Denver native Sarah Abell breaks down everything you need to know when planning a trip to the Mile-High City, including the best sites, restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels in Denver, and useful tips for first-time visitors.
DENVER, Colorado — I was born and bred in Denver and started skiing as soon as I could walk, spending every weekend in the mountains as part of Eskimo Ski Club or using season passes in Vail and Aspen. Like most teenagers, I fled my hometown as soon as I graduated high school and moved west to San Francisco for college (with stints at Fordham in the Bronx followed by a semester in Florence, Italy). A few years of post-grad life in San Francisco included managing a coffee shop, working in the marketing department for the San Francisco Opera and being a part of the company's first full cycle of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (a dream come true for this opera nerd), then landing my first job in PR before moving to Stockholm, where I co-owned a language consultancy with another American expat. After nearly three years of bright and blissful summers and dark, cold winters, I moved back to the United States and got a great job with the restaurant and hospitality agency of my dreams in New York City. After ten years, we opened an office in Denver, and I packed my bags and headed home. My parents still live in the same house where I grew up, and one of my brothers lives about eight blocks away from me. Colorado has more than 300 days of sun a year, so even when it's blisteringly cold out, chances are the sun is shining.
The High-Low Scene
Denver offers many of the same perks as a bigger city — great restaurants, killer live music, theater and arts, educated consumers, pro and amateur sports, tons of outdoor activities, and more — at a more manageable pace of life. As a hub airport, it offers flights to just about any domestic destination, and, increasingly, airlines are offering nonstop flights to sexy international cities around the globe. The city has a robust economy and offers high and low activities, including free summer jazz concerts at City Park; affordable and eclectic live music at the Botanic Gardens; endless trails for running, biking, and hiking; and dynamic museums and theater, to name a few.
Denver is becoming more diverse, with an influx of Vietnamese, Ethiopian, Russian, and Central and Latin American neighbors. Still, it retains a bit of its cow-town charm — especially in January, when the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo is in town and the livestock parade lumbers down 17th Street. But the city also attracts and nurtures world-class entertainment, thought-leadership summits, sporting events, restaurants, breweries, and distilleries. There's a booming housing scene, and it's not uncommon to see cranes and construction projects in nearly every neighborhood. The city itself has grown tremendously since my parents built a house in the southern suburb of Littleton over 40 years ago. Neighborhoods that were once barren or forbidden for my brothers and me to explore when we took the RTD bus downtown are now bustling with mom-and-pop restaurants, retail, and a mix of affordable and aspirational housing.
Lay of the Land
Denver is spread out, with suburbs and neighboring communities, but is an easy city to navigate by car, taxi, bike, or foot. Downtown is on a grid, with major east-west and north-south corridors, including main arteries — Colfax, Speer, Broadway, University, Colorado Blvd., Santa Fe — that bisect the city, framed by highways I-70 (the gateway to the mountains), I-25, E-470, C-470 (essentially circling the city), and 36, the main drag to Boulder. People here are friendly. Give a wave when cutting into heavy traffic, and you'll likely be met with a smile rather than the bird.
If You Only Do One Thing
Get outside. You don't have to trek to the mountains to experience the bounty that is Denver and the Front Range of the Rockies. Whether you are visiting for a work conference or are in Denver to play, step outside and breathe in the crisp air. Just remember to hydrate, as the city is one mile above sea level. It's dry, the air is thinner, and you're a helluva lot closer to the sun.
What You Should Know on the First Day (That You Might Not Learn Until Your Last)
Denver is one mile above sea level — literally 5,280 feet high. Drink a lot of water. Like, more than you think. Start hydrating the week before your trip and continue to drink water throughout your time here. Even seasoned travelers can get bit by altitude sickness, and a five-star hotel will not ease the misery of dehydration, nausea, headaches, dizziness, lack of appetite, and other side effects of high-altitude. At its best, altitude sickness is like having the worst hangover of your life, only one where greasy food and a little hair of the dog will not help. At its worst, it can be life-threatening. Remember that water is your friend, and you should be golden.
What to See and Do
One of the biggest perks about Denver is its proximity to the mountains and easy access to outdoor recreation. The city is peppered with fabulous parks and greenways, and it's a bike-friendly community. If you want to hike, mountain bike, camp, fish, or ski, there are plenty of locations within a short drive.
Go for a Run or a Walk
For this avid runner, Denver is a dream. Not only are you training at altitude, but there are ample parkways, green belts, parks, and paths for running — even in the middle of the city. I think the best way to explore a new city is to put on my running shoes and just go. I travel a lot, and many of the cities I visit for work do not have well thought-out trails. In Denver, even in the middle of downtown, a great pedestrian/biking/running trail is within a few blocks. A sophisticated network of paths along the South Platte will take you throughout the city. Much of the trail is below main thoroughfares (like Speer and Colorado Blvd.) with access points for easy entry and exit.
Clyfford Still Museum
The minimalist building, tucked behind the far flashier Denver Art Museum, is a fitting showcase for its modern art renegade namesake. The museum has a thoughtful permanent collection and hosts rotating shows in a peaceful and restorative space. It's within walking distance of the Denver Library, the beautiful Capitol building (walk up the western-facing steps and get your photo taken on the step that marks one mile high elevation) and the City and County Building, which is decorated with thousands of colorful lights during the holidays and kicks off with the Parade of Lights. Grab lunch from one of the food trucks during the Civic Center EATS (May–October) and walk around the neighborhood to see the public art interspersed between the museums and library.
Museum of Contemporary Art
The compact museum is located two blocks away from Union Station: Look for the neon "Wish You Were Here" sign on the roof. MCA offers dynamite exhibits and rotating collections, has a killer gift shop, and an incredible teen program that encourages and fosters art, creativity, failure, and even scholarships. The top floor of the museum is devoted to showcasing the art of local teens. (I wish this existed when I was in high school.) If I am running early for a dinner reservation or can sneak out of the office, I walk through the galleries meditating and soaking up the culture in this really special corner of downtown.
Denver Center for the Performing Arts
The performance complex in the heart of downtown consists of venues for opera, ballet, live concerts, plays, having staged to everything from Swan Lake and Hamilton to Morrissey and The Who's Tommy. Arrive early or stay late, but be sure to look for The Dancers, two 50-foot high sculptures in Sculpture Park (Speer and Champa), which also hosts outdoor festivals and events.
Denver Botanic Gardens
I became a member of this 23-acre garden in the middle of the city so I could stop by whenever I need to meditate or just walk the grounds. DBG hosts concerts in the summer (Boy George, Chaka Khan, one of the Marley sons), holiday lights in the winter, and the rare blooming of a Corpse Flower. The team programs various sculpture exhibits, like a stunning Dale Chihuly show a few years ago of bold and colorful blown-glass pieces, a few of which now call DBG home.
There are a lot of great live music venues in Denver (Bluebird, Ogden, the Gothic, Paramount Theater, and the Fillmore, to name a few), but Red Rocks is arguably one of the greatest venues in the country to see live music, to catch a movie, or to experience sunrise mass on Easter Sunday. Red Rocks spoils locals with an unparalleled concert-going experience and pristine acoustics. The amphitheater is carved into the side of the mountain and there are no bad seats in the house, especially on a warm summer night when the twinkling lights of the city can be seen from the panoramic view, and the sky is filled with heat lightning. I'm fortunate to have friends in bands that play Red Rocks, and there's nothing like sitting side stage and looking up at ten thousand people nestled between two 300-foot tall giant slabs of red sandstone monoliths (Ship Rock and Creation Rock).
If you can, pack a picnic and get to the park a few hours early to tailgate, people-watch, and soak up the vibe. I'll order a charcuterie board from Beast + Bottle (a regular haunt before it became a client), grab a bottle of obscure white wine from across the street at Marczyk Fine Wines, and a BLT and enjoy the late afternoon summer sun while sitting with the top down. A perfect al fresco meal.
The museum, visitor's center, and Trading Post offer a photographic and art-filled history of this epic venue. Sporty types can access the park during special days and run up and down the nearly 400 stairs at an elevation of nearly 6500 feet above sea level.
The Pec is the city's oldest jazz and blues club that also serves no-frills Mexican food. Stumbling distance from Coors Field, it's an ideal spot for a drink before a baseball game. My grandmother, Granny Goose, has stories of coming here when she was young, single, and in her salad days, drinking what she called bourbon and branch (bourbon with a splash of water). It's what I drink at the Pec to this day in her honor.
This movie house opened in 1930 and shows independent films in a beautiful Art Deco Mayan Revival building on South Broadway. You can get a proper pre-show drink at the on-site bar. I like to walk the neighborhood after a movie, taking in what I have just seen, and window shop the antique and second-hand stores nearby.
Where to Shop
Denver has plenty of big-box retail (Nieman's, Anthro, Nordstrom, Macy's) and a handful of small boutiques in areas like Cherry Creek, Old South Gaylord, and Pearl Street Boulder.
With locations in Aspen, Denver, and Boulder, this is the destination for designer togs and pristine customer service. Over the years, the store has hosted a who's who of designers — DVF, Maria Cornejo — showing collections. I still get a thrill when I see Max himself out and about, whether he's working the floor or on the town.
Calling all stylish and sharp-dressed men: Andrisen Morton is the one-stop shop for impeccable custom tailoring or designer suits.
The warm and inviting shop, recently opened in Cherry Creek North by a popular local blogger, stocks fun, flirty, and affordable clothes and accessories for women. The staff is so friendly, it feels like you're out shopping with your best friend. I have a bit of an obsession with tassel earrings and bright colors, and I never walk out of this store empty handed.
Where to Drink
Denver has no shortage of breweries in just about every area of town, from the massive Coors Brewing in Golden to a more intimate taproom experience at Crooked Stave. Most breweries offer tours, tasting rooms, and a restaurant or brewpub. As a native Coloradan, I am an equal opportunity beer drinker and am routinely turned on to new brews at Star Bar, a great (if bro-y) dive on Larimer. It's just this side of seedy, but the beer list is a knockout and I can play Skee-Ball and sing karaoke under the same roof. It's become the destination for nightcaps when friends are in town playing Red Rocks.
Avery Brewing Company
Avery moved its brewery, tasting room, and brew pub to what feels like the middle of nowhere outside of Boulder, but it's well worth the drive. The building is gorgeous, they make great merch, and this is an ideal spot to refresh after a hike up Mt. Sanitas — preferably with a dealer's choice tasting led by the knowledgeable and affable bar staff. Pack a deck of cards and chill out for a few hours.
Where to Get High
Because Colorado was the first state in the US to legalize marijuana, I would be remiss not to mention the opportunity to sample the other recreational fun on offer at the city's dispensaries. Also on offer are weed tours, where you can hire a driver and tour guide who will take you to shop and offer an insider's look at the best pot shops in town. In truth, I have yet to darken the doorstep of a dispensary here (out-of-town friends are smart to leave edibles and the most precisely rolled joints I have ever seen behind when they leave, as Johnny Law does not look favorably on travelers packing heat in the airport). But if you're in the market, just look for the green cross outside — or follow your nose. And be mindful of the law: While it's legal to purchase marijuana, it's illegal to smoke it in public. As for me? I'd rather belly up to a dive bar and enjoy a beer and bourbon, but these are the places to score the best pot and edibles.
With several locations around town, LivWell is one of the most trusted shops in Denver. The stores are big with a broad selection and even a rewards program for frequent shoppers. Look for Willie's Reserve and Leafs by Snoop — yes, that Willie (Nelson) and that Snoop — products, especially the small, pre-rolled joints that come in handy little cases. They're smaller and easier to smoke and have less THC than the edibles. Plus, the packaging and branding is fun and perky. And you're getting high. With Willie! And Snoop! Talk about a thrill! (If you have not read the GQ story about smoking with Snoop, might I suggest it now?)
Come here for a higher-end experience, with bespoke lines of cannabis body care, tinctures, edibles, and drinks.
If you don't want to smoke or eat your high, Stillwater Brands products might be for you. The brand specializes in water-soluble, cannabinoid distillates, including tea and coffee — a fast-acting (and thirst-quenching) way to achieve your high. A high-end, female-friendly brand, Stillwater can be found at dispensaries across the city including Native Roots, The Lodge and Starbuds.
Where to Eat
Denver's dining scene is pretty damn robust for a city this size. You can eat well, whether you're craving a white tablecloth or a hand-held burrito.
My Brother's Bar
One of the best and oldest watering holes in town was originally owned by two brothers and was recently sold to a long-time waitress and her son. It's no frills: burger, frings (a mix of French fries and onion rings), and a cold draft are my go-to order, if for no other reason than the condiment caddy is so choice: It's custom-made with Delorian-style doors that house toppings for burgers, including onion slices, relish, and pickles. I love MBB just as much for a midnight snack as I do for some day drinking and nosh after a hike.
Hand's down, the best — and most affordable — breakfast burrito in town. For just over $2, you get freshly scrambled eggs, griddled taters, the breakfast meat of the day, and pork green chile wrapped in a flour tortilla. Locals know to order medium heat as "half & half." Pro tip: Get a side of green chili to go and make your own smothered version. The locations are closed on Sunday, so plan ahead.
Wynkoop Brewing Co.
Denver's first brewpub helped kick start the city's obsession with craft beer. One of the founders, John Hickenlooper, has since gone on to be the mayor and now governor. It's a great spot to grab a few beers, play pool, and hang with friends.
This gem is a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week diner on a stretch of Colfax that offers tattoos, Voodoo Donuts, pawn shops, dive bars, and more. It's owned by a Greek family, one of many of their restaurants in town. Candidly, I have never been during broad daylight because Pete's is my choice spot for a meal that will help soak up the sins of the evening and restore my soul before the next morning. I love coming here after catching a show at the Ogden, Bluebird, or Fillmore. The place is never not bustling, and there's amazing people watching — especially from my preferred perch at the corner of the kitchen counter. Watching the short-order cooks is mesmerizing: They effortlessly dance around each other, as well as a flattop loaded with eggs, bacon, pancakes, hash browns, and patty melts. I'm a sucker for the breakfast burrito with freshly cut gyro meat, smothered in pork green chile (can you tell I am obsessed with pork green chile?). Pete's draws everyone, from athletes and cops to punk rockers and teens. On more than one occasion I have bought the dinner of guests who are more down on their luck than others.
This food incubator is located on the TAXI residential and office campus where we have an office in the RiNo district of Denver, with the mission of serving home-style cooking while giving nearby Globeville and Elyria-Swansea residents (predominantly women) career-oriented job training and English language skills. Because it's a "heritage-food incubator," the menus shift regularly but always include recipes handed down from generation to generation. Currently, Comal offers Latin cuisine Monday through Thursday and Syrian food on Friday, with Ethiopian coffee service on select afternoons. The food is fantastic, fresh, loving. The menu offers only a few selections a day but almost always offers a vegan or vegetarian options. The remarkably hard-working crew have brought an awesome energy and spirit to the ever-expanding Taxi campus. Comal is a draw for diners across Denver, also for their more elaborate Impact Dinners, which focus on networking and inspiration.
Queen of Sheba
Denver has a lot of Ethiopian restaurants, and this is my favorite. It's no frills, and time seems to stand still here. It's run by women, and it's not uncommon for the cook to also be the waitress and the busser. The food is perfectly executed, boldly flavored, and damn soulful. Beer and wine round out the meal, and it's super vegetarian friendly.
El Taco de Mexico
Another no-frills, family-owned joint, with a menu rooted in the rich culinary history of Mexico City. For my money, they make the best pork green chile in town — best sopped up with freshly made flour tortillas. The women running the place are no-nonsense, and the food is so good that the lack of ambiance — or even beer — will not matter. On a nice day, take your tacos outside, enjoy the art work, and time it so that you are there on the first Friday of the month, when the galleries on neighboring street Santa Fe open to the public. El Tac, as it's known locally, is located between Renegade Brewing and Stranahan's Distillery and makes for a good pit stop on a beer and brown spirits crawl.
Frasca Food and Wine
One of the most acclaimed restaurants in the country, and the best restaurant in the state of Colorado, Frasca is run by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey and one of the most gracious teams of "hospitalians" in the industry. Since opening nearly fifteen years ago in Boulder, Frasca has earned a heap of awards, including James Beard nods for the founding chef, Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson, and Outstanding Wine Service. Frasca is a multiple nominee for the Beard Award's Outstanding Restaurant award (they're hoping for another win this May), and focuses on the cuisine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia in northeastern Italy. The kitchen is under the direction of co-executive chefs Kelly Jeun and Eduardo Valle Lobo, alums of Eleven Madison Park, Del Posto, and Orsone in Italy (three of the best restaurants in the world). A meal at Frasca can be as simple as a plate of salumi, frico caldo (a fancy cheesy hash brown), and a glass of wine at the bar, or as involved as a tasting menu with paired wines and an amaro from the custom-built cart that rolls through the dining room. It's a stunner whatever the occasion. (In full disclosure, they are a long-time client, but I'd be as fervent about them if they were not. Frasca is that special.) Read more in this love letter on Fathom.
The sister restaurant to Frasca offers Italian cuisine from across the country, in a beautifully appointed space that's adjacent to the Union Station train platform. Tavernetta is open all day, so if you're craving the most heavenly slice of ciabatta that is airy inside with a perfectly oily and salty exterior (it took the kitchen over 60 tries at the recipe) and some cured meats at 11 a.m. or 10 p.m., this is the place. The kitchen excels at hand-made pastas, whole fish and roasted meats, Italian crudo, and more. Tavernetta shares its wine DNA with Frasca, and, in addition to an Italian wine list, wine director Carlin Karr (named a Food & Wine sommelier of the year in 2018) wheels a custom champagne cart through the dining room and bar. I like to grab a table by the fireplace, enjoy the daily happy hour and gawk at the gorgeous and stylish Italians captured in the Slim Aarons photos that adorn the walls. (More disclosure: They're also a client.)
This strip mall spot found behind the neon "Blue Ocean" sign outside is legendary for its Sichuan hot pot. I go for hand-pulled noodles and fiery chile oil-slicked dumplings. Pro tip: Ask for the Chinese menu with English translations, and if the owner is there, order the scratch-made noodles, served thin and chewy with a rich beef broth. (They will not serve them if he is not there.) I also love thicker noodles sautéed with beef and tomato, served slathered with the same lip-numbing chile oil. A cold beer and a stack of napkins will round out the experience.
The Proper Pour
It's not a place to eat, just the best bottle shop in town. The pocket-sized place shop owned by the fabulous husband-wife duo of Mary and Mclain Hedges specializes in small-batch spirits, independently produced wines, and a curated selection of craft beers. The shop is located in the Source, a bustling artisan food market located in a landmark 1880s building and they also own the RiNo Yacht Club bar. I come here to pick up my favorite spirits (Black Maple Hill Rye, Blackberry Farm Saison and limited release collaborations), artisanal bitters, unpronounceable wines and bubbles. I am always turned on to a new producer or bottle here, and I love the vibe.
Where to Stay
It's been a minute since I stayed in a hotel in Denver, but the city offers high-end and budget-conscious options in neighborhoods all across town.
This is where the Top Chef crew stayed during last summer's season 15 taping. It's in the heart of downtown with well-appointed rooms and a jamming bar and restaurant.
When Union Station was lovingly restored from a janky train station into a bona fide destination with restaurants, shops, bars, stores, and, yes, access to trains, the developers crafted the Crawford Hotel. Its three floors each represent a different era of the station's history, and no two rooms are alike.
The Brown Palace
The grande dame of Denver's hotel scene, the Brown Palace has been in operation since 1892. It's the spot in town for afternoon high tea or a Dom Champagne brunch. The scene skews more gray top and blue bloods, but it's elegant, historical, and, thankfully, not a big mammoth chain.
St Julien Hotel & Spa
A spa and luxe hotel in Boulder, and one of two spots I like to stay after a blow-out meal at Frasca. Spring for a room with a balcony and relax in a plush terrycloth robe outside while gazing up at the beautiful Flatiron mountains. The on-site spa offers couple's massages and full spa services, which makes for a pampering getaway.
The Source Hotel and The Ramble Hotel are opening this summer in Denver and both have ambitions to be the next great place to lay your head. The Source will feature a new restaurant from acclaimed chef Alon Shaya, and The Ramble Hotel will boast a branch of NYC's famed Death & Co. bar as well as a fun spot, Super Mega Bien, from local chef Dana "Loca" Rodriguez.
Plan Your Trip
How to Get There
Denver International Airport is located out east in the sticks, but it's easy to get into the city, with taxis, Uber/Lyft, and public transportation. A killer new light-rail train zips travelers to and from Union Station in the heart of downtown — an affordable and fast option, especially if you're staying downtown. If you rent a car, there are loads of options, but mind the speed limits, which change depending where you are along the eleven-mile stretch from I-70 to the airport and on Pena Blvd., the road leading to the airport. The cops love to nab lead-footed drivers, and this would be a lousy way to start or end a trip (guilty as charged).
Denver is a sprawling city, so having your own wheels will help tool around town and make a day trip to Boulder, the mountains, or Red Rocks a lot easier. If you want to leave the driving to someone else, the city has taxis (I recommend downloading the Taxi app), Uber/Lyft, busses, and an expanding light-rail system. Downtown dwellers can hop on the free 16th Street Mall Ride along the pedestrian mall from Union Station near the Capitol building. A bus to Boulder runs frequently and is a great alternative to sitting in snarled traffic along Highway 36.
The city is fairly bike-friendly, with several of the main thoroughfares implementing bike lanes. B-Cycle is the city's bike-share program, and there are loads of shops where you can rent two wheels to explore the city. Pedicabs are common downtown and a quick and heart-racing way to get around. I usually catch a Pedicab after going to a Broncos football game or seeing a show at the DCPA. The pedicabs with lights and pumping music are a fun way to haul ass through town.
When to Go
Denver is blessed with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, so even in the dead of winter, there are 70-degree mornings, followed by a wet snowstorm in the afternoon. It's not unusual to have snow late in the season — if you're a gardener, don't even think of planting before Mother's Day — or single-digit days in October. I love Denver in June before it gets too hot (though it's a dry heat and no humidity, so peak summer is never too, too hot). September and October are brilliant, especially if you can scoot out of the city and head to the mountains to catch the turning of the leaves. But if your travel plans call for winter, it's a safe bet that there will be snow on the ground but a bright and happy sun in the sky.
Generally, the same tipping rules apply here as other big cities. Doormen, concierges, taxi drivers, and baristas all appreciate a little extra scratch. So far, I do not think any of the main restaurants have implemented service-included policies, and 18-22 percent is standard for smart, thoughtful service.
Denver is a very friendly town, where cowboys are as commonplace as hipsters and everyone seems to peacefully coexist. If you can catch a game during hockey, football, baseball, or basketball season, try and score a ticket, as the people watching will be as great as the action on the ice, field, or court.
Remember that "rocky mountain oysters" do not come from the ocean, smoking weed in public can land you in the slammer, and that craft-brewed beer and locally distilled spirits flow like water. Residents here are fiercely proud of the city and will easily point a traveler in the right direction.
What to Pack
The weather in Denver is fickle. It could be 60 degrees and sunny in the morning with a torrential downpour or blizzard in the afternoon. Layers are key, and I am never without a jacket (light in the summer/fall, heavy in the winter), sunnies, and a scarf. It's a dry heat, but, again, because you're literally a mile above sea level, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a refillable water bottle are a traveler's best friend.
For Your Bedside Table
Denver, a novel by John Dunning