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Montana is known for its mountainscapes, national parks, wildlife, rivers, and big sky, not it’s bustling streets and things to do in town. For good reason though, the “Last Best Place” is pretty empty in comparison to the rest of the lower 48. The capital of Montana, Helena, actually ranks among the smallest capitals by population. Don’t let statistics or size for a minute make you think though that these cities don’t have anything to offer. Some are ranked among the top in the nation as the “Best Places to Live” for one reason or another, and multiple times over. Read on to explore the Top 10 Cities of Montana and possibly to discover your next vacation spot or dream home.
One of the biggest cities on a drive headed west from Minneapolis, Billings is the center of commerce and growth. Known sometimes as the Midland Empire, the metropolis sprouted up seemingly overnight once the railroad came in. What was once a camp of miners, construction workers and entertainers quickly turned into a center of business that today is still growing and thriving.
Opening up to the beginnings of the Rocky Front, the city’s main geological feature is its rimmed walls carved over millions of years by the Yellowstone River. Residents can enjoy the views and hiking trails within miles of the city center.
While the mountains may not be the main draw here, Billings has other treasures to offer. For those into music and western events, you’ll never get tired of the many venues, rodeos, and pop-up cultural and music festivals right downtown. With historic theatres and “Alive After 5” events going on throughout the summer, there are endless things to do for the entire family.
While Billings is known as the center of commerce, Missoula isn’t far behind with a wide range of things to do in and around the city, though it takes the lead for outdoor adventures.
Being a college town, with a stunning campus, you get a good mix of all types here. Often considered hip, Missoula has a little bit for everyone with beautiful hiking, fishing and views accessible just minutes from downtown, and it’s only a short drive from there to access 7 different wilderness areas in the Northern Rockies.
The downtown scene is largely art-focused with its many galleries and quaint coffee shops featuring local painters and jewelers. Summer concert series and local farmer’s markets are popular as well with a large focus on “organic” and “home-grown” produce and meats. Wintertime is just as popular though, being surrounded by mountain peaks and lesser-known skiing and snowboarding areas for the poor college folk. Warm fires and Alpines are always there to greet you after a long day's ride.
Know sometimes as the “Garden City'' for its parks and landscape, you’ll find that the 5 valleys that merge here give way to top-rated blue-ribbon trout fishing. With the Clark Fork River running directly through the middle of the city, the summer months turn the area into a tiny metropolis of kayakers, floaters and fishermen. The main river even has a spot where the locals can take to a board and surf the waves. A long day out in the sun only leads to the breweries and bars being packed at nig, and a music event around every corner. If you are into an active lifestyle or some local nightlife, you will find it here.
Further north than our previous two cities, Great Falls, like Billings, was created based on its people and strategic location along a major river, the Missouri. The Lewis and Clark Expedition put great emphasis on recording this area as they had to traverse the waterway multiple times before making their journey onward. With a great amount of trade and convergence back in the day, the city became incorporated in 1888 and oddly strategically planned compared to the rest of the state. Unlike a lot of older mining areas around Montana, you’ll notice the roads here are laid out in a modern grid pattern.
Today, the city comprises a large amount of industry with a military base, colleges and numerous power plants. Because of its unique focus, it’s sometimes nicknamed the “Electric City.”
With the history of the region, Great Falls also has the formidable position to be home to a large urban native population. The Native American Enrichment Center is a major focus here with a great number of tribes circling the area and going to college. Those into native culture will greatly enjoy what this city has to offer.
Originally traversed as an offshoot of the Oregon Trail and meant as a pathway leading onward to the booming Virginia City, Bozeman was first established as a ranching community. With the Gallatin Valley being rich and fertile, it wasn’t long before the cattle industry moved in and began to grow. Today, you won’t have to go far to find old ranch communities, but it’s the metropolis growth here that causes it to make the list of “Top 100 Most Liveable Places in the Nation.”
Now a rapidly growing college town and business epicenter, Bozeman is its own special place with beautiful mountainous backdrops and world-class flyfishing opportunities around every corner.
Though it is known as a rapidly expanding Montana epicenter, outdoor lovers won’t have to go far to enjoy what the mountains and streams have to offer. Ski hills, Big Sky and Yellowstone National Park are only a few of the main attractions within hours of the downtown center.
If old history is your thing, then welcome to one of the coldest cities in America. Butte, Montana has repeatedly been known to hit record temperatures mainly because of its strategic valley location. However, despite the chilly winters, the area is also known for its history and wide range of outdoor activity in the summer months.
Formerly known as “The Richest Hill on Earth” the first thing you’ll notice coming over the pass is the large gaping hole in the ground, and old mining houses climbing the hillside. Berkeley Pit is now a major toxic waste site and the center of ongoing controversy for the city and environmentalists. Despite the claim, tourism here is still extremely popular and the giant oddly colored hole even has its own viewing area.
When gold, copper and silver were found, Butte turned into one of the biggest sources of copper in the world. Because of this, Butte and surrounding towns, like Anaconda, have major worldwide historical industrial significance. A ride on one of Butte’s Trolley Tours will speak of a once booming western city of Irish immigrants and miners. At one point the industry here was so big that Anaconda almost beat out Helena as Montana’s capital city.
Today, a family visit to Butte will offer outdoor experiences, hot springs, hiking, ski hills, and a large variety of museums and unique tours. Interestingly, the mining left behind many historical discoveries and glimpses into America’s earlier economies and immigrants.
Those looking to explore the past will find it here. Chinese immigrants and bootleggers back in the day ran rampant and contributed to Butte’s now historical and party going reputation. When prohibition and other illegal activities became an issue, underground tunnels and businesses flourished. Many are still being discovered with construction and demolition, and Butte even offers tours specifically to get a glimpse into the abandoned narrow rock ways.
The Irish population is still thriving here as well, along with their traditions. Old Irish pubs are numerous and the parade every year has real jig dancers. To accentuate the fact that they do indeed love their heritage, St. Paddy’s Day in Butte, MT makes the list of top cities in the U.S. to spend a real weekend of good ole Irish beer drinking and debauchery. Those with a party or festival bucket list should probably add this spot to the agenda, as they are sure to appreciate what the city has to offer.
Helena, Montana, the state capitol, and a significant locale in the recordings of Lewis and Clark, began as a mining town in 1864 during the gold rush. Today, gold mining is nothing but a hobby. Though a few remnants of it’s miming era past are seen spotted throughout the city, it’s now known for its college football and government epicenter.
Not quite as rowdy as Missoula, nor rapidly expanding as Bozeman, Helena is the perfect town for all ages. Museums and fun shops surround the area, and hiking and biking trails are just minutes from the main drag.
Outdoorsmen love the valley and surroundings with the temperate climate and easily accessible fishing lakes like Canyon Ferry, a highly maintained boating and fishing reservoir covering 25 miles. Not far from the main roads you’ll discover national forests for hiking and exploring, all under the watchful eye of the looming Sleeping Giant.
Being the perfect halfway point between Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, most visitors to the state will have to pass through Helena at least once. If you have a little time, stop in and take a walk downtown and check out one of their breweries before sitting down for “Alive at 5” events in the summertime. To follow in the footsteps of the historic Lewis and Clark party, take a day tour through the “Gates of the Mountains,” aptly named by Mr. Lewis himself.
Unlike most cities on this list, Kalispell didn’t sprout up overnight after a gold discovery, or as a handful of cattle. Here, the Great Northern Railroad from Minneapolis to Seattle was being plotted, and that was all this city needed to turn into the prominent spot it is now.
Today, the railroad is still here, along with one of Montana's main airports and numerous hotels, making Kalispell one of the most popular places to shack up when visiting Glacier National Park and the surrounding areas.
Nestled between Flathead Lake, the largest freshwater lake of the Mississippi at 28 miles, and the town of Whitefish, a world-class ski resort town, Kalispell offers everyone the perfect spot to explore northwestern Montana.
Depending on the season, or simply the event going on, the locations here can get relatively touristy with both family-friendly engagements and high-end experiences. Those looking to explore the great outdoors won’t be disappointed though, Flathead Lake offers boating, fishing, skiing and more, while a short drive in almost any direction will take visitors to incredible parks and “wild” classed wilderness areas like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex.
Almost any time of year offers a large and well-known event of some sort, but a must-see are the many cherry orchards that dot the lake and a visit to the Flathead Cherry Festival. Interestingly, though the area's production of cherries is lower than surrounding states, the Flathead region has the perfect climate for growing outstanding fruit that are known nationwide for their juicy, sweet taste.
If you have ever visited or like the appealing sounds of Bozeman but would like a little more quiet, then Belgrade will suit your fancy. A farming town on the railroad not that long ago, Belgrade gives off a more relaxed vibe compared to the hustle of Bozeman. With the rapid expansion of the city though, Belgrade has in recent years grown as well. At this point in time, the short driving distance between the two will give little hint to the fact that you actually just entered another Montana city.
Although this area of the Gallatin Valley gives off more of a local vibe, with the International Airport located here, there are a good number of small pubs, restaurants and parks where visitors will enjoy spending some time and relaxing before moving on to their final destination. Though still a larger Montana city, the cost of living is slightly lower too for those working in Bozeman.
Let us introduce you to the Montana Hi-line. You’ll hear this term a lot in a vague reference to some cities or trails throughout the state, but no one really ever explains what they are talking about. The “Hi-line” is literally just that, the upper part of the state running along the Canadian border. It’s its own unique area of Montana with a vast majority being open and windy ranchland. You won’t find great populations here, especially compared to the lower parts of the state, making Havre, Montana the biggest “city” in the expansive region.
One drive through Havre definitely won’t give you any sort of a city vibe, even though it is in our top ten. Like a large majority of Montana, the town has a historical past that can be seen in the old buildings off the main street. Being the largest population around, it isn’t surprising to learn that the city has a lot of young professionals, a high level of education, a lower cost of living, and is considered a great place to raise a family.
Though Havre doesn’t offer much for mountain climbers, there are numerous places to explore outdoors, and the city itself has multiple coffee shops, breweries, museums and tours. The history here is unique too.
Having sprouted as another railroad town, the outlaws and immigrants ran rampant here. A large number of Chinese immigrants worked in this area leading to interesting stories of the underground. With racism a major issue, the immigrants were forced to move around in tunnels underneath the city. Havre isn’t the only place in Montana with secret underground tunnels, however, when officials back in the early days went to assess the lawlessness of these illegal underground businesses compared to the problems of Chicago, Montana was found to be among the worst in terms of bordellos, opium dens, gangsters, smuggling, drinking establishments and illicit activity. Of all places, Havre topped the list for the worst debauchery across the nation. Today, Havre is quiet and relaxed, but they’ve rebuilt a good portion of the most popular bars and rooms for history lovers to tour and reconnect with the past.
Previously mentioned before in our overview of Butte, Anaconda was also a thriving city of Montana due to the mining industry. For years Anaconda supported Butte and surrounding mines. Though retired, to this day the town still throws off a mining aura.
Before you ever reach the outskirts and are just peeking over the top of the next hill, you’ll notice a towering structure resembling a lighthouse, except in the middle of the mountains. At 585-feet, this smelter, not lighthouse, still takes the record books today as the tallest manmade masonry structure in the world. Now out of use, it stands to remind us of the past, and the rest of the town is still littered in old mining ruins as well. Though many old buildings show off the decline of the town, a glance at the courthouse and other prominent buildings will hint at the amount of money that once ran through here.
A little digging and conversing with the locals will help you discover some hidden treasures too that you would never expect to find unless told. The Old Works golf course is one of these such gems. Well-known to golfers as one of the few courses designed by the great Jack Niklaus, the course is hidden off the main drag, but spectacular to visit once found. Even if you don’t golf, the black sand and metal mining structures standing stolidly against a mountain backdrop are a sight worth stopping to see.
Today, Anaconda is a nice daytime stop on visitors' way to Georgetown Lake, historic Philipsburg, or the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness Areas. Explorers and history buffs alike will admire this small town at the base of the mountains.