* Drive past the oil refineries, the air permeated by the sugar beet factory's earthy smell, and there's no doubt about it: Billings, Montana, is a no-nonsense working town. Yet this broad, orderly city of 100,000 boasts one of the region's best collections of contemporary and historic art.
In downtown Billings, the 36-year-old Yellowstone Art Museum (401 N. 27th St.; 406/256-6804) reopened recently after a two-year, $6.2-million expansion that tripled exhibition space, working wonders for a facility that began life in 1864 as a jail.
In its five galleries, the museum hosts exhibits ranging from cowboy art to abstract expressionism. You'll find the work of illustrator and onetime Billings resident Will James, who wrote the classic Smoky the Cowhorse. There's an illustrated letter from cowboy painter Charlie Russell: "Poor old Montana ... now their aint enough grass in the hole state to winter a prairie dog."
One block south on 27th Street, satisfy that post-museum hunger at Walkers Grill (301 N. 27th; 2459291) by dining on duck breast with a rhubarb-cherry marmalade. Like the museum, the nearby historic district along Montana Avenue from 21st to 30th street has undergone a face-lift. Once stops for travelers on the Northern Pacific Railroad, these old brick hotels with stamped tin ceilings have become coffee shops, antiques stores, and restaurants.
Head west on Montana Avenue and stop at the Rex Restaurant and Bar (2401 Montana; 245-7477), which has been visited by the likes of Buffalo Bill and, more recently, Clint Eastwood; try the jerk steak sandwich with mango chutney. In the McCormick Cafe (2419 Montana; 255-9555), sample croissants or crab and curry bisque.
Billings Area Chamber of Commerce; (406) 245-4111. Downtown Billings Association; 259-5454 or www.downtownbiiings.com.