Meanwhile, Under the “M” Missoula, Montana

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Photo © Top Hat Lounge

If you’re passing through Western Montana on I-90, pull off the freeway for a day of some surprising discoveries in the city of Missoula. You’ll recognize it by the giant “M” on a hillside that presides over the city. The arts, the outdoors, and food and drink make this walkable university town one of the West’s best.

Plan to arrive early enough to take advantage of what the afternoon can offer. Start your exploration downtown at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM; missoulaartmuseum.org), impressive both in architecture and in the quality of its exhibitions. Equally impressive is the free admission; this spring, MAM will host seven different exhibitions, giving you your money’s worth.

When it’s time for lunch, make the short drive (or walk) to the University District, and claim your table at Buttercup Market and Café. There, you’ll find food sourced from growers in the region, healthfully prepared and beautifully presented, with plenty of vegetarian options.

After lunch, browse some of Missoula’s best boutique shops. People drive all the way from Seattle and Portland just to shop at Betty’s Divine (bettysdivine.com), known for its inventory of vintage-inspired clothing. The shop sits on the Hip Strip, just across the river from downtown. Irresistible independent shops and eateries populate the Hip Strip, making it a perfect place to find your own treasures.

No Missoula visit is complete without hitting the trail. A local favorite right in town is the Riverfront Trail. This paved path follows the Clark Fork River and can be accessed from downtown or the University District. Another trail favored by locals, named after a Montana naturalist, is the Kim Williams Nature Trail, near the university.

On your day’s itinerary, make the Montana Natural History Center (montananaturalist.org) one of your stops. This museum will give you the big picture about Big Sky Country’s geology, flora, fauna and much more, including the Missoula floods, cataclysmic ice-age events that shaped much of the Northwest’s present-day landscape.

When day turns to dusk, head downtown for a pre-dinner cocktail in the 19th-century-inspired tasting room at Montgomery Distillery (montgomerydistillery.com). This small-batch distillery has earned plenty of national accolades and features a range of hand-crafted spirits, including their single malt, rye, gin, vodka and a delightful aquavit.

Dinnertime in Missoula offers so many choices, your biggest problem of the day will be where to dine. For a romantic, French-inspired meal, you won’t go wrong at The Pearl Café (pearlcafe.us), a charming, intimate spot. If you’re in the mood for a livelier atmosphere with equally high culinary standards, go to PLONK (plonkwine.com).

You’ve stayed this late, so you might as well spend the night. That gives you time to hit some of Missoula’s live music venues, such as the Top Hat Lounge (tophatlounge.com) or perhaps a performance at the historic Wilma Theater (thewilma.com).

For lodging and more Missoula attractions, visit destinationmissoula.org.