Choosing between doing something fun and doing something worthy is not necessarily an either/or proposition. And, in fact, the number of museums and cultural centers in the Treasure Valley is surprising to even many longtime residents.
From getting an up-close look at the pioneering history of the state to a behind-the-bars view on life as a convict to basking in the glow of art to creating your own tornado, local attractions have all the cultural vitamins and minerals to do a body good.
Basque Museum and Cultural Center
611 Grove St., 208-343-2671, basquemuseum.com
It's not exactly a hidden fact that Boise is home to one of the largest Basque populations outside of Europe. The Basque Museum and Cultural Center is making sure everyone knows what that means through exhibits showcasing the history and contributions of the vibrant culture. That vibrant culture includes the always interesting bar in the Basque Center.
Boise Art Museum
670 Julia Davis Drive, 208-345-8330, boiseartmuseum.org
Boise Art Museum has gone from a volunteer-driven exhibit space to a nationally accredited museum sprawling across nearly 35,000 square feet with multiple galleries, an outdoor sculpture gallery, classrooms and a permanent collection. BAM has been in the middle of Boise's art world since 1931. These days, the museum is not only the place to take in art, but to learn about it thanks to an ever-growing list of public programs and gallery walks. The facility hosts numerous special exhibits each year, attracting artists from around the world. Keep an eye out for the 2010 Idaho Triennial, one of the largest shows BAM hosts and highlighting the work of some of Idaho's best artists.
Discovery Center of Idaho
131 Myrtle St., 208-343-9895, scidaho.org
Science, math and engineering take a giant leap out of the textbooks at this hands-on museum. From learning about pulleys and air brakes by pulling yourself 6 feet into the air and then letting go of the rope, to sending stuffed animals spinning in a centrifugal force lesson, or even creating your own 7-foot-tall tornado, science gets very interactive for kids of all ages. Watch for special events focusing on astronomy and robots.
Idaho Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial
777 S. Eighth St., 208-345-0304, idaho-humanrights.org
Most visitors are surprised to learn that the nation's only memorial to Anne Frank is in Boise, but with the work of dedicated volunteers, the memorial and the Human Rights Education Center opened in 2002. The open air monument uses quotes from humanitarian leaders to foster discussion and reflection. It's also one of the few places in the world where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is on display.
Idaho Black History Museum
508 Julia Davis Drive, 208-433-0017, ibhm.org
Housed in the historic St. Paul Baptist Church in Julia Davis Park, the Idaho Black History Museum is dedicated to sharing the contributions and history of black cultures in Idaho and around the world. Every year, the museum hosts a Juneteenth celebration, marking the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Admission is free but hours are extremely limited, so check before you go.
Idaho Botanical Garden
2355 N. Penitentiary Road, 208-343-8649, idahobotanicalgarden.org
The view outside the walls of the Old Idaho Penitentiary is very different now than when prisoners were doing hard time there. Idaho Botanical Garden offers visitors a chance to stroll through numerous gardens, including some dedicated to native plants. The garden hosts special events, including concerts and educational programs for those who want to learn to green-up their own thumbs--all in the shadows of the old prison guard towers.
Idaho state Historical Museum
610 N. Julia Davis Drive, 208-334-2120, history.idaho.gov
For more than a century, the museum has been preserving and displaying the history of Idaho, from the prehistoric animals that once ranged across the area, through the fur trappers, gold miners, pioneers and current day. For decades, the highlight of any trip to the museum has been the two-headed calf, Deja Moo, which has a place of honor in the Western saloon. Visitors can take a plush version of the oddity home from the gift shop--because doesn't every child want to cuddle up with a two-headed, mutated cow plush toy at the end of the day? The public will get its first view of the newly renovated pioneer village outside the main entrance beginning in the fall of 2010. Watch for rotating exhibits, as well as hands-on history events, classes and public lectures throughout the year.
MK Nature Center
600 S. Walnut St., 208-334-2225, fishandgame.idaho.gov
Filling a 4.6-acre site in the middle of Boise is an oasis that teaches visitors about the diversity of Idaho's water-based wildlife. From cutthroat and rainbow trout to chinook salmon and sturgeon, as well as an array of waterfowl, songbirds and even mule deer, mink and beaver, this is a living museum. Visitors are encouraged to take a walk along the streamside trail, which serves double duty as both an educational exhibit and a welcome escape in downtown Boise, only feet from the Greenbelt and Boise River. Just leave the fishing pole at home.
Old Idaho Penitentiary
2445 Old Penitentiary Road, 208-334-2844, history.idaho.gov
Who needs Scared Straight when you've got class field trips to a penitentiary built more than 140 years ago? The sandstone structure was built at the base of Tablerock in 1870 and served as an active prison for 101 years. Now, visitors can leave on their own accord after touring cell blocks, solitary confinement and the gallows. The prison is also home to the J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit, showcasing the nation's largest collection of historic arms and military memorabilia, including spears, swords and heavy artillery spanning the Bronze Age to modern times.
Warhawk Air Museum
201 Municipal Drive, Nampa, 208-465-6446, warhawkairmuseum.org
Housed near the airport in Nampa, the nonprofit museum honors the service of military veterans, while highlighting the development of military aviation. Visitors can check out the impressive collection of military planes, including a Curtis P-40N, a Curtis P-40E, a Dr-1 Fokker Tri Plane replica and an F86. Military uniforms and artifacts are also on display, and the museum hosts many educational programs.
355 Julia Davis Drive, 208-384-4260, zooboise.org
Wildlife in Idaho is about more than elk and bear ... well, at least at the zoo in Julia Davis Park. The zoo has been expanding and improving, and the latest African Plains exhibit has been a major hit with visitors, who can also check out the new Zoo Farm.
Want to go on a cultural binge? The Boise Museum Association has put together a deal for those who want to OD on educational enrichment. Buy a pass for $19 for adults or $9 for children, and get into up to seven participating cultural attractions. The list includes nearly every location featured here, but check boisemuseums.org for details.