Locked in by the Rocky Mountains on one side and high plains cowboy country on the other, Denver, once just a fly-through connection to the Colorado ski fields, has exploded into a culture capital. Small-batch beer enthusiasts, food innovators and a fresh-thinking art scene have started pulling crowds in to the fast-growing Mile High City all year round – so here’s how to sidestep the tourist traps and make the most of a stay or stopover…
Don’t do the Coors Brewery tour. True, it’s the largest single-site brewery in the world and has been cranking out the region’s most famous frothies since 1873. But it’s also true that the vibe at this “manufacturing facility” is a bit corporate-showroom – and you can buy Coors beer at your local bottle-o back at home.
Instead, tap a microbrewery. Denver has one of the United States’ most vibrant, creative craft beer scenes – you can’t walk around the RiNo (River North) precinct without tripping over brewpubs, taprooms and microbreweries, each putting an indie stamp on pilsner, IPAs and lager. Tours are easy to find but a few hours of wandering is just as good. Spirit-makers like the Ironton Distillery and Crafthouse are leading the local vodka, gin and whiskey movement and if you’re ready to be astonished by how good wine in a can is, book a look-see at The Infinite Monkey Theorem Urban Winery.
Don’t do the Cherry Creek shopping “experience”. It’s highly hyped but it’s really just a massive shopping centre with all the big brands you can buy online.
Instead, hit the shopping strip that stretches up the 16-block 16th Street Mall to historic Larimer Square, one of the city’s most chic fashion districts, a trove for handcrafts and a sweet spot for people-watching from an al fresco café. If you’re laser-focused on finding labels such as Kate Spade and Polo Ralph Lauren at knockdown discounts make a beeline for Denver Premium Outlets, a 25-minute drive out of town.
Don’t get all your art inside. This city’s reputation for culture is solid and expanding but it’s not all down to the expertly curated works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and Denver Art Museum.
Instead, do the street art trail around the gritty-cool East Colfax precinct to see a mix of commissioned street murals, renegade graffiti and public art. Across town, The Art District on Santa Fe has the largest concentration of art galleries in Colorado – drop in to studios to chat with makers.
Don’t think you can’t ski on a stopover. Or a shoestring. Colorado might be home to some of the best, most glamorous ski resorts in the world but if a private jet to Aspen is a bit rich, there’s plenty of other ways to hit the slopes.
Instead, take the two-hour Winter Park Express from Union Station in downtown Denver to the powder slopes of the Winter Park Resort (weekends and selected Fridays during the winter season). You get off the train on a heated platform, walk 100 metres to the nearest ski lift and go. Usually leaving the city at 7am with return trips leaving the slopes at 4:30pm (though always check the current timetables), the scenic trip skips traffic and makes a ski day doable for a fare starting at US$29 each way.
Don’t think Denver is just a winter playground. If you haven’t done the mountains in spring or summer, you’re missing a trick.
Instead, trade in the snow shoes for hiking boots – or cruisy sandals. In warm months, the city thrums with outdoor cinemas and farmers’ markets set up in squares and City Park Jazz on Sunday evenings from June through to the beginning of August. The surrounding Rockies transform into an electric green, alpine-scented hiking and biking heaven. An easy 90-minute drive northwest of town, explore wildflower-splattered meadows, staggering peaks and canyons, thundering waterfalls and glass-top lakes inside the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Don’t get hung up on stadium tickets. Coors Field ballpark is where to catch local heroes the Colorado Rockies in the major league baseball from February through September. But if you miss out on tickets, do not despair.
Instead, see an open-air show at the prehistoric Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, 24 kilometres west of town. Here, two sandstone monoliths, both taller than Niagara Falls, soar above a rocky cut-out, creating the only acoustically perfect naturally-formed amphitheatre in the world. As the rocks glow crimson at sunset, catch concerts, gigs and stand-up comedy.
Don’t, under any circumstance, dodge the food courts. Bain-maries of bad news are not how Denver does it.
Instead, visit one of the city’s dining halls. Populated by luminaries of the locavore scene, Food Halls are the way to graze the best of Denver dining. There are a lot of them but The Source Hotel + Market Hall in RiNo is a top pick. In a converted 19th-century foundry, this complex houses 25 culinary artisans, from Mexican cantina Comida and an all-Americana small-plate specialist called Acorn to bakeries and rooftop bar The Woods, where sour beer comes matched with food and mountain views. Also watch out for the Denver Central Market’s new outpost at Denver International Airport (the original market is on Larimer Street, downtown).