Helena: A Helluva Downtown

By Richard White, May 6, 2014

We have been visiting Helena, Montana's capital city for over 20 years and we never get tired of it.  While some small cities (Helena's population is 29,000) boast about their historical downtowns and then disappoint, Helena's historic downtown is full of interesting shops, architecture and ghost signs. It is definitely worth adding to your 2014 road trip itinerary.  

As a teaser, here are some of our favourite things to see and do.

Barnes Jewelry (357 N. Last Chance Gulch)

Barnes Jewelry is almost more a museum than a retail store.  Yes, they have jewelry and lots and lots of clocks and watches, but what really makes it an enticing place to visit are the owners - Marvin Hunt and Stacy Henry. They are always eager to chat with you about the stories behind the historic clocks they have collected.  Don't be surprised if there is a school tour happening when you visit, as young children love to learn about how old timepieces worked and the owners revel in sharing the history of their artifacts. 

Barnes also has one of the best store window displays we have ever encountered.  While they may not be as big and flashy as the Christmas windows at Macy's in New York, they have a fun small town authenticity about them that we love. 

Clocks of all sizes and shapes decorate almost every available space at Barnes Jewelry.

Window artists Roberta (Bobby) Jones-Wallace and Pattie Lundin are responsible for the wonderful window narrative vignettes. What started out as an experiment a few years ago has become a tradition with the new window exhibitions changed seasonally. Bobby and Pattie love to spark your inner-child when passing by. Kids love the windows of course. 

This would make a good addition to my vintage barware collection.

The Sleepy Rooster (420 N. Last Chance Gulch)

Sleepy Rooster is a vintage retail store with a large warehouse at the back. The front is full of home accessories and artifacts all carefully curated into charming vignettes.  We love scrounging around in the warehouse space looking for hidden treasures. 

The store is full of eclectic and eccentric offbeat items and we have the photos to prove it. Canadian Pickers (Sheldon and Scott) and American Pickers (Frank and Mike) would love this place.  The prices are fair and you don't have to travel the continent to find them. 

Did we say eccentric?

Did we say eclectic?

Here's a just a sample of some of the many treasures waiting to be taken home from the warehouse space.

A view of the Sleepy Rooster's large showroom.

Aunt Bonnie's Books (419 N. Last Chance Gulch)

Great streets always have a great bookstore - Helena has Aunt Bonnie's.  Like all good used bookstores, it is packed floor to ceiling with books of all genres. The thrill is in the hunt!  

On our recent visit, I was looking for what I thought would be a hard-to-find book "Wisdom Sits In Places," an academic book by Keith H. Basso published in 1996 by the University of New Mexico Press. When I asked if they might have it, I was directed to places where it might be if they had it, with the caveat "I doubt we have it! " After a bit of searching, there it was at the end of the middle shelf. I was shocked and so was the woman who helped me (not sure if it was Aunt Bonnie or not - forgot to ask).  

FYI - the store has a "no cell phone" policy which makes for a refreshing tranquility. 

  The store front's window is very welcoming.

The store front's window is very welcoming.

I wasn't joking when I said the place is full of books. 

The Architecture & Art

Founded in 1864, Helena is the capital of Montana and as such, has a rich architectural history. While the state capitol building is impressive, the signature downtown buildings are two churches - one old, one new.  The main downtown street is named Last Chance Gulch in reference to the winding path of the original gulch (i.e. a valley created by water erosion) that the downtown was built around. 

There are many late 19th and early 20th century buildings in downtown, as well as contemporary new icons. 

The Saint Helena Cathedral, built in 1908. is an impressive sight as it overlooks the downtown. It is a beautiful and sacred place to explore.

Just down the hill from the St. Helena Cathedral is a large contemporary church that employs modern materials and design elements to make its modernist statement.

ExplorationWorks is Helena's hands-on interactive science centre for all ages.  It is part of a new urban village just north of downtown.  Here you will find a carousel, shops, cinemas, restaurants, condos, hotel and offices all with a modern design, yet with synergies to the historic downtown. 

Helena is proud of its vibrant arts scene that includes one of the oldest art walk programs in the country, the Holter Museum of Art, Archie Bray Foundation for Ceramic Arts, numerous commercial art galleries and a diverse performing arts community. 

Parrot Confectionary (42 N. Last Chance Gulch)

Parrot Confectionary was founded in 1922 and has become a Helena landmark.  This family-owned candy/soda/diner offers 130 different types of candies, including hand-made chocolates made on-site. They are also famous for their secret chili recipe, hand-made ice cream shakes and caramel cashew sundaes.  We had one of the best hot coco drinks ever on a cool autumn day.   

Like Barnes Jewelry, this place is like a museum with artifacts everywhere.

Drop in some coins and listen to some old time music while enjoying a shake. 

  Just one of hundreds of tantelizing treats.  

Just one of hundreds of tantelizing treats. 

Where to Stay and Eat?

Helena offers all of the typical roadside chain hotels, but our favourite is the Red Lion Colonial Hotel that is literally just minutes off the highway and minutes from downtown, the Capitol Building district and other shopping.  

We love it unique, grand curved colonial stairway in the lobby. It is a pleasant surprise in the middle of the mountains. 

While the Red Lion has a nice restaurant, another favourite option of ours is Bullman's Woodfired Pizza (1130 Helena Ave, in the triangle created by Helena, Montana and Boulder Streets). This great family dining spot, doesn't look like much but the pizza and salads are very good. For example, the Bitterroot (all the pizza names have a link to the Montana's geography) has pistachios, red onion, rosemary, mozzarella cheese, olive oil and sea salt.  Wine selection here is very easy - red or white - but they do have some nice craft beers by the bottle. 

  Red Lion Colonial Hotel's white grand staircase (28 steps) is charming and inviting. A great photo opportunity.

Red Lion Colonial Hotel's white grand staircase (28 steps) is charming and inviting. A great photo opportunity.