Photo courtesy of Visit Denver
The capital of Colorado—originally called St. Charles, then Denver City, then finally Denver—was staked out in November 1858 as a gold mining town. The local gold ran out pretty quick, but more was found in the nearby mountains. Seeing an opportunity, the town got into the business of providing supp…lies to the miners and the mining companies. While Denver could have turned into a ghost town (of which there are many in Colorado), it thrived even when the local mines were spent. This resourceful early history goes a long way in explaining why Denver continues to be such an attractive city: easy access to glorious Rocky Mountains, a civic appreciation of ingenuity, as well as great hotels, restaurants, and diversions in town. Modern Denver offers a wealth of fun experiences for those launching a trip into the mountains as well as for those who prefer the view from paved streets.
What to know before you go to Denver
For a little insight into the booming Denver food scene, make your way to LoDo's Larimar Square—a collection of beautiful Victorian buildings where a number of chef-owned restaurants have taken hold, like Rioja, Milk & Honey Bar, and Tag. On summer evenings, diners sit outside the busy clutch of bistros, lit by canopy of string lights, sipping craft cocktails and locally brewed beers, and enjoying dishes that range from tapas to Mexican to farm-to-table treats. Tucked up in the River North Art District, an eclectic gathering of eateries, shops, and creative spaces make up the Source Market of Denver. For those looking to get a little rowdy and keen to dance, hit up the Grizzly Rose—a fun honky-tonk bar with a distinct Western flavor.
There are a bunch of great museums in Denver. For the aviation nut, there's the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, a giant hanger at what used to be Lowry Air Force Base, full of planes and rockets. Art lovers will love the Denver Art Museum—originally named the Denver Artists' Club—with a collection of over 70,000 works of art; for fans of Abstract Expressionism, a trip to a new museum built around the works of Clyfford Still is imperative. History buffs will be drawn to the Molly Brown House Museum, a look at boomtown Denver through the life and home of its former owner and namesake, a survivor of the Titanic. If you can't get enough of the West's stunning scenery, a trip to Denver's American Museum of Western Art offers a small and mighty collection of paintings about the American experience and western expansion.
A view of the white or buff peaks of the mountains on the western horizon can be a distraction when you're roaming around the city or relaxing on a café patio. Happily, it's not hard to get to the mountains and leave the pavement behind. Easy day trips from town include rafting down Clear Creek or heading to Boulder to hike Mt. Sanitas. In winter, ski areas like Breckenridge or Vail are only a two-hour drive. A quick but head-clearing getaway, just outside the city limits, is a visit to Chatfield Farm, part of the Denver Botanic Gardens, where a working farm and meadows of wild native grasses and flora will help you understand the deep appeal of Denver's surroundings.
There are a number of great spots for simply walking in Denver. Get wowed by the native flora of the Rocky Mountains and beyond at the Denver Botanic Gardens where strolling options abound summer or winter, day or night. (The garden's summer concert series provides a particularly dreamy soundtrack for your meanderings.) For people-watching, good eats, and casual window-shopping, the mile-and-a-quarter-long 16th Street Mall can keep you busy for hours, but is also served by a free MallRide Shuttlebus when you're done wandering. For indoor perambulations, the five locations of the Tattered Cover Book Store, a great source of civic pride, is also a great (and seemingly bottomless) source for book ideas.
Most travelers fly into the Denver International Airport (DIA), 23 miles from town. (Don't rush through the airport—it's a showcase for public art and, even though its 1995 construction was newsworthy for bad luck, lateness, and budget overages, the white peaks of the terminal itself—which evoke Native American tepees on the plains and echo the Rockies in the distance—are pretty spectacular to see.) If you're not renting a car, a new light rail train connects the airport to centrally located Union Station in 35 minutes for $9. If you're going to take day trips from town, a rental car is recommended but if you're staying in the city, Denver is one of the best cities for public transit in the West. Light-rail trains, a bike share system (Denver B-Cycle), and bus rapid transit lines make getting around the heart of the city viable without a car.
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Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker. In addition to writing his own popular blog [offyonder.com], he is the Managing Editor for Elevation Outdoors Magazine, and has contributed to National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, Mountainzone.com, and others.