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Best Things To Do in Boise

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Before you get here, decide which of the best things to do in Boise you want to experience: The outdoors? The big city? Or maybe a little bit of both? If you wait until you get here, you could find yourself spending a lot of time in your car—assuming you’re not stuck in your hotel room overwhelmed by the options presented by the long list of best things to do in Boise. Of course some things—the growing wine and food scene, a stroll in the mountains or along the Greenbelt—shouldn’t be missed.

Wineries

Neighborhood: Bordering Boise

Idaho isn’t just potatoes. In fact, long before potatoes were planted, grapes were grown here. Idaho was the first state in the Pacific Northwest to plant grapes, way back in the 1860s. It wasn’t just farmers churning out Chuck, either. Idaho wines were nationally renowned, winning medals at expositions in the 1870s and 1880s in Omaha, Buffalo, St. Louis and Portland. So what happened? One word: Prohibition. All of Idaho’s wineries shut down. Wine grapes were not planted again until 1970. Today there are nearly 40 wineries throughout Idaho; the highest concentration just happens to be in the fertile volcanic soils in the Snake River Valley south and west of Boise. In 2007, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau recognized the Snake River Valley as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). Five million acres (roughly half the size of the Columbia Valley AVA), the Snake River AVA includes some of the highest-elevation vineyards in the country (some over 3,000 feet) and is the only AVA in Idaho. Having been designated an AVA means the Snake River Valley’s soil, microclimates and topography are unique and capable of producing excellent wines. Thirteen wineries are within a short drive of Boise. Idaho Wines (website below) has a downloadable wine country touring map. Don’t want to worry about drinking and driving? Idaho Winery Tours (http://www.idahowinerytours.com, 208-890-6627) offers custom, guided tours of wineries, tasting rooms and vineyards. Whether you enjoy wine or just love the ambiance of vineyards, visiting the surrounding wineries is one of the top things to do in Boise.

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World Center for Birds of Prey

Neighborhood: Bordering Boise

Let’s start by calibrating your expectations. This isn’t a zoo. There’s no way you’re going to be able to pet a California condor here. Or even a peregrine falcon. Chances are you won’t even get any closer to either than a 10-year-old could hurl a whiffle ball. If you want an engineered animal experience, the Zoo Boise is home to over 200 animals from 80 different species, including the largest display of birds of prey in the Northwest. What can you do at the World Center for Birds of Prey? Learn how The Peregrine Fund, the non-profit that founded the center in 1984, has helped to establish how to breed falcons, eagles and condors in captivity. It is in large part because of the work done here that peregrines were able to be re-established in the east and that California condors are no longer on the brink of extinction. Much of the center is closed to the public—young birds bred here are released into the wild and the center can’t let them get all friendly with humans—but the Velma Morrison Interpretative Center teaches visitors about the lives of birds of prey and how they’re bred in captivity. The latter is much more interesting than you’d think. And of course there are California condors, falcons and eagles you can see. From a distance. So although you won't be able to get up close and personal with any of these amazing birds, you can learn a lot about them, which is why the World Center for Birds of Prey is perhaps one of the best things to do in Boise.

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Boise River Greenbelt

Neighborhood: Throughout Boise

A river runs through Boise. And, for the most part, parks run alongside it. For 25 miles! Rollerblading, biking, jogging, strolling, fishing, wildlife watching, cart wheeling—there’s room for it all on the Boise greenbelt. One of the country’s few greenbelts when it was first being pieced together in the 1970s, today the Boise greenbelt is a model urban waterway connecting 850 acres of parks and the city. The greenbelt starts in the east at Lucky Peak State Park—don’t feel silly if you sit and stare at the outflow of Lucky Peak Dam for a few minutes—and meanders west to the Glenwood Bridge, passing a dozen parks, Warm Springs Golf Course, the natatorium, the M.K. Nature Center and its underwater viewing windows, downtown Boise and the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, the first monument in the U.S. to honor Frank, along the way.

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Floating the Boise River

Neighborhood: Downtown

Air conditioning isn’t the only way to survive the blistering summer days that can sometimes hold Boise captive. The Boise greenbelt was initially designed with pedestrians and bikers in mind, but remember that the center of the greenbelt is blue. And very, very wet. The water in the Boise River comes from melting snow in the Sawtooths. We guess you could swim it, but enthroning yourself on a tube, perhaps with some sweet treats from the Boise Co-Op or Le Café de Paris and iced tea in tow, is a much more relaxed and civilized way to do it. There hasn’t yet been a documented river jam of tubers, but as soon as the thermometer starts creeping over 90, it’s a close call as to whether more people are enjoying the green or blue part of the greenbelt. If tubing sounds a little too wet to you, Riverroots Ltd. (http://www.riverrootskayak.com, 208-850-7637) does two- to three-hour raft trips down the Boise greenbelt. Along the way, guides teach about the history, geology, wildlife and riparian areas of the river. Whether you prefer to sit atop the water, or drift in its icy coolness, floating the Boise River is one of the best things to do in Boise on a hot, summer day.

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Bogus Basin

Neighborhood: Bordering Boise

You’ll be forgiven for not thinking of Boise as a ski town. Only about a foot of snow falls in the city each winter. A mere 16 miles north and 3,400 vertical feet higher, Bogus Basin, in the Boise Ridge Mountains, multiplies those feet of snow by 18 (give or take a few). While Bogus and its 2,600 acres of terrain won’t ever be called a destination ski resort—if you want that, Sun Valley is three hours north—it is one of the better “town hills” around. Founded in 1942, Bogus has more night skiing terrain than any other resort in the Northwest and, if neither downhill skiing nor snowboarding is your thing, there’s a tubing hill with an 800-foot drop (do you have any idea how fast a tube can get going on a sheet of ice that drops 800 vertical feet?) and 3,237 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails. Come summer there are hiking and mountain biking trails open (for free) to the public. Bogus Basin is by far one of the top things to do in Boise, whether you like winter or summer outdoor activities.

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Old Idaho State Penitentiary

Neighborhood: East End

It’s one of those weird combinations that really work. Both the Old Idaho Territorial Penitentiary, one of only four territorial penitentiaries still standing in the U.S., and the Idaho Botanical Garden, where there are actually 14 different gardens, are worth a visit. Put them next to each other—roses exploding in front of towering sandstone prison walls—and they’re worth a full morning or afternoon. Check out the nation’s largest collection of historic arms and military memorabilia at the Old Pen and then take a turn on the botanical garden’s meditation labyrinth, modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France, or stroll through the garden’s peony collection or the herb garden when you stop by one of the best things to do in Boise.

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Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Neighborhood: East End
Would a play at any other venue still be as sweet? We’re guessing not. Yes, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival is one of the country’s premier professional nonprofit repertory theaters specializing in the works of the great English bard, but we still say at least half the fun of catching one of its performances is doing so while enjoying a picnic—perhaps even a bottle of wine—on a blanket under the stars along the Boise River. The festival’s Elizabethan-style amphitheater is tucked into a nature preserve just off the Greenbelt bike path. The season runs from June through September

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Idaho Capitol Building

Neighborhood: Downtown

Fresh from a massive facelift—you’d want one too if you were about to turn 100—Idaho’s State Capitol is ready to receive you. Patterned on the U.S. Capitol—with the exception of the sandstone blocks used on the first floor that were cut to look like logs (not that the building would ever be confused with a log cabin)—Idaho’s Capitol has much of the same architectural pomp and circumstance of most neoclassical-style capitols. We haven’t found any other state capitols heated entirely with geothermal water, though. Idaho’s capitol, as well as the rest of the buildings on the capitol mall, is kept warm on even the coldest winter days by 165-degree water pumped up from a 3,000-foot well, saving the state an estimated $150,000 a year in natural gas heating bills and earning some serious green points. We haven’t found another state capitol that has a statue of George Washington carved by an Austrian immigrant from a single piece of pine, using only a postage stamp to get the likeness, either. (You can see George, who turned out surprisingly well considering what the artist had to work with, on the north side of the second floor rotunda.) There are 48 other “Winged Victory of Samothrace” sculptures around the world though, including the original in the Louvre in Paris. The 47 other copies were gifts from France to the capitals of the U.S. in 1949. Boise keeps its Winged Victory just inside the capitol’s portico. The scale replica of the (uncracked) Liberty Bell outside of the Capitol? Yes, you can ring it at this building which also happens to be one of the best things to do in Boise.

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Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area

Neighborhood: Bordering Boise

Not to be confused with The Peregrine Fund’s World Center for Birds of Prey, this national conservation area is Raptors Gone Wild. There are no cages, no breeding programs, nor feeding schedules here. This is the largest concentration of nesting raptors—falcons, hawks, owls, eagles—in North America, albeit they don’t necessarily nest in the most visitor-friendly areas. Still, there are enough raptors here, you won’t leave without having seen a few in their natural habitat. One of the top things to do in Boise, and a bird watcher's dream-come true, the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation area is a quick drive away. Just southwest of the city, Snake River Birds of Prey NCA isn’t just for ornithologists. Included in the refuge are 81 miles of the Snake River, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking trails and camping and picnicking areas. Usually 5-10 degrees warmer than Boise itself, the NCA is a great place to get in some winter recreation. Come summer, most people trade the trails here for float-boating and power boating on the river, and for fishing … even given the risk an eagle will swoop down and steal your catch.

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Basque Museum & Cultural Center

Neighborhood: Downtown

More ethnic Basque—about 15,000 of them—live in Boise than almost anywhere else in the world. Obviously the Basque country of Spain and France have more. Argentina and Chile do, as well. In the U.S., the only city with a larger Basque population than Boise is Bakersfield, Calif. Boise’s Basque Block is home to the only Basque Museum and Cultural Center in North America (and one of only two in the world), a boutique hotel, a market, two restaurants and the country’s first (and only) Basque preschool. If you can catch a concert, lecture or exhibit at the museum (which includes Boise’s oldest brick building, a former boarding house that served as a home away from home for hundreds of young Basques in the late 1800s—most from the province of Bizkaia), and follow it with dinner at Bar Gernika, you’ll have an evening very well spent, one that you can’t experience anywhere else in the country. At the Basque Market and Deli, you can get soups, olive tapenade, port-poached figs, rice pudding, croquetas and squid in ink to go, or stock up on ingredients often used in Basque food like smoked paprika, turrones, and olives stuffed with lemon, piquillos, blue cheese or anchovies.

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Whitewater Rafting

Neighborhood: Bordering Boise

People don’t call Boise “The Whitewater Capital of the Country” just because it sounds good. Three rivers converge here: the Boise, the Payette and the Snake. The area’s first (and we think best) outfitter, Cascade Raft and Kayak, does full- and half-day trips at two different levels from April through September. Cascade’s beginner trips, suitable for ages 4 and up, tackle class II and III whitewater (with class VI being the most difficult). For reference, a class I stretch of water is flat with few obstacles; class VI hasn’t been successfully run and is pockmarked with obstacles waiting to kill you. The adrenaline-pumping trips Cascade calls “Best for Adventure” are full of rapids whose names speak to their class IV rating: Bronco Billy, Staircase, Slalom. The full-day adventure trip even includes going around a 40-foot waterfall and is one of the top things to do in Boise. Cascade’s riverside facility is about an hour’s drive from downtown Boise.

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