There’s more to Montana's capital city than mining lore, cockeyed streets, and a copper-clad dome. Trout in a martini glass, anyone?
You can tell a lot about a town from its intersections. Parallel streets meeting others at 90-degree angles suggest planning and orderly beginnings. And then there’s Helena, Mont., where streets have too much history to run in straight lines. Last Chance Gulch, the main thoroughfare into downtown, runs through the actual gulch where four miners struck gold in 1864, putting the city on the map. Today it’s home to a pedestrian mall with craft shops, art galleries, and 140-year-old pink sandstone facades.
Helena (population 30,000) feels different from other Montana cities, and it’s not just the copper dome of the capitol building sticking up above the trees. There aren’t many places where you can peruse abstract paintings a few blocks from classic works by the biggest names among Old West artists. A carousel next to a science museum, river cruises following in the wake of Lewis and Clark, and a Spain-meets-the-Rockies tapas joint—Helena has plenty to offer.
The mall anchors the city’s center. You’ll find many only-in-Helena stores, including Lasso the Moon, a toy shop that sells stuffed animals made from recycled sweaters, and Birds and Beasleys, with prints of western tanagers and bird feeders with all the fixings. The Upper Missouri Artists gallery displays clay sculptures by Lyle Schwabauer along with canvases full of Montana scenery and wildlife. Stop in at the Parrot Confectionery for a soda and try the homemade fudge, caramel, and Turkish delight.
Early-rising shoppers can get a Tibetan Toad—scrambled eggs, potatoes, garlic, green onions, and cheese—at the nearby No Sweat Cafe, an in-the-know hangout. Also downtown, you’ll find Benny’s Bistro, offering locally grown food and a Montana take on tapas, such as smoked trout served with cream cheese and crostini in a martini glass. The large-plate options include a memorable grass-fed bistro steak.
If you’re out on a Saturday morning, you can enjoy more local fare at the Helena Farmers’ Market. Hutterites—farmers related to the Amish— sell whole chickens, jams, potatoes, and jars of sauerkraut. Thanks to the Hmong community from Missoula, you can pick up some bok choy, lemongrass, and smoking-hot peppers, too.
Diversity is likewise the rule at the Holter Museum of Art, an oddly shaped building squeezed onto an oddly shaped block. Amid bright white walls and arched ceilings, visitors flow through rooms that feel like miniature concert halls with modern sculptures and abstract art instead of music. The permanent collection includes paintings and mixed-media works by the late Robert and Gennie DeWeese, the couple who helped establish modern art in Montana.
To see the historic heart of Helena, drive through neighborhoods with late-19th-century Victorian mansions to the capitol building. Here you can walk the halls of power to take in the stained glass, ornate walls, and especially the towering rotunda, its dome decorated with paintings of an American Indian chief, a trapper, a miner, and a slouching cowboy. The Montana Historical Society Museum across the street displays more than 200 drawings, sculptures, and pieces by legendary cowboy-artist Charles M. Russell. Drawings by the Blackfoot warrior Stingy-with-His Tabacco depict buffalo hunts and tribal battles. A buffalo jump diorama packs a lot of action into a small display.
Kids (and bigger people with them) will appreciate the carouse at the Great Northern Town Center, a new shopping district just north of downtown. Riders reach for brass rings while straddling beautifully carved and painted mounts—an antelope, a cutthroat trout, a triceratops, and other Montana natives. Horses, too. Kids can head next door to ExplorationWorks, a hands-on science museum where they can move a ball with their brain waves.
Another highlight of the town center is the A.L. Swanson Gallery, selling heirloom-quality, hand-carved neo-Shaker tables, chests, and chairs.
Back outdoors, the sidewalks are lined with animal sculptures and artistic interpretations of landmarks encountered by Lewis and Clark, including a fountain representing the Great Falls of the Missouri. The walkways lead on to art galleries, a movie theater, and the Fusion Grille, a busy and boisterous place for a prime rib or a yellowfin tuna steak glazed in pineapple, perhaps topped off with a Prickly Pear Pale Ale.
A full-scale Lewis and Clark experience is part of a two-hour cruise to the Gates of the Mountains, a spot where the Missouri River passes through a mountain gorge rimmed with limestone cliffs reaching as high as 1,200 feet above the water. Approached from downstream, the cliffs form a seemingly impassible barrier—surely a daunting sight for those long-ago explorers. But farther on, the canyon opens up. Watch for bighorn sheep on the rocky slopes and eagles perched in the trees. The tour company Gates of the Mountains offers several trips a day on its open-air power boats. The Corps of Discovery would be envious.
Discoveries await at the Archie Bray Foundation, an art enclave with wood-fired kilns that turn out ceramic works by established and emerging artists from around the country. A nine-foot terra-cotta angel, an outdoor shrine brimming with busts and vases, ceramic chickens bustling around a trio of pottery nudes with Mohawks—whether you’re browsing in the gallery or walking the grounds, the unexpected pops up everywhere.
With so much to see, you may want to hitch a ride on the Last Chance Tour Train for a narrated get-acquainted run around town.No one gets lost on that outing, no matter how screwy the streets are.
Photography by Melissa Barnes
This article was first published in March 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.