BOISE, Idaho -- Boise has long been dubbed the "City of Trees," a nickname that always catches newcomers by surprise given the city's high-desert climate and summers with little or no rain.
But a hike into the foothills or a short drive up the road to the local ski hill makes it abundantly clear why the moniker fits, as a lush, green canopy stretches from downtown west across the valley floor.
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Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, this former military outpost along the Oregon Trail has consistently ranked among the nation's fastest growing cities for the last decade. The reasons are varied, but this city of more than 200,000 residents offers a moderate climate, ample access to recreation, rich and diverse cultural and culinary opportunities and the Boise River, which flows through downtown and attracts wildlife, urban anglers and other recreational water-lovers.
Idaho's capital city -- pronounced BOY-see by the locals -- and the surrounding region also provide plenty of things to do at no cost. Here are five free things to do in Boise:
Hike or bike in the foothills: Boise is snuggled up along a line of foothills that stretch north and east and serve as steppingstones into national forest and the bigger Boise Mountain Range. The foothills are also a playground for hikers, runners, mountain bikers and bird-watchers. The city manages a network of more than 130 miles of trails and numerous access points, some just minutes from downtown. Even a short, moderate hike along any of the trails provides enough elevation to overlook the city, the valley and the Owyhee Mountains across the valley floor. There is also the Jim Hall Foothills Learning Center, a great resource for information about the high-desert environment and the plants, wildflowers and wildlife that inhabit the foothills.
The Basque Block: Boise is home to one of the nation's biggest concentrations of Basques outside the Basque region in Spain. The city's Basque Block downtown is the best place for learning more about the heritage. As early as the late 1800s, Basques began settling in southwestern Idaho, many lured here to work as sheepherders. The Basque Block includes a museum, a market, restaurants, street art and historical signage that track the Basque influence and history in and beyond Boise.
Boise River Greenbelt: Like the foothills, the Greenbelt is a recreational gem for residents and visitors alike. The 25-mile trail, featuring tree-lined paths on both sides of the Boise River, runs through the heart of the city and beyond. It's user-friendly for bike commuters heading to the office downtown, walkers, joggers and a conduit for getting to the Boise State University campus, downtown shops and restaurants and the numerous parks that line the river and trail system. A handful of hotels in the area also provide free bikes to guests looking to pedal around town.
Snake River wine country: There are a handful of wineries in Boise proper, but for the real adventure and scenic splendor, take a drive southwest of town into the Snake River Valley's wine region, officially designated as an American Viticultural Area. The region's soils and varied microclimates have given birth in the last decade to vineyards and a collection of winemakers growing in prominence in the Northwest. Several of the more than two dozen vineyards offer free tastings; others charge a $5 fee that can be used toward the purchase of a bottle of red or white. Bring a picnic basket and sit back and watch the sun set along the Owyhee Mountains and the beautiful vistas all along the Snake River Plain.
Capitol City Public Market: Sure you have to pay for the locally grown fruit, vegetables, grass-fed beef, and the various arts and crafts for sale, but the sights, smells, sounds and people-watching are free at Boise's version of the classic farmers market. In three separate spots downtown, vendors set up shop on blocked-off city streets or plazas each Saturday morning from April through December. And more than any other time, it's when the city's downtown hums as foodies search out the latest in fresh produce or pack the coffee shops or restaurants with outdoor patios serving brunch.