24 Actually Cool Things to Do in Boulder Right Now

Beyond drinking beer. But also that.

flatirons colorado snowy
The Flatirons, Boulder | Rich Wolf/Shutterstock
The Flatirons, Boulder | Rich Wolf/Shutterstock

While “The People’s Republic of Boulder” has undergone significant transformation since its hippie heyday roots, this gorgeous college town located in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains remains one of the most unique and picturesque small cities in America. From hiking trails and bustling breweries to quirky dives and cool music venues, here’s your guide to doing Boulder right in 2021.

Brett Beyer/Shutterstock

Hike the trails (and get brunch) at Chautauqua

The first thing anyone should do when arriving in Boulder (especially with out-of-towners in tow) is to get an up-close peek at The Flatirons, Boulder’s signature mountain range that has long served as a symbol of this one-of-a-kind town. The best place to do that is Chautauqua, an iconic local park that also houses a historic dining hall, concert auditorium, and rental cottages with mountain vistas. Hike the trails, toss the disc around, or just enjoy the views over brunch on the dining hall deck. You can’t go wrong either way.

Kit Leong/Shutterstock

Tube down Boulder Creek

One of the most “Boulder” things you can do in Boulder is go tubing down Boulder Creek, a warm-weather activity enjoyed by locals (and adventurous visitors) for generations. One of the best spots to drop in is the grassy park areas around the Boulder Public Library or, if you just feel like walking or biking the shady 5.5-mile Boulder Creek Path instead, no one’s gonna fault you for it.

Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Eat and drink al fresco on the Pearl Street Mall

The Pearl Street Mall is the beating heart of Boulder’s food, drink, and shopping scene, a colorful four-block pedestrian thoroughfare through the heart of downtown lined with street performers, food carts, and ample people watching. In recent months the city has expanded the walkable zone by blocking off the street from 9th to 11th Streets, cultivating a fun street festival vibe that adds another two blocks to this iconic stroll. Pearl Street Pub and West End Tavern are a few longtime favorites, or relive your college days with a drunken burrito from Illegal Pete’s.

St Julien Hotel & Spa
St Julien Hotel & Spa

Admire the Flatirons with a drink at the St. Julien

When you wanna get a little more fancy (while pretending like you can afford to stay here), grab a cocktail overlooking the Flatirons at the four-star St. Julien Hotel & Spa. The drinks are a bit more pricey than you’d pay elsewhere, but the vibe is upscale and the views are top-notch. It also tends to be less crowded than more well-known Flatirons-viewing watering holes like the West End.

Explore a lesser-known trail at Doughty Draw

While the trails at Boulder’s more well-known hiking areas such as Chautauqua and Mount Sanitas can get quite crowded on busy summer days, south of town you can discover a lesser-visited gem at the Doughty Draw Trailhead. This more thinly trafficked and mercifully flat trail is especially good for visitors or those not yet acclimated to the altitude.

Mountain Peoples Coop
Mountain Peoples Coop

Rediscover the true hippie spirit in Nederland (or strap on the skis at Eldora)

While Boulder retains its well-known hippie ethos, it’s no secret the town has leaned more trustafarian in recent decades as big money continues to seek greener pastures. For a taste of what Boulder was like in the early days, head 30 minutes west of Boulder to the funky mountain town of Nederland. Made famous in recent years thanks to its Frozen Dead Guy Days winter fest, Ned (as the locals call it) is a great spot to visit any time of year for nature walks along the creek, organic eats at the Mountain People’s Co-Op, and, of course, a visit to the oddball Carousel of Happiness. Boulder’s closest ski resort, Eldora Mountain, is also just minutes from town.

Get weird in the endlessly cool mountains towns of Jamestown, Gold Hill, and Niwot

One of the coolest things to do in Boulder is to explore the thoroughly unique little mountain towns that can be found west of town with a little extra effort and some dirt roads. Cruise up Lefthand Canyon and stop in Jamestown for lunch at the legendary Jamestown Mercantile (aka “The Merc”), head up Sunshine Canyon to Gold Hill for dinner at the romantic Gold Hill Inn, or switch things up along the Peak to Peak (or “Freak to Freak”) Highway and cruise through the town of Ward on your way to the scenic Brainard Lake located within Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest. East of Boulder, the quirky little town of Niwot will win you over within seconds.

Radomir Rezny/Shutterstock

See a show at Red Rocks (and stop in up-and-coming Golden)

The world-famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre is less than 30 miles south of Boulder down Colorado State Highway 93, a scenic thoroughfare that also passes through the up-and-coming town of Golden on the way. Be sure to check out new hotspots like Golden Mill and The Eddy while in “Denver’s closest mountain town,” which also boasts a serene creekside trail and a number of breweries not named Coors (although that is of course here.) Lesser-known fact: Red Rocks is also a gorgeous nature park you can visit any time you damn well please, which also hosts non-music events like film and yoga.

Boulder Theater
Boulder Theater

Rock out at the Fox and Boulder Theatre 

As great as Red Rocks is, you don’t have to leave Boulder to get your live music fix. While legendary dive venue Tulagi is long gone, the always-fun Fox Theatre on University Hill (aka “The Hill”) brings in a bevy of live rock acts from Heartless Bastards and The Crystal Method to Airborne Toxic Event and Shovels & Rope. Meanwhile, the historic Boulder Theatre can be counted on to class up any Boulder evening with top-caliber music acts from Spoon and Bob Mould Band to live comedy from David Spade and Al Franken.

The Kitchen American Bistro
The Kitchen American Bistro

Dine with Elon Musk’s brother at The Kitchen

Boulder resident and brother to Elon, Kimbal Musk, founded Boulder’s hip Kitchen Bistro (which now has locations in Denver and Chicago) as well as adjacent hangs Upstairs and Next Door, all of which can be relied upon for a quality taste of Boulder’s more high-end food scene. While you’re at it, Frasca Food + Wine and Oak at Fourteenth offer equally Boulder bucket list-worthy meals when you’ve had your fill of the quesadilla food cart guy on the Pearl Street Mall.

Upslope Brewing Company
Upslope Brewing Company

Explore Boulder’s hefty craft beer scene

It is perhaps unsurprising that Boulder hosts a solid craft beer scene, with standouts like Avery and Upslope amongst the most well-known of the bunch. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find excellent brews at more off-the-beaten path spots like VisionQuest and Boulder Beer. (Check out our full brewery roundup here.) There is also something called the Boulder Beer Trail, which includes can’t-miss spots like Oskar Blues and Bohemian Biergarten. Do it.

Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery
Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery

Pay homage to the Mountain Sun

There is perhaps no more iconic drinking and dining destination in Boulder than Mountain Sun, which opened its funky psychedelic doors on Pearl Street in 1993. While the original location seeks to reopen during the current post-virus labor shortage, its larger Southern Sun location in South Boulder is currently open for both patio and indoor dining. With additional locations in Denver and Longmont, it’s hard to say you’ve really “done” Boulder without a stop here.

Boulder Teahouse
Boulder Teahouse

Get touristy at the Dushanbe Tearoom

This is something you don’t see every day. The appropriately opulent Boulder Dushanbe Tearoom, tucked along Boulder Creek as a gift from its Tajikistan sister city of Dushanbe, is pretty much everything you think of when you think of Boulder. Touristy? Yes. Worth it? Also, yes.

Sherpa's Adventure Restaurant & Bar
Sherpa's Adventure Restaurant & Bar

Pretend you’re in Nepal at Sherpa’s Restaurant

When you’re in Boulder, you’re gonna need a good spot to discuss your latest trek along the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. Luckily, you have the endlessly adorable Sherpa’s Restaurant—staffed by real-life Sherpas from the Mount Everest region including a chef who has summited Everest 10 times without supplemental oxygen. The food is great, the outdoor patio is cozy and romantic, and the vibe is quintessential Boulder.

Check out the booming art-filled hood of NoBo

Anyone who has visited Boulder in recent years can attest to the fact that the once sleepy neighborhood of North Boulder has become something of a boomtown as of late. Rebranded NoBo with an artsy flare, the trendy hood has replaced the delightfully seedy Bustop strip club (which closed in 2018) with apartment complexes and artists spaces. Stop by during First Fridays for a tour of the galleries.

Sundown Saloon
Sundown Saloon

Get down and dirty at The Sundowner and Nitro

Despite ongoing gentrification (including something actually called the Capital One Café), Boulder’s family-friendly Pearl Street Mall still hides a dirty little secret or two. The first stop on this mini-tour of Boulder’s seedier side takes you to the Sundown Saloon (aka The Sundowner), long home to pale-faced weirdos who’d rather shoot pool and listen to music than do anything that has to do with the outdoors or sunshine. Even more unusual, Pearl Street is also home to Boulder’s last remaining strip club, Nitro Club. Both are located, appropriately, down flights of stairs.

John Duckworth/Shutterstock

Cool off at Boulder Reservoir

As great as Boulder is, one thing it could always use more of is water. And while outdoor enthusiasts are well familiar with The Flatirons and Boulder’s various trails, the 700-acre Boulder Reservoir continues to be somehow overlooked. The Res (as they call it) offers everything you need for a sunny day on the lake from fishing and boating to hiking and picnicking. Despite its slightly more remote location outside town, you’re still within stumbling distance of several local breweries along the Diagonal Highway.

Boulder Museum Of Contemporary Art
Boulder Museum Of Contemporary Art

Get artsy at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art

Art lovers need not make the trek down increasingly traffic-clogged Highway 36 into Denver for their art fix, with the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA) offering big-city culture with a small-town flair along Boulder Creek. Also stop by the Boulder Farmers Market and Boulder Bandshell, both located within easy walking distance, on your way out as you discuss the latest exhibit you totally pretend to have understood.

Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant
Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant

Down a margarita as big as your head at Rio Grande

Some things in Boulder never change. Like the margaritas at Rio Grande. The iconic downtown Rio Grande restaurant comes complete with rooftop views and famously stiff margaritas that are limited to three per person. (Can you try and bend the rules and get away with more? You’re on your own with that.) While the nearby Walrus Saloon sadly closed its peanut shell-floored doors in 2018, this place is still going strong.

Shop local at Lolita’s Market and Lucky’s

As you might expect in a town as granola-friendly as this, Boulder is home to a number of top-shelf independent local grocery stores you should visit if given the chance. Sure, you could go to chains like Whole Foods and King Soopers when you run out of trail mix, but why not shop like a true Boulderite instead at locals-friendly spots like Lucky’s Market and Lolita’s Market & Deli

Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar
Hapa Sushi Grill & Sake Bar

Sing it loud and proud at Sushi Zanmai

There are a number of good spots to get sushi in Boulder like Hapa and Japango. But there is only one longtime local sushi spot that’s been doing karaoke on Saturday nights for the past 31 years. It’s Sushi Zanmai, and you should go if you know what’s good for you.

Rent a two-wheeled cruiser at University Bicycles

Heading into Boulder without a bike is an almost unforgivable oversight, but one that can be quickly ameliorated with a trip to University Bicycles on Pearl Street. Rent gravel, hardtail mountain, fat bikes, and electric town bikes by the day at this popular local shop and let yourself loose on Boulder’s 300 miles of biking paths.

Hotel Boulderado
Hotel Boulderado

Sip fancy cocktails at the historic License No. 1

Every town needs a good cocktail bar, and Boulder’s License No. 1 fits the bill in spades. While not quite as campy and fun as the former Catacombs Bar which was once housed in this space located in the basement of the historic Hotel Boulderado, License No. 1 can be cashed in for all your mixology needs in a cool speakeasy-style space. (The name is a nod to the spot being the recipient of Boulder’s first legal liquor license in 1969.)

Yarik Sychov/Shutterstock

Explore one of America’s best state parks at Eldorado Canyon

Visitors to Boulder will no doubt want to explore nearby Rocky Mountain National Park, located just 45 minutes north in the town of Estes Park. But while the popularity of the national park has exploded in recent years (with reservations now required for summer visitation), Eldorado Canyon State Park—located just 20 minutes south of town—is an often overlooked Boulder County gem ideal for rock climbing, trail running, and canyon gawking.

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Jay Gentile is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, food & drink, culture, events and entertainment stories. In addition to Thrillist, you can find his work in The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN Travel, Chicago Tribune, Lonely Planet, VICE, Outside Magazine and more. Follow @thejaygentile