Boise is surprising. Walking Boise is the best way to see this urban chic city. The Idaho capital—and home to the Boise State Broncos—is also a great place to delve into Wild West history, discover funky art and enjoy farm to table experiences. I arrived at the Boise Airport on a crisp fall day and immediately felt welcome.
Love sports? Downtown Boise is home to Century Link Arena. Boise is fun for a weekend or a week and you can walk to almost all of the downtown attractions from a centrally located hotel. And, I found, Boise is welcoming, very clean, and makes walking fun and safe.
Walking Boise—Where to Stay
You’ll soon find out that there’s plenty to see up and down Boise’s Capitol Boulevard, with the state capitol building to the north and the renovated Boise Depot to the south.
I stayed at the very classy but comfortable Grove Hotel, the only AAA Four-Diamond hotel in Boise. While The Grove Hotel has fine dining, a piano bar, and a fitness club and spa, I was determined to be out walking. The Grove Hotel, at 245 S Capitol Boulevard, was just perfect for my explorations of downtown Boise and beyond.
What I loved about The Grove Hotel were the comfortable, quiet rooms. I was on the 13th Floor (apparently they weren’t superstitious) and I could relax and post photos of my walks on Instagram. I rested with an expansive view of Boise from floor to ceiling windows.
And at night, the Boise I viewed out those windows was magical. Tall buildings flooded with colorful lights and the taillights of the traffic below always was worth a look before closing the drapes. And in the morning, I watched the sun come up and the snow-capped mountains turn pink.
While the hotel is adjacent to Century Link Arena and there were many teams and fans staying there, my room was a retreat.
After talking with others who have enjoyed Boise, I found out that The Modern Hotel and Bar would have been a fun stay. Once a Travelodge, The Modern is a high-tech, comfy hotel with a retro look. You can enjoy cocktails in the bar and relax while dining on their simple, elegant cuisine. The James Beard Award-nominated chef prepares handcrafted plates showcasing locally sourced produce and meats. It’s located at 1314 W Grove Street, a several block walk to downtown. Next trip to Boise, I’m going to check them out.
The Boise Capitol Building—Walking and Waffling
Morning is a great time to walk to the capitol. It’s an imposing building and grows larger as you walk toward it on South Capitol. It’s a true building of the people and is open Monday to Friday, from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. and Saturday, Sunday and Holidays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
On January 9, 2010, the Idaho Statehouse, “A Capitol of Light,” was rededicated after three years of restorations and renovations. When architect John Tourtellotte designed the Beau Arts style building, he used light shafts, skylights, and reflective marble surfaces to capture natural sunlight and direct it to the interior space. For Tourtellotte, the capitol website explains, “light was a metaphor for an enlightened and moral state government.”
I went on a Sunday morning and had the whole building to myself. I stared in awe at the light-filled rotunda. The rotunda rises to an opening at the top of the inner dome called the oculus, or eye of the dome. You’ll see thirteen large stars, representing the thirteen original colonies, and forty-three smaller stars, representing Idaho’s admission as the forty-third state in the Union. It’s stunning. And, looking down on the floor is a marble compass rose design. You can take an online tour of the building and learn about the architectural elements.
I was surprised to discover that many Boise buildings are heated by hot springs. Idaho's Capitol Building is the only one in the United States heated by geothermal water. The hot water is tapped and pumped from a source 3,000 feet underground.
After exploring the capitol building, I started walking back to the hotel and decided to enjoy breakfast at the nearby Waffle Me Up, which I had discovered on my Indulge Boise Food Tour. Waffle Me Up is a true local success story. They started at the Nampa Farmer’s Market. Josie Garcia, co-founder says, “We started with one cheap waffle iron and a heavy, metal table that we had to haul out of our apartment every Saturday morning. We looked so suspicious sneaking out at 5 a.m. that our neighbors thought we were skipping out on our lease!”
Their Belgian waffles are superb. And the toppings? You’ll find seasonally fresh toppings, including the Waffle Me Strawberry, made with Nutella, fresh strawberries, strawberry sauce, and a puff of fresh whipped cream. They still serve up waffles at the Boise Farmer’s Market.
Walking Boise History
There are two historical areas that are must-walks. First is the Basque Block, not far from The Grove Hotel, and the second is Old Boise starting around 6th and Main streets.
At the Basque Block, you’ll want to start by visiting The Basque Museum. You’ll probably be wondering why there are highly rated Basque restaurants, a Basque Festival and indoor frontón (Basque ball court) in a potato-growing state, right? In fact, Idaho is home to one of the largest populations of Basques outside of Spain.
The Basque Block is a preserved living ethnic neighborhood. There are many descendants of early Basque people who left the areas where they had settled for political and economic reasons. The first Basques came as miners in the 1880s and 1890s, but when that didn’t work out, they turned to sheep herding.
Located downtown between Capitol Boulevard and 6th Street on Grove, the Basque Block is comprised of two boarding houses (one with the unique indoor frontón court), the Basque Center, the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, Bar Gernika, Leka Ona restaurant, and the Basque Market, which is also a restaurant.
I learned from the Basque people at the restaurants that lamb is not a traditional Basque dish. Seafood is more typical. Lamb is now associated with the Basque because of their sheepherding work in the United States, which is why we now enjoy lamb dishes in Basque restaurants in the U.S. today.
The Basque people in Idaho work hard to retain their unique language and culture and the Basque Block is a must-visit to enjoy that culture and food. I’ll be writing another article soon about Basque food and my Basque dining experience in Boise.
While you’ll encounter historic buildings as you walk downtown Boise, a wide variety of building types are concentrated in Old Boise including homes, fraternal halls, and commercial structures. Old Boise includes The Basque Block.
The majority are two-story brick buildings with stone trim. The more distinctive historic buildings in the area include the 1879 Perrault Building, the 1892 Masonic Temple, the 1892 Spiegel Building – Night Grocery (Pengilly’s Saloon), the 1904 Belgravia Apartments, and the 1906 Boise City Turnverein Building. Click here to see a map and directory.
When you see the 1910 Pioneer Tent and Awning building (with the horse sign on top) be sure and go inside. You’ll find Boise memorabilia, from a massive cigarette collection to old “Wanted” posters, and historic telephone booths. And there are restrooms, always needed by walkers, it seems.
Walking Boise Through the Farm Fresh Markets
It was Saturday morning and when I awoke at dawn, I looked down from my luxurious room at The Grove Hotel and saw people setting up booths. I anticipated the opening of the markets.
I delayed breakfast knowing I would find something at the Capital City Public Market, which started at the Grove Plaza below and extended down 8th Street.
The market was full of local vendors ranging from arts and crafts to meat purveyors. And, I found breakfast…a luscious warm cinnamon roll. But after enjoying the market I wondered where the veggies were and when I inquired, I found that the Boise Farmer’s Market was a few blocks away at 10th and Grove streets.
It was a nice walk over to that market and I instantly found herbs, veggies, cheeses, honey, and more. Both the Boise Farmer’s Market and the Capital City Market are seasonal but the Boise market has an indoor location in winter. Be sure and check their websites for opening times and dates.
It was at the Boise Farmer’s Market that I finally found the Idaho potatoes, surviving heirloom tomatoes (it was fall), locally made jams and, my favorite, the folks from Purple Sage Farms, Tim and Tamara. I was intrigued by the fresh smells and impressed by the quality of the herbs. They grow fresh herbs, greens, and specialty produce in greenhouses and also raise grass-fed, hormone- and-antibiotic-free sheep, goats, and cattle. But they are herb experts and are quick to offer advice and guidance. If I lived in Boise, I’d be a regular customer for sure!
Since I flew Alaska Air from Portland to Boise, I had a limit on what I could bring back with me, so I had to enjoy the tastings and discussions with the farmers and only dream of cooking with my farmers market finds.
Walking Boise—The Funky Side
You’ll discover much more as you walk Boise’s downtown but I have to suggest that you must also see the funky side of Boise.
The funkiest is Freak Alley Gallery. I love murals and street art in any city and these Boise alleys topped them all. Just off 8th – 9th & Bannock streets I found the alley. I first looked hesitantly. There were full dumpsters behind businesses. That day it didn’t smell very good but I was curious. The art was a visible, frantic, conglomeration of small pieces flowing into each other. Walls were covered in art. Doorways were decorated and became pieces of street art as did the pipes, utility boxes, and anything that was permanent.
I wandered through the alleys stopping to photograph the amazing detail. Some pieces were humorous, others political and all deserved a bit of admiring. I went to visit Freak Alley each day I was in Boise and saw something different each time. There had been hundreds of artists participating.
So how did this get started? The first painting was made on December 15, 2002 by founder Colby Akers. It was on and around just one alley access door. His art was appreciated and he was invited to return and continue painting in the alley. Ever since that day, Colby has received permission from every business owner, building owner and public official needed on top of working tirelessly to turn Freak Alley Gallery into what it is today.
And, to make things even more “difficult,” the city is going to be commissioning new art in the location in 2018. I’ll have to return to admire those new pieces of street art. Freak Alley is a must-do and a perfect place for a selfie or family portrait. It’s an exciting place.
Adjacent to Freak Alley, on West Bannock, you’ll find Even Steven’s Sandwiches, a sandwich shop with a cause. They have built partnerships with non-profits who combat hunger and homelessness. The delicious sandwich you purchase helps local causes. I tasted their Reuben on delightfully fresh bread and came away saying their sauce is the best I’ve had.
Shopping in downtown Boise is fun. There are outdoor clothing stores, hip t-shirt shops, and one place you must see—The Boise Record Exchange. The Record Exchange is Idaho’s largest independent music store. They’ve been there for more than 40 years.
It’s a great place for boomers (especially those who shopped in San Francisco’s Tower Records, like me) to thumb through the old vinyls enjoying the jacket art. They even have a modest wall of used cassettes.
And they have a funky gift shop and coffee bar. It’s a place to stop awhile and look for that elusive collectible or just reminisce.
Last, but not least, Boise has a doughnut shop that will rival Portland’s Voodoo Doughnuts in funkiness. While they don’t have lines outside the door, they do have a unique setting. Just inside the door of the historic hotel Idanha on West Main Street, you’ll find Guru Donuts. It’s a few blocks from downtown and The Record Exchange, but then, you’ll have your walking shoes on!
Guru Donuts is a part of the Boise community. They source locally, from local fresh eggs, family farmed Shepherd's Grain regional flour, organically grown fruit, and locally roasted coffee. And the donuts are made fresh each morning. You can watch. It’s fun to visit the turreted old Idanha hotel and enjoy a cup of coffee and get a sugar high.
More Ideas for Walking Boise
And, Boise is known for its 25-mile Boise River Greenbelt. The tree-lined pathway follows the river through the heart of the city and provides scenic views, wildlife habitat, and pedestrian access to many of the city's popular riverside parks.
Walking Boise is a marvelous way to see the city and if you get tired, just call Uber, as I did a few times. They were there in just minutes to deliver me to a restaurant or my hotel. For more ideas on touring Idaho, see these articles by Wander writers.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.