, a gin bar in San Francisco, and an amusingly quirky bubbles bar called Cava in Kansas City. Never in my wildest dreams, however, could I have imagined a ginger beer bar if you ever dared me to. Husband-and-wife-run Ginger’s Revenge is a standout in a city of beer bars. They serve brewed-onsite alcoholic ginger beer—and lots of it. I sampled a flight of honey-chamomile, agave lime, pear rosemary, and dry-hopped. Each offered a different degree of ginger spiciness to shine through. There’s a lively block party vibe to the place, what with communal tables and . The night I visited, the resident food truck was Booty's Meat Market, a one-woman-show. The owner (and everything else) dashed about the room taking orders and delivering plates of slow-stewed leg of lamb, cod tacos, and much more. 

Budget Travel Lists

6 Things to Do in Boise, ID

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.