The more times I visit Helena, Montana, the more I think it’s really an underrated place. It’s got just 35,000 people, making it the second-smallest of Montana’s seven “cities,” and the town’s primary claim to fame is that it’s the state capital.
But look a little deeper, and you’ll find so many fun things to do in Helena, plus easy access to outdoor opportunities year-round – and the central location means tons of options for great day trips from Helena, too.
Whether you’re touring the country’s state capitals, driving I-15 from Canada to Mexico, or taking a road trip from Yellowstone to Glacier National Park, there are plenty of reasons to visit Helena – and this guide will help you make the most of however much time you have there.
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The Best Things to Do in Helena, Montana
From local art and Montana history to fun shopping and the great outdoors, these are the can’t-miss activities for your Helena trip. Bonus: many of them are centrally located (and Helena’s pretty compact anyway), making it easy to see a lot in a short amount of time.
Walk the pedestrian-only Last Chance Gulch.
Last Chance Gulch is the name of a major road in town, and it’s the heart of downtown Helena. The last half-mile or so of the road, known as the Walking Mall, is closed to vehicles and lined with shops, restaurants, and galleries that should be part of any Helena itinerary.
A few beloved spots? Big Dipper Ice Cream, Lasso the Moon Wonderful Toys, Parrot Confectionery, and Birds & Beasleys.
Just north of the Walking Mall along the main part of Last Chance Gulch are many more favorites, including Wild Child Collective, Aunt Bonnie’s Books & Gifts, Montana Book Company, and General Mercantile (“The Merc”).
Walk the lesser-known Reeder’s Alley.
Last Chance Gulch isn’t the only walking street in Helena. Nearly adjacent to it is tiny Reeder’s Alley – what it lacks in size (it’s only about 200 feet long), it makes up for in intrigue.
A narrow cobblestone road, it runs between brick buildings that served as a housing complex for miners in the 1800s. Blink and you’ll miss the alley’s entrance, right by Cotton-Top Pastries.
Visit the Montana Capitol Building.
Like in every state capital, the capitol building is one of the top attractions in Helena. Known for its copper-covered dome – as well as the paintings on the dome’s interior – the building has served as the Montana state capitol since 1902.
You may see guided tours of the capitol mentioned in other Helena travel guides, but they’re unfortunately no longer offered due to budget cuts. However, visitors can still explore the building on their own and use the provided brochures to do a self-guided tour and scavenger hunt.
Tour Montana’s Original Governor’s Mansion.
The Original Governor’s Mansion is one of Helena’s most historic buildings, dating to 1888. An example of Queen Anne-style architecture, it housed Montana’s governors for about 45 years.
Today, it serves as a historic museum and is only open for tours, which last one hour and cost just $4. The tours are led by very knowledgeable guides who can tell you pretty much anything about the mansion and the early history of the capital.
Learn the state’s history at the Montana Historical Society Museum.
Known as Montana’s Museum, it really is the most comprehensive and informative museum on the history of the state. It’s surprisingly big and there’s a lot to read, with exhibits on wildlife, Lewis and Clark, Native American history and culture, paleontology, and more, plus local art collections. And it’s got a sizable gift shop, too.
This is easily one of the biggest Helena tourist attractions, and one of the best museums in Montana, so don’t miss it – especially since it’s right across the street from the capitol building, and admission is only $5!
Stop in the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts.
One of the more unusual places to visit in Helena, the Archie Bray Foundation feels like a pretty unexpected find. A 70-year-old institute situated on a National Historic Register-listed brickyard, “the Bray” is said to house some of the country’s finest ceramic art.
The exhibitions rotate frequently throughout the year, and they’re always free and open to the public. With indoor and outdoor spaces spread over 26 acres, there’s a lot to see – art galleries, kilns, functioning artists’ studios, and the remains of the historic brickyard, all surrounded by a very wide range of outdoor sculptures. You can pick up a self-guided walking tour map from the mailbox in front.
Visit the Cathedral of St. Helena.
Its twin spires soaring 230 feet in the air, the 107-year-old Cathedral of St. Helena towers above downtown. The building was modeled after the neo-Gothic Votive Church in Vienna, and you can easily see the resemblance (probably the only thing Helena and Vienna have in common!).
An active parish with daily mass, the church is open to visitors and even offers tours during the summer. Otherwise, you can let yourself in whenever it’s not in use and look around on your own. Keep an eye out for the pipe organ, 59 stained glass windows, and 15 hand-cast bells, as well as the 29 limestone statues around the exterior.
The building is incredibly ornate inside and out, and whether you’re Catholic or not, it’s certainly one of the most awe-inspiring things to see in Helena.
See local art at the Holter Museum of Art.
Another of the best free things to do in Helena, the Holter Museum has served as the center of the town’s art community since it opened in 1987. Today, it houses a permanent art collection and hosts 15 or more rotating exhibitions each year, featuring a wide variety of styles and mediums. There’s a cool gift shop, and (even cooler if you ask me!) a vending machine that sells hand-drawn cards for $0.75 each.
We were also really interested to read about the museum’s work with healthcare facilities in the area, like bringing art projects to cancer patients and teaching classes for adults in crisis situations.
Climb Mount Helena.
If you’re a hiker, you’re in luck! Not only are there plenty of great options for hiking near Helena, you don’t even have to leave town to hit the trail. Just a few minutes from downtown is Mount Helena City Park – which is supposedly the country’s second-biggest city park, after Central Park in New York (although nobody seems to be able to verify that claim!).
Regardless, several of the park’s trails lead to the summit of Mount Helena, which sits 1,300 feet above town. The 1906 Trail is the most popular one and makes for the easiest climb.
Don’t feel like climbing all the way to the top? Mount Helena is part of the South Hills Trail System, with tons of other hiking options in the area. Remember the etiquette on multi-use trails like these: bikers yield to hikers, hikers yield to horses.
See a show at one of Helena’s venues.
At first glance, the Helena Civic Center looks like it’d be more at home in the Middle East than in small-town Montana. But despite the Moorish Revival architecture giving it the appearance of a mosque – complete with a 17-story-tall minaret – the building actually has no connection to Islam.
Rather, it was built by the local Shriners group, who used it from its completion in 1921 until it was damaged by an earthquake (yes, Montana gets those occasionally!) in 1935. The group couldn’t afford the repairs, so the city bought it and turned it into the civic center a few years later.
Today, its massive auditorium hosts occasional concerts, plays, and other performances. Besides the Civic Center, there’s community theatre at Grandstreet and all kinds of live music, film screenings, and other programs at The Myrna Loy. And don’t forget to check the Carroll College events calendar for even more performances, films, and other events that are (usually) open to the public.
Among these four spots, there’s a good chance something will be going on while you’re in town – and it’ll make the perfect date night in Helena!
Stroll around Spring Meadow Lake.
Spring Meadow Lake State Park might be one of the smaller Montana state parks, but it’s also one of the most accessible – located right in Helena. So if you’re looking for a peaceful retreat into nature that doesn’t require a long drive, this is it. The lake takes up most of the park, and the mile-long trail that loops around it makes for an easy stroll.
Take the kids to the ExplorationWorks.
If you’re looking for things to do in Helena with kids, make ExplorationWorks your first stop. This family-friendly museum is 13,000 square feet full of educational play spaces and interactive exhibits for kids. They also host frequent classes and other events, all included in the $7.50 admission cost.
Probably even more important to the kids if we’re being realistic, ExplorationWorks is right next to the Great Northern Carousel, beloved for its 37 colorful hand-carved animals that go round and round. Rides are just $2!
Explore the Marysville ghost town.
There are so many ghost towns in Montana, ranging from fully-preserved tourist experiences to some untouched buildings crumbling on the side of the road. Marysville, the closest one to Helena, falls somewhere in between. In fact, like many of Montana’s ghost towns, it’s not completely abandoned – an estimated 43 people live there today.
But the abandoned area is open to visitors and well worth exploring (and full of great photo ops), with the 135-year-old wooden church standing out as the biggest highlight. It’s only 30 minutes northwest of Helena, so don’t miss the chance to see one of Montana’s less-visited ghost towns – just be respectful of the people who still call Marysville their home.
Things to Do in Helena, MT: Food & Drink Edition
Does Helena have a massive dining scene? Maybe not. But it does have quite a few surprises in store – and these are the ones you cannot miss!
Line up for pastries at Cotton-Top.
I said “line up” because if Cotton-Top is open, there’s a line – but I promise you, it’ll be worth the wait. The owner went to pastry school in France, and every pastry she sells is like a work of art. They’re all small-batch and made with local ingredients whenever possible (and always with Wheat Montana flour).
Cotton-Top has a different menu every week, always featuring seasonal flavors and the best ingredients available. They usually have a dozen or so pastries, and the current list is always posted on their Facebook page.
A few recent favorites? Churro cruffins, Mexican chocolate chunk scones, cheddar green onion butter biscuits, ham + swiss everything croissants, honey cinnamon caramel buns…mmmm.
Cotton-Top sits at the bottom of Reeder’s Alley, and – this part is important! – it’s only open on Friday and Saturday morning, and only for however long it takes them to sell out.
Seek out the Montago Coffee trailer.
In addition to multiple Starbucks and outposts of some smaller chains, Helena’s got a handful of independent coffee shops. But if you ask me, Montago Coffee Co. is the one you can’t miss (yes, I’ve tried them all).
They’re serious about brewing quality coffee, from rich Americanos to the best pumpkin lattes ever. The only catch? You might have to look around to find them!
Montago (the word is a combination of “Montana” and “Otago,” the region of New Zealand where the owners were living when they had the idea to open a coffee shop) doesn’t have a permanent physical location. Instead, they serve coffee out of a mobile cart and (even better!) a 1958 Shasta camper trailer.
Check their Instagram account for the current schedule, but you’ll often find them at Last Chance Market, Ten Mile Creek Brewery, or Cotton-Top, as well as at farmers’ markets and special events in town.
Visit one or more of Helena’s craft breweries.
Like most Montana towns these days, Helena punches far above its weight when it comes to craft beer. There are currently four breweries in Helena (six if you count the ones in nearby East Helena and Townsend) – that’s more than one brewery per 10,000 residents! And they all have something different to offer.
Lewis & Clark Brewing Company hosts frequent events, Copper Furrow (previously called Crooked Furrow) has a huge outdoor yard and patio, and Ten Mile Creek Brewery sits right on Last Chance Gulch.
But if I had to recommend just one, it’d be Blackfoot River Brewing Company. In addition to a big tap list (including rotating beers served on a traditional hand-pumped beer engine), Blackfoot serves free popcorn, allows patrons to bring pizza from Brooklyn Pizza next door, and has a second-floor balcony overlooking Last Chance Gulch.
What more could you want in a brewery? Plus, Ten Mile Creek Brewery is just a five-minute walk away.
Get covered in powdered sugar from beignets at Café Zydeco.
Montana doesn’t have a lot of Cajun food, but it does have three locations of Café Zydeco, and one of them is in Helena. It serves all the Cajun favorites – po’boy sandwiches, gumbo, crawfish-topped everything – but if you ask me, the can’t-miss item is the beignets.
These amazing French-style donuts are crispy on the outside and airy on the inside, and they’ll melt in your mouth. They’re doused in powdered sugar, and you inevitably will be, too (if you ever been to New Orleans, you know that means they’re authentic!).
What to Do in Helena, MT, in Summer
If you’re visiting Helena in the summer, you’ll have a few more possible activities to add to your list. Summer days are looong this far north, so you’ll have plenty of time to squeeze them in!
Attend Revive at Five on Wednesday nights.
Revive at Five is Helena’s summer outdoor concert series – formerly known as Alive at Five, it was canceled in 2020 and rebranded in 2021 as Revive at Five.
On Wednesday evenings, the downtown venue (it rotates among several parks and other locations) buzzes with live music, food trucks, and a showcase of local non-profits. For free things to do in Helena in the summer, this takes the cake!
Browse one of Helena’s farmers’ markets.
During the summer in Helena, the farmers’ markets are the place to be. The main Helena Farmers’ Market takes place on Saturday mornings on Fuller Avenue (very near Last Chance Gulch). And the Capitol Square Farmers’ Market is held on Tuesday afternoons right behind the capitol building.
Bonus: the Capitol Square market has a free outdoor yoga class every week that’s open to the public (for the sake of full transparency, it’s taught by my friend Robyn, the owner of Gentle Healing Center – who’s a pro at making yoga inviting to everyone!).
At both markets, you’ll find local produce, handmade crafts and décor, plants and flowers, artisanal baked goods, and more, plus at least a couple food trucks are usually in attendance.
Take the Last Chance Train Tour.
If you visit Helena in the summer, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see the Last Chance tour train rolling through town. These open-air, multi-car “trains” take visitors on a one-hour tour that goes past all the main sights in town.
This tour is not only one of the most popular things to do in Helena, it’s also a great way to get the lay of the land if it’s your first visit. Is it a cheesy tourist experience? Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also fun and informative (and it’s very kid-friendly to boot!).
Tours run multiple times a day on Monday-Saturday during the summer, and tickets cost $11. They’re available online or at the kiosk in front of Montana’s Museum.
Take the boat tour of Gates of the Mountains.
Named by Lewis and Clark as they paddled up the Missouri River, the Gates of the Mountains is a wilderness area about 25 minutes north of Helena. It’s best experienced on the boat tour, which is considered not just one of the best attractions around Helena, but one of the best things to do in Montana.
It’s a comfortable, smooth boat ride past stunning scenery, and knowledgeable captains tell stories about the area’s history, explain its natural features, and point out wildlife. For such an incredible trip that lasts two hours, tickets are a steal at $16 per person.
Visit Tizer Botanic Gardens and Arboretum.
Just 25 minutes south of Helena is Tizer Gardens, Montana’s only full-time botanical garden and arboretum. It’s got six acres of gardens to wander through, with roses, vegetables, herbs, and wildflowers, plus a children’s garden, a meditation garden, and others. You’ll feel like you’re bathing in nature.
Tizer Gardens is typically open to visitors from May through October, depending on the weather. They also host occasional events, including the extremely popular High Tea in the Garden (book as early as possible to get a spot!). Little known fact: you can rent the garden’s rustic cabin on VRBO and stay there overnight!
Kayak or swim at Canyon Ferry Lake.
Carry Ferry Lake is the Helena area’s go-to spot for all kinds of water activities. A massive reservoir in the Missouri River, the closest access points are on its north end, about 30 minutes east of town.
It’s a great spot for kayaking, as well as swimming, boating, and fishing, or just having a laid-back lake day. If you want to stay overnight, there are several campgrounds around the lake as well, some of them with waterfront campsites.
What to Do in Helena, MT, in Winter
Like many Montana towns, Helena becomes a winter wonderland in the colder months. You’ll need to bundle up before you head out, but these are some of the ways to experience Helena at its snowy best.
Watch the iceboats at Canyon Ferry Lake.
Canyon Ferry Lake is usually thought of as a summer destination, but it’s also one of the area’s winter playgrounds – because it’s a premier spot for iceboating. Yes, that’s boating on ice. The lake has even been a venue for iceboat races, and people have made attempts at world iceboat speed records there.
There’s a good chance people will be out on the lake if it’s frozen, and it’s more than worth the drive out to see them if you visit Helena in the winter. To catch a glimpse of the icy action, head to the Silos boat launch on the lake’s southwest edge, about 35 minutes from town.
Go skiing at Great Divide.
In the central and western parts of the state, every Montana town has its local ski hill. And for Helena, that hill is Great Divide Ski Area, about 35 minutes northwest of town (just past the Marysville ghost town).
Great Divide may not be the biggest or snowiest of Montana’s ski areas, but it is the sunniest – and if you hate (or are rightly terrified of) skiing blind in the fog, that means a lot.
It’s also easily accessible from town and has pretty affordable lift tickets – and shockingly cheap ($12!) night skiing on Friday evenings. They offer some of the lowest-cost lessons in the state, too, which makes it a great opportunity for newbies and anyone who wants to level up.
Great Divide’s other claim to fame? It has the longest ski season of any hill in Montana, always being the first to open and last to close. If you’re visiting Helena anytime between Thanksgiving and the end of April, it’ll probably be open.
Cross-country ski at MacDonald Pass.
If you prefer to do your skiing on flat ground, Helena’s still got you covered. Just 20 minutes from town is the MacDonald Pass Ski Trails, located in Helena National Forest. There’s 15 miles of trails with varying difficulty levels, and the non-profit Last Chance Nordic Ski Club grooms them almost every day during the season, so you know they’ll be in good condition.
The trails are typically open from late November to late April, and while it’s technically free to the public, donations are strongly encouraged to help defray the costs of grooming (and it feels like the right thing to do). If you don’t have your own cross-country skis, you can pick up rentals at The BaseCamp in town before you head out.
A safety note from the club’s website: “Give moose, if you’re lucky enough to see one, plenty of room.”
Ice skate on Spring Meadow Lake.
Spring Meadow Lake State Park is open year-round, and being that this is Montana, the lake freezes over in the winter. And when the ice is thick enough, it turns into an outdoor ice rink. If you’ve got your own skates, head to the lake and channel your inner Michelle Kwan (or just try to make a lap without falling).
Even More Things to Do Near Helena, Montana
Are you willing to make a little more of a drive? There are tons of other things to do around Helena, and these are all less than 1.5 hours away.
- Tour the caverns at Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park. 1 hour 20 minutes
- Explore the Elkhorn ghost town (including Elkhorn State Park). 1 hour
- Visit the Old Montana Prison Museum in Deer Lodge – or take the ghost tour! 1 hour
- Float down the Missouri River from Craig. 45 minutes
Where to Stay in Helena, Montana
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We’ve stayed at so many places in town, from Airbnb rooms and cozy cabins to a couple different Helena hotels. But these would be our top picks at every budget:
Jorgenson’s Inn & Suites: A budget-friendly option with a long history as the place where state lawmakers stayed during legislative sessions.
Great Northern Hotel: One of the most iconic places to stay in Helena, just a few steps from Last Chance Gulch.
Oddfellow Inn & Farm: A boutique inn situated on a working farm – with an upscale farm-to-table restaurant that earns rave reviews.
Map of Helena, Montana
Click here for an interactive version of the map!
And there you have it – after more visits than I can count, these are my top things to do in Helena, Montana!
What are your favorite things to do in Helena, MT?