With a surge in development over the past several years, and a more recent renaissance in its dining and culture scene, Denver has worked to gradually stake its claim as more than just a stop-off on the way to the mountains. The city is doing a decent job with that venture, piggybacking on its natural assets — 300 days of sunshine a year, green space around every turn (parks, that is), and proximity to said mountains — with a growing repertoire of restaurants to go with its beloved breweries. That’s not to mention a solid collection of museums, and the Union Station train depot, recently revamped with a dining and shopping complex in the heart of Lower Downtown, just one of the city’s many hiply abbreviated neighborhoods coming up all over town. Plus, this year’s legalization of retail marijuana sales allows folks to toke in a civilized manner — Colorado visitors, on a slightly smaller scale — if they wish to live up to the Mile High City and its many pleasures.
Denver still exudes an old western essence. If you’re inclined to soak that up, take your pick between downtown’s two historic crown jewels, the Brown Palace and the Oxford Hotel. The Brown Palace is now part of the Marriott Autograph Collection; in its nearly 123-year history, it hosted Molly Brown the week after the Titanic sunk, a love triangle murder right in the old bar (not surprisingly, the hotel is rumored to be haunted), local crime bosses and presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton. The roof houses a dedicated apiary, which supplies honey for afternoon tea. The Oxford Hotel, the city’s oldest luxury hotel by a year, is located right across the street from Union Station, and the Cruise Room bar offers an Art Deco haunt for local lovers and visitors looking for a nice cold martini. More modern-minded visitors will prefer the recently remodeled Hotel Teatro and the new Renaissance Downtown, which vie for coolest-new-kid-in-town status in the same general vicinity in LoDo. Where to Eat
Denver has jumped on the farm-to-table bandwagon with extremely satisfying results. Local livestock and abundant flora abound at farms and ranches in the region, allowing a great handful of city restaurants to serve up the freshest meat and produce in urbane iterations. Among the best are Beast + Bottle, a small, airy space in the Uptown neighborhood. It’s best at dinnertime, with a small, constantly rotating menu of pork, seafood, and steak dishes in heartier portions than some of their competitors. Surprisingly, landlocked Denver is also home to a duo of family-owned Japanese restaurants serving some of the freshest sushi in the country: Sushi Den and Izakaya Den, next-door neighbors on South Pearl, both stocked with selections from the Fukuoka fish market in Japan, where owners Toshi Kizaki and Yasu Kazaki’s brother is stationed. The slightly more bustling Izakaya bills itself as Japanese gastropub, while Sushi Den serves more traditional fare — but both spaces are equally festive and smartly designed (no silent bamboo rooms here). There’s also Domo, a destination in itself for its patio, traditional Japanese garden, the adjacent museum and a dojo for martial arts classes. Last, but certainly not least, is Rioja, a Larimer Square highlight run by executive chef Jennifer Jasinski, who took home the 2013 James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southwest. Menus focus on creative Mediterranean fare with a Colorado bent, and the margaritas are arguably the best in town. What to Do
Once you get Mile High, the outdoors will beckon, but there’s sophisticated indoor culture to enjoy as well. One of the largest and most respectable museums between Chicago and the West Coast, the Denver Art Museum is worth a stop-in for its striking spaces as for its rotation of exhibitions: the recent Modern Masters and the upcoming loaner of Matisse works from the National Gallery in DC, alongside permanent collections highlighting art of the American West. The two buildings, resembling a pair of iron-clad, abstract mountains, offer marvels inside and out; you can take an open-air stroll by such sights as Claes Oldenburg’s giant broom and dustpan and dairy cows by Dan Ostermiller. A few steps away is a study of gorgeous concrete minimalism, which houses a tribute to the abstract expressionist Clyfford Stills. Refuel with one of the city’s favorite pastimes: biking to breweries. B-Cycle bike shares abound throughout Denver, transportation of choice: hit up Our Mutual Friend’s board game-stocked taproom in RiNo (River North), Denver Beer Company’s dog-friendly patio between LoDo and LoHi (Lower Highlands), and the Crooked Stave at RiNo’s mixed-use hot-spot, The Source. Finish out the evening with some baseball at Coors Field. The Rockies might be struggling this year, but nothing beats a mountain-facing bleacher seat on a mild Colorado night in the fall. Venture Out
A big part of Denver’s appeal is its prime location in the cradle of some of Mother Nature’s finest work. Legendary concert venue Red Rocks — where bands tend to get so stoked on the amphitheater’s breathtaking views that they consistently play longer sets than anywhere else — doesn’t shut down when the show’s over; locals love to show off their fitness by running stairs during the day, and it’s open for yoga classes, open-air film screenings, and more. As Denver’s smaller sister city, Boulder offers a different point of view worth a day trip. Set out on a crowd-pleasing hike on one of Chautauqua Park’s many trails, and follow it up with a shopping and eating stroll down Pearl Street, the town’s main drag. Eldorado Canyon has long been a world-class destination for climbers, but even the less vertically-inclined can enjoy the scenery from the car. If it’s warm enough, the spring-fed public pool at the park’s base will take you on a time warp, complete with water slide.