The wonderful thing about travel is how certain destinations can surprise and delight you. It could be a single attraction, the food, the people, or like this collection of fun things to do in Boise, Idaho, it could be the sum of its parts. Add some dashes of ubiquitous friendliness and courtesy, and you’ve got the makings of a true, hidden gem.
Yes, Boise, Idaho, is that place. We’ve been to Bend, Portland, and other, louder hoods of hipsterdom. But small, quiet Boise blew us away. There are so many things to do in Boise, Idaho. Outdoor amenities and family-friendly activities galore, amazing food and drink, and again, those freakishly friendly people.
Travel guru Rick Steves had it bang on with his description of Idahoans. Anyone lucky enough to travel to or through this beautiful state will attest to the warmth and generosity of its citizens. They don’t call Idaho the Gem State for nothing.
If my wee ode to the city of Boise hasn’t yet won you over, here are 20 superbly family-friendly activities, attractions and things to do in Boise, Idaho. Acity and state that offer so much more than potatoes, which are divinely delicious by the way.
Things to Do in Boise, Idaho
Walk or Bike the Boise River Greenbelt
Just five minutes from downtown, this flat pedestrian and bike-friendly path runs 25 miles along the Boise River. The Boise River Greenbelt is a lovely and gentle pathway that is beloved by Boise residents and downtown commuters alike
The Greenbelt route meanders through many parks, including Julia Davis Park, home to a lovely rose garden and popular Zoo Boise’s animal exhibits and kids’ farm. There are wide open green spaces, the tranquil Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, and Boise State University. BSU is home to the popular Boise Broncos football team and its famous blue turf field.
Park your bike and stop at the MK Nature Centre, on the Greenbelt route. Kids will love to wander the grounds and discover 8-foot long sturgeon and trout in the pond, and learn about beavers, birds, and other state wildlife. Note on bike etiquette: Politeness rules along the Greenbelt. Riders are advised to give a friendly call out when passing other cyclists on the left.
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Float Down the Boise River
Summers can be very hot in Idaho. Cool down like the locals, and grab or rent a floating inner tub for a gentle and scenic ride down the Boise River. Or check out some of the refreshing hot spring pools just outside of town.
Need more adventure inspiration?
Paddleboard on Quinn’s Pond
Rent paddle boards for a sedate (yet exhausting core workout) on Quinn’s Pond. Or if you’re feeling really brave, kayak the river rapids at Boise Whitewater Park. Both the Pond and Park are located along the western portion of the Greenbelt, and are very popular with locals for outdoor recreation all year long. It’s also fun to just sit and watch the kayakers and surfers give the rapids a go.
Learn at the Discovery Center
The Discovery Center of Idaho promotes kid-friendly, hands-on scientific exploration and education. The Center hosts travelling scientific exhibits, while other sections showcase its popular, family-friendly Earth Science and hands-on exhibits. A great half-day trip, not far from the Greenbelt.
Tour the Old Idaho Penitentiary
A ten-minute drive from downtown brings you to a decommissioned jail in this National Historic Site. The first building in the Old Idaho Pen complex dates back to 1894, when the worst of the worst criminals were locked up. You can easily imagine the misery of prison life by looking into those old, tiny 3 x 8 foot cells.
A guided tour will bring the buildings to life with interesting (and gory) stories, including the fascinating Marked Men Tattoo Exhibit, where you can learn of the meaning and history of prison tattoos. A walk through the History of Arms and Armament or the nearby Women’s Prison buildings may also be of interest, and is included in the admission price. (Tip: Go early in the day as summer days heat up quickly.)
Walk in the Shade of the Idaho Botanical Garden
This wonderful Garden is an oasis in the high desert, and located next to the Old Pen. The Idaho Botanical Garden sits in the former farm area next to the Old Penitentiary, and has been transformed over its 30 years.
The Garden includes a rose, native plant, meditation and children’s activity gardens, as well as an interesting Lewis and Clark exhibit. The Garden is the perfect place to give thanks for your freedom (and some shade) after visiting the Old Pen site.
Go Cowboy or Cowgirl at the Snake River Rodeo
You’re in the Wild West, why not go full cowboy/cowgirl and hit the rodeo? The Snake River Stampede in nearby Nampa is one of the oldest (100+ years) and largest in the state. With big prize money on the line, you’ll see some top level pro-riding and rodeo action during this two-hour show.
As I learned in my capacity as a rodeo newbie, the marquee event is the bull riding. Riders need to be short to have a low centre of gravity. Bull riding is very dangerous, as the bull is usually unhappy, large and very heavy. The key is to stay on as soon as possible and keep one hand up and free from the hold. Viewing the bull riding live made me a little queasy, but I came away with mad respect for the riders and their animals.
Discover the Warhawk Air Museum
Who doesn’t love a great air museum? The volunteer-run Warhawk Air Museum is completely worth the 30-minute drive to Nampa, west of Boise. From WWI through to the space age, the history of American aviation and warfare is kept alive at Warhawk, and much of that effort is thanks to dedicated volunteers like Archivist Lou Bauman.
Bauman has put together personal collections of memorabilia like POW and ration cards, wartime condolence letters, and medals. These items, along with binders filled with photographs, interviews, and stories from veterans and their families, make the museum come alive with history. You can wander the Museum on your own, but if he’s there, ask Lou for a tour and you’ll be blown away by his passion and knowledge.
Visit the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center
If you’re already out Nampa-way at the Warhawk Museum, follow a winding road into the nearby hills towards the Velma Morrison Interpretive Center, the World Center for Birds of Prey. Guided tours educate visitors about the lives and habits of eagles, hawks, condors, and other endangered birds native to the west.
Raft the Payette River with Cascade Kayak & Rafting
Idaho offers all-season outdoor adventures galore. If visiting between June-September, take advantage of the river rafting season at family-run Cascade Kayak & Rafting. The Long family (parents and 3 adult brothers) have been involved in the Cascade Rafting operation since 1992.
For day outings, including “The Splash,” rafting trips take place on the Payette River. There are a total of 13 class 2 and 3 rapids, making for a lovely 8 Mile journey down the Payette, perfect fun in hot summer. It’s a great introduction for families to rafting, as this main section has good areas of action as well as calm sections for river swimming and games.
Families with older teens may want to try the Southfork section of the river which has Class 4 rapids and is offers a more intense rafting experience.
Take a Mountain Bike Ride
Boise has nearly endless miles of great mountain biking in and around town. Check out the cross-country Watchman Loop (16 miles), the Shingle Creek to Dry Creek trail (13.5 miles), or have fun in the playground of boulders on the Table Rock Tour.
Zip Line the Turkey 2000
On the outskirts north of Boise are the foothills and mountain ranges where famous ski slopes beckon in winter. In summer, the hills are perfect for some family fun zip lining with Zip Idaho.
Zip Idaho has experienced guides that having been zipping in these hills for nearly ten years. A high-flying, half day outing consists of six zip lines increasing in length and height, all leading up to the grand Turkey 2000, a 2,030 foot ‘screamer’ zip line that goes on forever.
It will be hot in summer, but there is lots of shade amongst the huge ponderosa pines, and water is provided by guides.
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Where to Eat in Boise, Idaho
A downtown Boise breakfast hotspot, Goldy’s is packed with professional men and women fueling up over informal meetings before heading over to the State legislature down the road. Fabulous menu of eggs benedict with hollandaise and Goldy’s special potatoes, fruit plates and speciality lattes. Incomparable service.
Goldy’s is around the corner from the Basque Block. This compact downtown district is home to restaurants, cafes, shops and the Basque Museum and Cultural Center which highlights the contributions of the 16,000 member strong basque community in Boise and Idaho.
Lunch or dinner at The Dish may leave you going “Bend who?”. This fabulous diner-style eatery has healthy and eclectic food offerings like Bahn Mi fries and refreshing watermelon gazpacho. Everyone’s drink of choice is either iced tea, a local craft brew or wine.
The Dish showcases its strong support for local shopping and produce, and the dishes are as beautifully plated as they are delicious. Try a smooth tomato coconut bisque or an amazing beet salad, with beets, goat cheese, fennel, snap crisp peas, candied pecans, arugula with vinegrette and two candied apple slices. I somehow managed to scarf down a decadent dessert of Nutella panna cotta to end the feast.
Bittercreek Ale House
Pub food with a healthy locavore twist (halloumi tacos anyone?), visit Bittercreek for the ale, beer and ciders. The draft menu is updated every single day. That’s attention to craft.
Loyal to local. That says it all. Fork is a wonderful, airy space smack dab downtown. The large room has a great vibe, with a large and local wine, beer and cider menu, as well as children’s menu. Don’t miss the asparagus fries, roasted artichoke appy, blackened fish tacos, or chicken and waffles. And DO order a side of glorious Idaho mashed potatoes with melted butter. The humble potato exalted!
This pink and green drive-in diner is an Idaho institution. You can’t miss it from the road – its bright decor may blind as you drive past. Western Diner specializes in traditional diner fare of hamburgers, cheeseburgers and fries, as well as a dizzying array of shakes and sodas. I enjoyed my first ever malted chocolate shake, featuring little malt bits mixed into the shake – delicious and very, very sweet.
Boise Fry Company
When life gives you potatoes, make fries. In every shape, style and taste. The Idaho potato in fried form is celebrated in every way in the three Boise locations of the locally-owned Boise Fry Company. Oh, they make great bison burgers too.
Where to Stay in Boise, Idaho
For a traditional, resort-style family stay, choose the Riverside Hotel in Garden City. This large hotel complex on the banks of the Boise River has an outdoor pool, gym, laundry facility, excellent buffet breakfast, riverside restaurant and bar, and free wifi. There are loads of families and kids at the Riverside, and it is five minutes from downtown Boise. The decor may feel a wee bit on the dated side, but it’s clean, pets are welcome, and the staff is very friendly. No surprise there!
If you want to be in the center of it all, the Hampton Inn and Suites Boise Downtown is the perfect choice. The hotel has 186 rooms with free wifi and hot breakfast, as well as free airport shuttle, fitness centre and saltwater pool. It’s close to 80+ downtown restaurants, convention and sporting facilities, and less than a ten minute walk to the Boise River Greenbelt.
Photo Credits: Feature photo courtesy Shutterstock. All other photos C. Laroye
Disclosure: The Travelling Mom thanks Visit Idaho for the opportunity to experience Boise and Idaho. As always, our opinions are honest, our own, and in complete agreement with Rick Steves about the wonderfully, freakishly friendly nature of Idahoans. For that, we are truly grateful!
Have you visited Boise or other parts of Idaho? Share your favorite holiday memories in the comments.