One of the first things I do when researching a place I’m going to visit is to try and find some must sees for that place. I’ll look at a few different sources (e.g. a guidebook or the interweb). What I’m really looking for, though, are the little golden nuggets provided by people who actually live there. The locals are the ones who really know what’s going on and can separate the wheat from the chaff (going biblical here people, just stick with me.)
This post is going to be about what I, as a proud citizen of Boise, Idaho, would recommend to visitors coming from out of town. Here’s my top ten things to do in Boise, the City of Trees, which is our backyard. Some of these events are seasonal. Hence, you might want to keep that in mind before you hop into the river in the middle of January.
10. Take a stroll down Warm Springs Avenue or Harrison Boulevard.
I love to see houses that you can tell were labors of love by the architects. There are two streets in downtown Boise that have houses that fit this description. The homes (let’s get real, mansions) on these two roads are built in all kinds of styles; you’ll find Tudor, Colonial, Craftsman, Mediterranean, and many others. I once heard a story that after an Italian-style home was built on Warm Springs. People thought it was so beautiful they would picnic on the front lawn. It’s hard to imagine this happening today in the age of cookie-cutter homes in pre-mapped out suburbs that are churned out in a matter of months.
Harrison Boulevard is so named because President Benjamin Harrison signed the 1890 act that made Idaho an official state (it used to be 17th St.). After the turn of the century, Boise’s uppercrust decided to congregate on this street and show off by building interesting and unique residences. Every year on October 31, the fine homeowners on Harrison throw one heck of a Halloween trick-or-treat-a-thon and you will see thousands of area kids in costumes with bags full of candy.
Warm Springs Avenue
Around the time Idaho because a state, citizens of Boise were realizing that this area has some unique features; one of which was an abundance of hot water in the form on natural hot springs. The enterprising residents decided to use this natural boon to their benefit and built their mansions with pipes that pumped this hot water straight into their houses, hence the name ‘Warm Springs.’ This is one of the first instances in the world of geothermal heating (making B’s energy-oriented heart swell with pride).
9. Float the Boise River.
Did you know that Idaho has more navigable white water than any other state in the lower 48? Running right through downtown, the Boise River is one of such rivers. (Although on the stretch that we are talking about here, the white water is more ‘weee’ than ‘WEEEE’ like you’ll find in other parts of Idaho). Every day during the summer months you will find swimsuit-clad Boiseans meandering down the river on a wide range of floating devices. Floaters put in at Barber Park in East Boise and float five miles down river and take out at Ann Morrison Park downtown.
Along the way, floaters will go over a few small rapids, under a few bridges and most likely through and around a few trees. The river can be very peaceful and you’ll hear woodpeckers pecking and see beaver and otter. Or it can be pretty rambunctious, and you’ll hear coeds flirt and have to avoid being splashed as teenagers jump off bridges and rope swings into the water. This is a cheap and cool way to beat the heat of a Boise summer. (Free if you don’t mind walking a little to avoid paying to park.)
8. Tour the Old Idaho Penitentiary.
In the 1870s, the Idaho Penitentiary opened its doors (and quickly locked them afterwards) to this area’s criminals. For the next hundred years, the ‘Old Pen’ would house over 13,000 (mostly) men and women, eventually closing in the 1970s. The Idaho State Historical Society maintains the Old Pen now. Visitors can explore the prison cells, grounds and even gallows where the prisoner’s spent their time.
The Penitentiary is nestled underneath Table Rock, a rock outcropping and popular hike in the Boise Foothills. The sandstone quarry on Table Rock supplied the inmates with material, which they used to build several of the buildings that make up the Old Pen complex. In 2008, the paranormal experts from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures visited the former prison and had some experiences that would raise the hair on the back of your neck. Even if you don’t believe in paranormal activity, you will feel the eerie history of this complex as you wander around.
7. Bike on the Greenbelt.
Remember that river we talked about in Number 9 above? Well, running parallel to the Boise River is a 25-mile long paved path where Boiseans run, skate and bike for fun…or commute to work. The path starts at the base of the Lucky Peak Dam and Reservoir. It stretches through the city of Boise, ending in Garden City. Along this path you will see stately cottonwoods and aspens as well as critters that call this riparian area home. Last year, as I walked over the Broadway Bridge, I stopped and watched a mom and her kits (baby beavers) flip and swim around. Totes adorbs.
The Greenbelt began in the 1960s as city leaders struggled to find a way to keep the area next to the river safe from the seedier aspect of a city. To this day, there’s an annual event where volunteers clean up the river in a Riversweep. This labor of love does the trick, as I rarely see trash or debris along the pathway. If you are just visiting Boise, you can rent a bike at one of the Boise Green Bike rental kiosks around town and let the wind blow through your hair as you pedal along.
6. Learn some culture in the Basque Block.
Boise boasts the highest concentration of Basques outside of the Basque land in northern Spain. For those not familiar with this group, the Basques are a distinct ethnic group whose people have lived in the Pyrenees between France and Spain for thousands of years. This makes them one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe. Their language is Europe’s oldest living language and is wicked hard to learn. Folklore says the Devil himself spent years trying to learn it but eventually gave up.
Most people have probably heard of Basques with a historical lens. Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ depicts the civilian-targeted bombing during the Spanish Civil War, which killed hundreds in the Basque town. Basques are also known through the political group ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) who spent decades fighting for rights after the Basque culture was suppressed in the 1940s and 1950s. So what does all this have to do with Boise? Well, in a word: sheep.
Basques traveled to the wide open high desert land in southeast Idaho and set up shop as sheepherders. They retained their unique culture and if you visit the Basque Block in downtown Boise, you can sample traditional food at one of the many restaurants, learn about the Basque culture at the museum and if you’re lucky, hear the smack of a ball as people play Pelota, a version of handball. If you are really lucky, you’ll be visiting the Basque Block during Jaialdi, a Basque festival that visits town every five years. This great big ol’ party brings tens of thousands of people together for food, dancing, and fun.
5. Watch a play at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.
If you enjoy plays and musicals, but don’t like to be cooped up indoors, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is for you. Between the foothills and the river is a state-of-the-art outdoor amphitheater. Every summer, first-rate professionals perform a series of plays and musicals here. There is room for over 700 attendees in a few different seating options. I’ll be honest, I’ve only ever sat in the back of ampitheater on a blanket (the cheap seats). Trust me though, if this is slumming it, you won’t be doing that bad.
You can bring your own food and drink to the performance and it makes for a right nice little picnic to be up on the hill while the show is going on. Every year the Festival performs a variety of shows; there will be some Shakespeare mixed in with some modern playwrights. Don’t think the Shakespeare plays will be staid and uptight–the last one I saw threw in a Barbershop quartet number, just for good measure. Advice: these performances can be a little pricey, but before each play’s opening night there is a special performance that is discounted.
4. Eat something tasty on 8th Street.
Boise isn’t the foodie capital of the Northwest. Not even close. However, you can get a very tasty meal from some unique restaurants in a terrific setting. 8th street is a quasi-pedestrian road running for two blocks in the heart of downtown. Most sides of the road for these two blocks are lined with a variety of restaurants and most all have outdoor seating. In good weather, you can’t beat eating your meal outside watching all of the passerby-s.
There are some staples on this road that have been around for a while (Bittercreek, Fork, Matador). However, there seems to be some turnover in restaurants with new ones coming in every year. Just today I walked down 8th Street and made a mental note that I need to try out a new place that recently opened. Most Saturday mornings and afternoons 8th Street shuts down as the Capitol City Public Market takes over and local farmers and artisans hawk their goods.
3. Catch a game on the Smurf Turf.
Full disclosure, I graduated from Boise State University and like most people in Idaho, I bleed blue. I have watched many a football games in the stadium with the blue turf. So much so that it is a natural color to me and I’m not sure why most other stadiums have green fields. Most people don’t feel this way, so seeing the field is a unique experience when visiting Boise.
The blue turf was installed in 1986 and the university hasn’t looked back in 30 years. I’m not sure if other teams have trouble playing on a blue field or if Boise State has just been that good, but since 1999, Boise State has only lost at home six times. (That’s pretty dang impressive for you non-football oriented people out there.) If you go to a game, be prepared to join in as the crowd performs its signature response to the announcer’s comment: ‘and that’s another Bronco…..FIRST DOWN.’ Trust me, with this team, you’ll hear that a lot.
2. Go to a movie/concert at the Egyptian.
For almost 90 years, the Egyptian Theatre has taken up prime real estate on the corner of Capitol and Main in downtown Boise. The theater was built in 1927 during the Art Deco period. It was inspired by Egypt as King Tut’s tomb had just being unearthed. It has gone through many iterations during its history, but in 1999 the theater was remodeled to reflect its original look.The interior of the Egyptian stays true to its name and is covered with hieroglyphs and rich golds and reds. The designs are so cool you have to make sure you don’t get distracted and lose focus of whatever event you are attending.
Since 1999, most traditional seating theaters in town have closed or been demoted to play second run shows. The clever Egyptian has stayed relevant. Despite not having 3-D, IMAX or stadium seating it has found a niche and stuck with it. Nowadays, most performances at the Egyptian are concerts, specialty films or events, or–and these are a lot of fun–Boise Classic Movies. Where else can you watch one of the greatest movies of all time, Raiders of the Lost Ark, on the big screen again surrounded by multiple fans dressed up in their best Indy wear? Speaking of unique experiences at the Egyptian, the local Kiwanis group sponsors a fund raiser each year where silent films from Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy are accompanied by a talented organist. You can almost pretend you have been transported back to the Egyptian’s early days.
1. Hike or Bike in the Boise Foothills.
The Boise foothills are my number one favorite thing about Boise. The word ‘foothill’ is probably pretty subjective. In our context it means the hills that emerge from the edge of downtown Boise (at about 2700 feet) and rise to the tree line (somewhere around 5 or 6000 feet). The foothills are chock full of trails for hiking, running, mountain biking, horseback riding, and in some areas, dirtbiking. I’ve even seen some sheep up there, as they grazed the variety of grasses.
The foothills are an example that governmental agencies can work together. Several state and federal agencies combine to form the Ridges to Rivers Partnership. For most months out of the year (it can be pretty sparse during the winter) you will see many Boiseans in all degree of fitness enjoying the outdoors as they go up and down the well defined trails. During spring the hills turn bright green and are covered in wild flowers. The rest of the year they fade into the…well, brown, that is typical of a high desert.
It might not be the most obviously pretty area, but there is something beautiful in the starkness. All sorts of critters call this area home; I’ve seen birds of prey, owls, lizards, snakes, foxes and coyotes during my hikes and bikes. If you are in town on a Saturday, you should check out the Foothills Learning Center and see if they have any lectures going on to orient you to this incredible landscape.
Well those are the top things to do in Boise and why I choose to call this place home. B and I have seen a lot of places. However, I just haven’t come across a place that I enjoy quite as much. It was pretty hard to narrow this list down to just 10. I’m sure I missed some things that other Boiseans would be shocked I didn’t include. What about it, friends? What did I miss? If you live in a different town, I’d love to hear about what your top ten list. Chances are I’d want to come visit and see it for myself!