This City is About to Be Your Next American West Destination
With its Basque market and outdoor adventures, Boise is fast becoming a destination in the Mountain West.
If you walked down the street in my home city of Washington, D.C., and offered the first 100 strangers you met an all-expenses-paid trip to Boise, Idaho, you’d likely get a lukewarm response.
However, if you talked to people from the Mountain West, they’d light up when the city is mentioned, telling you just how great it is. On a recent visit, I learned just what those Easterners would be missing out on.
I was in Boise this summer because it had come up just enough with people from the Mountain West that it seemed like a good candidate for our series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World. Plus, it’s had some notoriety in recent years for a demographic quirk—a sizable and influential Basque population—which has gotten it press in everything from Food and Wine to CNN. And what I found in the heart of potato country was a city full of charm, just on the cusp of being a destination in the greater region, and surrounded by a concentration of some of the country’s best outdoor activities.
After checking in at the Modern Hotel (a renovated motel-style complex whose unassuming restaurant was one of the best meals I had while in town and was full each night), we headed out on a walking tour with Preservation Idaho Walkabout Boise. What quickly becomes apparent, walking around the core of the city, is that one of Boise’s main charms—unlike, say, Denver—is that the early 20th century frontier-style cast-iron buildings are largely intact. The city isn’t full of menacing and pedestrian-unfriendly post-modern or brutalist towers.
Of course, after our walking tour we hopped right over to the Basque Market to fill up before learning more about the Basque influence on the region. While we weren’t exactly holed up in a bar after a day on the beach in San Sebastián, the market had pintxos of enough variety and deliciousness for us to feel as least gastronomically transported. After eating, we toured the Basque Museum which had an excellent exhibition on Basque women and a sort of oral history of their experiences as immigrants over the generations in America. As far as how the Basque ended up in this most unlikely of places, mostly it was by chance, with families following other Basque pioneers who just happened to settle in Boise in search of good work and familiar faces.
But I really fell for Boise (and understood why this place has so much appeal in terms of living) when we grabbed bikes and cycled around the North End, which is the section of the city that backs up to the foothills. Made up of mostly Mountain West Victorian homes on tree-lined streets, it also has its own little main street of sorts complete with a set of cute restaurants, stores, and coffee shops.
From there, we walked up into the trails winding through the long grasses of the foothills. We just wandered, occasionally gazing back at the small skyline and around at the modern homes filled with potato barons (or, in all likelihood, tech money, as Boise is a big tech city).
Probably our favorite spot we found to eat was the new Basque restaurant Txikiteo close to the Modern hotel. (We also had good meals at the family-friendly Fork, the fine-dining Richard’s, and Lemon Tree Co. for lunch)
But of course part of the appeal to visiting Boise is what is just outside the city. One morning, we drove 45 minutes to the Cascade Raft River Center (a really scenic drive) for a three-hour rafting trip on the Payette River that was just the right amount of splash and rough for a first-time rafter. (I think they thought I’d lost my mind when I started laughing hysterically while getting soaked.) Idaho is famous for its white-water rafting, so if you’re looking to learn how to ride a rushing river, this would definitely be the place.
Also just outside the city is the World Center for Birds of Prey, which is part of the Peregrine Fund (the organization that successfully rescued the peregrine falcon). I’ve always found birds fascinating from afar, so seeing some of these predators up close was something special. The center is both an educational space (especially about the effects of lead on bird populations like the California Condor) as well as where the organization works to build up certain populations before re-introducing them to the wild. The highlight for me? A harpy eagle (I was obsessed with them as a child) who is kept at the center because it failed in its reintroduction to the wild.
Afterwards, with the suggestion from the center’s staff, we made a quick detour to the Snake River Canyon, which winds sinuously through black and dark brown walls topped by dusty grass fields. Gazing upon it was as if gazing upon an opening shot of a John Ford.
The trip was capped off with a little bit of childlike play. Also outside the city are the Bruneau Dunes, a collection of giant sand dunes—basically a miniature Great Sand Dunes National Park—that are popular for dune sledding. (Bring bug spray because you have to walk through the oasis to get to the dunes.) Equipped with our boards we huffed our way up to the top. All set with our boards waxed at the peak of the highest one, we took off...
...and plunged a dozen feet later into the sand, rolling and rolling such that the sand covered every inch of our sweaty and sunscreen-smothered skin and filled every crevice.
Only for us to get back up and try again. I don’t think we really mastered the art of dune sledding (there was a lot of capsizing and lack of directional control) but there’s nothing like a couple of hours as an adult where you can be essentially a silly child, doing it all wrong, and it doesn’t matter.
Plus, we had a glass of wine waiting for us back at Txikiteo, and that heals all wounds.
This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World. Click here for more!