I landed in Boise seeking simplicity but left delighting in complexity. In Idaho's City of Trees, I found 19th-century architecture rubbing muscular shoulders with new bank towers and a gleaming community play space bequeathed by a potato titan. I jogged along the Boise River - which is shared by anglers, kayakers and surfers - and pedaled along miles of high-desert trails, missing by one weekend a revered coffee-toting mule. I kept hearing "outdoorsy" and kept finding divinely artsy, ambling from a block-long outdoor canvas surrendered to muralists, through one of the country's best independent record stores and onward to a Tony-nominated play starring a profane puppet and promiscuous priest. I found (excellent!) local craft beer, (superb!) regional wine and (sublime!) ice cream made with each, and ate my way through the traffic jam on the farm-to-table highway. And only once, on the sidelines of a Veterans Day parade, was I nearly run over by a giant russet potato.
Do: Guidebook musts
The Idaho State Capitol building provides a fitting metaphor for Boise: Once I'm here, I just want to poke around. With a dome, rotunda and legislative wings modeled on the U.S. Capitol, the Idaho version was designed in 1905 to capture natural light as a decorative element - and, per architect John Tourtellotte, signify an enlightened and moral state government. It's also an awesome place to take homecoming pictures. (Note the shiny Boise State University couples posing in front of statues and beneath marble-and-scagliola columns at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday.) I sink into stuffed chairs in the Senate break room, where oils-on-canvas of Idaho wilderness scenes dominate the walls, and pick up a free civics lesson from the impressive welcome center. At the urging of the world's friendliest security guard, Kenyan transplant Mokoma Musa, I hustle outside to ring the giant bell beneath the front steps.
At JUMP (Jack's Urban Meeting Place) I find a kind of giant bouncy house for the soul and spirit. Waltzing into the bright, airy center - the brainchild of the late J.R. Simplot, a longtime Boise icon and the first person to sell frozen, pre-cut fries to McDonald's - I encounter a colorful exhibit about Mexico's Day of the Dead next to a cooking class, one of dozens of community offerings (including yoga, robotics and soap making) that require preregistration. But a lot is free and open, including the community acoustic guitars to which I help myself, a self-tour of 54 vintage tractors scattered inside and out on the property and a play space for kids of all ages that includes a five-story tubular slide (which was closed for maintenance during my visit).
Do: Local faves
Four blocks away, vestiges of rich color, the visual version of the smell of fresh baked goods, pull me around a corner and into Freak Alley Gallery, a feast of pro-grade murals brightening a service alley and adjacent parking lot in the heart of downtown. The ultimate in organic art, the effort started in December 2002 when local artist Colby Akers painted the back door of Moon's Kitchen Cafe. The alley now showcases a rotating cast of local artists and a fresh palate of works every year. I pick favorites - a refugee girl, zombie aquarium and Jimi Hendrix silhouette alongside a quote from "Room Full of Mirrors" - but what makes this feel more real than some tourist contrivance is the restaurant staff grabbing smoke breaks next to trash bins.
"They had me at 'cussing puppet,' " I say to my seatmate as I settle in at the Boise Contemporary Theater for the Tony-nominated "Hand to God," a raucous look at family, religion and hormones that fits the BCT's mission to provoke thought. What the 221-seat house lacks in ornamental flair it makes up for in Broadway-cred productions and a community-cred crowd - buff and trail-tanned locals in plaid shirts, down vests and jeans toting beers from local sponsor Payette Brewing.
Eat: Guidebook musts
I follow the trail of Boise's top artisans into Fork, which occupies the first floor of one of downtown's most striking historical buildings - 805 Idaho, which was built in 1891 with two-foot-thick sandstone slabs from nearby Table Rock. Fork's #Loyaltolocal pledge manifests in regional meats, breads, honey, produce, booze and even peanuts. At the half-moon bar, which serves as a sort of wheelhouse for the wood-and-exposed-brick dining room, I lean toward the coast for a Washington king salmon entree with crisp potato wedges and grilled asparagus, paired with a silky tempranillo from the Cinder winery in Idaho's Snake River Valley. Extra credit: After bartender Liz fulfills my neighbor's request to concoct "something with bourbon," he nearly breaks into song over her mixological artistry.
Bardenay sees your brewpub and raises you 60 proof, replacing brewer's vats with an honest-to-gosh, glass-enclosed still. Exposed brick and ceiling trusses, warm lighting and a long bar encourage loitering, as does the battalion of creative cocktails, led by the Basil Instinct, a mojito-esque concoction in a disguise of house-made-gin and basil. The menu says "Northwest cuisine" but whispers "upscale bar fare," with a kimchi Reuben, black-bean-and-sweet-potato chimichanga, cider-brined pork chops and, my choice, a seared yellowfin salad. Idaho's liquor laws mandate that all booze routes through state dispensaries, so Bardenay has to sell its hooch to the government, then buy it back. No matter: Almost all the cocktails come in at under $10.
Eat: Local faves
Upon scoring a seat at the crescent bar in Goldy's, a breakfast joint in the historical Perrault-Fritchman Building (1879), I understand why this place often has a line out the door: Coddled by sunrise-painted walls, hip, chipper staff and locally roasted Dawson Taylor coffee, I want to linger all day. When my salmon Benedict arrives, quilted with Goldy's renowned homemade hollandaise sauce, I imitate my bar mate, who is reading a novel while picking slothlike though a tower of blueberry pancakes. As I'm (finally) leaving, owner Wanda Martinat, whose parents came to Idaho from Japan in the relocation after World War II, tells me of old tunnels beneath Boise used in the late 1800s by Chinese workers to avoid persecution - a tale I later learn is a myth.
You probably haven't wondered what would happen if a brewery and an ice cream shop had a baby, but Boise native Kasey Allen did, and he used that musing to design the STIL (Sweetest Things in Life), a house-made-ice cream-and-craft-beer-and-wine bar that Allen co-owns in the center of downtown. The booze, he says, should help "winterize" the business, which opened in July. Already, shelf-level crossbreeding has yielded inventive flavors - oatmeal stout and honey bourbon ice cream, as well as cabernet-infused sorbet, to name two hits - plus beer and wine floats. (No, I'm not kidding.)
Shop: Guidebook musts
To paraphrase Chevy Chase in "Fletch": "It's all vinyl nowadays!" At least that's the vibe I get at the Record Exchange, a family-owned independent music store where the deep bench of LPs - Abba to Zappa, Tchaikovsky to Taylor Swift, Brubeck to Black Sabbath - is amplified by 45s, rare finds and 56 years' worth of rock posters, from the Stones' 1973 Australian tour to a Residents Halloween show at the Fillmore and a Wilco concert from about 2008. Oh, and CDs, cassettes, an in-store coffee bar and a fat section of gifts and trinkets, including wooden rings made from broken skateboards, punching nun dolls, bar supplies and fridge magnets. (One example: "Never be ashamed of who you are. That's your parents' job.") Even on nights with no in-store concert - the White Buffalo and Josh Ritter both played there recently - the Ex is a lively hive of community.
Boise loves to bask in its Basque background - it has the largest per capita population in the U.S. - so I dantza'd into the Basque Market to get a literal taste of that heritage. Before even perusing the shelves of Iberian goods, a food-focused menagerie of olive oils, wines (including rare-in-the-United-States Basque cider), grains, spices, piquillo peppers, ventresca, surimi and more, I tuck into a tapas selection of chicken croquettes, Pamplona chorizo and olives, aided by a glass of Basque-region tempranillo on a long, wooden table beneath a Basque flag. Out front, on Boise's Basque Block, Dave and Jeannie Eiguren, whose son Tony owns the market, ride herd on an informal tour of replica shepherds' wagons that their forebears lived in - tiny homes well ahead of their time. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, often on the market's street-front patio, Tony cooks a huge paella - enough to feed up to 200 people.
Shop: Local faves
I never knew I needed a pair of steampunk goggles and a befeathered felt fedora, but after an hour in Crazy Neighbor, a shop in Boise's burgeoning Linen District, that's what I own. A favorite of the city's stage art subculture, the shop burnishes a front room reminiscent of an old English haberdashery, with antique mahogany tables displaying men's (mostly) and women's hats from Goorin Bros., Bailey of Hollywood, San Diego and others. Beyond that: Bright displays of Ben Nye stage makeup, fluorescent (and not-so) wigs, zombie teeth, body paints, feather boas, stylish masks and Cinema Secrets prosthetics - all as a testament to the wonderfully wacky and tasteful owner Star Moxley, a former costume designer for the local Shakespeare company.
From humble beginnings as a four-day bazaar, Dunia Marketplace, Idaho's only nonprofit fair-trade store, now enjoys a humble present in a small Victorian, with wares from communities in more than 30 countries. Among the eclectic crafts are recycled silk place mats from Nepal; handbags and kids' clothes from a local refugee meetup sewing project (Boise has one of the country's most active refugee resettlement programs); miniature recycled metal bicycles from India; and Vietnamese pottery thrown with mud from the Mekong Delta. Director Anna Belt, who helps ensure compliance with Fair Trade Federation policies - equal pay for women, no child labor, sustainable sourcing and production and more - gushes over the Peruvian Chulucanas pottery but concedes that the top sellers are the Divine chocolate (Ghana-grown) the Level Ground single-source coffee.
Stay: Guidebook musts
Maybe it's the sleek Mercedes sent to pick me up at the airport or the tidily shelved books and polished floor in the lobby, but my first instinct upon entering the chic boutique Inn at 500 Capitol is, "Don't mess this place up!" But behind all that neatness is a more Boisean side - namely the friendly and attentive staff, one of whom hands me a Payette Brewing IPA from the front-desk cooler as a welcoming token. Of the hotel's 111 rooms, 57 are themed: I hang my saddle in the Circle Ranch, with a recessed alpine meadow scene just above the bed, complete with a cute stuffed wolf and bunny, and an old wagon wheel. My daily routine: Survey the weather from my small balcony before grabbing a hotel loaner bike for some exploring.
Stay: Local faves
From the street, the Modern looks anything but - a converted 1950s motor lodge across from an old auto service shop. But upon walking in, I feel a pulse from the sleek bar, tour one of the 39 bright, simplistic rooms and quickly catch why the Mod has earned cult status. Campfire story nights (monthly in summers) are a hit, as are the restaurant's locally sourced menu and the bar's rotating cavalry of cocktails - the gin-based Due Diligence is made with giant hyssop foraged from nearby hills. In the lobby, Basque immigrant Regina Echevarria, who opened the inn's first incarnation in nearby Nampa after losing all of her sheep in the Great Depression, stares out at me from a life-size photo on the wall. Today, her granddaughter Elizabeth is at the helm, and responsible for a turntable and a stack of 45s - Al Green, Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees and others - in the lobby restroom.
Explore: Guidebook musts
It's only fitting that my ride through the tree-lined streets of Hyde Park is on a gearless cruiser bike. The neighborhood, on the National Register of Historic Places, is anchored by a bygone-era commercial strip of low-rise independent businesses. I drop the kickstand in front of Hyde Perk Coffee House (and baked goods, kombucha and craft beers), a one-time creamery turned bookstore, the repurposed shelving of which adorns the walls. I ride a latte across the street and find retro toys for the kids in G. Willikers Toy Merchant, then chocolate for their dad (ahem) at Goody's Soda Fountain & Candy Store. Further down the strip, locals tip pints at 13th Street Pub and Grill while a few hardy souls shoulder into a chilly drizzle at Camel's Back Park, which boasts a 15-piece outdoor gym, playground and access to a preserve webbed with hiking and mountain bike trails.
Explore: Local faves
Even cloaked in a 38-degree mist, the 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt beckons: On an hour-long run that takes me on both sides of the water, I see joggers, cyclists, walkers, dogs, babies and shin-deep anglers casting flies across shimmering riffles. I coast through expansive, autumn-dappled parks and divert to take in the Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial - a contemplative stone-plant-and-water space complete with a quote wall - and the famous blue turf of Boise State University's Albertsons Stadium. When I reach the fun part of running - being done - I vector into Payette Brewing, where a Sunday crowd watches football and two kinetic dogs tackle each other in the adjacent yard. Later, I bike down to Boise Whitewater Park, where two artificially sluiced standing waves draw kayakers and surfers but, alas, I'll have to return to catch this. And I will.