Travel

This Rowdy Cowboy Town Is a Magnet for Artists, Celebs, and Cool Kids

This is the epicenter of Western cool.

Livingston
Downtown Livingston, Montana is packed with saloons, galleries, and grit. | Montana Office of Tourism
Downtown Livingston, Montana is packed with saloons, galleries, and grit. | Montana Office of Tourism

Standing on Main Street in Livingston, Montana -- a real-deal, Old West-style downtown complete with vintage neon bar signs and snow-capped peaks in the distance -- it quickly becomes clear you’ve ascended somewhere near the summit of cool.
 
Robert Redford certainly thought so: He filmed much of A River Runs Through It here in the early ‘90s. Anthony Bourdain co-signed: He shot an episode of No Reservations here in 2009, followed by an encore presentation for Parts Unknown in 2016. Jeff Bridges and Michael Keaton became so enamored they both bought homes in the area. 

Back in the '70s, legendary writers and artists like Jim Harrison and Russell Chatham helped put this little town of 7,500 on the national radar. They paved the way for other creatives seeking cheap rent, unparalleled access to nature, and wild frontier spirit. Today, Livingston's the point on the map where rustic idealism meets artistic spark. (Having Yellowstone less than an hour away doesn’t hurt.)
 
“There are more artists, movie stars, authors, and just intellectually cool people here in this town per capita than New York City,” boasts chef Brian Menges, who owns several local bars and restaurants, including the renowned Murray Bar.
 
It's a classic case of a place being so, so much more than the sum of its parts. 
 
“It’s more than the scenic beauty, more than the mountains and the river,” says Seabring Davis, co-owner of the iconic Chico Hot Springs Resort. “It’s a place that’s bonded by the people who live here: writers, artists, ranchers, and railroad workers -- all scooting up on the same bar stools next to each other.
 
“You can be a creative just starting out, or you can be Jeff Bridges,” Davis continues. “It’s one of those quirky vortexes of the West that makes it alright to just be who you are.”

The Murray Hotel
The famous Murray Bar is the town's storied centerpiece. | The Murray Hotel

Where to stay in town

Livingston was founded as a railroad town, and its centerpiece has always been the storied Murray Hotel. Since 1904 -- long before Bourdain dubbed it one of his favorite hotels in the world -- the hotel has welcomed a parade of eccentrics, including legendary Wild Bunch director Sam Peckinpah, who lived there from 1979-84.
 
“He shot guns in the ceiling and was real paranoid due to alcohol and drugs,” says Kathleen Kaul, co-owner at the Murray. “He took five rooms and took the walls out and made it into one big suite. He was just wild. So I think the Murray kind of promotes that a little bit.” 
 
Today, The Murray’s Peckinpah Suite is one of its most popular rooms.

The Old Saloon
The Old Saloon, just outside Livingston, is a Paradise Valley mainstay. | The Old Saloon

Where you're drinking

Like the hotel that shares its name, the iconic Murray Bar is embedded in Livingston's DNA. The bar has a healthy cowboy vibe and rippin’ live music at nights, but also welcomes families and a more upscale, laid-back clientele during the day. 
 
The town’s more divey, old-school saloons -- which beckon drinkers with glorious illuminated neon signage -- are almost too numerous to count. Highlights include The Mint and Glenn’s. In the Paradise Valley, the Old Saloon (opened in 1902) is an absolute must for seeing live music under the glowing Montana sunset. 
 
“It’s a heavy-drinking town,” says Old Saloon owner Brett Evje, who also brags about Livingston's live music scene. Be on the lookout for local acts like Chandler Huntley and Ian Thomas & the Band of Drifters.

Where you're eating

When Menges, who also owns the Second Street Bistro in the Murray Hotel, came here 16 years ago, there was really nothing going on food-wise. “If you wanted a good meal, you cooked it at home,” he said. 
 
Kaul adds that when she first moved here in the early ‘90s, she tried to order a glass of wine at a local watering hole and the bartender laughed at her. “They didn’t serve wine,” she said, so the barkeep slid her a shot of whiskey and declared: “You’ll have this or you’ll have nothing at all.”
 
These days, in addition to fine dining and 300+ wines at Second Street, you can grab wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas at Gil’s Goods (also owned by Menges), chat with locals at Pinky’s Café over the best breakfast in town, carve into a classic Montana steak at Rib & Chop House, or devour the best burger of your life at the divey Stockman Bar. Even the chef at Chico Hot Springs has been twice nominated for a James Beard Award.

livingston
Galleries are popping up all over. | Montana Office of Tourism

Where to see some art

Though famous for its stout collection of bars, Livingston has also become a regional arts hub, with the number of galleries skyrocketing in recent years. When local artist Parks Reece first moved to Livingston 40 years ago, the gallery he worked at (now Danforth Museum of Art) was the only one in town. 
 
“I didn’t come here because it was cool or anything,” says Reece. He recalls weekly bar fights in those days, and a drunken shooting contest with a cowboy at his original art studio. “It was just a little podunk town and I liked it. It’s astoundingly beautiful.”
 
Today there are more than a dozen art galleries, the Parks Reece Gallery among them, right at home alongside the bars and westernwear retailers that dot Livingston's walkable downtown strip. 

Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa
Chico is basically a massive outdoor hot tub with killer views. | Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa

Fly-fishing and river floating

The Yellowstone River “is probably [the town’s] biggest hallmark,” says Davis, whose Chico Hot Springs serves as a massive natural hot tub against a stunning mountain backdrop. This kitschy resort has been drawing visitors to the Paradise Valley region since 1900. 
 
“When Robert Redford came up and filmed A River Runs Through It, that kind of jump-started the whole fly-fishing vibe,” Menges told me. “This has always been where the best fly fishing in the world was, but nobody really knew it.” 
 
Livingston is world-renowned for its blue-ribbon trout fishing -- an official designation found in just seven states which categorizes “extremely high quality” fisheries. If you're just wading into the sport, try booking a trip with the fly-fishing experts at Long Outfitters to go full Brad Pitt. 

Visitors can also take on rapids, go paddle boarding, or just lazily float down the river with a local beer in hand under the glorious Montana sky. There are dozens of guides and rental companies, depending on your chosen adventure: Try Paradise Rafting or Rowdy River Guides to get started.

Bridger Bowl
Paradise Valley is also a magnet for hikers and ski bums. | Bridger Bowl

Hiking and skiing around Livingston

While Yellowstone gets most of the attention for hiking, there are several national park-quality trails near Livingston. Options abound in and around the Absaroka Mountains of nearby Gallatin National Forest, including the popular Pine Creek Falls hike.

The town also hosts an easy, low-impact trail along the Yellowstone River, extending from Sacagawea Park near downtown known as Myers’ River View Trail.
 
For skiing, Livingston is about 90 minutes from Montana’s top ski resort of Big Sky, or 30 minutes from the more locals-friendly Bridger Bowl

And if you’re looking for a taste of “big city” life, Livingston is located just 30 minutes east of the highly underrated modern day boomtown of Bozeman, one of the best small cities in America to spend a weekend, offering direct flights from several major cities. 

In other words, you won’t be eager to head home anytime soon.
 
“From the first moment I stepped into this town, I was like 'I ain’t never leaving,’” says Menges of Livingston. “You’re never gonna get me out of Montana.”

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile.