Capital of Idaho and perennial contender for the title of “most livable” city in the United States, Boise (pop. 218,281) is a lush green oasis in the middle of the barren lava lands of the Snake River plain. It was named by fur trappers for its dense groves of cottonwood trees (bois is French for “wood”), which made the area an especially welcome respite before irrigation turned the brown desert much greener than it naturally would be. The presence of the state government and the more than 22,000 students at Boise State University lend a degree of sophistication and vitality mixed in with the more usual Idaho trappings—more than anywhere else for miles, in-line skates and mountain bikes compete with pickup trucks as the main method of transportation here, and bookshops and espresso bars line the downtown streets.

Downtown Boise focuses on the state capitol (700 W. Jefferson St., daily, free), three blocks north of Main Street between 6th and 8th Streets, a typically grand neoclassical structure, built of local sandstone with a giant eagle atop its landmark dome. The usual exhibits of the state’s produce fill display cases, and free guided tours are given upon request to groups of five or more.

South of the capitol, restaurants and cafés have reclaimed the blocks of hundred-year-old brick buildings around 6th and Main Streets, the historic center of Boise. In the heart of this lively pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, a block south of Main Street, the small but intriguing Basque Museum and Cultural Center (611 W. Grove St., 208/343-2671, Tues.-Sat., $5) documents the culture of the Basque people who work in Idaho’s ranching industries. A block west stands Grove Plaza, home to Boise’s convention center and main shopping complex, featuring a large fountain through which daredevils like to skate and cycle. Don’t miss Taters (801 W. Main St., 208/338-1062), which sells all manner of Idaho souvenirs, from postcards and fridge magnets to spud-themed snow globes and cookbooks describing 100 things you can do with potatoes.

Farther east, where Main Street turns into Warm Springs Road, the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historical Site (208/334-2844, daily, $6) served as the main state prison for over 100 years after it opened in 1872. High sandstone walls, cut by prisoners, surround the complex, and the old cellblocks are now filled with displays on prison life—from collections of tattoos to the gallows where many prisoners met their end.

Boise Practicalities

By Idaho standards, Boise has a truly exciting range of restaurants, with many good places around 6th and Main Streets and elsewhere in the compact downtown area. For a huge breakfast, or an out-of-this-world milk shake, stop by Moon’s Kitchen Café (712 W. Idaho St., 208/385-0472, daily until 3pm), recently expanded after 50-plus years operating in the back room of a gift shop that used to be a gun shop. Another favorite stop is Bar Gernika Basque Pub and Eatery (202 S. Capitol Blvd., 208/344-2175, Mon.-Sat.), near the Basque Museum on the corner of Grove Street, which serves up delicious tastes of Basque-inspired food (lamb sandwiches, chorizo tapas, and out-of-this-world shoestring fries) plus Spanish wines in a friendly unpretentious room—with a sidewalk seating area in summer. And if this doesn’t hit the spot, within a few blocks is the excellent Guido’s Pizzeria (235 N. 5th St., 208/345-9011; 12375 Chinden Blvd., 208/376-1008), serving classic thin-crust New York-style pies.

Boise’s downtown restaurant district doubles as its nightlife zone as well, so after a meal you can stagger among old-fashioned carved-wood bars like Pengilly’s Saloon (513 W. Main St., 208/345-6344).

Boise’s former best place to stay, the wonderful old Idanha Hotel—built in 1901 and featuring ornate corner turrets, opulent public spaces, and Idaho’s oldest elevator—has been converted into apartments but now holds the excellent Guru Donuts (928 Main St., 208/571-7792) on its ground floor. West of Boise, there’s Hostel Boise (17322 Can-Ada Rd., 208/467-6858, $25-65) in Nampa.