When you think of Missoula, Montana, you probably think of being outdoors. And you’d be right. The city is located along the confluence of the Clark Fork, Bitterroot and Blackfoot river and surrounded by mountains and wilderness areas. Summer offers everything an outdoor lover could want from hiking to kayaking and white water rafting. But you shouldn’t write off visiting at other times of the year or spending some time in the heart of the city. Here are just 10 things to do in Missoula, which you can do year round.
1. Eat your way around Missoula
One of the things I was most surprised about is the foodie scene in Montana. Montanans love to eat and there are no shortage of delicious restaurants around town. Chefs really are top notch, no doubt a result of University of Montana‘s highly rated culinary arts program.
From the French fare at The Pearl Cafe to Montana-meets-Asian at Iza, I had one still-drooling-over-the-thought-of-it meal after another during my stay in Missoula. Look forward to a another post on just where to eat in Missoula, because I packed in an incredible six restaurants in just three days.
2. Take a walking tour of Historic Downtown
Taking a walking tour of Historic Downtown Missoula is essential to make more room for all the great restaurants you’ve got to try. Beyond working off all the delicious meals, Missoula boasts the most extensive listing of preserved historical buildings on the National Register of Historic Places in Montana. There are little plaques outside noteworthy historical buildings making a self-guided walking tour easy.
3. Visit the Missoula Art Museum
I’m not usually big on museums, but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to the Missoula Art Museum. Not only is admission free, the museum staff may even offer you a glass of wine to enjoy while you peruse the latest exhibition (it depends on the current exhibition). Artists are a mix of contemporary Native American artists, regional artists and traveling exhibitions.
Some of John Buck’s carved wood sculptural work (on display from September 2015 – March 2016) was on display during my visit and I found his sculptures with moving parts very interesting.
Aside from the exhibitions and permanent works, the museum offers a variety of talks, art workshops, art walks and First Friday events.
4. Go to the theater
Missoula is also home to a performing arts community and the Missoula Community Theater puts on some excellent shows. I know, I know. Community theater can be scary – I saw some interesting… plays and shows when I regularly attended Phoenix community theater.
The Missoula Community Theater is actually connected to the Missoula Children’s Theater, which is the world’s largest touring children’s theater. Clearly there are quality musical actors of all ages in Missoula!
I had a chance to see a performance of The Drowsy Chaperone, a sort of musical within a musical that had the entire audience in side-splitting laughter from the opening scene to the final bow. The theater also puts on Broadway shows like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, both which feature on their current season’s line-up.
5. Take a cooking class
Missoula is home to the Good Food Store. Think Whole Foods if it wasn’t a chain and sold only locally-produced, organic and bulk foods. While I could have spent hours just browsing everything in the store and enjoying the cafe, I was there for the Cooking School.
Each month The Good Food Store has a variety of hands-on cooking classes led by chefs from Missoula’s best restaurants and the store’s own talented staff.
My class was a hands-on easy brunch in which we made lemon blueberry ricotta pancakes, a kale and quinoa salad and a Montana kale, beet and potato hash. Unlike some other cooking classes I’ve taken while traveling, the recipes were all simple enough that I really could easily find all ingredients and make these recipes at home.
6. Take a spin on A Carousel for Missoula
Carousels always make me smile. So it’s completely understandable how a Missoula cabinet maker, Chuck Kaparich, fell in love with carousels after a visit to the one in Spokane, Washington. He decided he wanted to purchase a carousel horse for himself and contacted carousel expert Frederick Fried.
Kaparich’s request was met with total disdain and Fried told him if he wanted a carousel horse, he should just carve it himself. And so he did. That horse and three others led to Missoula’s carousel.
Kaparich bought a carousel frame from a historic carousel built in 1918 that had been dismantled. Volunteers contributed over 100,000 hours of time which went it to the construction of 38 horses, two chariots, 14 gargoyles, gargoyle and mirror frames and the largest band organ in continuous use in the United States.
At just 75¢ for children and $2.25 for adults, A Carousel for Missoula delights people of all ages.
7. Taste spirits at the Montgomery Distillery
The Montgomery Distillery, named after owners Ryan and Jenny Montgomery, was born out of a common interest in in single malts and the two began planning to open their own small distillery in Missoula over seven years ago. Now the two own a thriving, from the looks of how hopping it was on Tuesday night, small craft distillery that released Missoula’s first-ever batch of legally distilled whiskey just earlier this month.
It’s not just whiskey that Montgomery Distillery produces; they also produce gin, aquavit and vodka. They operate as a tasting room and you can taste their small-batch spirits in their cleverly named cocktails.
After doing shots, erm I mean tasting spirits in the distillery downstairs, I shimmied up to the bar to peruse the cocktail menu and see what the locals were ordering. It was hard to choose just one cocktail with all the delicious-looking combinations, but I decided on a Damiana Dare Me – a damiana-infused vodka with honey syrup, lemon, orange and spanked rosemary.
8. Go wine tasting
If craft distillery spirits aren’t your thing, head to the outskirts of town for wine tasting at Ten Spoon Winery. Even though Montana’s long winters don’t make for the best grape growing conditions, Missoula’s long summer days have helped to produce a successful yield for wine production.
Ten Spoon planted French-American hybrid grapes in 1998 and added another 2.5 acres in 2012. They also produce a cherry wine from Montana’s renowned Flathead Lake cherries.
My tasting flight included Ten Spoon’s St. Pepin, made from the only white grape that they grow, Big Al’s Rosé, the Flathead Cherry, Range Rider and the Cherry Blossom dessert wine. Though I wasn’t a big enough fan to bring any of the wines home, the rosé and the Flathead Cherry were my favorites of the flight and it was interesting to taste the local Montana wine. Plus, about a dozen deer came to munch on the grass in the field during our tasting and the location is beautiful.
9. Follow the Lewis & Clark Trail
Travelers’ Rest State Park is located about a 20-minute drive outside of Missoula and it’s here on the banks of the Lolo River that the Lewis & Clark Expedition stopped twice to camp.
According to journals, Lewis & Clark camped in the fall of 1805 and then returned again in the summer of 1806. Following the nature trail loop that encircles the only archaeologically verified campsite of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, I couldn’t help but think that the beauty of this spot is surely what brought them back to camp a second time.
The visitor center has a small museum with artifact replicas that you can get hands-on with to see the types of tools the Expedition carried and used. The guides are a wealth of information and are happy to talk with visitors about how the campsite was actually verified and other interesting discoveries about the Expedition.
10. Explore the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
The thing with visiting Montana in winter is that many of the animals I would hope to encounter either are hibernating (yes, I am one of the crazies that would be thrilled to see bears in the wild) or go up higher to the rocky cliffs. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is another interesting and small museum showcasing not only elk, but other Western Montana wildlife like bears, mountain goats and mountain lions and the foundation’s conservation efforts. Since 1984, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has helped to conserve more than 6.7 million acres of habitat, so that alone is worth stopping by to show your support.
Where to Stay
The DoubleTree by Hilton is located right on the bank of the Clark Fork River and is just a 5-minute walk to the University of Montana and about a 10-minute walk to the historic downtown. The rooms are spacious, all have free wifi and the thing I love about DoubleTree are the freshly baked warm cookies you can look forward to when you return for the night. The hotel is also pet friendly. With rates starting from around $100 per night, the DoubleTree provides affordable luxury in one of Missoula’s best hotels.
My trip was provided by Glacier Country Montana in order to bring you this story. However, Luxe Adventure Traveler maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site. As always, all thoughts, opinions, and enthusiasm for travel are entirely our own.
Charles McCool says
I spent a minute in Missoula and remember going to a movie theater there. Must return to really explore that fine western town.
Jennifer Dombrowski says
It’s a really great town and easy to get to. I was surprised how inexpensive the flight was even from here in Italy. And Missoula is an excellent gateway to Western Montana’s Glacier Country. I’ve got a post coming up this week on winter adventures in Whitefish.
Wow I didn’t know Missoula had so much to offer. Will have to add to my Montana itinerary!
Jennifer Dombrowski says
I was really pleasantly surprised myself, Sharon! And we did a great road trip stopping in Kalispell and Whitefish from Missoula for winter adventures like skiing, snowshoeing and a horse drawn sleigh ride.
How did you not mention running the M???? It’s my favorite thing to do there, best way to start the day.
Jennifer Dombrowski says
Do you run the M in winter, Carina? The surrounding hills were pretty well snow covered when I was there last month. I’d love to come back in the summer for hiking and kayaking.
Oh yeah, the snow… I sometimes forget that happens up there! I was there in Feb last year and there was only a dusting by the M, so I did get to run it, but it was a lucky coincidence to be there with such light snow.
Susan Quinn says
In my Ode to Missoula I would include breakfast (or lunch or dinner) at Burns St Bistro, or The Catalyst Cafe and a cocktail at Rattlesnake Distillers or James Bar Montana.
Jennifer Dombrowski says
Thanks for all the suggestions, Susan!
Darlene Mayer says
Well some things to think about the next trip there!! Thank you! When we went there we stopped at Cracker Barrel and i have to say that is the best bacon i have ever ate in my life!!! And i love bacon lol We also went to Montana’s..oh my gosh we got sooo much food we couldn’t eat it all and it was so tastey!!! We also went on the merry go round!! Never to old to go on one of them! Also for the guy side of things lol we went to the Boone and Crockett exhibit!! Very interesting also!! We sort of got lost and ended up in residential on the north side of the hiway and i have never seen so many deer laying in peoples yards as i did there!! It was priceless! So when we do our American holiday again we shall go back and check out some of the other interesting things you have mentioned with a few others!! We really enjoyed the city and wish we would have had more time!!! Thank you for sharing!!!! 🙂
Jennifer Dombrowski says
The deer just hanging out are crazy! The first one I saw I didn’t even think was real. The deer definitely are used to people and cars.
Janet O'Kane says
We had a far too brief stay in Missoula during a visit from Scotland to Montana a few years ago. Wished we had set aside more time there, but we got to go on the carousel, and that’s our abiding memory of the town. We’ve always wanted to come back, and I’ve bookmarked your article for when we do.
Jennifer Dombrowski says
I hope you make it back to Missoula, Janet! It’s such a charming big small town. I need to go back in the summer when they have the outdoor First Fridays and they’re building a new park for outdoor exhibitions and events.