Missoula, Montana, a college town on the scenic western side of the state, is one of those places that stays with you long after you get back home. Destination Missoula recently hosted us in Missoula. We were not financially compensated, and all opinions are strictly our own.
With so much to choose from, here are our ideas about the very best things to see and do in Missoula based on our adventures there.
Float Down A River
Missoula has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to natural fun. Whether you’re an adventurous type who wants to tackle big whitewater rafting or, like us, prefer something a little more moderate, there are floating and rafting experiences suited to whatever you’d like and a river ready to greet you. Despite not being the super adventurous types and never having done it before, we went whitewater rafting on one of the most scenic rivers anywhere with Montana River Guides.
We saw bald eagles flying directly over our heads! And every view down the river was better than the next. If you’d rather not have any rapids to navigate, they offer floats, which are shorter, too. They also offer canoe, kayak, riverboard, and stand-up paddleboard trips if you’re looking for something different. Don’t hesitate to discuss specifics about what you want or don’t want. Our guide was knowledgeable, patient with us newbies, and lots of fun. We even stopped at a sandy beach to play in the water and revel in the sunny, cool, clear day. Honestly, we can’t wait to go back and do it again.
See A Carousel For Missoula
We love when communities come together to do something great, and A Carousel For Missoula is a prime example. Totally volunteer-built, this hand-carved carousel came about when a local cabinet maker promised the city council that if they’d take care of it, he’d get it done. Thus began a project that involved over 100,000 hours of volunteer work to create one of the most unique carousels in the world.
With chariots and dragons as well as ponies, each adopted by locals who ensure its care and preservation, the carousel holds a precious place in the hearts of those who come to see it from afar as well as those who live in Missoula. There are photos and stories about each of the creatures and a small workshop where visitors can see what work or restoration is currently underway. A Carousel For Missoula is a beautiful tribute to the imagination, hard work, and sense of community that Missoulians share.
Ride A Horse Or Visit A Ranch
Something about Montana just makes you want to get on a horse, or at least pet a few of them. There are plenty of stables and places to ride with 4,900 acres and 41 miles of trails to explore. If you’ve got a little time, make a trip to the incredible Dunrovin Ranch 10 miles to the south of town. You’ll be rewarded with breathtaking scenery that includes mountains, forests, meadows, and even rivers. We took a guided trail ride during which we walked our horses across a river and let them run free through a meadow.
Another fun part of Dunrovin Ranch is the webcam program they have. Four webcams keep track of an osprey nest, the river, a bench where wildlife visit to get food and shelter, and the ranch itself. The ranch also hosts many programs centered around music, art, books, nature, and more. Of course, we wouldn’t be sharing the whole story if we didn’t mention how much we fell in love with their Donkey Divas. Donkeys always steal our hearts, and Dunrovin Ranch did too.
Enjoy Live Performances, Art, And Culture All Around
We love that Missoula embraces the arts and provides so many ways to enjoy them. Public art in Missoula takes center stage. They even have a self-guided tour you can take of various installations around town.
For live music, check out Top Hat, which hosts national touring artists and local performers in an intimate venue. The Wilma is a beautifully restored 1920s vintage theater with state-of-the-art sound and light technology. Classical music fans will enjoy the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale.
We like live theater, and the Montana Repertory Theater entertained us with an original play that was both touching and fun. There are museums for art, natural history, military history, and even one on mountain flying. For those who enjoy a little exploring with their art, Missoula’s First Fridays will be fun. The first Friday of each month, shops, galleries, museums, and cafes keep their doors open during evening hours so artists and guests can mingle and enjoy refreshments and the creative spirit together.
See Bison At Home On The Range
Not many places give you the chance to drive through a wild animal’s natural habitat and see nature in its unedited glory. The National Bison Range is a refuge and wetland for wildlife conservation with three different drives that you can take in your car. We kept our eagle eyes open and saw many birds, deer, sheep, and other wildlife as well as several bison. As much as we loved the bison, we have to admit that the most exhilarating wildlife sighting we had was of a huge elk with a full rack of horns just sitting quietly in the tall grass. We stopped to watch him rest for awhile, then as we drove down the road a bit further, we saw some bison very nearby, enjoying a stroll and scratch on nearby rocks and trees.
There’s no guarantee you’ll see anything on your visit, but for us, the thrill of seeing these beautiful animals in a place where they are free to roam made the risk of disappointment worthwhile by far. Days and open hours vary, so check online before visiting to avoid disappointment.
Eating And Drinking In Missoula, Montana
Missoula is one of those surprising places that has a wonderful downtown loaded with great options for eating and drinking. The vibe is comfy and unpretentious, though you will find plenty of upscale eateries as well as local haunts. Here are some of the spots we just loved.
The Catalyst Cafe
One step inside and the local favorite vibe of this place hit us in a big way. Open for breakfast and lunch, the menu offers lots of ways to enjoy local ingredients for various diets from paleo to vegan. They have house-made items like granola and jam as well as various specialties. If you prefer to make up your own breakfast platter, you can build your plate by selecting from their lists of items.
Biga Pizza has creatively curated and tasty pizzas baked in a brick oven along with salads, sandwiches, and other Italian specialties. Although they use expert techniques to get the crust perfectly crisp, it doesn’t take long to get your meal. Go hungry, leave happily full.
The Notorious P.I.G.
The Notorious P.I.G. is a barbecue joint where the name is almost as good as the food. The meat here gets the St. Louis treatment owing to its pitmaster’s roots. Winning acclaim as one of Food Network’s best barbecue restaurants in America, the P.I.G. knows how to please.The pulled pork and baked beans are as yummy as they get. On Tuesday nights the restaurant holds Community Day, donating a portion of all sales back to local non-profit charities that participate.
Visiting Scotty’s Table, located on the bottom level of the vintage Wilma Theater, starts with a walk downstairs and is amplified by the elegance of the room, which boasts dramatic lighting and beautifully streamlined tables covered in crisp white linens. Much of the menu reflects a celebration of local producers and their products. Sustainability is important at Scotty’s Table, as it is to us. The menu offers a thoughtful variety of choices, ranging from local pork chops and a delicious beef duo to risotto and cioppino. We started our evening with handcrafted cocktails and enjoyed a quiet, unhurried meal in the stylish and relaxing room.
Drinks And Treats
If you like handcrafted cocktails, visit Montgomery Distillery and try a Moscow Mule or a Honey Bee Highball made with their craft spirits. Beer lovers can enjoy great craft brews at Tamarack Brewing Company. And oenophiles can see the wine works at Ten Spoon Vineyard and Winery.
If your sweet tooth is aching, then you’ll want to get some Big Dipper Ice Cream. It’s creamy and rich and, of course, they have our favorite Montana flavor -- huckleberry.
We’re crazy about donuts, so imagine how impressed we were when we tasted the delicious Veera Donuts and later discovered they are totally vegan. Names like White Zombie, Purple Haze, War Pig, and Love Buzz may tickle your funny bone, but these delicious donuts will tickle your taste buds. Savory donuts are available, too.
Shopping In Missoula, Montana
Missoula stores cover a wide range of shopping pleasures. Here are our recommended stops.
From spring through fall you can catch the trio of open-air markets that are situated throughout the town. Missoula Farmers’ Market focuses on produce, plants, and baked goods. Clark Fork River Market is known for dairy, meat, and live music, as well as prepared food offerings. And Missoula People’s Market emphasizes locally made arts and crafts. It's easy enough to walk to all three if you take a little time to rest between your browsing.
Rockin’ Rudy’s is the biggest tchotchke store we’ve ever seen. But it’s so much more than that. This gargantuan shop has room after room with more than 100,000 items ranging from incense and tea to t-shirts, toys, and huckleberry treats. What started as an independent record store has blossomed into a destination experience for locals and visitors alike. A trip to Rudy’s is really a trip, but it's a trip worth taking, especially if you’re looking for something unique and memorable to take home for yourself or bring back for a friend.
Reuse And Renew
Circle Square Second Hand Store is Missoula’s answer for people who spend too much at Rockin’ Rudy’s then look at their stuff and say, “Uh-oh, it’s gotta go!” Locals call it the We Buy Anything Store, mostly because those words are painted on the outside of the building. The huge variety of items also reflects the theme.
You can also stop by Upcycled, where clever products are crafted out of items that had a previous life. You’ll find wallets made out of tires, earrings from skateboards … even the business cards are printed on the plain inside of printed cracker and cereal boxes. Upcycled is a very cool store that makes you feel good about shopping.
The Hip Strip
For a heavy dose of retail therapy at fun shops, head over to Missoula’s Hip Strip. Here you’ll find locally-owned-and-operated shops offering art, clothing, beads, music, books, and more. The shops are diverse, from Betty’s Divine, with modern fashion and “Divine Trash Vintage,” to Missoula Bicycle Works and the large and lovely Meadowsweet Herbs.
There's This Place...
Missoula, Montana, has a saying that opens the imagination. "There’s this place…" For us, Missoula is a place where the beauty of nature is everywhere and a vibrant town with delicious food, arts, and culture embraces visitors with a warm smile and a sense of humor. While we consider these the best things to see and do in Missoula, Montana, we’re sure everyone who visits will come up with a list that’s all their own. And that’s really the best thing about Missoula.