BOISE, Idaho — Once regarded as a sleepy outpost, even by people who lived there and loved it, Boise, Idaho, has become a fast-changing city. That brings a cultural boom as well, with a growing restaurant scene (Petite 4 is a new favorite), arts spaces like MING Studios (which hosts international-caliber artists for residencies and exhibitions), and cultural events like the Treefort Music Fest (a late March affair that has brought in big names like Pussy Riot, Dan Deacon, George Clinton and Liz Phair, plus hundreds of smaller bands) that are nurturing Boise’s presence on the cultural map.

And the city is a gem to visit. Best of all, if you’re comfortable on a bike, you could spend several days pedaling up, down and around the city (from a 147-year-old decommissioned prison to country-twang bars, from the Idaho Black History Museum to hikes in the foothills) without setting foot in a motor vehicle. (But if you’re not up for biking, don’t worry — it’s a pleasant city for walking, and Lyft rides to almost any destination are swift.)

Go to Boise for its arts scene? Yep! The booming city is undergoing a cultural renaissance.

Here are roughly 16 places to check out, by day and night; choose among them for your own adventures. Wherever you go, don’t pass up the chance to talk with locals. They tend toward the almost unbelievably friendly, and everyone has a different squint on the changes (benefits: more cultural energy and diversity; drawbacks: fears of being priced out by gentrification) that have already come to town.

If you need a soundtrack, try Radio Boise, 89.9 FM, which has the eclectic, improvised feel of early-era KEXP with indie rock, hip-hop, country, metal and community-issues talk shows. It’s a great way to take the sonic pulse of the city.

By day

1. The Greenbelt: Boise is mercifully flat and has a few well-regarded bike-rental shops (Idaho Mountain Touring, Pedego Electric Bikes), plus GreenBike, an affordable bike-share program run by the regional transit system. If you opt for GreenBike, consider a one-month membership ($15), which gives you an hour of free ride time per day; every additional hour is $5. 

Whether you bike, walk or use a car, familiarize yourself with the gorgeous Greenbelt, a 25-mile, tree-lined riverfront trail that is, as someone merrily shouted as I rode past, “the crown jewel of the city!” By bike, the Greenbelt will take you from the Old Idaho Penitentiary (east of downtown) to the Yardarm (a shipping-container-turned-summertime-bar, west of downtown) in a lazy, pleasant half hour or so. Along the way, you may spot surfers. Yes — landlocked Boise has a river-surfing scene.

Surfers ride the “36th Street Wave” on the Boise River. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

2. Boise Whitewater Park, aka the “36th Street Wave”: Victor Myers came to Boise nine summers ago when he was traveling and living in his van. He has short hair, a subtle ear piercing that looks like a staple, and the healthy tan of someone who works and surfs several months a year in Latin America — which he does. Now he’s proprietor of the Corridor Surf Shop, just a few steps from Whitewater Park, which has a perpetual, human-made wave Myers describes as “surfing a treadmill, going nowhere fast.” Surfers line up on either side, waiting their turn to ride the wave before the inevitable tumble backward into the Boise River. Beginners are welcome, Myers said: “A lot of people here have never surfed the ocean before.” Even if you don’t want to spring for a two-hour rental ($20 per wetsuit and booties, $20 per board), join people gathered to watch on the riverbank, or lounge at the Yardarm next door.

3. The Old Idaho Penitentiary: People visit the “Old Pen,” a stark, sandstone-and-steel complex that operated (often under brutal conditions) from 1872 until 1973, for all sorts of reasons: history, ghost stories, or to reflect on the brutality of prisons. Sometimes, tour guide Cali Thigpen said, former guards and prisoners come to reminisce, with varying degrees of emotion. Charlene Pollan showed up from Utah one afternoon a few weeks ago because she’d recently learned a family secret: Her aunt Barbara, now deceased, was incarcerated there for two years during the 1940s, after getting arrested with a boyfriend on a robbery spree, stealing and spending $12,000 in six weeks. “She had a baby while she was here,” Pollan said, standing outside the solitary-confinement cells where, Thigpen had just told us, prisoners got one shower per week; could scrape ice off the walls in wintertime; and used to go “fishing” in the sewer that ran beneath the cells to “catch” dinner rolls or whatever other prisoners had swiped, wrapped in an oilcloth, and dropped into the toilets. Whether you’re going to take a peek at the recent past, or to ruminate on the viciousness of American prisons, check the website for tours.

Cali Thigpen leads a tour of Old Idaho Penitentiary, where she tells stories about prisoners like Dennis Clark who, prison records say, tried to escape 20-30 times. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
Cali Thigpen leads a tour of Old Idaho Penitentiary, where she tells stories about prisoners like Dennis Clark who, prison records say, tried to escape 20-30 times. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

4. Hikes in (almost) any direction: Boise is surrounded by trails and trailheads. The MK Nature Center is right along the Greenbelt. From the Old Pen, many people hike the iconic, scenic Table Rock Trail. Or you could wend your way to the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center (a roughly 30-minute, somewhat uphill bike ride from downtown) and wander around a network of trails in scrubby land, punctuated with sagebrush and views of ever-higher hillsides and peaks. Also check out boisetrails.com and ridgetorivers.org for nearby hikes. You can go as near or far as you like: The foothills are the gateway. And you can roll downhill back downtown in time for happy hour.

5. Idaho Black History Museum: Boise has a few cultural-history institutions, including the Idaho State Museum (what it sounds like) and the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, which chronicles the influx of Basque immigrants in the 1900s, who often worked as shepherds. Its Black History Museum, housed in the old St. Paul Baptist Church, has modest but moving exhibits about black trappers, cowboys, soldiers, politicians and writers (including Harlem Renaissance novelist Wallace Thurman, author of “The Blacker the Berry”) who helped define Idaho.

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6. Freak Alley: Called “the largest outdoor art gallery in the Northwest,” Freak Alley started as a single painting on an alleyway door in 2002, but has oozed out across surrounding walls, now showing over 200 artists in styles from traditional graffiti lettering to impressive, delicately shaded portraits. One recent morning, 16-year-old Sadie Anderson from Spirit Lake, Idaho, was crouched in a doorway, painting over one mural so she could start her own. “I had to write Colby [Akers, who runs the project] and submit a sketch,” she said. “He said yes and that was it.” Freak Alley is free and open to the public 24/7.

Freak Alley is in a state of near-constant fluctuation, with artists submitting applications for murals and then, with the gallery’s permission, painting over older works. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
Freak Alley is in a state of near-constant fluctuation, with artists submitting applications for murals and then, with the gallery’s permission, painting over older works. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

By night

1. Pengilly’s Saloon: A century-old establishment with a well-worn wood bar, a red-velvet pool table and a small stage, Pengilly’s is a prime place to see Americana and outlaw-country bands with names like the Hurdy Gurdy Girls or the Pan Handles. It’s also one venue where older Boise (flannel, jeans, leathery faces) rubs elbows with the up-and-comers (hoodies, tattoos, Converse sneakers). Check its calendar for upcoming shows — or just swing by to chat.

Pengilly’s feels like an old-timey saloon because it is. Its cash register and bar are more than 100 years old, and it’s got a great, small, Golden Age of Vaudeville-looking stage for bands like the outlaw-country Hurdy Gurdy Girls from Hailey, Idaho. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
Pengilly’s feels like an old-timey saloon because it is. Its cash register and bar are more than 100 years old, and it’s got a great, small, Golden Age of Vaudeville-looking stage for bands like the outlaw-country Hurdy Gurdy Girls from Hailey, Idaho. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

2. Humpin’ Hannah’s: Besides having a fantastic name, the raucous Humpin’ Hannah’s is a kaleidoscope of interior design. The two-floor bar and dance club has several pool tables and the detritus of decades hanging from the ceiling: bicycles, bras, instruments in various states of disrepair, a gurney, an old yoke, suitcases, punching bags, a plastic tricycle, an aluminum walker. Rocci Johnson, an enthusiastically ribald singer who’s been entertaining crowds for at least two generations, takes the stage several nights a week. She belts like a champ, but the pure energy of the room is the main attraction.

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The Rocci Johnson band performs at the Humpin’ Hannah’s saloon in Boise, Idaho.

3. Story Story Night: Live music, food, drinks and intimate autobiographical storytelling have made this itinerant series a Boise cultural touchstone for roughly eight years. Most of the events happen at JUMP or Visual Arts Collective, but check storystorynight.org for details.

4. More, more, more: The Egyptian is a gorgeous and beloved 92-year-old movie theater/live venue in downtown Boise. The city is also crackling with music venues hosting indie rock, hip-hop, metal, country, etc. Check the listings for The Knitting Factory, Neurolux, The OlympicThe Shredder, or in the Boise Weekly. Better yet, visit The Record Exchange to pick up flyers and ask the staff what they’re looking forward to. And the Global Lounge’s Facebook page lists events centered around Boise’s growing international refugee (or, as Global Lounge founder Dayo Ayodele prefers to call them, “New American”) community.

5. Spacebar Arcade: If you’re pining for a little late-night arcade action, Spacebar is your joint with plenty of pinball tables, old-school arcade games and a quality jukebox to keep you pleasantly distracted.

When you’re hungry

1. Madre: I like an old-fashioned taco truck as much as anyone, but Madre, a newcomer in Boise’s culinary scene, makes tacos to remember. Chef John Cuevas conjures up chicken tinga with nuanced spice (just enough, not too much) and limey guacamole that tastes like a memory of the Mexican seaside. The sear on his seasonal-mushroom tacos is perfect, leaving plenty of meaty (but never mushy) goodness inside with a hint of sherry flavor. Its motto: “Here’s to mothers, warm kitchens, and full bellies.” Amen.

Some tacos at Madre, one excellent stop in Boise’s new food scene, come with cheese that spills out on the griddle to make wonderful, crispy wings. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
Some tacos at Madre, one excellent stop in Boise’s new food scene, come with cheese that spills out on the griddle to make wonderful, crispy wings. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

2. Bar Gernika: Boise has one of the highest per-capita Basque populations in the U.S. and several Basque restaurants (including The Basque Market and Txikiteo, pronounced “chee-kee-tay-o”), but Bar Gernika has been a cozy, “Basque block” stalwart since 1991. Try the lamb kebab and salad with house dressing — a garlicky, creamy vinaigrette that will make you want to up your salad intake. Or drop by for Gernika’s “beef tongue Saturdays,” served from 11:30 a.m. until they run out.

3. Merritt’s Family Restaurant: If you’re looking for the taste of old-school Boise, Merritt’s is a comfortably homey roadside diner with quality versions of the things you might expect (pork chops, steamed vegetable, mashed potatoes), but its secret weapon is what it calls a “scone,” a pillowy, fried-dough delight that tastes more like one of the best beignets west of the Mississippi. Scones are also available with taco meat and other savory options, but they’re best tried sweet. Be advised: The portions are huge.

For a taste of classic Boise, head to Merritt’s, about 5 miles northwest of downtown, for old-school diner food and its famous “scones”:  a pillowy, fried-dough delight that tastes more like one of the better beignets west of the Mississippi. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
For a taste of classic Boise, head to Merritt’s, about 5 miles northwest of downtown, for old-school diner food and its famous “scones”: a pillowy, fried-dough delight that tastes more like one of the better beignets west of the Mississippi. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

4. Big City Coffee: Another homey/huge-portions contender and closer to downtown, Big City Coffee is comfortable, a favorite breakfast/lunch cafe. If you stop someone on the way to ask for directions, they may recommend the excellent biscuits and gravy — and caution you to limit yourself to a half order. Unless you’re a competitive eater, you’ll want to take their advice.

5. Bittercreek Alehouse/Red Feather Lounge/Diablo & Sons: This trio of downtown restaurants, run by local Dave Krick, satisfies a variety of urges. Bittercreek has an extensive beer list, Red Feather emulates the classic American cocktail bar, and the new Diablo & Sons is an “independent lager and taco saloon.” The food and atmosphere make it a reliable standby (you could spend most of a weekend sampling the various menus), but it places a premium on local sourcing and ecologically sound business practices. Over the years, Krick and his team have excavated and catalogued the contents of their dumpsters to figure out how to reduce waste (one result: making their own ketchup), focused on how to be more energy-efficient (tracking and drastically cutting back their water, electricity and gas consumption), and feeding hundreds of pounds of vegetable trimmings to worms in their basement “urban worm farm,” selling the vermicompost at the local farmers market. Most of these innovations are invisible to the casual guest, though you can drop by for their “low-power happy hour” from 3-5:30 p.m. when they turn down the lights to cut their energy output and drink by candlelight.

A refreshing glass of mildly tart elderberry kombucha at Bittercreek Alehouse, a Boise favorite for its wide selection of beers (many from local breweries), high-quality pub food and environmentally conscious business practices, including an energy-saving “low-power happy hour” with special prices and dimmed lights. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)
A refreshing glass of mildly tart elderberry kombucha at Bittercreek Alehouse, a Boise favorite for its wide selection of beers (many from local breweries), high-quality pub food and environmentally conscious business practices, including an energy-saving “low-power happy hour” with special prices and dimmed lights. (Brendan Kiley / The Seattle Times)

Where to find out more about what’s going on in Boise

A few web calendars will help you out: the Boise Weekly, Boise’s Department of Arts & History, Duck Club Presents (a year-round extension of Treefort’s music-booking squad), the Visual Arts Collective (a gallery, music venue and culture hub in Garden City, described by one Boisean as “kind of like our Brooklyn”).

You can also swing by MING Studios (an art gallery) or James Castle House (the “outsider” artist’s former home, now a museum). Both host residencies for out-of-town — or out-of-country — artists, and their staffs are plugged into Boise’s broader cultural scene.

Boise’s cafes, bars and breweries are also likely spots to pick up tips. Try Neckar Coffee, Flying M Coffee, Form & Function, Barbarian Brewing, Woodland Empire Brewery, the Atlas Bar and/or the Reef.

It’s all there for the exploring.