Big Surprises in Idaho’s Little Capitol

After a visit to the Tsar Nicoulai caviar farm in Idaho’s Magic Valley, “Two Guys in a Minivan” headed north, en route to Boise. Here’s the next installment of reporter Adam Mankoski’s roadtrip adventure.

Regardless of your belief in god and el diablo, you will find yourself praying, and possibly selling your soul, to be relieved of the monotony of a northbound drive from Twin Falls in southern Idaho to Idaho’s capitol city.


Alas, there’s no need for such soul-selling extremes. Just when you think you will never see city again, the infinite barren plains, followed by corn-laden, outskirts-cum-suburbs and cookie-cutter subdivisions eventually end and you drive right into the middle of a sweet little surprise: downtown Boise.


First things first on our 11-year-old’s Boise itinerary: Zoo Boise. This small, intimate, park-like zoo with its surprising number of interactive exhibits could easily be mistaken for its big-city cousins. The zoo farm, giraffe encounter, conservation cruise and wallaby walkabout all offer an opportunity for zoo-goers to come face to face and feed the animals.


Don’t miss the penguins, an easy 45 minutes of pure entertainment and a full camera memory card, and be sure you visit the Amur tigers. They pass breathtakingly close enough to make you forget the glass partition that separates man from beast. Exotic animals get all the attention, so don’t leave the zoo without giving equal time to a population of interesting indigenous animals.


Zoo Boise is just a slice of the 87-acre Julia Davis Park, also home to the Boise Art Museum, Idaho State Historical Museum, the Black History Museum and the science-focused Discovery Center.


The park was deeded to the city in 1907 by Tom Davis, an early pioneer and Boise city planner who owned and developed thousands of acres of agricultural property. The parcel, donated in memory of his wife, is the epicenter of downtown Boise and an enviable public space.


To get from one incredible museum complex to the next, visitors are forced (oh, the sacrifices) to traverse the Julia Davis Park rose garden. The garden’s first phase was planned and planted with 2,800 bushes in 1939 by Tom McLeod, the park superintendant and a member of the “Cut Worms,” a men-only garden club. The garden was awarded Public Rose Garden accreditation in 1992 and receives ten All American-winning rose bushes each year.


Post-zoo and rose garden, we successfully negotiated our way out of an afternoon at the Discovery Center (we’ll save it for another trip) and into a few hours at the Capitol building, by appealing to our 11-year old’s history buff side.


Visitors to the newly-renovated state building are greeted by a statue of Abraham Lincoln, the oldest monument in the western United States celebrating our nation’s 16th President, and father of the Idaho Territory. Inside, we were awe-struck by polished marble floors, scagliola columns and a renovated dome.


We could have spent the day browsing expertly-curated exhibits and collections that include a basement museum, wood pieces crafted by Idaho artists from trees felled during the building’s recent renovation, and a collection of statuary.


A replica of “Nike of Samothrace,” discovered by a French vice-consul on the island of Samothrace, Greece in 1863, was a gift to Idaho from France after World War II. After the war, each state received a train-box car full of gifts to thank the United States for its help in liberating France from Nazi Germany. “Winged Victory” was one of the gifts in Idaho’s box car and has been on display in the capital building since it arrived on France’s “Merci Train” in 1949.


Our minds brimming with Idaho history, we stepped out of the capital, onto downtown Boise’s immaculate avenues for some serious urban eye candy. Boise boasts a progressive public art program, administered by two full-time, dedicated staff in its Department of Arts and History.


Boise’s public art has been a component of the city’s downtown revitalization since the early 80s and now has been expanded city-wide, with the “Percent for Art” program, mandating that a percentage of the cost of each city capital project is allotted for art. Bragging rights are also allowed for the city’s artist in residence program, the Downtown Boise Association’s First Thursday Art Walk and a partnership for public improvements with the Capitol City Development Corporation.


Downtown, we couldn’t turn a corner without coming head-on into a sculpture, decorated façade, mosaic tile alley, vinyl-wrapped traffic box, sculptural street lamp, or strip of sidewalk embedded with images and shapes. Works like Amy Westover’s 1993 “Grove Street Illuminated and Boise Canal” (above) may help define Boise’s strong civic pride and identity, but it made us want to explore.


Explore, we did. Revitalized downtown Boise has the requisite PF Chang’s, Urban Outfitters and sparkling movie complex, but also boasts block after block of independent restaurants, wine bars and boutiques. Inviting public spaces, cooled by the mist and calmed by the sounds of fountains are connected by bicycle-friendly, brick-lined thoroughfares where visitors are encouraged to walk with easy-to-read maps and free brochures.


We took a reprieve from our explorations at Cazba, a Mediterranean restaurant separated from the downtown bustle by a cool, fenced patio. Our window seat offered an endless, diverse stream of urbanites and we regained our strength with homemade hummus, juicy lamb gyros, curry chicken and shrimp wraps.


After our protein recharge, we fueled up with Cazba’s signature Turkish coffee. This unbelievable, amped-up chocolate-cinnamon-espresso concoction with a side of honey glazed almonds, is, according to Cazba’s staff, coveted by Starbuck’s executives who return regularly and try, unsuccessfully, to purchase the recipe.


Thankfully, we didn’t sell our souls on the drive from Twin Falls. We could have spent our whole vacation exploring Boise, its public art, its complex of museums, its urban garden oasis and downtown’s rows of restored historic buildings, happily occupied by restaurants and shops.

All that, plus the Cazba coffee, made downtown Boise a sweet little surprise.

Stay tuned for the next edition of “Two Guys in a Minivan,” by Adam Mankoski: “Experience Portland, Bite by Bite.”

Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to adamm.anewscafe@gmail.com.

This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.

Adam Mankoski

is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner are the owners of HawkMan Studios and the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday Art Hop.

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