Billings, Montana can I just hug you?! You may be known as Montana’s trailhead, but you’ve got everything going on in your own right! A trailhead is a place where a trail begins, which means Billings makes a great “home-base” for heading out to other great Montana locations, but after my visit to this charming town, I say, “Stay awhile!”
When I posted a photo to Instagram for another project, I geotagged that the photo was taken in Billings. I did not mention Billings in my caption or anything else. However you can’t fool the travel community, I immediately got comments about how awesome Billings is, how underrated it was and how much fellow travelers had enjoyed exploring it. I have to say that I agree!
Plus, Billings has a truly great food and beverage scene which is the most important thing to making a trip great in my book. Billings also has art, music, outdoor activities, and entertainment and it truly is at the trailhead of some epic national parks and monuments. On top of that, their farmers market can seduce the socks off any foodie! Then they have the pièce de résistance, a real French baker making real French bread, mon Dieu!
I only spent 48 hours in Billings, but it was definitely long enough to fall in love.
My time was mainly focused in the historic downtown area. It is so easy to get to. Hello! My home during my stay, the historic Northern Hotel was just 2.2 miles from the airport! Downtown Billings is more than a single block of historical buildings, it is block after block, I quickly got in my 10,000 steps which I needed to work off the great food, coffee, juices, and beverages!
And while I was doing this:
My USA Parks travel buddy, Emily was doing this:
Two different styles, one city.
Of course, I didn’t just eat. (Although I did do a lot of that.) I also visited museums and art stores, coffee shops and battlefields.
Let me share some highlights and offer you recommendations for your visit to Billings.
I’m going to make you wait for the food. Let’s start with art.
Art in Billings
I know. You’re thinking, “Andi? Art? That’s something new!” Well, actually it’s not. I LOVE museums, street art, murals, and artisanal crafts. I may not sit down and write a dissertation on how fascinating I find Toulouse Lautrec’s 19th Century Paris work, I may not be able to tell you why Monet painted so many flowers, but I can tell you his gardens are pretty! And I can tell you that I loved visiting the Yellowstone Art Museum.
Yellowstone Art Museum
I walked to the Yellowstone Art Museum from the hotel the first afternoon I arrived. It was 2 hours until closing but that was plenty of time to see the good stuff. The museum’s size is digestible and I got to nearly all the exhibits. There were 2 that were my favorite: the thing itself and America the beautiful: Clyde Butcher.
I once saw an exhibit at The Leeum Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul that was very similar to ‘the thing itself’. In this exhibit, various artists have taken everyday objects, cereal boxes, pieces of garbage and more and by inlaying, overlaying, mounting and recombining them have created some really fun pieces to see. I enjoy upcycling/recycling and this exhibit takes it to the next level. I absolutely loved seeing the photography of Clyde Butcher, mainly because (a) he is a great photographer, but (b) most of the photos in the exhibit space were of places that I have visited before and so I had a connection to the subject matter. I also absolutely loved the notes he took about each photo. I had some revelations about some of the photography habits of Mr. Misadventures, I have come to understand some of his peculiarities a bit more after seeing this beautiful black and white photography exhibit.
You don’t have to go to a museum to realize that Billings has a very vibrant art scene. ArtWalk Downtown Billings, a monthly event that just celebrated its 25th anniversary, highlights the ever-growing community of artists and art galleries in downtown Billings. And it isn’t just the galleries, it is a community affair with a festival-like atmosphere. I was not there for one of these evenings, but I did get a chance to check out work from local artisans at a shop called Toucan, everywhere I turned there was something I wanted to buy, but my carry-on luggage prevented me from doing so!
Traffic Signal Boxes
As you walk around town you will also see traffic signal box art which is part of a public art project.
Just in the 4-5 block radius area, I walked around the Northern Hotel, I found so many!
Other Street Art
There are also unofficial outlets for street art, mainly some of the alleys off First Avenue North and 30th Street South. While not sanctioned by the city they are a way for artists to express themselves with bright colors and designs and lots of statements.
Other Museums in Billings
Not necessarily art, but falling in the museum category, are the following spots to visit in Billings:
- Yellowstone County Museum: At the airport! So if you find yourself there early with time to kill, check out the artifacts from the Northern Plains Indian tribes, western expansion, mining, cattle and sheep herding, and textiles.
- The Moss Mansion: historic home of the prominent Moss Family one of Billings founding members. It’s made from iconic Redstone and is quite a beauty, I passed it several times during my walks.
- Western Heritage Center: dedicated to the history of the Yellowstone River Valley and the Northern Plains.
Billings Outdoor Activities
Billings was made for the outdoors and the people who love killing a couple of thousand of calories before noon! My particular 48 hours was a little more on the down-low, but my partner in crime, Emily hit this part of the itinerary in full force. She is a rock star!
Emily headed out with Bitter Creek Outfitters for a horseback ride through parts of the family’s 7000-acre 100-year-old ranch. It is 8 miles from Billings but could be hours the way it makes you feel! The groups are small, 6 or less and no one knows that land better than the second-generation rancher! They take riders at all levels. This is a great way to experience the gorgeous plains, the rimrocks, the ponderosa pines and lots of wildflowers. You might even be lucky enough to be accompanied by the ranch’s dog Bo!
Hiking or Walking
I got all my steps in by walking everywhere I went in the downtown Billings area. However, on my next trip I plan on doing some local hikes and here is where I’ll go:
- Four Dances Natural Area: this is designated BLM recreation land that was set aside in 1999. It is day use only and you can hike, check out wildlife and take beautiful photos in this area that has sagebrush/grassland, ponderosa pine, and cottonwood riparian.
- Pictograph Cave State Park: This is a National Historic Landmark consisting of 3 caves in a 23-acre area.
- Swords Rimrock Park: You don’t have to leave town for this one. There are 60 acres and the trail follows around the rim of the outskirts of Billing with great views.
- Two Moon Park: A nice little loop with trails through gorgeous meadows, woods along the Yellowstone River.
Biking in Billings
Emily tore it up at both Acton Recreation Area and Phipps Park Mountain Bike Trail. She met some of the guys who help get the Acton Recreation Area up and running and they offered to ride with her through the area. Acton is constantly being developed, with the hopes of turning the Acton Recreation area into a mountain bike destination. Phipps Park is a little more gentle where you climb the butte, do a nice loop around the top, and then quickly hit the downhill.
Billings, The Trailhead Where It All Begins
These are excellent spots to check out while staying in Billings. Make Billings your home base for relaxing and eating after checking out these spots not too far away.
Little Big Horn National Monument
Road trip! I had so much fun on my solo road trip to Little Big Horn National Monument while I was visiting Billings. I love national parks and monuments and I was happy to add this one to my collection. It takes 1 hour, but it is a beautiful drive on I-90 East through rollings hills and big skies. I was there before I knew it and while the monument was busy, I never felt crowded.
This battlefield is the site where the Cheyenne, Lakota, and Sioux Indians fought against the 7th Cavalry of the United States Army, led by General Custer. I was very pleased with how the park treated the topic of such a bloody campaign, but I believe it was fair to both sides. I visited the cemetery outside of the visitor’s center and did the tour road in my car stopping along the way to look at headstones and historical markers. One of the most exciting things was catching some wild horses on the drive. They were close enough to see, but I certainly did not have the right camera to capture these gorgeous beasts!
Where was Mr. Misadventures when I needed him!
After my visit, I made a stop at the Land Stand Trading Post just outside the park. I have been to a few trading posts in my time, but nothing like this! I was huge, chock full of fun things to look at and buy (I bought a t-shirt!), it had teepees, and scary cool skulls, and Indian fry bread with honey!
I highly recommend this drive from Billings! So worth it!
Tippet Rise Art Center
Tippet Rise Art Center is an outdoor art exhibit slash concert spot (they host classical chamber music and recitals) in Fishtail, Montana. In the background are the gorgeous Beartooth Mountains. The large-scale exhibits are set on a 12,000-acre working sheep and cattle ranch. How cool is that? The exhibits are seasonal, so you can keep going back for more!
Billings is also known for the “Rim” or “Rimrocks.” The Rimrocks are geological rimrock sandstone formations around Billings. The Billings airport is on the Rim! Swords Rimrock Park is the best way to explore them.
Pompey’s Pillar National Monument
This historical monument dates back to the days of the Lewis and Clark. These famous pioneers traveled through Yellowstone Valley in 1806. Captain William Clark even carved his name into the pillar as a reminder of this trip (bad form Mr. Clark, bad form!); however, it is the ONLY physical evidence of the Lewis and Clark expedition!
Where I Stayed – The Northern Hotel
Our home away from home was the historic Northern Hotel. It was my guiding beacon everywhere I went during my time in Billings as I could see the building from nearly every point! When I landed at the airport I walked out and immediately realized there wasn’t a taxi line. When I inquired the information desk said most of the hotels had shuttles, of course, and how nice is that? It is a perk I miss a lot. I cannot tell you how long it has been since I was in a hotel airport shuttle! In 5 minutes I was picked up and whisked away to the hotel which was like 7 minutes away – so convenient! From that point forward except for my little road trip to Little Big Horn (coming below), I walked to everything I visited in Billings. The Northern Hotel is placed right where you need to be. The staff is impeccable and while we didn’t eat at the hotel restaurant, Emily and I enjoyed a nice after-dinner drink in their bar.
Eating & Drinking in Billings
Ah, the good stuff! No 48-hour trip would be complete without me sampling as much of the food scene as possible. How else can I make recommendations for you?! Tough job but I love to do it!
Coffee and Non-alcoholic Beverages
My Phoenix airport shuttle had picked me up at 3:00 am so I could get to Billings in time to enjoy the afternoon, so coffee was one of the first things on my mind when I landed! My first stop was Rock Creek Coffee Roasters where I had a cold brew (although it wasn’t the 112 I had just left in Phoenix, it was 90). I was SO tempted to try their cold brew and Coca-Cola drink but I wasn’t going to go that carb crazy in my first hour in Billings, so I had the regular cold brew! While staying in Billings I also stopped in at Ebon Coffee Collective where I tried their cortado. I was eyeballing some of their avocado toast, but had to be reasonable!
Lastly, after window shopping in Toucan, I spent some quiet time with a macchiato at MōAV Coffee. If you are looking for a spot to work, be a digital nomad, just do your thing, MōAV Coffee has a great set-up with comfortable sitting areas grouped in sections, bars along the windows and a nice outdoor terrace that runs along the side of the shop. A lot of towns I visit don’t have great coffee so it was really good to see that the coffee culture is intact here!
By the way, I totally dig the architecture in downtown Billings! As I was visiting all these delicious spots my eyes were feasting on the scenery as well.
Can you say, hello, Instagram spots?!
See that last photo up there? During one of my walks, I got thirsty but didn’t want caffeine or water so I stopped into Well Pared for a juice. Isn’t it adorable! I miss juice shops. When I worked in San Francisco there were 4 within 2 blocks of me and I loved getting fresh juice daily. There are 2 Well Pared shops in Billings run by brother and sister and I was so happy to try them out. Got myself a Gibe juice with kale, lemon, celery, green apple, and cucumber – delish!
Food and Treats
Oh, where do I start? First let me tell you: I did not have one bad meal. I had some which stood out more than others, but all of them were delicious. Having said that, I am just going to share where I ate and recommend it all! However, please note that Billings has a thriving restaurant scene. Any town that has a restaurant week has made it in my book!
Breakfast at The Sassy Biscuit x 2
The Johnsons have my number. It’s been two weeks since I’ve been to Billings and I am still thinking about that place. My waistline is glad I don’t live in Billings because me and The Sassy Biscuit in the same town, I wouldn’t win! The Sassy Biscuit is the brainchild of Jilan Hall-Johnson, a wife and mother of a military family that through their travels around the country, picked up recipes and cooking styles here and there, mixed them with their recipes and viola, came up with the sassy biscuit, which are pressed shortcakes, something like a biscuit in a waffle maker.
The menu has so much more than that and I confess my first breakfast there I ordered 2 items! I got the fried chicken and waffles pictured in the photo above (hello, more Instagram-worthy spots!) and the Johnson-style spoon cake with saged-sausage white gravy, rice, and a fried egg.
So you know that game we like to play when you like a place so much go back twice? No? Is that just me? LOL. Well, that’s exactly what I did. On our last morning, Emily and I headed back to The Sassy Biscuit because that “Johnson-style” spooned cakes breakfast was to die for! I totally abandoned the low-carb train but it was so worth it, Mrs. Johnson you go girl!
One last shot of this spot – it is SO cute!
Lunch at The Burger Dive
You already saw me eating that big fat burger in the photo at the beginning of my story, The Burger Dive has a burger for everyone! Award-winning too! I had the “Best of the Bash” burger with blackened seasoning, goat cheese, bacon, onion ring, arugula, Sriracha sauce, and garlic basil mayonnaise and Emily had the “I’m your huckleberry” with Huckleberry Hatch chili barbecue sauce, bacon, goat cheese, arugula, and roasted red pepper mayo. It won the World Food Championships “Burger Champion” burger! Oh and we went for the fries too! They are skin-on fresh-cut fries and damn good. I am not a huge fan of fries so that is saying something!
Dinner at Walkers
For our first dinner in Billings, Emily and I dined around the corner from The Northern Hotel at Walkers. I don’t know what I was expecting from Billings restaurants, but it certainly wasn’t this. I was thinking steakhouse and potatoes, but what I got was burrata with stone fruit; compressed cucumbers and bulgogi-style beef. Hello Billings! We have a winner! Everything was cooked or prepared to perfection, everything complimented each other and the waiter actually looked jealous of what we were eating and was super enthusiastic about the menu.
Then we experienced a real treat. Chef Nick Steen made his way to our table and told us the story behind his Korean beef bowl. Turns out it is an homage to his mother who raised him and his brother on very little money. She had spent some time in the San Francisco Bay Area with a Korean roommate and had picked up how to make bulgogi beef from that roommate and her roommate’s mother who would visit from Korean for a month or so (gee, that sounds familiar!). Chef Steen’s Mom would make this dish for New Year’s telling the kids that if they splurged on good beef and ate a good meal on the first day of the year, the rest of the year had to be a good one. His mother sounds like a good woman, and let me tell you, she makes damn good Korean beef! Which she passed onto her very talented son!
Dinner at The Fieldhouse
Leave it to the carnivores to go to a vegetable-forward restaurant and get meat! That is exactly what Emily and I did for our second dinner in Billings. We went to The Fieldhouse and ordered honey-chevre cucumbers – I had never had goat cheese with honey incorporated into the cheese and that is my new favorite way to have it. Then we ordered pork ribs with a Vietnamese style sauce and more cucumber, pickled this time and topped that off with vegan ramen, but we added pork belly! That’s the giant bowl I am eating at the beginning of this story.
Dessert at the Big Dipper
Truth be told I did not actually eat ice cream from the Big Dipper, but I really, really wanted to! I stood in a VERY long line with Emily so that she could get ice cream and was tortured by the sites and smells. The ice creams, sorbets, and other frozen treats are a local favorite and I could see why there was a line. For sure, next time, knowing that this place exists, I will skip a course at dinner to make room!
Le Fournil – A real French Baker in Billings!
I walked by Le Fournil several times on the way to other stops and each time I peeked in the window hoping to catch a sign of the baker. The name was definitely French but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to sussing out good French bread. Our last morning while walking to our breakfast, I dragged Emily into the bakery after we had chatted with the baker’s wife. She is a Billings local who had left to travel and along the way, on a trip to Singapore, she met a French man who would become her husband and Billing’s only French baker. They have authentic goods, so if you are in the area, buy bread from here!
They have all the traditional bread and pastries. I don’t see the epi – the last one on the right in the first photo very often but I love it! (I learned to make it in Paris.) They sell out quick on Saturdays when the farmer’s market is going on, so plan ahead! Allez vite!
I’m not a big drinker, a total lightweight, so when I drink something I am looking for the good stuff. I like wine and beer and good cocktails. Billings has all that in spades! They have their own Walking Brewery District in downtown. The unofficial brewery district includes 6 breweries and 2 distilleries and a cider mill! Emily had checked them out and decided we should try Asylum Distillery for a pre-dinner drink. I like places with a story and this little bar/distillery is located in a historic building and make all their drinks with their own alcohol using local and seasonal ingredients, like fruit from the farmer’s market. When they went to renovate the elevator in the building the owners of the distillery took parts and pieces and made an “electric chair” for the corner of their bar – it is kind of fun and between sips of our blackberry martinis, we took silly photos of us getting electrified!
Billings breweries are crafting award-winning beers, ales, lagers, and ciders and the brewery district is a must-try. The casual atmosphere is conducive for date night, girlfriends night out or friends get together. The walkability and access to food mean you can enjoy it responsibly.
If you are interested in wine, Billings has you covered. You can visit the Yellowstone Cellars and Winery and get a sampling of local and regional wines. I had some excellent rosé wines with my dinners.
Yellowstone Valley Farmers Market
OMG, what can I say? I have been seriously deprived of farmer’s markets since leaving San Francisco. They don’t have real farmer’s markets in Phoenix, they are arts and crafts shows. I’m always asking, “where are the vegetables?!” After our breakfast, Emily and I hit the market, it is practically spilling out from The Northern Hotel on the corner of North Broadway and 1st Avenue North. However, it goes for several streets! I was oohing and aahing everything as we walked through. Knowing I couldn’t bring anything in my carry-on was a big bummer. Emily didn’t have that restriction so she bought a crate of fruit. That baby down below was $20! It was a mix and match of 6 fruits. They tasted so good I wanted to cry! I think I would move to Billings just for this market – I need something to offset that Johnson from The Sassy Biscuit!
How about you? Have you been to Billings Montana? Are you interested now? Do tell! Do you have additional things to do, see or eat to add to the list? Do share!
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