When I moved to Missoula 30 years ago, the western Montana city was a mix of transplanted outdoors enthusiasts, college students and native (and Native) Montanans all enjoying life in a politically progressive town that we all considered one of America's best-kept secrets.
Suffice to say, the secret is out. Between the fictional Montana popularized by Yellowstone, and the all-too-real population boom led by folks fleeing the big city for a better quality of life, Missoula is barely recognizable, physically at least, from the version I fell in love with in the early '90s. Thankfully, Missoula retains some of its funky magic among its new buildings, and being only three hours east of Spokane when the weather's good, it's an ideal spot for an overnight getaway or long weekend.
Late summer and early fall is the best time to explore Missoula, as winters can be harsh and last until nearly July (I'm only slightly exaggerating). The weather is never better than late summer, and visitors should aim to find a place to stay within walking distance of HIGGINS AVENUE, a downtown north-south stretch that holds a pleasing blend of old and new among its restaurants, bars and shopping outlets.
There is plenty to draw you away from downtown, from concerts at the KETTLEHOUSE AMPHITHEATER a few miles east of town to biking, hiking and ziplining at SNOWBOWL ski resort just north a bit. But you can stay on or around Higgins — in a hotel, motel or Airbnb — and never need your car between when you pull into Missoula and when you leave.
At the north end of Higgins every Saturday morning through October, you'll find the MISSOULA FARMERS MARKET, now in its 51st year. Grab a cup of coffee from BREAK ESPRESSO nearby and enjoy an impressive blend of produce, baked goods and organic meats while live bands provide a soundtrack. If arts and crafts is more your scene, the MISSOULA PEOPLE'S MARKET is open concurrently with the farmers market just a few blocks south, where local makers have offered an array of clothing, candles, soaps and more since 1998.
Strolling south toward the Clark Fork River that runs through downtown, the architecture retains the vibes of old Missoula, but there are a slew of new hotels and high-end shopping spots — not to mention breweries and recreational cannabis shops — that make it clear this town is experiencing a new era.
That sense is certainly captured in the culinary scene. Three decades ago, you never would have found a place like the excellent fast-casual Brazilian outpost FIVE ON BLACK, or the upscale Mexican spot THE CAMINO, offering a slew of mezcal and tequila cocktails alongside its ceviche, tostadas and tacos. For breakfast, two Missoula staples that have been around for decades will satisfy your morning needs. BERNICE'S BAKERY, just to the south of the Clark Fork about a block off Higgins, has the best coffee in town and a stunning array of pastries, croissants and quiches if lighter fare is your thing. The CATALYST, on the other hand, is perfect for those who love a hearty start to the day, offering buckwheat waffles, chilaquiles (a Mexican breakfast casserole) and giant omelets. Pro tip: Be sure to get a side of the green chile pepperjack potato casserole no matter what you choose for breakfast.
CARAS PARK abuts the Clark Fork River and hosts a number of community events several nights a week while also housing the city's carousel. On Aug. 25-26, Caras hosts the RIVER CITY ROOTS FESTIVAL, a free folk and bluegrass extravaganza this year headlined by Mississippi blues legend Super Chikan (Aug. 25) and bluegrass royalty the Travelin' McCourys (Aug. 26). On Sept. 9, the MAVERICK BREWFEST raises money for youth sports in town while offering samples of Montana's vast array of microbreweries. Even when there's nothing official happening in Caras, you can be sure there will be boaters in the river riding "BRENNAN'S WAVE," constructed in 2001 in honor of a world-class local kayaker who died while paddling in Chile. Watching these river surfers take turns playing in the wave is a soothing-yet-exciting experience even for those of us who like to keep ourselves on shore.
In September, the University of Montana Grizzlies' home football games draw more than 25,000 fans to campus, and tailgating along the Clark Fork is an experience unlike any other in the Big Sky Conference. There are Griz games Sept. 2, Sept. 16 and Sept. 30 this fall, and a pop in at the MISSOULA CLUB downtown is a must for even casual football fans. Cheap drinks and historic photos of the teams of yesteryear fill this spot that seems trapped in time.
If you don't care about football and need to fill your time while your friends or family are at the game, shopping on the "hip strip" stretch of Higgins and in the nearby neighborhood offers plenty of options. ROCKIN' RUDY'S has evolved from a record store into a massive emporium full of hip clothing, gag gifts, cool toys and, yes, records. Be sure to stop for a cone at BIG DIPPER ICE CREAM between shops. NOTEWORTHY PAPER & PRESS offers playful notecards and stationary reflecting the owners' love of art, literature and the outdoors, and nearby SHAKESPEARE & CO. bookstore hosts a steady stream of author events. Missoula is a literary town, and the recently redesigned MISSOULA PUBLIC LIBRARY is worth a stop. And Sept. 6-9 the library will host the MONTANA BOOK FESTIVAL, an event that in recent years has seen appearances by James Lee Burke, Jane Smiley, Rick Bass and more.
Missoula might be unrecognizable if you haven't visited in a while, but happily it's still full of people thrilled to be living in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, and that infectious positivity rubs off on visitors pretty quickly. It's certainly worth a three-hour drive to experience.