Cowboys and fine art and mermaids, oh my! Montana’s wide-open spaces are packed with fun for the whole family

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For a family-friendly vacation featuring genuine culture (with a touch of genuinely fun kitsch), visit Great Falls, Montana. The city is at the center of American Western art and history and also has a few surprises up its sleeves – like landlocked mermaids. Great Falls’ lively arts and culture scene is a fitting complement to the natural wonders Central Montana has to offer.

Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, Great Falls, Montana
Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, Great Falls, Montana

One of Great Falls’ most famous residents was the artist Charles M. Russell. Russell moved to Montana from Missouri in 1880. After working as a cowboy for more than a decade – and sketching scenes from the daily life of a cowpunch – he tried his hand at art, and an American legend was born. Over the years, he created some 4,000 works of art and was the first American Western artist to live the majority of his life in the West. Great Falls’ C.M. Russell Museum’s permanent exhibits include five galleries of his work, along with The Browning Firearms Collection and “The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture” exhibit, which features more than 1,000 Northern Plains Indian artifacts. The museum also includes the Russell Riders Sculpture Garden, an outdoor collection of stunning bronze sculptures.

Named for Great Falls’ founder, Paris Gibson, the Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art is located in one of the city’s oldest landmarks. Founded in 1977, it features a permanent collection of 611 pieces, ranging from regional and American Indian contemporary art and American self-taught art. The museum also features a collection of outdoor sculptures and a gift shop where you can pick up prints, clothing, ceramics, jewelry and original paintings from local and regional artists. What better way to remember your visit to Great Falls than with a genuine piece of Great Falls art?

One of the area’s most popular destinations is the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center where you can watch movies, experience hands-on activities and take a trip back in time with the help of one of the museum’s knowledgeable rangers and volunteer docents. To get a real feel for the fortitude of the explorers and their team, you can even test your strength through an exhibit that simulates a boat battling upstream against the Missouri River’s current. The center also hosts a variety of events, including a winter film festival, musical performances and star parties, during which you can explore the night sky with the help of local astronomers. In addition, the annual Lewis and Clark Festival, held each June at Great Falls’ Gibson Park, benefits the center and features a bluegrass music concert and a variety of free family and cultural activities.

Located in the 1929 International Harvester Building, The History Museum is home to a collection of 10,000 artifacts and more than 70,000 photos. You can view everything from vintage cowboy boots and western wear to framed shots of Montana’s pioneers. You can also pick up a memento, T-shirt, jewelry or book at the museum’s gift shop.

For a fish story no one will believe back home, head to the Sip ’n Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn, named the No. 1 bar on Earth worth flying for by GQ magazine. First opened in 1962, it features live “mermaids” swimming in an indoor pool that is visible through the window of the bar. Actress Daryl Hannah once took a dive in the pool, reprising her role in the movie Splash. The bar also features the musical styling of “Piano Pat” Sponheim, a great-grandmother who has been entertaining guests for more than 50 years.

Find out why Great Falls is the gateway to Genuine Montana. Plan your trip at genuinemontana.com.