Tucked between rolling foothills, cast against cloudless blue skies and pierced by the cool, clear waters of the Boise River, the “City of Trees” is surrounded by frontiers that still feel untouched and untamed. The natural environs have been carefully protected to remain that way, and in turn, Boise’s outdoorsy, hands-off-the-handlebars vibe reminds visitors of the backyard freedoms of childhood.

A place to walk, pedal or float — Boise is one of the easiest cities to navigate using a variety of people-powered contraptions.

Mountain biker negotiating rocks through sage with downtown Boise in the background
Mountain biker enjoys one of the many trails just above downtown Boise © Christiannafzger / Getty Images

Youthful abandon doesn’t stop there. Blossoming under-the-radar, the city’s culture has grown up as a kind of kid-sibling to Salt Lake City, Denver, Portland and Seattle. The result is an unpretentious and spunky take on city life, complimented nicely by historical roots and infused with events and establishments that honor creativity and ingenuity.

Boise is a city with a twinkle in its eye and a standing invitation to play. Whether you’re a culture-seeker, outdoors-lover or family-fun enthusiast, here’s why Boise should be on your bucket list of places to visit.

Backyard Boise

At the city’s northern edge spans a communal, backyard swath of foothill terrain. Thanks to the unique partnership of Ridge to Rivers, sustained efforts of local stakeholders and citizens ensure the health and longevity of this open space. Trails are shared by bikers, hikers, dog-walkers, horseback riders and – for a couple surprising weeks in spring – flocks of bleating sheep. The practice of “following the green” up to highlands dates back a century, and this western ranching tradition mere miles from urban bustle creates quite a spectacular experience for trail-blazers to observe.

Casual hikers enjoy traipsing to the top of Camel’s Back hill, retrofitted against erosion with large boulder steps. The view of the North End from atop the Camel’s hump is especially colorful in the fall and pleasantly romantic at dusk. Beyond this front row of hills, more adventurous hikers earn glorious solitude with miles upon miles of trails. Dip behind the rim line, and the city disappears. In spring, the bright yellow flame of the western tanager alights. Breathe deep and the fragrance of sagebrush and dirt might inspire a wild run.

A snowboarder at Bogus Basin contemplates his next move
Just beyond the city limits of Boise is a playground for outdoor lovers © Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau

Beyond city limits, though still within a day’s drive, outdoor recreation expands as wide as the horizon. Skiers enjoy local slopes at Bogus Basin (one of the few nonprofit ski resorts in the US). Kayakers and rafters negotiate both novice and expert rapids along the Payette River northwest of Boise, and rock-climbers test their grips on crags and boulders along the Black Cliffs east of town. Hunters, anglers and backpackers also make Boise home-base for expeditions into rugged, forested lands to the north, or desert high plains to the south and east.

Even Boise skies are prime for adventure; the brisk morning air is ideal for hot-air ballooning. A rainbow-colored sky upswept with baskets of people sets a delightful mood for the day.

The Boise River and Greenbelt

Since the late 1960s, grassroots organizations and city initiatives have combined to make the vision of public river access a reality. Now, the Boise River is a central artery for outdoor enjoyment. The 25-mile Greenbelt provides a refreshing way to experience the city, and the plethora of Green Bikes available for rent at convenient locations around town make cycling a no-brainer. Better yet, grab a Frisbee (or order a kid’s meal from any of the restaurants that use take-home Frisbees as plates), and you’ve got yourself a stellar afternoon of shady, river-side riding and park-play.

Rafters watch as someone flips off a rope swing into the Boise River
In the summer residents and visitors take to the Boise River to float, swim and see the sights © Boise Visitors and Convention Bureau

Despite crackling, dry heat, one of the most enticing reasons for a summer stop in Boise is to float the river’s family-friendly waves from Barber Park in the east to Ann Morrison Park in central downtown. Boaters glide through wildlife riparian zones and quiet fishing holes before bumping alongside the high rises of Parkcenter Boulevard and Boise State University. Along the way, the river banks offer opportunities to bask on sandy beaches or catapult from rope swings. For free-spirits, super soakers and inflatable orcas are fair game. For more refined types, spacious, multi-person rafts are available for rent.

A city playground

Between river and foothills, Boise is a city for the people. Every Saturday in the spring, summer and fall, Eighth Street closes down for Capital City Public Market, while Boise Farmer’s Market camps at the corner of 10th and Grove. These markets showcase everything from locally grown Swiss chard and heirloom tomatoes to hand-crafted honey, soaps and ceramics. Break-dancers and balloon artists stake claim on street corners while young hopefuls play their talents between vendor booths.

Stroll two blocks west, through Freak Alley’s ever-evolving graffiti art and past Rhodes Park Skate Park, and you’ll reach JUMP, a whimsical new community center inspired by the late potato mogul J.R. Simplot and his legacy of innovation. With a five-story slide, studio spaces, garden terraces and an amphitheater placed alongside Simplot’s vintage tractor collection, JUMP’s aim is to inspire human potential. These types of collaborative community spaces are the trend in Boise, encouraging a forward-thinking intermingling of folks, talents and ideas, while embodying the pioneering, imaginative spirit that founded the place.

Various graffiti murals adorn the sides of buildings in Freak Alley
With graffiti artists adding work all the time, a stroll through Freak Alley is always a new experience © Boise Visitors and Convention Bureau

If open space breeds open minds, then Treefort Music Festival is the cultural manifestation of this phenomenon. Launching in 2012, this week-long festival in March hatched from a 137-band to a 420-band event that now hosts various “forts” around town aimed to “engage the community beyond the music.” Wanderers may stumble upon “Hackfort,” “Yogafort,” and “Kidfort,” to name a few, all while experiencing an ongoing soundtrack that plays like a magnificently unfiltered mixtape.

For a more historic taste of culture, the Basque Block captures Boise’s Basque heritage through museums, markets, restaurants and events. No-frills dining at Bar Gernika serves spicy chorizo and crispy croquettes. Fine dining at Leku Ona offers beef tongue or tripe (cow stomach) in a traditional Bizkaian sauce. Every five years, all of Boise claims Basque heritage (whether in blood-line or not) as “old world” travelers and locals link arms during Jaialdi, the “Big Festival” founded in 1987 to celebrate Basque culture.

To date, Boise’s diversity continues to flourish, and visitors may be surprised to find a wide array of authentic international fare off the beaten path. Some highlights include Tango’s Argentinian empanadas, Kibrom’s Ethiopian and Eritrean menu, and The Goodness Land’s Middle Eastern-style kebabs.

Peopled with possibility

Playfulness abounds in Boise, and its good nature is infectious. It’s hard not to smile while zig-zagging through the streets with Pedals and Pints, a group-powered tour “a la Boise” via a 15-passenger beer bicycle bar.

Likewise it’s hard not to strike up a conversation with the folks sharing cornhole space at Payette Brewing. Across the river from Ann Morrison Park, Payette draws a casual, sun-kissed crowd including kids, four-legged friends and a rotating variety of food trucks. It hosts a large fenced-in side-yard stocked with lawn games and Adirondack chairs and a community-minded consciousness to boot. Visitors won’t just feel welcome; they’ll feel like they’ve taken their spot among the neighborhood kids.

When the sky turns rosy pink and shadows are long, it’s come time for a campfire story and creative cocktail. The Modern, an old Basque boarding house reincarnated into a hip, upscale Americana hotel and bar, offers the opportunity to circle up around an intimate, outdoor fire while listening to local writers share musings on Idaho. Tell the bartender to surprise you and conclude your evening sipping on a delicious night-cap while warm flickers dance into the dark like fireflies.

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