One Fine Day in Boise
Idaho’s capital city boasts charms that give its Northwest neighbors a run for their money.
Downtown Boise is flanked by verdant, rolling hills.
Photo courtesy of Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau
In Boise, half the fun is discovering unexpected cosmopolitan delights in a relatively small town. With a population not quite a third the size of San Francisco’s, the capital of Idaho manages to offer big-city draws such as farm-to-table dining and a multicultural atmosphere while exuding a friendly, easygoing charm. Winter is an ideal time to explore this blossoming metropolis, which features prime skiing less than 20 miles from downtown, plus nearby hot springs, cozy restaurants, and urban wineries.
Given all these draws, it’s no surprise that Boise ranked number one on Forbes’s 2018 list of America’s fastest-growing cities. And with more and more people transplanting there (and direct flights available from Oakland), now is the time to plan a visit—before the secret gets out.
The mountain recreation area Bogus Basin not only delivers affordable access to 2,600 acres of skiable terrain—making it the second-largest ski spot in Idaho—but also night skiing and snowboarding seven days a week. In addition to downhill sports, Bogus Basin offers Nordic skiing, fat bike and snowshoe rentals, and an alpine roller coaster.
For a more serene experience, head to some of Idaho’s bountiful hot springs. The Springs in Idaho City, about a 45-minute drive from Boise, provides a spa-like atmosphere with romantic private springs. Meanwhile, the rustic Gold Fork Hot Springs, two hours from Boise, has six pools of varying temperatures and changing rooms in a heated yurt.
Basque in the Spotlight
Surprisingly to most visitors, Boise is home to one of the most concentrated Basque communities outside of Spain. Discover this ethnic enclave by strolling downtown’s Basque Block, which combines culture, food, and history.
Aside from selling Basque goods and daily changing pintxos (think tapas), The Basque Market draws a cult following for its paella, available Wednesdays and Fridays on the patio. Many people line up before opening for their chance at a plate. Across the street, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center provides a glimpse into a unique heritage via exhibits and tours of a traditional Basque boarding house. And The Basque Center hosts dancing, events, and gatherings, while Bar Gernika attracts crowds for its croquetas and kalimotxo (red wine combined with cola).
For the best opportunity to experience the city’s Basque culture, time your trip to the 2020 Jaialdi celebration, an occurrence that unfolds once every five years, from late July through early August. Events over the six-day festival range from sporting feats and shepherding to musical performances and liturgical dances.
Although Idaho has long been associated with potatoes, Boise’s food scene brings more to the table than just spuds. For breakfast treats, locals flock to Waffle Me Up, which dishes out savory and sweet waffles topped with fresh ingredients, and Guru Donuts, where the from-scratch daily doughnuts range from classic to crazy (to wit: a variation on an ice cream sundae with a gluten-free potato base). For lunch, try the sandwich spot Tasso, known for inventive combinations such as a tart, spicy turkey with pickled carrots, fennel, and gochu cabbage, or the pork rind–topped kimchee club.
While 13th Street Pub and Grill in Hyde Park specializes in pub-grub fare, the eatery uses ultra-high-quality meats from Idaho’s Snake River Farms and makes everything in-house, getting most of its produce from local farms. Then there’s the team behind Bittercreek AleHouse, which has gradually taken over the block surrounding its flagship, first with the small bites and cocktails hangout Red Feather Lounge, and then with the Mexican-styled Diablo and Sons. The cuisine—locally and ethically sourced when possible—and atmosphere vary across venues, but the trio shares a focus on the environment and sustainability.
For an upscale experience, reserve the chef’s table at Juniper. The prix fixe menu is presented alongside wine pairings at a handcrafted juniper wood table. Other Boise institutions include Fork (don’t miss the asparagus fries) and Boise Fry Company, where you can sample six varieties of fried potatoes in your choice of five cuts with “burgers on the side.”
Short for “the sweetest things in life,” The STIL serves up artisanal ice cream made with Idaho-produced ingredients. Consider ending your evening with a flight of micro-scoops paired with microbrews or wine.
Urban Wine Walk
Idaho boasts more than 50 wineries across three viticultural areas, but it’s easy to sip in the city by taking an urban wine-tasting stroll. Telaya Wine Co.’s production space and tasting room—adjacent to the Greenbelt, Boise’s meandering riverside park—combines a laid-back vibe with a big focus on winemaking and hospitality. Coiled Wines riffs on its snake motif with wines named Black Mamba and Sidewinder and serpentine sculptures by local artist D’Arcy Bellamy. And while Split Rail Winery’s approach (and tasting room) is playful, it takes drinks seriously. Whether it’s the winery’s signature Rhône varietals, budding non-traditionnel sparkling program, or canned vino, Split Rail isn’t afraid to break down some of the stuffiness associated with wine.
Downtown Boise offers no shortage of places to lay your head, from the funky refurbished motel Modern Hotel and Bar to the luxe mainstay Inn at 500 Capitol. But if you have your heart set on close proximity to wine tasting and the Boise River, book a room at The Riverside Hotel. Aside from its location near Boise’s Greenbelt and urban wineries (which you can explore on a rentable beach cruiser), the hotel offers a robust live-music schedule in both its bar and the Sapphire Room, which often hosts jazz and bluegrass acts.
Rise and Vine
A day trip to the Snake River Valley is a must for wine lovers.
If your idea of adventure leans more toward vineyards than mountain activities, Idaho still has you covered. Wine connoisseurs will find much to explore in the state—the number of Idaho wineries has quietly grown from 11 in 2002 to more than 50 today—and a tasting trip to the Boise-accessible Snake River Valley, with its primarily family-owned and -operated wineries, makes for a largely relaxed experience. (Most wineries ship to California, and Alaska Airlines lets Idaho wines fly free.)
To visit the Snake River Valley’s Sunnyslope Wine Trail without your own transportation, consider a trek with Snake River Wine Tours. A luxury Mercedes-Benz whisks you and up to nine other passengers to four different wineries, with plenty of in-car water and snacks to keep you cruising. While the winery destinations change depending on the group and availability, owner Samantha Maxey always shares history, regional knowledge, and insider tidbits along the way, adding an extra layer to the tasting experience.
Whether you opt to drive yourself or take a tour, a sample itinerary might begin at Idaho’s largest winery, Ste. Chapelle, which features a Gothic chapel–inspired tasting room perched on a hill with views of the valley below. Best known for its riesling, the winery also produces a series called Love Idaho, using grapes sourced from the Snake River region. Continue on to the extremely small-release Bitner Vineyards, which has been crafting wines from sustainable, hand-harvested, and almost entirely estate-grown fruit since 1981. On top of making phenomenal Spanish-style wines with conversation-starting names (don’t miss the Menopause Merlot), owner Ron Bitner has been known to regale guests with stories about his double life as an internationally renowned bee scientist or to introduce visitors to his truffle-hunting dog.
A quick drive will take you to Fujishin Family Cellars, which celebrated a decade in business in 2019 and an Idaho Winery of the Year award in 2018. Housed in the historic Robison Fruit Ranch building, Fujishin’s tasting room is where you can sample less-common varietals such as the winery’s gold medal–winning dry gewurztraminer and 100 percent petit verdot. If you find a bottle you love, act quickly; its wines have sold out mid-taste. Round out the day with a stop at Indian Creek Winery, one of Idaho’s oldest estates. With garden views, a funky gift shop, and a laid-back tasting room where resident dog Dahlia has been known to roll over for belly rubs, Indian Creek serves as a relaxed final stop for pours ranging from its best-selling viognier to its malbec, whose label is auctioned off every year to support the Idaho Humane Society (and always features an adorable pooch).