FX Excursions

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History, Nature and Good Food Abound in Helena, Montana

by Aoife O’Riordan

Oct 5, 2022

© Aoife O’Riordan

United States

Originally founded as a gold-mining camp during the Montana gold rush in the 19th century, the Helena of today appears as something totally different. With blue mountains lining the skyline and a unique two-spire cathedral emerging from the neighboring tall buildings, you don’t need to look hard to find Helena’s history. It was once one of the richest cities in America, with about 50 millionaires living there by 1888. Now, remnants of the gold rush and wealthy people who flocked here and the dominance of Montana’s natural beauty define Helena.

 

Reeder's Alley

© Aoife O’Riordan

Rarely do capital cities find that perfect blend of history, nature, culture and good food, but Helena does just that. With just more than 32,000 people in the city, Helena offers visitors a quieter place to stay and enjoy Montana compared to other busy places like Big Sky and Bozeman.

 

On a sunny day, head to Reeder’s Alley, situated in southwest Helena. As the oldest intact piece of early Helena, Reeder’s Alley takes visitors back in time with its brick walkways and quaint, two-story buildings. Reeder’s Alley features a restaurant, caterer, non-profit organization and the office of Visit Helena, all marked with traditional wooden hanging signs jutting out above each door. All buildings in Reeder’s Alley are designated as a historic district, and the historic Pioneer Cabin also sits in the area. This wooden cabin served as the home to Wilson Butts in 1864 when he arrived during the first wave of the gold rush.

pastries

© Aoife O’Riordan

 

Within Reeder’s Alley, stop in at Cotton-Top Pastries for handmade seasonal pastries, as well as cakes and pies. Be sure to visit early before it runs out of its delicious creations. One of its most popular creations is the cruffin, a combination of a croissant and a muffin, available in different seasonal flavors.

 

In downtown Helena, the city devotes an entire stretch of buildings to pedestrians to walk. From art galleries to gift shops to microbreweries, this area allows visitors to enjoy their time exploring the city. Also situated along this stretch are a series of sculptures, all paying homage to Helena’s history. Statues include a newsboy advertising the latest issue to a bullwhacker raising his whip in the air to two miners searching for gold in an ever-flowing stream.

coffee

© Aoife O’Riordan

 

For a unique coffee experience, the General Mercantile & Co store, operating since 1971, allows guests to enjoy coffee in an old-school, western-style space. Cozy booths and tables lie dispersed among quirky gifts and items for sale, from Montana-made mugs to handmade soaps. The shop even features a small koi pond.

 

The Great Northern Hotel serves as the perfect spot to spend the night in Helena. This 4-star hotel boasts spacious guestrooms and a quiet atmosphere for a good night’s sleep. The hotel features an indoor pool with a hot tub, fitness center and on-site restaurant.

Gates

© Aoife O’Riordan

 

Helena’s proximity to the mountains means opportunities to venture beyond the city center to see Montana’s rugged landscape. Just 20 miles outside of the city lies the Gates of the Mountains, a must-visit destination for those wanting to see mountains up close while on a boat. Take a two-hour tour on the Missouri River to experience what Lewis and Clark once witnessed during their 1805 expedition. Rock walls with warped and twisting formations line the river, and just as you think the river will open up to the skies upon turning a corner, another descending piece of rock appears, almost like the rocks are gates to those wanting to enter the mountains. Bald eagles, bears and deer roam the region, and the boat tour even points out ancient Native American rock art.

brie

© Aoife O’Riordan

 

Helena is no stranger to fine dining. The Wassweiler Dinner House and Pub, located just outside of Helena, serves classic and rich dishes alongside an extensive list of wines. The intimate dining space serves mouthwatering dishes. Some of its must-try plates include the brie en croute, featuring imported brie, brown sugar, blackberry coulis, honey, crushed almonds and grilled baguette; marinated beef shoulder tenderloin with gorgonzola sauce, sauteed mushrooms, asparagus and a twice-baked potato; and a flourless chocolate torte with Belgium chocolate sauce, strawberry and homemade vanilla ice cream. The restaurant also is known for its candied thick-cut bacon and French onion soup.

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