How to explore Denver, Colorado's laid-back capital

Denver is the mountainous gateway to the West, but dig deeper to discover craft beer and cocktail dens, indie boutiques, design hotels and street art.

Monday, June 22, 2020,
By Aaron Millar
Flags fly over Denver’s historic Larimer Square.

Flags fly over Denver’s historic Larimer Square.

Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

The Rocky Mountains rise from the Great Plains like a mirage of granite, ice and snow. Seeing them for the first time feels like a dream, jagged peaks jutting suddenly 14,000ft to the sky, too vast to be real. But they are, and even better: they built a city on that view. Austin may have the live music, Portland might be the capital of cool, but Denver has something even better — Rocky Mountain bliss.

Long viewed through the filter of its Wild West heritage, when gold was found here in 1858 and pioneers rushed in to make their fortune, that filter has now changed. Today, Denver consistently ranks among the most liveable, walkable, healthiest cities in the country. And as one of America’s hip urban centres, it’s young, creative and up for fun. 

It hasn’t forgotten its roots, either; it’s just that the city’s roots have just grown. There’s rodeo, country music and cowboy boots if that’s your thing, but walk the streets of Denver today and you’re more likely to find tattoo parlours and trendy trainer shops than anywhere touting Stetsons and spurs. 

Cowboys may be good at lassoing steers, but it’s the young urbanites, who have flocked here in their thousands in recent years, that are good at what Denver stands for now: art, food, music and craft beer. Lots of beer: a staggering 148 breweries at the last count to be precise. But a good pint is one thing. A good pint with a jaw-dropping view of the Rocky Mountains is the stuff of dreams for many. 

Especially when that view is waiting for you to jump in. Just a few miles west of the city proper, but within its jurisdiction, there are hundreds of miles of trails, some of the highest peaks in the lower 48 (all US states but Alaska and Hawaii) and even a ski train to take you straight from the city to the slopes. Adventure by day, cocktails by night.

Denver is surprising people, which is why, perhaps, it’s already won two top international travel accolades for the best place to visit in 2020. The secret is simple and the secret is out: Denver doesn’t just have the mountains and it’s more than just the gateway to the West. It has the music, the culture and the cool too. 

Tribal Murals (aka Alicia DeOlivera Cardenas) stands in front of her mural at Denver’s Crush Walls 2019.

Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

Top things to do in Denver
 

1. RiNo Arts District: This square mile of hip galleries and graffiti murals is known as the street art capital of America. Come in early September for Crush Walls, Denver’s pre-eminent urban art festival where the world’s best graffiti artists create giant murals on the streets. denvergraffititour.com

2. Denver Beer Trail: They don’t call this city the ‘Napa Valley of beer’ for nothing: on any given day, more beer is brewed here than anywhere else in the country. The Denver Beer Trail explores four boroughs and close to 40 tap rooms, including Wynkoop Brewery’s infamous Rocky Mountain Oyster Stout, brewed with Colorado’s old cowboy delicacy, bull’s testicles.

3. Red Rocks Amphitheatre: Just 15 miles west of Denver, in the foothills of the Rockies, Red Rocks is surely the most beautiful concert venue in the world. An open-air amphitheatre, it’s surrounded by sweeping red rock cliffs, lit up on all sides; and has perfect acoustics under sparkling mountain stars. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix both played here.

4. Cherry Creek BIKE Path: Denver has more than 5,000 acres of parks and open space, and over 80 miles of pedestrian and cycle paths. The highlight is the Cherry Creek Bike Path, which runs for 40 beautiful miles from the city centre to the small town of Franktown. Spend some time at Confluence Park, where the trail begins, and maybe try your hand at a spot of urban kayaking on the manmade rapids.

5. Buffalo Bill: Bison once roamed the Great Plains in their millions. Today, there are only about 500,000 nationwide including Denver’s own official small herd, just west of the city in Genesee Park. Stop off at the grave of Buffalo Bill, the legendary 19th-century frontiersman and entertainer, while you’re there.

6. Bag a 14er: Colorado is home to 58 14ers (local lingo for mountains higher than 14,000ft), more than any other state. Most you have to hike, or climb, but Mount Evans lets you drive all the way to the summit. Topping out at 14,264ft, the Mount Evans Scenic Byway, which begins just a few miles west of Denver, is the highest paved road in America: and offers 360-degree views without even breaking a sweat.

7. The International Church of Cannabis: Denver legalised marijuana in 2014, and whether you’re a toker or teetotal, the International Church of Cannabis is definitely worth a visit. The inside of this 114-year-old former church has been painted head to toe in psychedelic murals and hosts regular gigs, talks and community events. Make a beeline there, if nothing else, just to see the ‘vicar’ lighting up.

8. The Source Market Hall: Featuring two market halls and 24 artisan restaurants and boutiques, The Source is, perhaps, the city’s coolest place to eat. Check out Acorn for award-winning modern Americana cuisine and Safta for unbelievable Middle Eastern mezze.

Choose your hat at Rockmount Ranch Wear’s flagship store.

Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

Where to shop
 

Cherry Creek North: This is 16 blocks of outdoor pedestrianised shopping and al fresco dining, filled with a selection of trendy boutiques. Check out the Artisan Center’s range of local artists’ products for that perfect souvenir.    

Highlands Square: Funky, independent and laid back, this is where the locals head when they want to hit the shops: hip boutiques, locally made crafts and a cool restaurant, bar and coffee shop scene. The Inspyre Boutique is a magnet for well-dressed women.    

Rockmount Ranch: This iconic Western clothing store has been serving up authentic hand-crafted cowboy gear since 1946 and has been worn by everyone from Elvis and Bob Dylan to Paul McCartney and Jack White. Papa Jack, the store’s founder who died aged 107 in 2008, said: “The West is not a place, it’s a state of mind.”

Experience the city like a local
 

Ski Train: Take the Winter Park Express all the way from Union Station, in Downtown Denver, direct to Winter Park Resort. This spectacular ride is probably the longest ski-in, ski-out in the world, with great views of the Rockies from the observation deck.  

Mile High City: Denver is nicknamed the Mile High City because its elevation is exactly one mile above sea level (that’s 5,280ft, which is more than 800ft higher than the top of Ben Nevis). The altitude means exercise is harder, the sun burns fiercer, golf balls fly farther, and alcohol goes straight to your head.

On the Road: Jack Kerouac lived in the city and wrote about it in his Beat Generation classic, On The Road. Soak up some of that local literary greatness at My Brother’s Bar, where he, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady would often hang out. The decor has barely changed since the 1960s, but the burgers have improved.

Thai sausage mi krop (crisp noodles) served at Linger restaurant.

Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

The best restaurants
 

Casa Bonita: How about some cliff diving with your burrito? This Denver institution — which can seat more than 1,000 diners — pairs family-friendly Mexican food with actual human beings flipping and spinning off a 30ft recreation of the Acapulco cliffs. Only in America.  

Linger: If you think having dinner in a former mortuary sounds creepy, you’re dead wrong: not only does this global street food restaurant have a menu to die for, it also has one of the coolest rooftop bars in town. Dishes include potato masala dosa from India, Korean barbecue tacos and Thai sausage mi krop (crisp noodles), served with edible black ants and crickets.  

The Fort: One for history buffs and carnivores, this full-size replica of a 19th-century fur trading outpost serves up authentic recipes resurrected from the diaries of Colorado’s early settlers, trappers and pioneers. The menu features meaty classics such as buffalo sirloin, elk medallions and grilled quail.

Top nightlife spots
 

SoCo District: This area is home to four of Denver’s biggest clubs — The Church, Bar Standard, Club Vinyl and Milk — each with their own distinct vibe. On weekends, one cover charge gets you in to all four, so bounce between them for a mix of Latin, techno, house and hip-hop.  

Larimer Square: If you want a big night out, but aren’t quite ready for a full-on rave, Larimer Square is a good bet. There’s the speakeasy-style Crimson Room for jazz, stylish Green Russell for cocktails and sophisticated Cru for food and wine.

Grizzly Rose: Once you’ve got that Rockmount cowboy hat, head over to the Grizzly Rose, a world-famous honky-tonk, for live country music six days a week. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Willie Nelson has played here and if you fancy yourself as a bit of a rodeo star, make sure you have a go on the mechanical bull too.

Patrons at Grizzly Rose, a famous country music venue open since 1989.

Photograph by Rebecca Stumpf

Where to stay
 

The Source: Annexed to The Source Market Hall’s delicious spread of restaurants, with a lively rooftop bar and swimming pool as well the best views of the Rocky Mountains in the city, this cool, design-forward hotel is an excellent base for a city stay.

The Ramble: Located in the trendy RiNo art district and inspired by the lavish French salons of the 17th century, the interiors of this hotel are sensual and elegant. And so are the cocktails: the marquee lobby bar is headed up by New York City’s legendary mixologists Death & Co.  

The Art: Home to more than a dozen cultural attractions, staying in The Art is like bedding down in a gallery. Each floor showcases a particular artist’s work, including big names like Sam Francis and Sol LeWitt, plus there’s a good outdoor terrace bar, ideal for resting weary legs after those museum miles.  

Essentials
 

Getting there & around
British Airways offers a direct service from Heathrow. From April to October, outside ski season, Norwegian flies direct from Gatwick four days a week.  

Average flight time: 9h40m.
Denver is an easy city to navigate, and much of it is walkable. RTD runs bus services and light rail, but most people either drive or use ride-share apps. Outside the city, a rental car is essential to get the most out of your visit, and for day trips to the mountains. If you’re coming for the skiing, there are dedicated bus services to all the big resorts.

When to go
Ski season is December to early April (average 10C), with the best snow usually from January to March. Avoid public holidays, weekends and spring break if you want to beat the crowds, plus April and May, which have the most rain and the odd freak snowstorm. Summer lasts from June to August (average 31C) with occasional thunderstorms in the afternoon. September and October (average 24C) are perhaps the best time for outdoor adventures: the weather is warm and sunny, and the crowds are fairly thin. 

How to do it
America As You Like It offers a 15-night Colorado As You Like It self-drive itinerary, with stops in Denver and many of Colorado’s best mountain towns, including return flights, accommodation and car hire from £1,717 per person.

Published in the May/June 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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