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Boise is America's Ultimate Hidden Gem (For Now)

To call Boise the quintessential hidden gem in the U.S. is a bit of a misnomer, only in the sense that travelers are quickly catching on to the abundant beauty, charm and cultural draw of Idaho’s capital city. But for as long as the city has existed, since its inception as a lush oasis in the midst of desert landscape, Boise has notoriously been one of the most isolated cities in the nation. While this has helped keep the population level comfortable, the cost of living affordable and the natural landscape as beautiful as ever, Boise is ready for its closeup. This once-hidden gem (the capitol of the Gem State, no less) is abuzz with visitors and new residents, businesses and restaurants, adventure and history. And there’s no better time to get acquainted with one of the most exciting destinations in the United States.

The History

Boise is the only place in the country where the Oregon Trail and Basque culture intersect. This is a city rich in heritage and history, all of which can be felt at numerous well-preserved monuments, buildings and districts downtown today.

The “City of Trees” earned its name when the region’s first explorers encountered it along the Oregon Trail, awe-struck by the proliferation of trees along the river. Considering the region is largely arid desert, this was quite an oasis for the wary travelers, one of whom referred to the riverside area as “Les Bois,” or “the woods” in French. Ever since that fortuitous voyage, Boise has been a fruitful refuge in Southwestern Idaho, blossoming to become the state’s largest city, its capital (sorry, Lewiston) and the crown of the metropolitan area dubbed Treasure Valley.

Rising like a beacon from the heart of downtown Boise is the Idaho State Capitol building. Looking strikingly similar to the U.S. Capitol Building in D.C., the looming property boasts an illustrious array of marble fixtures and soaring pillars, all capped off with a regal dome. The most impressive facet is how accessible the building is, with free entry for anyone to meander and explore. When not in session, the Senate and House of Representatives wings are open for visitors to peruse, and there are several sculptures and statues to marvel at as well. For those looking for a fun challenge, the building offers a scavenger hunt, which can be picked up on the lower level by the gift shop.

Another important part of the city’s history is its Basque heritage. Home to the largest concentration of Basque people outside of Spain, with about 16,000 current denizens, it’s an important ingredient in the cultural melting pot. The city’s current mayor, David Bieter, is Basque, and there’s a Basque Block downtown that houses a market, museum, restaurants, festivals and a massive indoor frontón court, one of only a few in the U.S. dedicated to the Basque sport. There’s even a tree grown from a sapling of the legendary Tree of Gernika in Basque country, an iconic symbol of resilience that miraculously survived a devastating carpet bombing by nazis in 1937.

While many people tend to lump Basque in with Spanish, it’s actually a culture with a language entirely its own, and pastimes to match. Wander around Boise’s Basque Block and immerse yourself: sidewalks are emblazoned with names of the city’s original Basque residents, a market doles out heaping portions of paella al fresco for lunch, bars are brimming with wine and popular events like the San Inazio Festival draw boisterous crowds out into the street. Drink it all in at Bar Gernika, a classic pub filled with beer, wine and snacks like croquetas, chorizo and lamb sandwiches. Explore the vibrant Basque Museum to unravel the history of the region and its Basque people, then swing by the Basque Market to peruse the largest selection of Basque wines in the state. The Basque Center popularly plays host to the Boise Oinkari, a traditional dance troupe that does the homeland proud.

The Nature

As the “City of Trees,” nature and Boise go hand-in-hand. Nowhere is this more evident than the Boise Greenbelt, a miles-long riverside trail that weaves through several parks and into adjoining suburbs, providing paradise for cyclists, joggers and walkers. This tree-lined waterway was what earned Boise its name and captivated the earliest passersby. Today, it continues to captivate as more and more locals and out-of-towners maximize the Boise River’s potential.

The best way to experience the Greenbelt is via a leisurely guided bike trip with Boise Bicycle Tours. Accessible and comfortable for any experience and fitness level, the tours embark on sleek beach cruisers through downtown and along the Greenbelt, providing a front-row look at the river, its green spaces and even a whitewater park where surfers and kayakers can practice in the waves. The company also offers other tour focuses, as well as custom variations, but rest assured that whichever route you choose you’ll be in good hands. Led by lifelong locals, the trips are as informative as they are fun.

Another way to experience the river is, naturally, by water. Stop in at Idaho River Sports for rentals or to partake in a guided float. Canoes, kayaks and paddle boards are all available, and tours take attendees miles up the river to begin their trip back down. On scorching-hot summer days, there’s no better respite than a splash in the chilly river. Spanning several miles, the excursion takes paddlers through a few small rapids, which keeps things exciting and helps cool you off by inevitably soaking your entire lower half (at least). The company also offers other routes, classes and rentals, including equipment for river surfing, rafting and stand-up paddle board yoga.

While the river is the star attraction in Boise, the foothills lining the horizon play an equally prominent role in the city’s natural environs. Easily accessible by bike, car or even a long walk from downtown, parks and trails like Table Rock and Camel’s Back Park take hikers up into the slopes surrounding the city, providing incredible panoramas of Treasure Valley below. Especially in the summer, make sure you hit the trails early to beat the brunt of the heat (temperatures can hover in the low 100’s around these parts) and come equipped with sunscreen and water. A great casual option is to hoof it up into the foothills around Camel’s Back Park, snapping a few photos of the cityscape before strolling down through the bucolic Hyde Park neighborhood. It’s walkable back to downtown, especially if you stop off at Hyde Perk Coffee for a caffeine boost along the way.

The Food

The potatoes in Idaho certainly live up to the hype, with french fries so good they don’t even need salt, but Boise’s food scene is much more than spuds. Throughout downtown especially, the city thrives with dynamic, high-quality restaurants and bars that run the gamut from grain bowls to honey-roasted peanut butter.

No eating itinerary in Boise would be complete without a couple stops along 8th Street, a veritable Restaurant Row of independent dining and drinking establishments a stone’s throw from the capitol building. Follow the bustling crowds to Wild Root Cafe & Market (pictured above) for lunch, where wholesome ingredients and eclectic inspirations beget savorous creations like bone broth, rainbow carrot bowls, avocado banh mi and falafel with harissa-carrot slaw. The homey restaurant is the handiwork of husband-wife duo Michael and Anne-Marie Trebbi, who met while at culinary school and clocked time in restaurants and corporate food service before planting Wild Root in 2015. Anne-Marie’s background in nutrition studies helps lend a holistic ethos to much of the menu, which does a great job balancing comforting, hearty fare with a nod toward health.

Across the street from Wild Root is another inspired venture, The Funky Taco. Taking a farm-to-tortilla approach, the modern taqueria features locally sourced products wrapped in fresh, handmade tortillas, all served up in a colorful, art-filled room. Drawing influence from around the globe, options include Korean pastor tacos with kimchi and Asian mango salsa, panko-fried cauliflower tacos with arugula slaw and “Thaicos,” aka Thai tacos with chicken thigh, Thai curry, chicken skin, Thai basil and toasted sesame aïoli. Round out your spread with some bao buns, beer cheese and Thai larb salad bursting with bright flavors of lamb, mint and ginger-lime rice.

Just around the corner from 8th Street’s cornucopia, you’ll find City Peanut Shop. Just follow the scent of freshly roasted nuts to discover a wonderland of aromas and flavors, where everything from pistachios and pecans to cashews and almonds gets a serious flavor upgrade. Founded by Dan Balluff, a veritable Willy Wonka of nuts, the illustrious shop features a habit-forming lineup of sweet and savory creations. Thai chili peanuts and BBQ nuts bring the heat, while Rustler IPA peanuts taste shockingly similar to drinking an actual beer. For something sweet, be careful with the maple syrup pecans — they’re hard to stop eating. Nut-infused chocolate bars, heavenly housemade nut butters, brittles and caramel corn round out the dizzyingly delicious roster.

In the morning, start off at the adorable Guru Donuts. Housed in a beautiful downtown corner building, the cozy cafe features a dazzling lineup of classic and contemporary donuts, with several vegan options to boot. The classic Boston cream and double chocolate sprinkle donuts are hard to beat, but novelties like the Paul Bunyan (vanilla cake donut with whiskey-maple glaze and smoked sea salt) and Tony the Tiger (vanilla-glazed ring donut with corn flake cereal) come close.

Come dinnertime, Boise’s downtown core provides everything from sushi and Indian cuisine to barbecue, tiki bar snacks and everything in between. There’s some serious culinary cred to be found here, as evidenced by innovators like Richard’s. The namesake of acclaimed chef Richard Langston, the upscale restaurant skews Italian while adhering to local farm sources and seasonal flavors. Along with a sterling drink list, the dinner menu boasts bold flavors, pristine quality and elevated comforts. This is evident in snacks like hand-cut Yukon Gold potato chips with truffle salt and tomato aïoli, or the sweet and salty Gorgonzola-stuffed figs with prosciutto and local honey. For burlier plates, Langston wows with pan-seared Alaskan halibut splashed with brown butter and paired with three-cheese ravioli, or his genius take on surf and turf: braised Spanish octopus and gilled Snake River Farms pork belly over white bean cassoulet.

Another adamant champion of local farms is the restaurant at The Modern Hotel and Bar, a hip neo-motel that used to be a Travelodge before new owners transformed it into a contemporary abode with stylish rooms and a swanky restaurant. While the vibe still feels fun and casual, the kitchen really raises the bar with unexpected flavors like lamb-beef-pork pelmeni dumplings, eggplant sausage and patty pan squash stuffed with chevre and country ham. These should whet your appetite for entrees like brisket with hominy and chimichurri, gnocchi with morels and leek fonduta and catfish with green tomato chutney and polenta. Across the board, local farms form the crux of the restaurant’s menu. Cocktails are solid as well, especially when sipped by one of the fire pits in the expansive courtyard.

Of course, you can’t come to Boise and not binge on fries. Your best bet for the requisite is Boise Fry Company’s downtown outpost, where french fries come in a variety of styles and take top billing over burgers. Guests choose their desired potato (e.g. purple, sweet, yam, russet) and style (e.g. curly, shoestring, home-style), with different salts and dipping sauces to accompany. But thanks to the utter quality of the spuds and how perfectly cut and fried these things are, excess seasonings are rendered entirely moot.

The Beer

For a city with a population around 225,000, Boise’s got quite a stunning assortment of breweries to choose from. Offering a range of styles and environments, the city’s breweries and brewpubs truly offer something for every taste. Here are a few standouts:

Payette Brewing Company is a go-to near the Greenbelt with a crowd-pleasing lineup of IPAs, porters, lagers and wheat ales. The expansive space is popular among groups, families and dog-owners alike, with plenty of room for everyone to convene over pint glasses and beer flights. A popular, convivial gathering place, Payette features a large beer garden that plays host to events, games and food trucks, while the interior bar features 20 beers on tap, plus wine, cider and a large selection of beers to-go from the coolers.

For fans of sour beers, Barbarian Brewing is a can’t-miss. There’s a bustling taproom downtown, but the original brewery and bar a few miles away in Garden City is an essential stopover. Here, the operation feels much more intimate; a palpable labor of love for husband-wife owners James Long and BreAnne Hovley. The duo launched Barbarian in 2015, creating a haven for sours, wild ales and barrel-aged ingenuity, and ultimately carving themselves a distinct niche among Boise’s burgeoning brew scene. In addition to Barbarian’s homey ambience — the kind of living room-like place where you could spend hours with friends — the beers here are among some of the most exciting you’ll find anywhere. As head brewer, Long isn’t afraid to embrace the whimsy and have fun, making beer with everything from apricot ice cream and Sour Patch Kids to edible glitter.

Another staple is Boise Brewing, a community-supported institution that really captures the heart and soul of community. Not only is the brewery owned by various local beer-lovers, whose names are displayed on mugs lining the walls, but the brewery encourages community engagement in regards to everything from local musicians performing on-site to donating spent grains from the brewing process to nearby farmers. The brewery even makes a special beer for its members every couple months as part of its “Community Supported Beer” series, going so far as to work with local artists to design custom tap handles to accompany said beer. Venture into Boise Brewing to experience the community vibes for yourself; it’s a sentiment that’s front-and-center with the layout of the brewery, with equipment positioned directly next to tables and chairs. Rather than hide the process away in another room, guests get an up-close-and-personal view of the action. The tap list spans the spectrum from IPAs and porters to beloved seasonals like milk stouts and cream ales. A perennial award-winner at the Great American Beer Festival, Boise Brewing is as beloved by the critics as it is by locals.

With its farm-to-table philosophies, colorful history, tree-lined excursions and award-winning breweries, Boise is the crown jewel of the Gem State. As more and more Americans get privy to its myriad offerings, this hidden gem won’t stay hidden for much longer.

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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