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Where to eat, play and stay in Boise, Idaho

Hit the hiking trail, explore culture and indulge in fine dining

By Sara Kuta, TravelPulse
Published: May 18, 2024, 6:02am
4 Photos
The skyline of Boise, Idaho. Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boise strikes the ideal balance between outdoor adventure and urban amenities.
The skyline of Boise, Idaho. Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boise strikes the ideal balance between outdoor adventure and urban amenities. (Charles Knowles/Dreamstime) Photo Gallery

BOISE, Idaho — I’m pedaling along next to the Boise River when a shadow catches my eye. I pause and look up, just in time to see an osprey soaring overhead, a fish dangling from its talons. I hear a group of laughing tubers floating by in the burbling waters of the river below. A cool breeze rustles the leaves of the black cottonwood trees lining the banks.

In this idyllic moment, I find myself pondering: Why has it taken me so long to visit Boise?

On my first trip to Idaho’s capital last year, I fell hard for this midsize city in southwest Idaho. Nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Boise strikes the ideal balance between outdoor adventure and urban amenities — you can hit the hiking trail in the morning, immerse yourself in Basque culture in the afternoon and indulge in a fine-dining meal at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant at night.

Boise’s current tourism tagline is “a city you’d want to have a beer with” and, honestly, it fits perfectly. The college town is casual and charming, with a palpable undercurrent of fresh energy and optimism.

I’m already plotting my next trip back. But, in the meantime, these are my recommendations for where to eat, play and stay the next time you’re in Boise.

Where to eat in Boise

Boise’s culinary scene is thriving — but don’t just take my word for it. This year, two Boise-area chefs were named 2024 James Beard Award semifinalists: Dan Ansotegui of Ansots, one of Boise’s many delicious Basque eateries, and Salvador Alamilla of Amano in nearby Caldwell, Idaho, which serves up SoCal-, Michoacan- and Oaxacan-style Mexican food.

And last year, Boise chef Kris Komori won the coveted James Beard Award for best chef in the mountain region, beating out a slew of other nominees in Denver, Aspen, Park City and elsewhere. Komori runs a downtown restaurant called KIN, where diners can enjoy a rotating, five-course, prix fixe menu, as well as a more casual subterranean cocktail bar called Art Haus that dishes out ramen, fried chicken and small plates.

International flavors

Boise has a long history of welcoming refugees and immigrants — and that hospitality trickles down into the city’s food scene in the best way possible. A great example of this is Sunshine Spice & Cafe, a beloved local business that’s owned and operated by four sisters from Afghanistan. Speaking very little English, the women emigrated to the United States at the encouragement of their father, who wanted them to have more opportunities than what the Taliban would permit. They opened their café in December 2019, survived the COVID-19 pandemic and are now in the process of opening a second location in downtown Boise. The menu is full of treats with internationally inspired flavors, like ube lattes (made with a purple yam native to Southeast Asia), saffron cookies and Turkish bagels, to name a few.

The Basque Block

Similarly, Boise’s “Basque Block” is brimming with the punchy flavors and aromas of the Basque Country, the autonomous region of northern Spain. One of the best Basque restaurants in town is the aforementioned Ansots, which opened in 2020. Helmed by the Ansotegui family, this casual eatery makes homemade chorizos, Basque bacon, solomo (marinated pork loin) and other tasty Basque fare.

If your visit to Boise overlaps with a Wednesday or Friday, head to the Basque Block around 11 a.m. so you can get in line for the famous paella at the Basque Market. On these days only, chef-owner Tony Eiguren prepares a gigantic batch of paella right on the street-side patio — and, trust me, it’s well worth the wait. He starts serving at noon sharp and, once the paella is gone, it’s gone. People make an event of this twice-weekly tradition, hanging out on the sidewalk, chatting with each other and enjoying the tantalizing scents wafting from Eiguren’s oversized paella pan.

Idaho wine

Idaho may be best known for its potatoes — and Boise even has a fun “Potato Trail” that links up various potato-slinging restaurants — but the state also has more than 1,300 acres planted with grapevines. Idaho has three American Viticultural Areas and more than 70 wineries and cideries sprinkled throughout the state, including nearly 20 in the Boise area alone.

I learned more about Idaho’s robust wine offerings while visiting Telaya Wine Co., where co-owner Earl Sullivan graciously led me through a tasting flight on the winery’s shady patio, situated just off the Boise River Greenbelt. Here, you can sip crisp sauvignon blanc or refreshing rosé while watching people ride, walk, jog or rollerblade along the path. Telaya is one of more than a dozen wineries (and a cidery) that’s part of Boise’s Urban Wine Trail, a mobile passport that offers discounts, special tastings and other perks.

Boise’s first food hall

Boise welcomed its first food hall, called The Warehouse, in the summer of 2022. This eclectic downtown spot is a hub for families, with more than a dozen different food vendors to choose from. Whether you munch on a brisket sandwich from Neighbor Tim’s BBQ or a pillowy steamed bao bun from Bao Boi, be sure to save room for dessert at Piedaho. This family-owned bakery makes homemade pies, with flavors ranging from lemon blueberry to salted caramel apple.

Other Boise restaurants to check out:

  • Percy, a chic restaurant that specializes in upscale American cuisine, like braised short ribs, grilled branzino, risotto and seared salmon.
  • Form & Function, a trendy downtown coffee shop with breakfast sandwiches, breakfast burritos and other light bites.
  • The Lively, which offers farm-to-table dishes in a beautiful new building near the Idaho Statehouse.
  • Hyde Park Pub & Grill, a pub and sports bar in Boise’s historic Hyde Park neighborhood.
  • Fork, a farm-to-table eatery located in the 133-year-old Boise City National Bank Building, a downtown landmark.

Where to play in Boise

You could spend a month in Boise and not get bored. The city is outdoorsy, yes, but it’s also so much more than that, as I learned during my visit.

Green spaces

Hands-down, one of my favorite features was the Boise River Greenbelt, a tree-lined 25-mile paved pathway that hugs the north and south sides of the river right through town. The greenbelt traverses the campus of Boise State University and connects the “Ribbon of Jewels,” a series of city parks all named for influential Boise women. There’s Kristin Armstrong Municipal Park, a 28-acre swath named after three-time Olympic gold medalist and former professional road cyclist Kristin Armstrong, as well as Esther Simplot Park, a 55-acre park that honors the co-founder of the Boise Opera Company, just to name a few.

History and culture

Also situated along the trail is the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, a peaceful site with a life-sized bronze statue of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who spent two years in hiding before being arrested and sent to a Nazi concentration camp. This tranquil spot encourages visitors to contemplate human rights issues, with seating for quiet contemplation and a wall etched with inspiring quotes.

I also recommend heading out to the Old Idaho Penitentiary, which was built in 1870 and is one of just four territorial prisons in the nation that are still open to the public. It operated for 101 years, during which time Boise evolved from a Wild West town to a modern capital city. Whether you’re a history buff or not, the penitentiary is worth a visit: It’s full of fascinating contemporary exhibits that explore everything from riots to changing prison demographics. It’s also located right next to the free Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, as well as the Idaho Botanical Garden, so you could easily spend an entire day exploring this part of town.

Another must-visit Boise site is the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, which tells the story of Boise’s Basque community — one of the largest populations outside of Europe. But why Boise? Starting in the 1850s, during the gold and silver rush, Basques began emigrating to the Western U.S., including Idaho, to work in the mines. Then, between the early 1900s and 1940, another wave of Basques began arriving in what experts describe as a “chain migration” — word spread that southern Idaho was a good place to live, with economic opportunities. A third wave followed in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, around 16,000 Basque people live in Boise, and they contribute to the city’s vibrant, multicultural flair.

Public art abounds

While downtown, grab your camera and wander through Freak Alley Gallery, a massive open-air multi-artist mural gallery that’s always changing. Plan to spend at least an hour here so you can fully appreciate the colorful murals, which range from whimsical to creepy. If you’re looking for an Instagram-worthy backdrop, this is a great spot to snap a few pics. More broadly, keep an eye out for public art all over town: The city has 400 pieces in its collection, valued at more than $6.5 million.

Also be sure to walk over to Cherie Buckner-Webb Park, which opened in 2021 and is named for the first Black woman elected to the Idaho Legislature. This small urban park has a truly stunning art installation, called “Gentle Breeze” by Matthew Mazzotta, that’s shaped like a glimmering pink tree. I recommend timing your visit to align with the sunset, as “Gentle Breeze” is particularly stunning during the golden hour.

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Community ski hill

Whether you visit in summer or winter, be sure to venture up to Bogus Basin, a nonprofit ski area located 16 miles north of Boise offering year-round recreation. Bogus Basin’s nonprofit status is unique —most ski areas are privately owned, for-profit enterprises — so the community is heavily invested in its success. Founded in 1942, the ski area offers 2,600 acres of skiable terrain divided into 90 named ski runs. It also boasts more than 23 miles of Nordic skiing, fat biking and snowshoe trails.

In the summer, Bogus Basin becomes a hiking and mountain biking hub, with other family-friendly activities like a ropes course, a mountain coaster, rock climbing, a bungee trampoline and disc golf. No matter when you choose to visit, be sure to stop and briefly open your car door on the drive to and from Bogus Basin: According to local legend, you need to pick up and drop off a troll that lives under a cattle grate on the road to the resort — otherwise, you won’t have as much fun on the mountain.

What else to do in Boise:

  • Take a self-guided tour of the Idaho Capitol, located right downtown.
  • Shop for souvenirs at Idaho Made, a boutique in “Old Boise” that sells arts and crafts made by local artisans.
  • Find your next read at Rediscovered Books, a beloved local bookstore, or find some new music at Record Exchange, Idaho’s largest independent music store.
  • Wander through the Idaho Black History Museum, located inside the former St. Paul Baptist Church Building, which dates back to 1921. Take a break while sitting next to a statue of Abraham Lincoln nearby.
  • Go surfing at Boise Whitewater Park, home to one of the first adjustable river waves in the world.

Where to stay in Boise

Boise has no shortage of downtown hotels, from well-known chains to locally owned boutique lodgings. During my recent trip, I based myself at Inn at 500 Capitol, a AAA Four Diamond property located right downtown. In addition to the convenient location, I liked that each room was decorated in a different theme — mine was decked out with Frank Sinatra memorabilia, but there’s also a “Potato Suite” that honors the state’s spud-growing prowess. Because the hotel has free cruiser bikes that guests can use, I was able to get around almost entirely without a car — which was an amazing way to immerse myself in a new destination.

The Avery

Like many aspiring chefs, Boise-born chef Cal Elliott moved to New York City to cook in some of the world’s best kitchens. While there, he worked his way up through the ranks at spots like Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill and Verbena. He also served as executive chef at Dressler, which was awarded a prestigious Michelin one-star rating.

After 20 years in the big city, however, Elliott decided to return to his roots — and bring his culinary prowess with him. Last summer, he opened The Avery, a boutique hotel and fine-dining restaurant in downtown Boise. Before opening The Avery, Elliott and his team spent years meticulously restoring the historic building, which was originally constructed in 1901. They’ve succeeded in transforming the downtrodden structure into a stunning retreat, complete with an upscale French brasserie, an atmospheric tavern and 39 guest rooms.

The Avery is a restaurant first and a hotel second. Elliott hopes to attract the type of visitors who love and appreciate good food and drink, and then want to be able to simply wander upstairs and fall into bed.

The Sparrow

For more than five decades, the Safari Inn welcomed travelers to downtown Boise. The 60-room “motor lodge” hotel closed in 2019 after 52 years in business and the property was largely abandoned.

Now, the three-story building is getting a second life as The Sparrow, a trendy hotel from the team at Nest Partners, which also runs The Lark in Bozeman, Mont.; The Finch in Walla Walla; and The Wren in Missoula, Mont. Slated to open this spring, The Sparrow will have 67 rooms, a permanent food truck out front and a coffeehouse in the lobby.

The adaptive reuse project will also feature custom local artwork in each room, a spacious patio overlooking Grove Street, an outdoor wood-burning fireplace and large windows.

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