Before we moved from California seven years ago, we spent our final months bopping around the Western states, trying to cram as many national parks, scenic vistas and new states in as humanly possible. This was our introduction to Idaho, a dream world of a place we immediately became enamored with as we arrived in Coeur d’Alene on a sunny, hot afternoon after six straight weeks of freezing, spitting rain. The brief three days that followed encompassed a lot of lake exploration and teaching Ella how to swim, and we tried to figure out how we could swing back down to Boise on our way home.
The travel gods worked against us, though, as we were on a schedule to depart San Francisco and move back across the country, so we shelved that idea. But Boise has always been on the back of my mind ever since I felt like I missed out on it the first time.
There’s a happy ending to this story, of course, if you can’t already tell by the title of this post, as Boise finally happened many, many years later.
And boy did Boise deliver! A progressive city posing as a large college town—population 225,000—it’s brimming with craft beer and rainbow flags aplenty, and many people told us it was “the next Portland” or “Denver lite.” I’d go one step further and say I prefer it to both of those places—by now, you know the cities that speak to me: just large, convenient and manageable enough without the true hassles of urban life—so whatever you’re doing, Boise, keep it up.
For those of you looking to plan a trip to Idaho, here’s how our long weekend in Boise went down.
Much to my delight when booking our tickets, I found that Southwest flies to Boise, so we hopped an early morning flight out of Nashville, connected in Phoenix, then touched down in Idaho just in time for lunch.
Our first stop was an obvious one for anyone who has known us more than five Internet seconds: Bardenay. If there’s anything I love more than a good distillery, it’s one that also has a top-notch restaurant, and Bardenay bears the distinction of being the country’s first distillery restaurant. We liked it so much—specifically, for me, the vegetarian options—that we came back for a second meal over the course of our weekend, despite Boise having so many delicious restaurant options. Bonus: Our parking garage across the street was adorned with murals! But that was just the start.
When we got back to our car, we headed less than half a mile down the street to check into our hotel, but not before stumbling upon even more murals, including one that was being installed! Boise, it’s like you know us already.
It was completely finished by the time we left, too!
As it turns out, our hotel, Inn at 500 Capitol, also looked onto a brand new mural painted across an apartment building. I don’t know what I expected from Boise, but murals around every turn was not it! (I was quite pleased by these discoveries, clearly.)
I also wasn’t prepared for how truly artsy and adorable the Inn at Capitol 500 would be. From the moment we checked in, and they gave us a local craft beer as an amenity until we stepped out on our floor that had—you guessed it!—a mural staring back at us, I felt right at home.
I came to find this was just the beginning of the Four Diamond hotel’s extensive art collection. Throughout the course of our visit, we checked out every floor, each of which was decorated with its own custom drawing and other bold, whimsical art. Color me thrilled!
Our room itself was a Premier King decked out in a swanky-cool Rat Pack theme and its own furnished balcony, too.
While the hotel offers a complimentary shuttle service, it’s also very central and the first thing we do in any new place is hit the ground on our own four feet, so we walked toward the capitol, through Freak Alley and over to Hops & Bottles to sample the local water.
Immediately after entering Hops & Bottles—which it bears noting, is hopping any day after work—we got to chatting with owner Mark Sieber, who spent nearly a decade up in Seattle, then moved back home to Boise with his wife at which point they decided to start their own bottle shop.
Hops & Bottles opened this summer and already has more than a dozen beers on tap, in addition to 300+ in cans and bottles. The refrigerators at Hops & Bottles stock some of my favorite West Coast beers that I haven’t been able to track down in years, so SVV and I put together our own six-pack—you can pick and choose as you wish—to enjoy throughout the rest of our stay. And naturally now we’re wondering how we can replicate Mark’s model back in Tennessee!
One of the toughest parts of our trip was narrowing down our long to-eat list to just a few key meals. We’d been told newcomer The Wylder was one not to miss, so we made this our first dinner, chowing down on a charcuterie board, craft cocktails and some bomb pizza, the crust of which was made from a 50-year-old sourdough starter. Setting the stage for one excellent weekend indeed.
A friend who went to school in Idaho absolutely raved about Downtown Java, so we got up, walked toward the capitol, and dropped in for a healthy breakfast and the signature “bowl of soul” before continuing our aimless wandering.
At 11:30, we headed over to the Basque Market to get in line for Paella on the Patio, which takes place at noon on Wednesday and Friday of every week and dinner on Thursdays. Did you know that Idaho boasts the largest population of Basques outside of their native region? The area is a must-visit for history-lovers and the paella party a can’t-miss for epicures who find their way to Boise. It’s first come, first served, though—and when it’s gone, it’s gone—so you best get there early! The market has been thriving since 2000 and under its current ownership, Tony Eiguren (pictured below) and his wife Tara, for just over a decade. If you don’t care for paella, the market also sells various tapas inside.
After that, we had a bit of time to kill before our next activity, so we checked out the locals’ favorite, Bittercreek Alehouse, for a flight of regional brews.
If you’re not a beer lover and art isn’t your thing—to which I say, girl, you’re crazy—there is still one major reason to visit Boise: the World Center for Birds of Prey.
This world-class facility serves as the headquarters for the Peregrine Fund (established in 1970) and is located just 25 minutes from downtown; it not only serves as a research center and sanctuary for raptors but also an educational facility teaching people why they shouldn’t fear these gorgeous creatures. I learned SO many things about birds of prey during our three hours exploring the grounds; for example, did you know that as recently as the 1950s, the government placed a bounty on the head of many birds of prey, in particular the bald eagle? How insane is that! Or that not very long ago, there were only 22 California condors left on Earth, and 35 years after starting to breed them in captivity and release them into the wild, there are now around 500?
Or how about this one: The main culprit of death for condors is lead poisoning (i.e. humans hunting animals whose carcasses the condors later prey upon). It’s mind-blowing, the amount of information available at this facility.
The six-month-old Milky eagle owl was by far my favorite raptor to observe, but my Potter-loving self squealed when I got to meet Buckbeak’s doppelgänger (from the other side of the glass, I might add!). Those visiting the center in late-September through early-November should definitely sign up for one of the weekly flight demonstrations.
Those who want to further their knowledge on raptors should drive down to the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Murphy, a near half-million acres managed by the BLM about an hour south of Boise. We didn’t have time to squeeze it in on this trip, but a visit to Dedication Point Overlook will be the first thing we do next time we’re back.
After our time with the birds of prey, we headed back into Boise to make a dent in the local brewing scene, each stop impressive in its own right (and most of which had a resident food truck, which we took advantage of, as well!). Among our favorites are:
- Payette Brewing Company — one of the best taproom backyards I’ve ever seen
- Woodland Empire Ale Craft — a more intimate tasting room with an ace staff
- Barbarian Brewing — a heaven for sours lovers
At 7pm, we drove to the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, which isn’t so much a festival per se as a series produced by a local theater company that runs in the outdoor amphitheater from May through September each year.
We already had lawn chairs reserved, nabbed a picnic dinner from Cafe Shakespeare and brought in our six-pack from Hops & Bottles. Gotta love a venue that’s BYOB (or wine)! There’s a pre-show concert to listen to if you arrive early. The play during our visit was Pride & Prejudice, and it was hands-down the best rendition of the classic Austen tale that I’d ever seen. Photos are not allowed during the production, which made me sit back and enjoy the three hours uninterrupted for a change, but let me just say this: I’ve never witnessed such professional-caliber talent in a non-Broadway show before, and I’ve sat through a lot of theater in my life, too.
We’re early risers these days, particularly when on mountain time, and we were up with the sun and ready to cruise around town by bike. As if our hotel could get any more desirable, they also offered complimentary cruisers that guests could take out in three-hour increments. Even better is the fact that the Greenbelt is just two minutes by bike from the hotel. Sold!
The Greenbelt spans 25 miles of park and trail along the Boise River, and it’s definitely well-used and well-loved by its residents, from runners and bikers to fishermen and canines.
Keep your eyes peeled for giraffes as you clip by—no, really, the giraffe quarters at Zoo Boise overlook the Greenbelt so if you feel as if you’re being watched, there’s a good chance you are!
On our way back from our ride, I was in need of a caffeine drip, so we dropped into Form & Function, just a couple blocks from the hotel, and fueled up.
After our bike ride, we returned our cruisers to the hotel, then walked over to Boise Farmers Market, a thriving public market with so much to look at and all sorts of delicacies like tamales cooked on site and jalapeño wine lemonade to taste.
Also taking place on Saturday mornings and early afternoons from mid-April through mid-December is Capital City Public Market up near the capitol, which is heavier on the arts and crafts than the farmers market.
While in the heart of Boise, we took the opportunity to peek inside the capitol itself and check out its fantastic collection of marble before our stomachs directed us to Bardenay once more for a meal.
Following brunch, we returned to our hotel to kick it for the afternoon, only to discover there’s a hidden gem of an indie theater tucked behind it. Suddenly the cinematic theme of our room made perfect sense! Having not seen a movie all summer long, we grabbed tickets to see a matinee of Eighth Grade in a theater that was born one year before me (that’s to say, it’s been around a lot of years). There was a bar and a restaurant, and the experience was peppered with nostalgia. Boise peeps, you need to be seeing movies at the Flicks if you aren’t already!
When we came out of the movie in broad daylight, the force of the Boise summer heat hit us full force so we ventured across the street from the hotel to a collective of concepts comprising Gas Lantern Drinking Company, White Dog Brewing and LongDrop Cider Company. This grouping of libations also dishes up eats from a local food truck, Smoke and Thyme, which has a permanent location out back.
I’ve never been a huge cider fan before but that’s clearly because I’d never had LongDrop’s creations, as we sampled a full flight and I found myself wanting to come back for more; it was the perfect respite from the Idaho heat. LongDrop was the first cidery in the whole state, and they also sell select products in bottles and cans.
We left LongDrop quicker than we would have liked—just one flight? who are we even?—but that’s because we were racing the sun and wanted to make it to Camel’s Back Park before dark.
There are two ways to get up to the top of Camel’s Back ridge: the longer, windier way with more solid footing or the near-vertical climb up Sand Hill.
We took Sand Hill, though I only recommend doing so if you’re wearing sneakers with good grip as that hill is steep, particularly at the top. I felt like I was going to topple down it as I dug my toes into the sand for stability.
It was a hazy evening, which almost prohibited us from making the trek up, but I’m so glad we did as the smoke made for a dramatic sunset. Moon, too.
Next time we’re in Boise, we’ll bring a picnic to eat at Camel’s Back Park first as there’s a nice, grassy stretch of 11 acres at the bottom of the ridge.
Lazy Sunday? Ha, not in our world! But like any good Sunday, ours started with mimosas and brunch at Fork, a downtown staple that luckily takes reservations because we had tried to go Saturday during the market only to find a near two-hour wait. Book your table in advance, as you don’t want to miss Fork.
After brunch, we walked around the sleepy downtown before the collegiates were up and at ’em for the day, then headed 45 minutes north to Horseshoe Bend, stopping along the Payette River to take photos on the way.
It was a bit hazy from the California wildfires, but a gorgeous day for rafting. Idaho gets hot in the summer, and I can’t think of a better way to cool off than a rafting trip down the icy Payette!
We arrived at Cascade Raft and Kayak to find one of the most polished outdoor outfitters I’ve ever seen; in addition to all the usual equipment rentals and shops, there was an outdoor grille, a riverfront patio, a grassy lounge area, a smoothie bar, a cafe, and plenty of space to hang before and after your trip.
We waited until our color was called, then boarded up the bus to drive the 15 minutes to the starting point of our trip.
Given that I have been rafting all of five times in my life, I’ll admit: I was nervous. When the guide told us we’d be on Class III and IV rapids for much of the time, I wondered if it was too late to back out of our trip down the Lower South Fork of the Payette.
Three hours later, I’m so glad I didn’t. This was by far the highlight of our time in Idaho, and that’s saying a lot, as there’s nothing from our trip I’d take off the itinerary.
SVV even “rode the bull” right after we finished Staircase, the most epic series of cascades on this stretch of the South Fork. We had opted for the half-day “rush,” but next time I’d love to do the full-day “plunge” and really soak up the beauty of the region.
We were tired when we returned to Boise, but that didn’t deter us from a couple of brewery stops, followed by a nightcap at the STIL Ice Cream Shop. This brand new ice cream shop not only scoops up booze-infused ice creams, but also serves beer and spirits pairings. Talk about my dream concept!
Monday morning rolled around, and we knew we’d saved the best breakfast stop for last: Guru Donuts. Better yet, they’re gluten-free (not that I needed an excuse to indulge)!
We didn’t do much shopping while in Boise—primarily because we were too busy tasting all the beer in town—but while driving to Camel’s Back had stumbled upon Hyde Park in the North End and mentally bookmarked it for a little window-shopping. It was just a bonus then that we also spotted a mural that spanned an entire co-op wall on the drive over.
Sadly, our noon airport departure approached far too quickly, and we’d only managed to check off a half-dozen breweries and taprooms throughout the weekend. So we made that one more by heading over to the local outpost of 10 Barrel Brewing Co. for lunch and kiwi sours before we officially bid Boise farewell.
I’m a list-maker (shocking, right?), and I’ll admit we didn’t manage to make it through my entire eat/drink list, specifically to Waffle Me Up, Boise Fry Company, BACON or Wild Root Cafe & Market, because there are only so many meals in a day (or so I’m told…). But all the more reason to return next summer, as if the art and beer and outdoors weren’t already enough of an excuse!
Have you been to Boise? Did you find it an unexpected Mecca of culinary and artistic delights? What would you add to my weekend itinerary for next time?