When the Christmas crowd arrives, some will be visiting Missoula for the first time, which requires a motor or walking tour of Missoula highlights — the University of Montana, Rattlesnake, Pattee Canyon, downtown, the river corridor.

But some are returning to an old stomping ground and will want to know what’s changed since they last visited. If you want to show them — and enjoy a few hours away from the Christmas chaos at home — head out to show off what’s new around town. Here are three ideas of places to see, with suggestions for a quick cup or bite along the way.

The Tour: Downtown

The Taste: The Catalyst Café, 111 N. Higgins Ave.

Downtown Missoula is undergoing some major changes, many of which are clustered in a few blocks easily accessible by foot.

Starting at the Catalyst Café makes sense: From inside, you can peer out large windows across Higgins Avenue to see the historic brick Pharmacy, the only part saved from the old Missoula Mercantile building when developers tore it down last year to make way for their new 175-room Marriott hotel. The Merc was the hub of Missoula commerce for more than 100 years; in recent times it housed The Bon and Macy’s department stores. The new hotel — which will have commercial space on the ground floor and hotel rooms above — is slated to open early next year.

At the Catalyst, enjoy a latte or hot chocolate, a hearty breakfast, sandwiches, salads, or one of the restaurant’s delicious house soups, including its tomato-lime tortilla soup, which is served every day. Three-egg omelets are $13; the Veggie Scramble is $11; soups run $5 for a cup, $6.75 for a bowl; salads can be ordered small or large, $6.95-$8.95; and sandwiches are $4.95 for half, $9.50 for full. In other words, something for every size appetite and wallet.

After a warmup at The Catalyst, walk along East Front Street to get a view of other changes in Missoula. You’ll see the current Missoula Public Library, which eventually will be torn down; right next door, the start of construction of the new $37.6 million library; and a look at a newly opened, large, student-housing apartment complex that ties downtown to the University of Montana.

Cut over to East Main Street to head back to where you started, passing Conflux Brewing Co., which just opened this past summer.

The Tour: The Old Sawmill District

The Taste: Dog & Bicycle Bakery and Café, 875 Wyoming St., Suite 102

This tour will introduce a developing neighborhood in Missoula built on the site of an old lumber mill. Upscale apartments and condos, a pod-style student building, a lifestyle and fitness center, a “gastropub” restaurant, a “work lounge” for remote workers and a boutique hotel are all part of this developing neighborhood, or dreams for its future. One Missoula high-tech company just announced that it is moving from downtown into the Old Sawmill District.

The Dog & Bicycle is already a busy coffee-and-food gathering spot for the area. Pastries, sandwiches, salads, rice or orzo bowls and soups are all fresh and made in-house; soups — $4 for a cup, $6 for a bowl — rotate throughout the week. The Wheelie Bowl ($9) has orzo pasta, cucumber, carrots, orange, fennel, cilantro, mint, ras el hanout spices, feta and shredded chicken. Order a bit of Missoula history with a hot Tipu’s Tiger Chai Tea — Tipu’s Tiger was a longtime Missoula restaurant that closed but its famous chai is still sold as a mix.

Another stop: The Montana Natural History Center is close by, at 120 Hickory St., Suite A. It’s a fun place to visit too, for kids and grownups alike.

The Tour: Fort Missoula Regional Park and Fort Missoula

The Taste: A Thermos of hot chocolate and a plate of Christmas goodies from home.

In 2014, Missoula County voters approved a $42 million bond for improvements to trails and parks and the construction of a new regional sports complex off South Avenue at Fort Missoula. Show off the part of the park that’s finished, then return in a few years to see the completed complex.

There are miles of trails to walk around the site, so park and put on your winter walking boots and warm clothes. Or drive through the sports complex to see how it’s developing, and park near the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula. Visitors who don’t mind stomping in the snow can explore the museum grounds, with its historical buildings, train cars, train depot, tepee-burner, 1930 fire lookout, homestead cabin and more. There are plenty of benches scattered about to rest along the way.

Relatives who aren’t up for the outdoor snow and ice can retire to the museum and explore Missoula history. Check out hours and open days on the museum’s website or Facebook page.

A tip: The Historical Museum grounds are filled with great spots to take some unusual family photos — log cabins, rock walls, train cars and gazebos with interesting textures and colors are wonderful backdrops for artful portraits of relatives and friends.

Since there aren’t any cafes on site, bring your own hot chocolate, coffee or hot cider and a plate of holiday cookies. After a walk-and-talk, gather at the gazebo or picnic shelter for a mug and munch before heading home.

Next time the gang gathers, who knows what will be new in the Zoo?

Mea Andrews was a Missoulian reporter and editor for 27 years, covering food, art and Missoula County growth and development before leaving the paper. She is now retired.

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