The Ultimate Denver Travel Guide
To help you stay light on your feet, we’ve assembled a team of Denverites for this all-encompassing DestiNATION guide, covering the best neighborhoods to check out and day trips to take, what to eat and which beers to drink, where to hike and ski...
Arriving in Denver under a clear blue sky, invigorated by the pure mountain air at 5,280 feet (exactly one mile up -- hence, the Mile High City), it was once fairly easy to get your bearings here: Just look for the Rockies, and you’ve found west. These days, the view is as likely to be obstructed by plumes of pot smoke (legal in Colorado since 2014) as it is with big-ass cranes and half-finished buildings. Denver is booming, and while it may be unrecognizable to those who drove through it on their way to Vail or Omaha years ago, all that shiny newness is highly(!) appealing to a rapidly gathering flock.
What’s new in Denver? Ultra-hip hotels like The Ramble and The Maven. Electric scooters. Start-up offices and apartment buildings with rooftop pools, and, most notably, the gut renovation of the city’s train hall, Union Station. The restaurant scene has achieved full Ludicrous Mode, with food halls and hip hybrids opening up weekly (daily? hourly?). The notorious craft beer scene, too, shows no sign of slowing, with plenty of new kids on the block (like the Grateful Dead-themed brewpub, The Grateful Gnome).
This is still the place where chilling in the mountains with a sixer of Avery IPA cooling in the creek at your feet = Tuesday.
Yet, even as it explodes in population and on-trendedness, Denver still manages to retain its distinctive flair and cowboy mentality: Not only can you find west, you can find THE West. Rocky Mountain oysters and damn good Mexican food and Rockmount snap shirts and concerts at Red Rocks are still very much part of the narrative here. This is still the place where chilling in the mountains with a sixer of Avery IPA cooling in the creek at your feet = Tuesday. No wonder everyone’s moving here.
As for you, dear visitor, you’re here only for a short time to scope a swiftly changing scene. To help you stay light on your feet, we’ve assembled a team of Denverites for this all-encompassing DestiNATION guide, covering the best neighborhoods to check out and day trips to take, what to eat and which beers to drink, where to hike and ski, and all the must-do’s and must-see’s you can handle at 5,280 feet. Welcome to the Mile High. Don’t forget to drink water.
The food scene in Denver runs parallel to Denver itself: For many years, coastal tastemakers bypassed the city on their way to the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, or to some privately catered truffle dinner in Telluride paid for in Apple stock. But now that the city has become a destination, so too has it become a culinary hub.
Keeping up with the food scene is a nearly impossible task as new restaurants populate neighborhoods seemingly as fast as new residents. Masters of the new era like Acorn and Fruition have been joined by those who are hellbent on shifting paradigms (including a dumb amount of food halls). Just take one street, Larimer: It boasts Latin American dim sum (SuperMegaBien); an 18-seat chef’s counter (Beckon) and sister brunch spot (Call); a twist on Southern fare and cocktails (Julep); a casual, ingredient-oriented pasta joint (Dio Mio); and a hip Chinese restaurant busting out dishes like bone marrow fried rice (Hop Alley).
Speaking of bone marrow, those who neglected Denver’s food history have a chance to make up for it, as many OG's still stand. Western game meats and fried testicles -- aka Rocky Mountain oysters -- can be found at Buckhorn Exchange, est. 1893, or further afield at The Fort. And if frontier cuisine is a gimmick then dammit, so is green chile -- the state dish of Colorado and its categorical rival, New Mexico. Get it in a bowl alongside a burger at the Cherry Cricket or sizzling fajitas at La Loma. Or douse your breakfast burrito -- an absolute Denver staple -- in the stuff at El Taco De Mexico.
If all of this spicy food is making you thirsty, then may we suggest -- wait for it -- BEER. If New Mexico is Colorado’s chile rival then Portland is Denver’s suds combatant. And you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at 5,280 feet who believes D-Town beers deserve a consolation prize. If you have a pulse and are over 21, you’ve probably had New Belgium’s Fat Tire (it’s from Fort Collins but a new Denver branch just opened). There’s plenty more where that came from, like Great Divide’s heavyweight Yeti stout series, Station 26’s hazy Juicy Banger, or Comrade’s Superpower IPA.
Denver’s laws mean the bars close up shop at 2am, but that doesn’t mean The Man can stop funky joints from popping up all over town. Get weird on the expansive patio at Finn’s Manor before heading over to a cash-only dive that serves up Mexican food and jazz at El Chapultepec. Or go nearly anywhere on Colfax Avenue, but especially the uber-dive Nob Hill Inn and hippie epicenter Sancho’s Broken Arrow. Nearby you’ll find Pete’s Kitchen, the mecca of Denver’s 24-hour dining scene. Head there dizzy from the bars or to nurse your hangover the next morning. And fear not: They serve green chile and breakfast burritos.
Once you’ve stuffed yourself silly with Denver’s finest green chile and homegrown IPAs, take a moment to notice the sheer beauty of your surroundings. Notice, too, how every brewery has a group of dudes in head-to-toe Patagonia who look like they just hiked into town from Denali. Take the hint: get outside.
If you didn’t bother renting a car, no problem -- take the Flatiron Flyer up to Boulder (a day pass is $10.50) and hike Chautauqua Park or Mount Sanitas. Beyond Boulder, you’ll find the funky mountain town of Nederland, which will really make you feel like you “did” the mountains. While there, fill up on satisfying high-altitude Himalayan food at Kathmandu Restaurant, or stop by Crosscut for some of the best pizza in Colorado as the Boulder Creek whisks by.
If you’ve got wheels -- or don’t mind burning some scratch on a car service -- Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park await. So does The Stanley Hotel, where Stephen King famously dreamt up The Shining. Take a tour or have a drink at the Whiskey Bar and see if you feel anything supernatural (besides altitude sickness). Consider a sojourn to the town of Golden for a tour of the Coors Brewery (and perhaps beforehand, a drive on the Mount Evans byway.) Skiing and snowboarding can be done just a two hours’ drive (or less) outside the city; further afield, of course, are Breck, Vail, Aspen. The world is your Rocky Mountain oyster.
If you’d rather just chill in Denver, one of the easiest ways to explore is by grabbing a BCycle, the city’s shared bike program. Wander through the extensive Botanic Gardens, duck into the shops along South Broadway or in Cherry Creek, and head to the Art District on Santa Fe to see street murals and art galleries. Or just hit up the newly reno-ed Union Station: It’s a veritable city within a city with several dope restaurants -- Mercantile leads the charge -- bars, shops, a bookstore, and a chic hotel. Should you stumble on some unlucky weather, visit the holy triumvirate of Denver’s art scene: the Denver Art Museum, the Clyfford Still, and the MCA.
Nightlife in the Mile High is another thing that’s gotten tremendously better of late. Catching a concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre is one of the more iconic things you can do here, but more intimate venues like The Bluebird, Lost Lake, Larimer Lounge, Hi-Dive, and Globe Hall all book solid acts. And they’ve all got local craft brews on tap, a welcome treat after all that laborious Colorado outdoorsiness.
Lastly, let's talk pot. One of the first things you’ll notice about Denver is that pot dispensaries are ubiquitous. Here's what you need to know. First, bring cash. Debit and credit are not accepted. Second, pick a spot. Most of the dispensaries located Downtown are overpriced, so make a small sojourn. Good Chemistry, Terrapin Care Station and L’Eagle -- just to name a few -- all have solid reputations with reasonable prices and knowledgeable staff (here are all of our favorites). The latter is the most important piece of the puzzle. Make sure to ask your budtender lots of questions, no matter if you’re just looking for one pre-roll joint or a whole heap of gummies. Note: If you’re not from Colorado, you’ll be shopping from the recreational menu.
As an added bonus, here’s a first-timer tutorial so you don’t head into a dispensary totally intimidated: Sativas are usually known for uplifting and energetic highs, while indicas typically give you that bedtime, glued-to-the-couch feel. If you’re having a hard time deciding, try a hybrid (a mix of the two types) to see how things go. And always remember -- especially with edibles -- to start things off slowly: the pot here is no joke.
By Molly Martin and Colin St. John
Drink free beer. Go to Red Rocks. Find a dispensary. You know, just Denver things. Click here for the full story...
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Remember all that talk about the cranes and trendy new restaurants on Larimer Street? There’s a flipside: Gentrification and overpopulation are major issues in Denver. White tech bros are pushing the black and Latino communities further and further out the city. The traffic is a more popular talking point than the Broncos (seriously, good luck going skiing on a Saturday morning). And the price tags -- from a hotel room to a nice meal to a coupla cold ones -- are more on track with New York or San Francisco than long-time Denver locals would like.
If you’re not from Denver -- and you probably aren’t, because an ever-dwindling number of folks are -- it’s best not to weigh in on the whole gentrification thing, especially if you’re in one of the “hot” neighborhoods with the most dramatic facelifts, like Lower Highland, RiNo, or Five Points. But though you may be a tourist (especially if you are toasting Cartman on your seventh margarita at Casa Bonita, which, honestly, way to go) you can still get on the CO wavelength. Just smile, tip your bartenders well, and don’t mention that you’re thinking of moving here.
The best time to visit Denver
It’s pretty simple: Are you going skiing or snowboarding (or ice fishing, or celebrating Hanukkah, or going to the National Western Stock Show)? If the answer is “yes,” then winter here you come. If not, the other three seasons offer gorgeous weather, cheaper plane tickets, and unique Colorado experiences. (And speaking of plane tickets, definitely give yourself an extra hour or two at Denver International Airport when you land or on your way out. Even if you don’t believe in conspiracy theories, it’s a scene, man.)
Autumn is prettiest, and the annual Great American Beer Festival is a big draw. Spring has the best of both worlds -- it may still snow and Arapahoe Basin is usually open into June for skiing -- but it’s usually sunny and mild. Summer is getting hotter (because of, ya know, climate change) but there’s no humidity, so summer heat is bearable if you stay out of the sun. And, yes, that’s the time of year for catching a Rockies ballgame or tunes at Red Rocks, the Underground Music Showcase and Westword Music Showcase.
No matter what: bring layers. Coloradan grandmothers love to talk about how quickly the weather can go from a blizzard to 95 degrees in an hour and a half -- and there’s some truth to it. Days get hot, even in the winter. Nights get cold, even in the summer (if you want to camp at elevation, bear in mind you could see freezing overnight temps at least 10 months a year).
Every brewery has a group of dudes in head-to-toe Patagonia gear who look like they just hiked into town from Denali.
Check yo’self at altitude
This is a serious thing. Drink water like a camel that just got news the US pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Get plenty of sleep. Bring good sunglasses and wear sunscreen, even when it’s cloudy. Bring some lotion for the bone-dry air. Take it easy on the physical activities, at least at first. If you’re gonna be partying, take it down a notch or four the first night and see how you feel the next day. Short of breath? Dizzy? Headachy? Rapid pulse? That’s altitude sickness, my friend. Most people will be most acclimated within a day or two, but it could take longer, especially if you don’t hydrate.
LGBTQ Mile High nightlife
Colorado is a purple state that’s getting bluer and bluer. What used to be a somewhat secretive gay culture in the 1990s has blossomed into a roaring scene. Uptown is the focal point with joints like Pride & Swagger and X Bar. And don’t miss one of Denver’s legendary Sunday beer busts at The Triangle. Also, and this important: You gotta go to Charlie’s, Denver’s gay cowboy bar on Colfax. It’s truly one of a kind.
What to know about legal weed
Amendment 64 went into effect in Colorado in 2014 and the gist of it is this: Pot is treated similarly to alcohol. You have to be 21 to buy it and you can’t (ahem, legally) walk down the street smoking a joint. In fact, as a law-abiding visitor, getting stoned can be a somewhat complicated affair. You can’t blaze up your room at the Marriott and you can’t smoke on the patio of the brewery you’re visiting. You can, however, seek out “420-friendly” Airbnbs and there are also a few new businesses in town being tried out for consumption -- The Coffee Joint and iBAKE Denver are a couple good ones. Of course, if you’re smart about it, you can munch on edibles just about anywhere and there’s a lot of vaping going down on the streets and patios of the Mile High City. If flower is your thing, just don’t brazenly burn it down in front of a police officer -- or in the middle of a bar or restaurant -- and you should be a-okay.
How to get around
If you’re only here for a short time and don’t plan on day tripping, you absolutely don’t need to rent a car (especially if you’re gonna be drinking the beers and smoking the grass). The newish A Line connects Denver International Airport to Union Station for about 10 bucks. The rest of the RTD public transportation system is reliable, cheap, and there’s a bus-tracking feature on the website. Still, they often take their sweet time showing up.
Denver is fairly walkable, especially if you’re staying in lower downtown. From there, Highland and RiNo and Capitol Hill and even the first bit of South Broadway are all accessible by foot -- it’s just that all of those surrounding neighborhoods jut out in different directions from that epicenter. So, take ‘er easy.
Otherwise, there’s the BCycle bike share program for the active types. For the rest of us: Lyft and Uber are ubiquitous. You can still catch a good deal on a car rental -- it’ll come in handy for any day trips -- but be warned that parking downtown is a pain in the ass and expensive. Another option that toes the line between renting a car and hailing a ride share is Car2Go. The cars are fairly widespread and it might be cheaper than other options for a longer trip.
Finally, there are the new kids in town: the e-scooters. And just like any bunch of rambunctious youths, some residents are smitten and some absolutely loathe them. Why not try it at least once -- Lyft, Lime, Bird, and Razor are just some of the brands -- to see if you take a shine to it.
All the Cheap, Easy, and Adventurous Ways to Get Around Denver
Headed to Denver for the first time with no idea how to get around? Fear not, Thrillist has your back.
Let’s begin in LoDo (Lower Downtown) at The Crawford Hotel. It’s actually inside of Union Station -- a must-stop on your trip, so there’s an easy bonus. You’ll enjoy all the luxe accommodations you’d expect from a top-notch resort, and you’re in the center of the action to boot. The Crawford’s sister hotel, The Oxford, is just up the block and offers a cozier, more historic take on a five-star experience. Its Cruise Room bar is also on ye olde Denver bucket list.
The Maven is brand spankin’ new, ultra-sleek, and part of another big development: the Dairy Block. Farther uptown, you’ll find The Oxford’s big competitor for historic hotel swagger: The Brown Palace. Its high tea (no, not that kind), brunches, bars, and holiday decorations are the stuff of legend. Around the corner and up a few blocks you’ll find the contemporary ART, conveniently positioned by the Denver Art Museum and Clyfford Still.
A note about staying downtown: If you stay at one of the many, many chain hotels -- and you totally should, if you get a righteous deal, because some are really, really nice -- there’s a good chance your concierge will tell you to check out the 16th Street Mall. You should pretty much only go there if you want to ride on the free bus. It’s Denver’s version of Times Square (except that I.M. Pei designed it). And if that’s your jam, cool, but how the hell have you gotten this far into this guide?
A new hotel in Denver’s hippest neighborhood, you say? Tell us more. The Ramble is dripping with style and indulgence. It also happens to house two of the biggest draws in town: SuperMegaBien and the second outpost of a New York City cocktail boss, Death & Co.
Much the same could be said for The Source Hotel, which has a ton of awesome shit inside like Crooked Stave (an award-winning brewery), Safta (mind-blowing Israeli) and Smōk (BBQ baby). You basically wouldn’t even need to leave if you didn’t want to.
For whatever reason, Denver residents have taken to calling this neighborhood “the Highlands,” so you’ll hear it both ways. It’s a gorgeous, historic ‘hood with a ton of kickass restaurants (Bar Dough, El Five), bars (Occidental, Recess Beer Garden) and a knockout view of downtown. And there’s an affordable, pet-friendly Residence Inn up yonder! Hooray!
Like Highland, you’re not going to find a ton of hotel options in the 'hood that juts out from behind the Capitol building and runs east along Colfax. But, if bar-hopping down Colfax is central to your being here -- and it very well should be -- there’s a wild-ass Ramada right in the middle of the action. We can pretty much guarantee staying there will be an unforgettable experience. There’s also Adagio, which bills itself as a “bud and breakfast.” It’s housed inside an old Victorian inn and, well, you get its main selling point.
The Ameristar in Black Hawk is there for all of your gambling needs, or have a spa day at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Chief Hosa is a storied campground in Golden located close enough to Red Rocks -- if that’s what brings you to town. And speaking of Red Rocks: The just-opened Origin on West Colfax is tying itself pretty heavily to the venue, offering $15 round-trip shuttles for shows.
Just a 40ish-minute drive northwest, the college town of Boulder moves at a slower pace than Denver and is a haven for the outdoorsy, with quicker access to skiing and snowboarding. Plus, it has remarkable offerings of its own, like Frasca Food & Wine, Celestial Seasonings, and Upslope Brewing Company. If you decide to stay in the area, the Chautauqua cottages are a summer family photo waiting to happen.
Just be sure to make it back to Denver, but, like, carpool if you decide to stay forever.
By Lee Breslouer
Boulder is so much more than a college town filled with drum circles… especially for a college town filled with drum circles. Click here for the full story...
Editors: Keller Powell, Alex Robinson, Joseph Hernandez
Writers: Colin St. John, Molly Martin, Shauna Farnell, Kyle Wagner, Lee Breslouer, Tyra Sutak
Production: Pete Dombrosky, Ruby Anderson, Kyler Alvord
Video: Ryan Brooks, Rebecca Senn, Brendan Dean, Chanel Baker, Lee Kalpakis, Myra Rivera, Emily Tufaro, Chas Truslow, Daniel Byrne, Stasia Tomlinson, Justin Lundstrom
Special thanks: Bison Messink, Liz Childers, Kastalia Medrano, Colin St. John, Lee Breslouer, Alex Garofalo, Lauren Budinsky
No thanks: Rick, that SOB.
Design Director: Ted McGrath
Photo Director: Drew Swantak
Photographer: Matt Nager
Illustrator: Jason Hoffman
Motion Graphics Designer: Megan Chong