Explore The Offerings Of Two Spirited Towns Of Montana - Bozeman And Livingston
Travel+Leisure India|January 2022
Montana may be best known for its natural wonders, but look between the Rockies and the rivers and you’ll find a pair of spirited towns as well. BORIS FISHMAN visits Bozeman and Livingston, where you don’t have to travel far to find a great meal, an artfully designed hotel, or a collective of young creatives.
Boris Fishman
It would make for a pretty lame T-shirt: “I went to Bozeman and didn’t once set foot on a hiking trail.”

On a recent visit, I avoided this mortifying distinction by scrambling up Drinking Horse Mountain Trail, a three-kilometre loop that starts in town. But there is so much going on in the paved parts of this idyllic town that you could easily go days without finding time to take in the natural splendour that surrounds it, which includes a half-dozen mountain ranges and a little park called Yellowstone.

I wanted to go to Bozeman because I’d spent a decade falling in love with—and dreaming of relocating to—Big Sky Country, as it’s known. I had recently been hired to teach writing at the University of Montana in Missoula, the state’s laid-back alternative to what Missoulians see as Bozeman’s glitz. But I felt like I’d ended up with the wrong partner. Despite having nearly twice Bozeman’s population, Missoula seemed to vibrate with half the energy. Many Montanans prefer that. But I was moving from New York City, and it was Bozeman that offered the singular satisfaction of enjoying a world-class meal on the way from one barren rock face to another.

Winter comes early to Bozeman, which sits at an elevation of nearly a mile, and my visit last October coincided with the area’s final week of fall. It was a pageant: the paper birches and Ohio buckeyes blazed with such fire against the tawny humps of the Bridger Mountains, a subrange of the Rockies, that I had to shield my eyes. Bozeman is all of 52 square kilometres, and wherever you look, you see peaks.

But I was headed downtown: 15 blocks with hardly a chain store in sight. Bozeman has never lacked lodging with personality. Several years ago, the Element by Westin, near Main Street, had been good enough not only for my wife, but also the members of Kiss. (You haven’t lived until you’ve chatted up Kiss over continental breakfast.) On this trip, I was staying at the newly opened Kimpton Armory Hotel, a nine-storey reinvention of a National Guard regiment’s headquarters that started almost a decade ago, when the head of a Bozeman-based adventure-travel company saved the structure from the wrecking ball.

The Armory is the latest marker of Bozeman’s transition from “sleepy cow town” to a budding city with sashimi bars and cocktail lounges that could hold their own against San Francisco’s and Seattle’s. My Bozeman acquaintances maintain that this hasn’t changed the soul of the place: people still say hello on the street, they insist, and businesses funnel profits back into the community. Nonetheless, I wondered whether the arrival of another global hospitality brand—not to mention all the transplants who relocated here during the pandemic—could enrich Bozeman without changing the best things about it.

HERE’S A TEST FOR whether a place has gotten too big too quickly: Do they honk at you if you’re going down Main Street at 16 kilometres an hour?

I was riding along with Jasmine Lilly, a self-described “creative hummingbird” who had offered to give me a tour of a town she’s called home for 27 years. She was being generous with her time: later that morning, she had her very first appointment in the bridal shop she had just opened on the east side of downtown as a natural extension of her wedding-planning business.

Over the past decade, passionate locals have revitalised Bozeman’s commercial districts, and to drive around town with Lilly is to realise that many of the most passionate are millennials. In the Mill District, in northeast Bozeman, Lilly’s friend Shaw Thompson has transformed an old grain mill into the Misco Mill Gallery, a furniture workshop, art gallery, and vacation-rental apartment. A block away, her friend Thompson Limanek runs Green Seam Designs, a furniture maker and high-end upholsterer that takes ecoconsciousness very seriously and design very playfully (think six-metre-wide sheepskin headboards). Lilly had a pivotal role in the transformation: in 2015, she cofounded the Bozeman Flea, which became an incubator for start-ups.

“It’s a very entrepreneurial community,” she said, adding that this quality may be a reflection of the times in which her generation grew up. “There weren’t jobs lined up for us.” But even as rents have risen steeply, for Lilly there is no question of going elsewhere. “I’ve invested my life here,” she said. Lilly had to leave for her appointment, but not before she pointed out the Ugly Onion, a mobile wood-fired pizza pop-up that had scored perhaps the most prized gastronomic real estate in all of Bozeman, between Wild Crumb, a bakery, and Treeline Coffee Roasters, which serve the town’s best pastries and coffee, respectively. “The Onion’s pizza is as good as Blackbird’s,” Lilly said, “so you know that’s saying something.” Blackbird is the Chez Panisse of Bozeman’s reinvention. Since 2009, it has been serving flawless Italian-inflected American food on Main Street.

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