The ‘Queen City of the Rockies,’ the small city of Helena lies in a scenic spot with the magnificent mountains lurking in the distance. Set in the Western Central part of Montana, it is located not far from a range of lovely lakes, rivers, and wilderness areas, with plenty of great outdoor activities to be enjoyed in its surroundings.
Initially founded as a gold camp in 1864, Helena quickly became a wealthy city, with elegant and elaborate buildings springing up around the center of town. Now the state capital of Montana, it boasts a number of well-preserved historical tourist attractions and a handful of marvelous museums and microbreweries. While it now suffers somewhat from urban sprawl, there are plenty of things to do in Helena and the historic town is well worth visiting for all that it has to offer.
In this post, we'll cover:
12. Holter Museum of Art
Widely considered one of the finest art museums in the state, the Holter Museum of Art lies right in the heart of Helena’s bustling downtown. Besides boasting five exhibition galleries, the institution has its own education center and research center.
Dedicated to contemporary artworks by Montana artists, the museum displays everything from paintings and photos to sculptures and pop-up art installations. As such, it is a fascinating place to wander around: imaginative and innovative creations lie all around you.
In addition to its rotating exhibitions, the museum also regularly hosts lectures, receptions, and artist residencies, as well as a unique art therapy and holistic healing programme. Altogether, these make the Holter Museum of Art one of the state’s major cultural centers.
11. Parrot Confectionery
Opened in 1922, the family-owned Parrot Confectionery has been delighting locals and tourists with its chocolatey concoctions and candy creations ever since. Set in the center of town, it is the place to go if you have a bit of a sweet tooth or want to treat yourself.
Long a firm favorite with Helenans, generations have been drawn to the Parrot, with its secret chilli recipe proving particularly popular at lunchtime. Its wonderful soda foundation also attracts many people with its astounding array of flavors, which are made from age-old recipes.
The real star of the show is its incredible candy counter, which has more than 130 types for you to choose from. Whether it’s Turkish delights and chocolate cherries or vanilla cream and home-roasted nuts that you’re after, Parrot Confectionery will surely tickle your taste buds.
10. Original Governor’s Mansion
Not far from the Holter Museum of Art and Parrot Confectionary is the elegant and refined Original Governor’s Mansion. Home to the state’s governors for almost half a century, the well-preserved brick mansion and its pretty period rooms are now a popular tourist attraction.
The radiant red building was erected in 1888 by Helenan entrepreneur William Chessman, who wanted to show off his power and wealth. Decades later, it was acquired by the State of Montana and used to house its governors from 1913 to 1959.
Besides its graceful wraparound porch, the mansion also exhibits some lovely Queen Anne style architecture with its interior boasting grand fireplaces, fabulous old furnishings, and lots of antiques.
9. Visit a Brewery
As Helena is home to many excellent microbreweries, no visit to the city can be complete without sampling some of its fine craft ales and beers. Bursting with flavor, and with a good head of foam to them, these can be tasted at any of the numerous tap rooms found around town.
While both the Blackfoot River Brewing Co. and Ten Mile Creek Brewery are set right in the center of downtown, the larger Lewis and Clark Brewing Company lies a little further afield. At any one of these breweries, you can try lovingly-crafted beers in a friendly and atmospheric setting.
In addition to sampling the locally produced brews, visitors can learn how they are made and buy some souvenirs of their trip to a Montanan microbrewery.
8. Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall
Lying at the heart of life in the city is the Historic Downtown Pedestrian Mall, which weaves along what is now Last Chance Gulch road. Once a small creek, it was here that prospectors set up camp and staked their mining claims following the gold rush of 1864.
While wandering along the bustling strip, you’ll not only come across a wide array of different shops and restaurants, but signs and sculptures highlighting Helena’s history and origins.
Besides these peeks into its prospecting past, visitors will find a couple of custom art galleries and a handful of microbreweries and entertainment venues. On summer weekends, the pedestrian mall regularly hosts cultural events, festivals, and concerts, with great shopping and dining to be had at any time of year.
7. Historical Society Museum
Set just a stone’s throw away from the Montana State Capitol, the super Historical Society Museum will teach you everything there is to know about ‘Big Sky Country’. Home to over 50,000 artifacts, artworks, and archaeological findings, its extensive collection is fascinating to peruse.
Dedicated to all things Montana, the museum displays a wide range of ethnographic objects, photos, and artworks highlighting the state’s rich history, heritage, and culture. Particularly impressive is its vast collection of Native American artifacts, with Blackfeet, Sioux, and Salish costumes and textiles all on show.
On top of preserving Montana’s history, the museum runs the Original Governor’s Mansion in Helena and Moss Mansion in Billings, and puts on many classes, conferences, and workshops.
6. Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park
Located just an hour’s drive to the south of Helena is the lovely Lewis & Clark Caverns State Park, which makes for a wonderful day trip. While it is most known for its large limestone caverns, the park also has a number of picturesque nature trails and fun outdoor activities for visitors to enjoy.
Its undoubted highlight is its cavernous caves, magically lit by candles and fairy lights. Taking a tour of them is an awe-inspiring experience – spectacular limestone sculptures and rock formations lie all around you.
Once outside, visitors can try their hand at everything from fishing and hiking to canoeing, mountain biking, and camping, with loads of stunning scenery and gorgeous nature to discover.
5. Reeder’s Alley
The oldest part of the city still standing, Reeder’s Alley is a charming place to visit that lies right next to most of the Helena’s main tourist attractions. Lining either side of its short stretch of red brick road are wonderfully well-preserved historic buildings and log cabins.
Built in the 1870s, the alley is named after Louis Reeder, who first started using stone and masonry in his designs, figuring that this would reduce the number of fires in the city. His red brick tenement buildings proved to be remarkably durable: they remain standing to this day.
Besides being home to offices and private residences, the alley also has a pioneer cabin for you to visit highlighting what life would have been like for early settlers to the region. Here too is the Helena Visitor Center, which can give you pointers on what to see and do around town.
4. Mount Helena City Park
As it is home to a plethora of delightful forests, hiking trails, and viewpoints, Mount Helena City Park is the perfect place to head if you want to immerse yourself in nature. Set just a short distance from the city center, it is dominated and defined by the mighty mount after which it is named.
Towering to 1,667 meters, Mount Helena looms over the city and its surroundings, with phenomenal views to be enjoyed from its summit. Blanketing its slopes are verdant forests and flower-filled meadows, with craggy cliffs and limestone caves found here and there.
To get to the top of Mount Helena, there are various trails to choose from; all of them take you through some splendid scenery and landscapes before you emerge at the park’s breathtaking viewpoints.
3. Montana State Capitol
Located right in the heart of the city, the Montana State Capitol is Helena’s standout symbol. Home to the state government since 1902, it is from here that important and influential rulings affecting all Montanans are passed into law.
Built between 1896 and 1902, with wing-annexes added in later years, the grand granite and sandstone state capitol features some exquisite Greek neo-classical architecture. Perched atop of the sturdy structure is a large copper dome, which is topped by a superb statue of Lady Liberty.
Inside, its massive rotunda is gloriously lit up. Paintings featuring archetypes of people from Montana’s early history are on display, such as a Native American, fur trapper, cowboy, and gold miner. Visitors to the Montana State Capitol can take a self-guided tour around the building to learn more about its past and present.
2. Cathedral of St. Helena
Rising dramatically above the city’s skyline is the stunning Cathedral of St. Helena, which is modeled after Vienna’s Votivkirche. Looking as if it has just emerged out of old Europe, it boasts two terrific twin spires, a beautiful baptistry, and countless stained glass windows.
Built in 1908 in a gorgeous Neo-Gothic style, the cathedral sustained substantial damage during the enormous earthquake that hit Helena in 1935. Thanks to reconstructions and renovations, it is just as marvelous to visit today. There are 59 intricately detailed stained glass windows on display alongside elegant arches and a fantastic pipe organ.
The cathedral’s defining feature is its twin spires, which tower to 70 metres and are topped by two gold-leafed crosses. Below their prominent peaks is a fetching facade that exhibits a divine rose window and lots of sublime sculptures of saints.
1. Gates of the Mountains Wilderness
Lying just half an hour’s drive from the center of Helena are the awe-inspiring landscapes of Gates of the Mountains Wilderness. So named by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed by in 1805, the epic cliffs and canyon lining the Missouri River certainly make for a spectacular sight.
Formed over millions of years, the craggy cliffs and their steep, tree-dotted slopes look out over the tranquil waters that flow below. Described as ‘the most remarkable clifts that we have yet seen’, it was Captain Lewis who first dubbed the incredible natural feature ‘the gates of the rocky mountains.’
Besides its captivating canyon, the wonderful wilderness area also has a well-maintained series of paths, picnic sites and campgrounds for visitors to make use of. In addition, there is also some great hiking and fishing to be had as well as lots of fabulous photos of its sumptuous scenery.