I received complimentary admissions and food while on a tour of Billings Montana.
Billings Montana, or Montana’s Trailhead, is poised at an interesting crossroads. The biggest city by population in the vast state of Montana, Billings is being reimagined. While this area has historically identified with cowboy culture, the great outdoors and the wild west, it is also embracing and investing in arts and culture, leading to a downtown core revitalization.
More of a slow burn than an overnight transformation, the arts and history district, as well as museums and cultural venues in Billings are evolving. There are numerous cultural venues, museums and businesses thriving in downtown Billings and that is only expected to grow. With several arts district initiatives under way, the downtown core area might look quite different in the next five to ten years.
A Few Things You Might Not Know About Billings Montana
Helena is the capital of Montana, but Billings is the biggest city in Montana by population. People often move to Billings to escape the city. Some come from California and others from Denver area. Of course, many locals that grew up in Billings still live there too.
Dan Austin of Austin Adventures calls Billings: “A great place to raise a family.”
Recently, I had the chance to explore Billings Montana during a travel writer’s conference and on my first day I did a tour of the downtown arts and history district. The restaurants, museums, event venues and art studios were a surprise in the context of an industrial city.
Here are several of the things I enjoyed doing while in Billings Montana. I did most of these in the few days that I had to explore before leaving on a Yellowstone and Wild West tour with Austin Adventures.
What Can You Do In Billings Montana?
Yellowstone Art Museum
Frankly I was blown away by the Yellowstone Art Museum (YAM), which is built inside the former Yellowstone County Jail. The caliber of the exhibits is very high at the largest contemporary art museum in Montana. This is the kind of museum you could spend hours in easily, learning something new in every gallery. Food for thought around every single corner.
Rumoured to be haunted, the Yellowstone Art Museum stands out because it features contemporary artists in a region where cowboy culture is the mainstay. If you are looking for things to do in Billings Montana, the YAM should be high on your list.
Check out America The Beautiful by Clyde Butcher, a powerful series of 31 large format gelatin photographs spanning several US National Parks and the Everglades too. This collection is emotionally moving and Butcher’s story is heartbreaking. Read all of the descriptions and the biographical information about this American artist. There are several books about him in the gift shop.
Over the years, as a travel writer, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. Some rely on an old school model of what a museum should be. With its curious architecture, engaging collections and clever community outreach, the YAM breaks free from the traditional mold.
When I was there, the basement space displayed a collection entirely crafted by school kids. Imagine being a child and knowing your art is on display in a museum. Naturally all of the child’s relatives move heaven and earth to go and see that display and now a new pipeline of museum and arts enthusiasts is born. I have deep appreciation for museums on the cutting edge of change. The YAM is smart. Go visit and be sure to tour with a docent.
Local, sustainable food elevated by the vision of Executive Chef and General Manager Nick Steen. Steen jokes he “traded in scalpels for a chef’s knife.” He was planning to become a doctor at one point, but says he actually really wanted to be a ski bum. Steen lost a job and helped out at his child’s school with lunches and then also worked as a firefighter for a bit, before realizing he really wanted to be a chef.
“My first day of work I cooked for Bill Gates and Tiger Woods at Big Sky.”
One of only three restaurants in the city that serve local Montana beef, this should be your first spot to dine when you visit. We were treated to a three course lunch at Walkers Grill and cannot say enough about the menu and service here. Clever and creative cocktails, plus fresh flavourful appetizers grounded by local plants and vegetables and handmade biscuits. YUM.
Try the Bolognese. It was my favourite part of the meal.
The Historic Depot
Billings is a city that was built around a railroad, which basically runs through the centre of the city. So, how do you design a downtown core around that when train tracks run right through the heart of the cultural district? Well, The Historic Depot has managed to figure out a peaceful coexistence highlighting the area’s history while also celebrating its location and origin every single time it is transformed into a vibrant event venue. There are numerous buildings that compose The Historic Depot; each one is transformed into something different regularly. The Depot itself has consistently been voted the #1 indoor wedding venue in Billings by the Reader’s Choice Awards.
The depot is a nonprofit. As mentioned, there are several buildings here and one is a former post office, now rented out for various events. At Christmas, the non profit venue sets up a delightful, family friendly polar express. Another building is frequently rented out as a popup shop of sorts.
Craft Beer Scene
Of course, Billings Montana has a craft beer scene. Most major cities and destinations do right now as it is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. Try UBERBREW, then go see the hops fence behind The Historic Depot. They also have a large home brewer’s association in Billings.
This was unexpected to me actually. There are dozens of artist’s studio’s in Billings Montana. So, when you are hunting for things to see and do art and artist studio tours must be at the top of any list.
There are many well known writers, novelists and painters living here in Billings. It’s an affordable place to live if you are an artist and there is also a thriving performative spoken word art scene. I know, right? Quite a surprise indeed.
Outdoor Art and Alley-scaping
Alleyscaping. Until I visited Billings Montana I had never heard of alleyscaping. But, beautifying outdoor spaces and alleys too is a high level goal for the arts district here. Even one entire parking garage in downtown Billings Montana is painted with colourful scenes and figures making a functional space slightly whimsical and less grey.
Harry Koyama, Fine Art Studio
I’m obsessed with the doorway to Harry Koyama’s fine art studio and gallery and you will be too. Distressed wood door and a one of a kind sign hanging in the window pane set the tone for a creative experience inside. Koyama captures nature, wildlife and indigenous culture in his unique artworks. Ask him about his process when you visit. It is incredibly differentto me. He begins with photographs that be takes and then puts the image onto a thin piece of wood before transforming it into a majestic lifelike piece.
Coolest spot to get a coffee, or so I thought, based on the coffee shops I found while there in Montana. Located at 1400 South 24th Street West the decor is modern with a shoutout to the industrial roots of the area. The coffees and lattes here are pure art. Also, as a coffee enthusiast I found it refreshing that the coffees and lattes here were rich and full bodied as well as pretty to look at. So, perfect combination of substance and style.
Western Heritage Centre
The Western Heritage Centre is a Montana museum chronicling the history of Yellowstone County. Inside a gorgeous old building, it’s worth visiting to learn a bit more about this area. Also, I was impressed with the people working here who clearly knew their stuff.
Pictograph Cave State Park
Located in Boilings Montana this is endless amounts of fun for families and kids. Home to generations of prehistoric hunters who left artifacts and drawings behind.
Visit Montana’s only zoo and botanical gardens. Looking for something to do in Billings Montana with kids? This is a great way to spend the afternoon. There’s something extremely charming about this smaller city zoo where most of the animals are rescued and have some heart wrenching stories too.
ZooMontana sits on 70 acres of land, but only uses roughly 26 of them. The Botanical Gardens and sensory garden at ZooMontana make a gorgeous backdrop for a wedding. The zoo is a nonprofit with heavy community involvement and two zoo preschools too.
Bruno the bear, a rescued circus bear, ended up here at ZooMontana and so did Gable, a great horned owl, who flew into a power line and had a wing amputated. These are just two of the stories of the animals living at ZooMontana. The tigers here were owned by a roadside attraction and rescued. Visitors come to ZooMontana from all over the country and did you know that this zoo was just accredited again?
Try to spy the two wolverines at ZooMontana. With only about 40 zoos that have wolverines, they are unique residents. The zoo employs about 20 people, with 8-9 zookeepers.
The Sassy Biscuit
Picture all the southern biscuits turned into sandwiches with fried chicken, bacon and bacon jelly. Or waffles….OMG, this is a spot you better not miss. Don’t lose your mind here, but if I am being completely honest I am not a biscuit or bread kind of girl. However, these biscuits are not any old biscuits. They are sassy and the best I have ever tasted. Located in downtown Billings, this is an adorable and fun atmosphere inside.
Moss Mansion tells the story of one of Billings’ most famous families and how the city was built. A turn of the century home built in 1903 by New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh, this mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Get Outside – Yellowstone River
Embrace the outdoors because you are in Montana for Pete’s Sake! Walk or bike the numerous trails and take advantage of Yellowstone River, the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 states and go fishing!