In his best-selling travelogue Travels with Charley, writer John Steinbeck wrote about Bismarck:
Here is where the map should fold. Here is the boundary between east and west. On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west, with brown grass and water scorings and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.
Like many towns across the Great Plains, Bismarck (pop. 73,112) was named after a wealthy European, in this case the chancellor of Germany, in order to lure much-needed capital investment. The town grew exponentially following booms in the railroad industry, Black Hills gold, and most recently, oil, gas, and biofuels, but it’s still economically and culturally dependent on its status as North Dakota’s state capital. It’s one of the smallest of the 50 in the United States, but as state capitals go, Bismarck rates quite highly for its size, with thousands of parkland acres, well-preserved historic districts, and an old-time boat ride along the Missouri River.
Bureaucratic Bismarck seems intent on glossing over its bawdy historical peccadilloes by building monuments to modernity, like the capitol building, 19 stories of angular art deco nicknamed the “Skyscraper on the Prairies.” The white limestone and classical symbolism seem out of place on the plains, but free tours highlight the ornate interior’s woodwork and metalsmithing.
On the grounds you’ll find the usual memorial statues of noteworthy North Dakotans, starting with a large statue of Sacagawea, the guide of Lewis and Clark, carrying her newborn baby, Pomp, and looking sternly forward. Nearby is another popular subject, a buffalo, here rendered out of rusty steel reinforcing rod. A short walk away, the North Dakota Heritage Center has an informative array of historical and cultural exhibits, dinosaurs, and tepees to trace the development of North Dakota from its geological underpinnings to its contemporary culture and industry.
Though Bismarck is the state capital, the selection of places to eat is pretty slim. For a truly otherworldly experience that combines pretty tasty American and Tex-Mex with Jetsons-esque space-age decor, the Space Aliens Grill & Bar (1304 E. Century Ave., 701/223-6220), on the US-83 strip north of I-94, is your logical destination. “Earthlings Welcome,” proclaims the telltale sign; this lively joint may get a bit too cute with its nomenclature, but it does deliver on flavor with its Planet of the Zombies Taco Burger, Martian Munchies barbecue platter, and Outer Space appetizers. If you want good food rather than a good chuckle, you might be better off at the Pirogue Grille (121 N. 4th St., 701/223-3770), near East Broadway.
Along with the clusters of motels on the northern fringes of US-83 and along I-94, lodging options include a nice Radisson (605 E. Broadway, 701/255-6000 and 800/333-3333, $79) about a mile south of the state capitol.