A visit to the City of Trees is like a breath of fresh air.
Boise, Idaho, boasts more than 50 parks, a Basque market, a bevy of museums, and the restored 1927 Egyptian Theatre.The story goes that many early pioneers bypassed Boise to seek their fortunes farther west, but the persistent types who backtracked were abundantly rewarded with the gold and silver that poured from the hills beyond the Boise River. They don't call this Treasure Valley for nothing.
Today, travelers to the Gem State's capital are making another kind of discovery: Boise is rich in cultural and recreational opportunities. Museums and public art installations dot the city map like strewn gems and vast verdant parks lie along the Boise River.
Boise owes its name and nickname, the "City of Trees," to 19th-century French Canadian fur trappers who purportedly came upon the tree-lined river after trekking for days across dry hills and exclaimed, "Les bois! Les bois!" (The woods! The woods!). The greenery of the area's many parks and golf courses stands in stark contrast to the surrounding brown hills.
Those early wanderers, weary of the bare foothills and the bleak high desert, found a riverside oasis lush with cottonwood, willow, and aspen trees. Today's visitors can also appreciate the woodsy river up close thanks to a 25-mile greenbelt with a paved trail for joggers, bikers, and strollers that cuts right through town.
Boise boasts more than 50 parks. Three of them, known locally as the "Ribbon of Jewels," are close to one another, all along the river and all named for women: Julia Davis, Ann Morrison, and Kathryn Albertson.
The 87-acre Julia Davis Park is home to four museums, a zoo, a band shell, and a train that tours the city in summer. Here you'll find the Boise Art Museum, the Idaho Historical Museum, and the Idaho Black History Museum, housed in an old church next to the depot for the Boise Tour Train (actually, a train on wheels). Beyond the park's Rose Garden is Zoo Boise, and still beyond that lies the interactive Discovery Center of Idaho.
Ann Morrison Memorial Park features 153 acres of baseball, football, and soccer fields, a playground, tennis courts, a pond, and walking trails. Kathryn Albertson Park is a peaceful 40-acre bird refuge with wide paths, gazebos, ponds, and a fountain. Cars and bikes aren't allowed inside the park and, during the spring nesting season, neither are dogs.
Boise's 12 museums range from the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historical Site to the Basque Museum. A turn off Warm Springs Avenue takes you to the castlelike penitentiary, which operated from 1870 to 1973.
At least the prisoners got a lovely view on the ride to their new residence, passing the beautiful mansions of Boise's more prominent citizens. These stately homes, many heated by underground hot springs, are splendid and worth a gander, no matter what your destination.
The penitentiary is a haunting but fascinating site. Step into one of the dank, closet-size solitary confinement cells. If that doesn't make you shiver, the gallows will. Then stop to smell the roses at the neighboring 50-acre Idaho Botanical Garden. Meander through the water garden, the butterfly garden, and other special sections devoted to floral wonders.
The Basque Museum & Cultural Center is the focal point of the Basque Block, on West Grove Street between South Capitol Boulevard and Sixth Street. Red-green-and-white Basque flags adorn the block. Since the 1880s, Boise has been a haven for this ethnic group and now accounts for the largest Basque population outside of Europe. Many who left their homes in the Pyrenees, the mountain range straddling France and Spain, came to Idaho to seek their fortunes, as sheepherders. Photos, musical instruments, household items, and even a sheepherder's wagon tell their story.
Also on the block is the Basque Market, offering wines, foods, and cookware from Spain. Sample traditional Basque cuisine at Gernika: The chorizo (spicy sausage) sandwich is especially tasty.
The unusual World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame features exhibits on top athletes who personify the values of generosity and compassion. Arthur Ashe and Bonnie Blair are among the sports figures so honored since its opening in 1994.
In the same spirit, the recently completed Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial inspires quiet reflection along the Greenbelt. The words of Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and other notable figures are etched into a wall of marble. A bronze statue of Frank, diary in hand, peers out a window in the wall.
The Idaho State Capitol, built with local sandstone and completed in 1920, rises high above the downtown skyline. Other standout landmarks include the 1901 French château-style Idanha Hotel (now apartments) with its four turrets and the restored 1927 Egyptian Theatre, a movie palace that resounds with organ music during silent-film festivals.
Bon Marché, Boise's major downtown department store, is joined by small specialty shops and boutiques such as April's Drawers, an apparel and housewares shop at 821 W. Idaho Street. Sprinkled among them are fine restaurants and coffeehouses, many along Eighth Street north of the Grove Hotel. Cazba, a Middle Eastern eatery, is especially popular when there's live music.
Activity spills out onto Eighth Street's pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. On the first Thursday of each month, galleries and shops stay open late and offer refreshments and special sales.
With skiing and white-water rafting just a drive away and an array of parks and museums near at hand, visitors to Boise will surely come to the same conclusion as those early prospectors: This place is as good as gold.
Planning Your Trip
All phone numbers are area code 208 unless noted. Pick up AAA's Idaho, Montana, &
Wyoming TourBook and Boise map. For more information, contact the Boise
Convention & Visitors Bureau, 344-7777, (800) 635-5240, www.boise.org .
Places to go and things to do
Basque Museum & Cultural Center, 611 Grove St., 343-2671, www.basquemuseum.com . Boise Art Museum, 670 S. Julia Davis Dr., 345-8330, www.boiseartmuseum.org . Boise
Tour Train & Trolley, 342-4796, www.boisetourtrain.com . Discovery Center of Idaho, 131 Myrtle St., 343-9895, www.scidaho.org . Egyptian Theatre, 700 Main St., 342-1441. Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, at the end of 8th St., 345-0304, www.idaho-humanrights.org . Idaho Black History Museum, 508 N. Julia Davis Dr., 433-0017, www.ibhm.org . Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 N. Penitentiary Rd., 343-8649, www.idahobotanicalgarden.org . Idaho Historical Museum, 610 N. Julia Davis Dr., 334-2120. Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historical Site, 2445 Old Penitentiary Rd., 334-2844. World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame, 855 Broad St., 343-7224, www.sportshumanitarian.com . Zoo Boise, 355 N. Julia Davis Dr., 384-4260, www.cityofboise.org/parks/zoo .
Basque Market, 608 W. Grove St., 433-1208. Hyde Park, historic shopping district on N. 13th St. between W. Alturas and W. Brumback streets. Antiques, books, bikes, sporting goods, and gifts.
Cazba, 211 N. Eighth St., 381-0222. Cottonwood Grille, 913 W. River St., 333-9800, www.cottonwoodgrille.com . Steak, lamb, seafood. Dawson's Downtown Coffee House & Roasting Co., 519 N. Eighth St., 336-5633. Gernika, 202 S. Capitol Blvd., 344-2175. Schott's Steaks & Chops, 10th and Main, 336-9100.
The Grove Hotel, 245 S. Capitol Blvd. 254 rooms; rates $134 to $599. 333-8000, (800) 325-4000. Idaho Heritage Inn Bed & Breakfast, 109 W. Idaho St. Former home of Senator Frank Church, built in 1904. Six rooms with private baths; rates $70 to $110. 342-8066, (800) 342-8445, www.idheritageinn.com . Westcoast Hotel Boise Downtown, 1800 Fairview Ave. 182 rooms; rates $69 to $104. 344-7691, (800) 325-4000.
Photography by Glenn Oakley
This article was first published in January 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.