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The Best of Both Worlds in Missoula, Montana

Friday, November 5th, 2010

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Located halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, Missoula is a prime launching pad for a range of outdoor adventures. But don’t rush right into the wilderness. This little city has plenty to offer travelers looking for a more urban adventure. That’s what makes it a great location for a weekend trip with my daughter. I love the great outdoors and want to spend my daylight hours hiking the hills. Her passions lie more in the direction of city delights. When we go to Missoula, we both get what we want.

Downtown Missoula combines a fierce support for local, independent business with a city-wide integration of the arts through museums, First Friday art celebrations and ubiquitous public artwork. This a small city with big personality. Park the car (you won’t need it) and explore the city on foot. Or make like a local and bike around town.

Missoula has the usual assortment of hotels and a few B & Bs. But if you want to really connect with the quirky history of this city, rent one of the condos above the historic Wilma Theater. The Wilma is a Missoula icon. Built in 1921, the ornate theater now shows movies as well as hosts live performances for everything from classical concerts to punk shows. These well-appointed quarters above the venue rent by the night or week, and provide all the comforts of home for about what you’ll pay for a riverside hotel room. The views are spectacular, and staying in one of Missoula’s landmarks provides a unique window into the life of the city.

If you’re like us, once you have the key to your condo, you are ready to explore the city. But first: some coffee. Coffee snobs will have no trouble finding good brew in Missoula. And where there’s good coffee, delicious baked goods often follow. Bernice’s Bakery is one of the most beloved cafes in town. Bernice’s serves up a friendly, earthy vibe along with a great cup of coffee from local Montana roasters and delicious pastries from their “all butter, all scratch” bakery. If you are looking for something a little more continental, head down the street to Le Petit Outre. Line up to buy a gorgeous, golden-brown baguette, or have them bag up a pain du matin crusted with cinnamon. Pair that with a skillfully made cappuccino and breakfast is served. Butterfly Herbs, Missoula’s oldest espresso bar, opened almost 40 years ago. They have an extensive selection of teas if coffee isn’t your beverage of choice. While you’re there, browse through the bulk coffee, tea, and herbs they have for sale in the front.

Missoula2_300Fortified with coffee, we now have a decision to make: shop or hike? Shopping wins out for now. Missoula loves it’s independent merchants, and the shopping experience here is unique. Don’t look for big box stores or national chains. Downtown is about Missoula exerting its own special charm. Find local designers and hip contemporary fashion at Betty’s Divine or the more recently opened Sotto Voce. For eclectic vintage clothes, try Carlos’s One Night Stand, a riot of colors, decades, and fabulous one-of-a-kind finds. Or if you’d rather make your own fashion creations, peruse the unforgettable selection of fabrics at Selvedge Studio. DIY fanatics can also find inspiration at Recreate, where they re-purpose and recycle a range of materials and make them into art, accessories, and clothing.

One important measure of a city is its independent bookstores. Here Missoula shines. Fact and Fiction, long the meeting place of the Montana literary scene, has a nice emphasis on regional authors. Shakespeare and Co., located just off Missoula’s “Hip Strip,” is making a name for itself with its carefully curated collection of titles. Everything you pick up is a literary gem, and the cozy atmosphere encourages long afternoons of browsing.

We always find something we want to by at House, a contemporary design store filled with unique objects that will put the finishing touches on any room. My daughter and I both love the selection of hand letterpress paper goods at Noteworthy. And no shopping trip in Missoula is complete without a visit to Rockin’ Rudy’s, a Missoula icon. Opened in 1982, this store is a one-stop shop of pop culture past, present and future. As you make your way back through the maze of sections you discover stationary, books, toys, candles, lotions, soaps, jewelry, clothing, CDs, décor, and dozens of other things you didn’t know you wanted.

Missoula3_300In the mornings before the stores open, I get my outdoor time. The Clark Fork River, which bisects downtown, is one of Montana’s most famous waterways, and the trails along both its banks run the length of the city and beyond. If the level, riverside trail isn’t enough for you, hike the “M,” the giant, white “M” on the side of Mount Sentinel. Climb the steep, zig-zag trail to the top, you’ll have the city at your feet. If the hike to the “M” hasn’t worn you out, there is a whole system of trails further up the mountain that you can explore by foot or by bike.

We finish our trip with a picnic of treats gathered from Missoula’s Farmer’s Market and a walk in Greenborough Park. The car is packed with the fruits of our shopping, and we are enjoying a last look at the fall colors in one of Missoula’s hidden outdoor treasures. Missoula gave both of us the getaway we needed.

Kris Dinnison is a writer, teacher, librarian, barista, and small business owner who loves to hike and watch French movies, but never at the same time. She lives in Spokane, Washington, except when she’s traveling, which she does as much as possible. See more of Kris’ writing at KrisDinnison.com, or check out her blog at ScribbleandHum.blogspot.com.


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