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First Night Missoula, Montana

For over 25 years, the thriving community of Missoula has been coming together to celebrate the end of one year into a new one – a pure celebration of hope and joy.

Through trying recessions, pandemics, and other low points, Missoulians continue to fill the city’s streets on New Year’s Eve for music, ice carving, dancing, visual arts, workshops, and more.

First Night Missoula is one resilient festival – and it supports an even more resilient community.

The tradition of First Nights is a long one: sparked in Boston in 1975 as a gathering of the arts, this hometown celebration lit up parts of the US, Canada, and Europe, venturing as far as the coasts of New Zealand.

Through the new millennium, there were over 200 First Night celebrations around the world, similar to First Friday art walks in numerous cities around the world.

But as tragedy struck the world stage on September 11th and a demanding recession, towns’ arts and music scenes suffered a series of unprecedented blows.

Several First Nights got swept under the strong current and closed their production doors, and today less than 30 First Nights are still standing. Luckily for the citizens of Missoula, this is one of the resilient arts programs that come back louder and stronger with each passing year.

Although the festival was stripped down in 2021 after a wind-battering pandemic, it rose to its feet to usher in 2022. We love that First Night Missoula showcases local talent, while also providing opportunities to create your own art.

Instead of being an observer of art and music, you get to participate in the joy of expression – that’s what makes First Night Missoula so special.

Between watercolor painting, a vocal competition, comedy shows, free skate rentals (with hot chocolate – win!), and live music all over the downtown area, there’s so much to do with family, friends, or on your own.

Since admission is affordable for everyone, just go ahead and make a day of it!

Interested in staying in Missoula over the New Year? While some places may be closed due to the holidays, we’ve got you covered.

As a first stop, we recommend Lolo Hot Springs in nearby Hot Springs, MT, for a countryside dip in warm, healing waters. Their facility also includes options for horseback riding, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and more.

After soaking your bones, head on back into Missoula for a drink at Big Sky Brewing. And – hear us out – their Moose Drool Brown Ale sounds unappetizing, but there’s a reason we’re always coming back for more.

Or, visit our favorite museum in the area, the Montana Natural History Center, which explores Montana’s ancient past, and glacial landscapes, it even has a great kids’ discovery room.

Especially after the brunt of the pandemic in 2020, Missoula’s citizens haven’t wasted any time coming back together – although smartly. They’ve got a Kung Fu movie marathon, ice carving – you name it.

Alright, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details of one of our favorite Montana fests, with an added accommodation bonus at the end for those of you looking to make the most of your Montana magic!

First Night Missoula Event Details

first night missoula event

With 35 venues, performances, and art displays to choose from, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the numerous options. But let’s start with the basics – dates, times, admission, and more.

Facilities

first night facilities

First things first, let’s go over some important steps (where to buy your admission button!) so that we can squeeze the most out of First Night with everything we’ve got. Chances are: you’ll find something to do.

Admission, Art, & More

Did you know that prior to having tickets, most fairs and festivals used buttons as a form of admission? Such is the case here in Missoula, where an admission button will gain you entrance to the hours-long festivities. 

First Night Missoula usually has a list of twelve to fifteen vendors on their website where you can purchase $12 admission buttons prior to the big day, as well as at the Arts Missoula address listed above.

Heading into the herb store? You’ll find buttons there, as well as numerous supermarkets and a bookstore or two. You’re already out in the city, so why not pick up an advance ticket? And as a reminder, children under 10 are free, but you’ll still want to get them a ticket to Spotlight, as there are typically limited seats in the venue.

As for the actual festivities, you can expect imaginative and luminous ice carving displays every year, as well as an annual high school vocal competition that gets better by the year. From musical numbers to alternative pop to dreamy acoustic guitar plucking, these teens put on a show.

You’ll also find plenty of music from other outfits around town, whether it’s Big Band to bring in the new year or bluegrass to keep warm during the winter chill. And don’t forget about the free skates and hot chocolate, perfect for warming up those bones as one calendar year moves into another!

If you’ve got kids, you’ll be pleased to know there are several children’s activities at the library each year, and they’ll probably love the Kung Fu marathon happening at the theater (Who wouldn’t!?).

If you have extra time, we highly recommend checking out A Carousel for Missoula for an old-fashioned spin with gorgeous, beautifully crafted wood carvings.

But one of our favorite parts of the First Night celebration is an all-day event called Luminaria in the Garden held at the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center. Every year starting at 4pm, people light luminaries – paper bags with a candle inside – with messages of peace for the new year.

These messages of community and hope are exactly the type of thing that native Missoulians and their neighbors cling to in rockier times, and their bold intentions clearly make a difference in the outcome of this gathering.

From 4 pm to midnight, either make or bring your own luminary and add it to the well wishes that make this Montana town great.

If you’re into watercolor painting, we love the Watercolor Painting Demo earlier in the afternoon. Bring your creation home, hang it on the fridge, frame it – it’s up to you!

During the evening, you’ll typically find a comedy show to finish off your day drinking, as well as countless musicians ready to rock your night into the new year.

Food, Merch, & More

You won’t find any specific food vendors at this well-dispersed festival, but there are plenty of places to nosh while you’re in the area.

For beer, we typically point out-of-towners to the socially conscious Imagine Nation Brewing, which puts on a gaggle of events of their own. This spot is great for people watching and enjoying time with friends, without a doubt.

But if you’re not in the mood for beer or you’re gluten-free, our next go-to will always be Western Cider, whose numerous ciders on tap always put a smile on our face (Their Sour Cherry cider is incredible! Whiskey Peach? Come on – so good!).

For an even more relaxed family vibe, we love Pie Hole just a bit north of the festivities: try their Bird Dog pizza!

And while you may not find any merch before the festivities – with the exception of your cool new button, that is! – keep your eye out for Day Of merchandise that may become available. 

Miscellaneous

We know you’re probably thinking about parking. Because First Night Missoula spans multiple venues, you shouldn’t have too much problem finding parking, but we do recommend taking public transportation or ride shares to keep traffic to a minimum.

If you do happen to take a vehicle, we’d recommend parking near the Clark Fork River and taking a stroll before heading on towards the festivities. Watch out for ice – the only ice we want to see around here is from those beautiful ice sculptures!

Depending on the venue setting, you’ll find that pets are allowed at the festivities, although they, unfortunately, won’t be allowed indoors (ice skating, theater). With that in mind, you may want to leave them behind with Santa’s cookies, as parking could become more of an issue as the day rolls on.

Accommodation

accommodation

We’ll be honest – downtown Missoula is going to be crawling – and we mean crawling – with people for these festivities, especially as the night gets going.

So, we want to provide you with some of our favorite local accommodations, but also give you a chance to veer out of the city a bit and visit some engaging Montana spots.

We’re big fans of the AC Hotel near all of the festivities, mostly because of its close proximity to the city center, as well as their kitchen and lounge (Bonus points for the rooftop bar, if it’s warm enough!).

For something a bit different, we like the Shady Spruce Hostel – better for couples than families, but still a cool stay in a Victorian setting.

Our family favorite is the Residence Inn Downtown Missoula – easy access to all the activities, and perfect for a late New Years Day morning.

Outside of the city, we like to point travelers towards The Resort at Paws Up and the cabins at Lolo Hot Springs. Why? They get you out of the city – and we love Missoula, but sometimes it’s just nice to escape into nature with all the amenities we’ve come to appreciate.

Just a bit northeast of Missoula in nearby Greenough, you’ll find the Paws Up Resort with the unadulterated beauty of a national park on private land, but with luxury camping, a spa, and all kinds of hiking adventures.

And we’ve already mentioned Lolo Hot Springs above, but they’re our go-to for heated cabins, snowmobile rentals, and – of course – access to the natural hot springs.

Either way, you’ll find amazing accommodations in and around Missoula to ground during or after the New Year. Let us know how you like it and we hope you enjoy First Night Missoula!

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