Basquing in Idaho's History

What’s the Vibe in Boise?

Welcome to the singles savvy, family friendly, and culturally blossoming city of Boise. Healthy lifestyles, a healthy economy and low cost of living are just a few of the reasons Boise has earned its nickname, the Treasure Valley. We’re an active and outdoorsy city (No. 8 on the list of “Top 101 counties in the nation with the highest percentage of residents who exercise”), and our No. 5 ranking on the list of “Top 101 counties with the highest percentage of residents that had a sunburn in the past 12 months” is a testament to our love for all things alfresco (really, though, let’s amp up the sunblock, Boise).

Boiseans are also notoriously healthy inside AND out. Just ask our therapist population of 565 in the Boise area. Idaho comes in at No. 12 on the list of“Happiest states in America” (which might have something to do with our No. 3 ranking of “Top community, environment, and recreational activities”), and No. 9 on the list of “Happiest work environments.”

So, what exactly does the 12th happiest state in the nation look like when it comes to culture and demographics? While Boise has some shortcomings in ethnic and racial diversity, the city is growing in diversity each year, home to a significant demographic of refugees, and also proudly one of the largest Basque communities in the world.

At a Glance

Population: 216,282 (and counting)

Nearest Big City: You’re looking at it! Boise is both the capital of Idaho AND thebiggest city in the region. Boise is home to more than 26 percent of the state’s population. Boise and surrounding areas (referred to as the Treasure Valley) carry 39 percent of the state’s population (clocking in with more than 426,236 people—and a more diverse demographic than the remainder of the state).

That being said, the nearest metropolitan city, Salt Lake, is nearly 300 miles away—followed closely by Portland (345 miles west of Boise) and Seattle (406 miles northwest). You may have to drive through endless miles of high desert sagebrush to get there … but Boiseans are more than used to the five hour trek.

And if you’re among the many Americans who think Idaho is all potatoes and no eggheads, think again. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we hold our own with a 94 percent high school graduation percentage—36 percent of which go on to earn a bachelor’s degree or higher (8 percent more than the national average. Brownie points!)

Boise is also family oriented with an average of 2.6 members per household (62 percent of which are pet owning households). However, less than half of the population is married (only 46 percent), and 33 percent have never been married (this may or may not contribute to the great Boise downtown nightlife!).

But let’s talk demographics. Idaho isn’t quite the melting pot you might hope it would be at 90 percent Caucasian, 7 percent Hispanic, and only 1.5 percent African American. That being said, Boise is making strides to becoming more ethnically and culturally diverse, in fact, Boise hosts several ethnic refugee resettlement programs (more on that in a bit) and is home to one of the largest Basque communities outside of Spain.

Boise Culture

Basque Culture

Visit Boise and enjoy one of the largest Basque communities outside of Spain! With an estimated 15,000 Basque residents (the second largest ethnic Basque community in the U.S.) you’ll find an entire block in downtown Boise dedicated to the Basque culture.

Boise has one of the largest Basque communities outside of Spain - almost 15,000 residents!Photo credit: Dave Nielsen

The Basque Museum and Cultural Center celebrates the Basque community’s heritage and their history as they immigrated from Spain and congregated in Boise. The Basque Center nearby hosts several annual festivities including tournaments, traditional dinners, dancing—such as the traditional Sheepherders Ball and Dance—as well as traditional dance classes for folks of all ages.

Jaialdi, meaning “festival,” is a world famous Basque festival that’s held right here in Boise every five years, making it Boise’s largest cultural event. Basques from all over the world attend and celebrate their culture through food, music and dance. It’s also known for sporting competitions as athletes from all over the globe come to Boise to compete in the popular wood chopping and strength events.

Visiting the Basque Block is amazing with artwork, food, and sometimes dancing.Photo credit: Dave Nielsen

Make your way down to the Basque block on Grove street between Capitol Boulevard and 6th Street, (you’ll find the street painted traditional basque green and red, and decorated with a large “Lauburu:” The Basque cross), and enjoy a Basque meal at the local Basque restaurants, most notably: Bar Gernika or Leku Ona. Or, if you’re feeling particularly savvy, buy your own groceries in the Basque market.

Refugee Population

Boise is home to more than 19,000 refugees from all around the world (most significantly, Iraq, Congo, and Somalia) looking to start anew in Idaho—and the city welcomes thousands more refugees each year. Because of this, Boise hosts several resettlement programs that are intended to assist the refugees as they adapt to Boise life. Chief among them is the Idaho Office for Refugees—a program that provides financial assistance, language assistance and employment services to those in refuge. Full CircleGlobal Gardens, and Life’s Kitchen are a few more notable programs in the Boise area that help local refugees gain marketable job skills and become part of the local community.


Boise’s most famous landmark (arguably), Table Rock, is a large plateau that hovers just above the city skyline. It’s often used for hiking, biking, and holding hands as young couples gaze out across the sprawling city. But its most prominent feature is the 60-foot-tall illuminated cross — a light than can be seen for miles around — shining high above the city.

The lighted cross at the top of Table Rock is visible from downtown Boise.

As you might expect, the cross has been the subject of many a lawsuit since it was first erected in 1956. Many believe it violates the basic concept of the separation of church and state. However, because the cross is currently positioned on approximately four square feet of private property (purchased by the Junior Chamber of Commerce for $100 in 1972), it’s completely legal. And it’s become a beloved landmark by religious and nonreligious Boiseans alike. In 1999, when self-proclaimed atheist Rob Sherman threatened to bring it down, more than 10,000 Boiseans marched from the Depot (more on this in a moment) to the Statehouse to save it.

So, what does religion look like in a city overseen by a giant, glowing, beloved cross?

Overall, Boise is fairly diverse when it comes to religion. It’s not uncommon to drive down the street and pass different several churches (or at least, advertisements for churches) as you make your way from point A to point B. That being said, Boise has a surprisingly low amount of religious people (8 percent lower than the national average).

After Utah (which is more than 60 percent LDS), Idaho is considered to have the second highest Mormon population. More than 26 percent of the state’s religious population affiliates with the LDS religion—although only 15 percent live here in Boise and neighboring metro areas.

But that’s not to say that Boise isn’t a melting pot of religions. About 43 percent of Boise’s population affiliates with a religion of some sort. Of that 43 percent, LDS tops the list, but Catholic, Baptist, and Methodist aren’t far behind (6 percent, 3 percent, and 3 percent respectively). Like any city, you’ll find more concentrated pockets of religion (or lack of religion) in different areas and neighborhoods, depending on self-perpetuating microcultures and nearby churches, seminaries, and schools.

And if you’re worried about religion influencing city politics or interfering with community life, worry not. Boise is big enough (and diverse enough) to allow each religion to practice peaceably. On the other hand, if you’re worried that Boise might not suit your religious needs—think again. Several Boise public schools offer students the opportunity to attend off-site seminary classes, and Boise is home to more than a handful of Catholic schools.

More importantly, Boise is home to literally hundreds of churches ranging from contemporary to classic services—and if you still can’t find what you’re looking for, there are at least a dozen religion and beliefs Meetups that take place right here in the Treasure Valley.

Of course, all that said, there’s one religion nearly all Boiseans can agree on: Boise State Football. And if you don’t think that’s a religion in and of itself, try taking a walk around Boise on game day … or telling a local that you’re an Oregon Ducks fan.

Idaho History

Interested in Idaho’s history and heritage as a whole? The Idaho State Historical Museum is a great place to study Idaho’s heritage from prehistoric times to our days of fur trading, the gold rush, and the pioneer settlement. And, yes, while the Oregon Trail is a huge part of our history, the years prior to and following Lewis and Clark are filled with tales of Indian braves, Basque shepherds, and Chinese gardens. Learn all that and more at the Historical Museum, but make sure you check out a few of these historical sites as well:

Boise Depot

Built in 1925 as a Union Pacific railroad depot, the Boise Depot was once referred to as “the most beautiful structure of its kind in the West.” And while even more beautiful structures have sprouted up around it since, Boise locals still tout the Depot as one of the city’s most prominent and architecturally appeasing buildings in the city. Today, the Depot is most often used as a wedding and event venue (the last train pulled out of the station in 1997), and a $3.4 million renovation (completed in 1993) ensured that the Boise Depot would be a landmark destination for decades to come.

Download Boise Depot Brochure

The Boise Depot was built in 1925 as a Union Pacific railroad depot and was once referred to as the most beautiful structure of its kind in the West.

Old Idaho Penitentiary

You might recognize this foreboding building from the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures; the Old Pen was built in 1870 and operated for just over 100 years—housing some of the most notorious criminals Idaho had to offer. Between 1870 and 1973 (the year the Old Pen shut its doors for good), The Pen saw more than 13,000 inmates and ten executions by hanging … so we can see why the folks from Ghost Adventures were so drawn to this eerie stone complex.

The Penitentiary was built in 1870 and operated for just over 100 years.Photo credit: Chris Carlevato

Nowadays, the Old Pen can be toured seven days a week, from noon to 5:00 p.m. However, in recent years the Pen has been hosting several signature events that are intended to draw (and educate) a wide range of audiences. The events range from sweet (“Romancing the Pen” takes place every Valentine’s Day) to scary (are you brave enough to embark on an Old Pen night tour?) and everything in between.