“You’re going to Denver in the winter?” This question, asked with eyebrows raised, was a phrase I heard several times while planning a trip to Denver in February. I soon learned that anyone lobbing this inquiry my way had never been to Denver and was operating under that assumption that the city, set high in the Rockies where snow swirls and mountain goats hoof beneath thick wooly coats, is pretty darn cold in the winter.
It’s not. Compared to my native land, New Jersey, Denver was a temperate sun-soaked paradise in February. The city, in fact, has 300 days of sunshine per year — more than Miami or San Diego. Winter temperatures of 50 or even 60 degrees are not unusual. Denver summers, with low humidity and comfortable temperatures, are even better. (That said, you could also be surprised by the occasional spring snowstorm. We advise packing layers no matter the time of year.)
The local weather feels delightful, but Denver’s lofty elevation can have a noticeable effect on a traveler. Due to the thinner and drier air, one might feel light-headed, or experience headaches or nausea. To remedy these troubles, the Denver Tourism Board recommends that visitors drink plenty of water and eat foods rich in potassium. My advice? Put away a few locally brewed cold ones and your body will forget that it’s a mile above sea level.
Denver brews more beer than any other American city, with more than 100 breweries in the area. Denver’s largest beer producer is the famous Coors Brewery (it’s technically located in nearby Golden, Colorado), which offers free tours and beer samples. But the best brews can be found at locally owned pubs, which whip up flavorful batches that are unique to the Mile-High City.
Beyond fantastic beer and an abundance of sunshine, Denver offers a youthful local culture, an array of innovative restaurants and proximity to the Rockies, where untold outdoor adventures await. Denver’s an ideal hub for a hybrid kind of vacation — a trip centered on city attractions as well as the great outdoors. Dine on gourmet locally sourced foods in electric neighborhoods by night, and ski the powdery slopes of Breckenridge or hike Rocky Mountain National Park by day.
You’ll definitely need a car if you’re interested in planning day trips outside of Denver. Travelers staying within the city can get from A to B by train or bus — or use their feet. It’s almost impossible to get lost walking in Denver, which is laid out in a boxy grid.
The Denver Art Museum, also known as the DAM, is renowned for its collection of Native American art, featuring not only local pieces but works of art from dozens of tribes across North America. Additionally, major collections of 20th-century art, Asian art, African art, photography and other works are on display in the museum. DAM also hosts numerous visiting exhibitions.
Right next door to DAM is a museum dedicated to one of the country’s most influential Abstract Expressionists. The Clyfford Still Museum is home to about 95 percent of Still’s works, which range from monumental abstract paintings to smaller sketches and studies. Downstairs is information about Still’s life and work; upstairs, the galleries proceed chronologically, showing Still’s progression from representational work to pure abstraction.
The first U.S. zoo to incorporate nature-inspired habitats instead of cages, the Denver Zoo is a historic treasure set in Denver’s City Park. Most of the enclosures you’ll see look the same as those built in the early 20th century. Plan ahead and take advantage of the zoo’s many special exhibits, feedings and events, which vary seasonally. You can find a full list of happenings at DenverZoo.org. The zoo is one of the area’s most visited attractions, so expect crowds on most weekends when the weather is nice.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is a paradise for fun-seeking families. There are parents, strollers, teens and tots wandering the place’s wide hallways, absorbing wisdom about all things science. Youngsters love the big and entertaining exhibits, which include tons of giant dinosaur skeletons and real Egyptian mummies. If those things sound interesting to you, a mature adult, don’t be afraid to unleash your inner kid and spend an afternoon taking photos in front of a massive T-Rex skull or watching an IMAX film about endangered species. Since the museum is located within walking distance of the Denver Zoo in City Park (the largest park in the Mile-High City), visiting both is a convenient and fun way to spend a day.
“Lush” isn’t a word one would necessarily ascribe to Denver, a dry, high city that has less water vapor in the air than most U.S. towns. But spend some time in the enormous greenhouse at the Denver Botanic Gardens on York Street and you’ll find yourself instantly transported to a dewy tropical climate, where the air is thick with moisture, and plants of every shape, size and color crowd closely in beautiful gardens. You’ll feel your skin warm under the greenhouse’s magnified sun rays as you walk among tropical flowers, waterfalls and orange trees (no matter what season it is).
Incredible mountain landscapes lure nature lovers from all over the world to Rocky Mountain National Park. More than 100 lakes reflect blue sky and snowcapped mountain peaks in the gorgeous park, and you might even spot wildlife like black bears, cougars and big horn sheep. The park is less than a two-hour drive from Denver.
The Tattered Cover Book Store is Denver’s best-known independent bookshop, where community book clubs gather and the friendly staff provides personalized service. Stop by one of Tattered Cover’s four Denver locations to pick up a new read, attend an author reading or grab a cup of coffee and a bite to eat in the cafe.
The Colorado State Capitol is the storied site where elected officials govern the great Centennial State — but it’s also Denver’s number-one spot for touristy photos. Thousands of visitors climb the building’s west steps to pose for snapshots while standing exactly one mile above sea level (the step that marks the mile spot is labeled). During the week, free tours are available of the State Capitol building, but it’s closed on Saturdays and Sundays.
A popular stop for art lovers is the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has no permanent collection but hosts a regular slate of provocative visiting exhibitions.
The Byers-Evans House Museum is a Victorian mansion that’s open for tours. The beautifully maintained house offers an alluring glimpse into the early 20th century. Rooms are outfitted in period furnishings from 1912 through 1924. The mansion, which is preserved by the Colorado Historical Society, also houses an art gallery featuring works from local artists.
Curvy roads and sheer mountain drops delight (and sometimes terrify) travelers who drive the Mount Evans Scenic Byway. From Denver, it’s roughly a two-hour drive to the byway, a destination we recommend only for those who are comfortable with heights. (Note that due to snow, it’s only open in the warmer months.) The 28-mile-long Mount Evans Scenic Byway is the highest paved road in the country, reaching a staggering elevation of 14,264 feet. The views are tremendous. And you might spot a big horn sheep or a mountain goat while you’re up there.
A 20-minute drive from Denver to Morrison, Colorado, will get you to Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where open-air concerts take place in the navel of a giant geologically formed mass of sandstone. You can buy concert tickets at RedRocksOnline.com — but if you’re not interested in attending a performance, a quick drive to the venue is nevertheless a worthwhile trip. Hiking, biking and horseback riding trails snake through the surrounding lands, there are plenty of perfect picnic spots, and there’s a visitor center with a restaurant. Note that the amphitheater may be closed to the public on concert days, so check ahead before visiting.
You know you’re really in the Wild West when you find yourself face to face with a group of American bison. Grab your camera and head to the Buffalo Herd Nature Preserve (take exit 254 from I-70, about 20 miles west of Denver), where the descendants of the United States’ last wild buffalo herd roam in their natural habitat.
Denver isn’t exactly a ski resort town — the nearest slopes are 67 miles from the city. But that doesn’t mean Denver’s not an excellent base for a Rocky Mountain ski trip! For a unique winter city escape with a side of snowy slopes, take a day trip from Denver to one of several surrounding resorts. You’ll have to be in the car for a few hours, but the drive through Colorado’s scenic mountain terrain is simply stunning. Winter Park, Copper Mountain Resort and Breckenridge are just a few of the resorts that are about a two-hour drive from Denver’s city center.
Take a 20-minute trip to Golden, Colorado, a Denver suburb, to explore the world’s largest single-site brewery — Coors Brewery. Here, free tours are on offer, as well as — you guessed it — complimentary samples of just-made beer. Visitors of the legal drinking age are welcome to relax in the designated “fresh beer room” with a post-tour brewsky. Guests must be at least 21 years of age to enjoy samples. (Don’t forget to bring your ID.)
Buffalo Bill’s final resting place is located in Golden, Colorado, where the Buffalo Bill Museum & Grave pays homage to one of the most iconic figures of the American Wild West. The museum features exhibits on the life of Bill (with plenty of hands-on displays to keep kids entertained), and there’s also a gift shop and a cafe on site. The Lookout Mountain Nature Center, a great spot for hiking, is adjacent to the museum.
The Celestial Seasonings factory, located in Boulder, is heaven on earth for tea devotees. Take a free 45-minute “Tour of Tea” to learn about the history of tea and observe how it’s made and packaged. As every good factory tour should, Celestial Seasonings gives an abundance of free samples to visitors.
Steakhouses and microbrews are the stuff of Denver legend. The city’s well known for its juicy slabs of steak and locally made beer. But there’s such a wide variety of restaurants and cuisine on offer in Denver, it would be tragic to stick with steakhouses alone. Be sure to branch out and have a meal at a farm-to-table restaurant (Fruition’s a great one) or a sassy Denver diner while in town.
Larimer Square’s upscale Rioja serves Mediterranean-inspired cuisine — with a surprising local twist. Blown-glass light fixtures and a blood-red wall of wine supply the ambience. Chef Jennifer Jasinski supplies the tasty dishes, such as artichoke tortelloni and scallops with eggplant spanakopita. Local foods are featured in many dishes, and while meat and fish are the stars, some quality vegetarian options are available.
Snooze is a Denver institution. On Saturday and Sunday mornings, lines of hungry patrons snake around the block at each of Snooze’s three Denver locations. But don’t let the long lines scare you away. While you’re waiting, you can grab a breakfast cocktail at the bar or enjoy a hot cup of coffee on the house. And when it’s finally your turn to be seated, you’ll be faced with some tough choices — so you might want to take a look at the menu while you stand around. Breakfast tacos or pineapple upside-down pancakes? Hash browns covered with cheese or a soft pretzel egg sandwich?
At Euclid Hall Bar & Grill in Larimer Square, American pub food mingles with rich European dishes. On the menu, you’ll find chicken and waffles listed alongside foie gras and beef short rib kielbasa. Be sure to save room for dessert.
Sam’s No. 3 is the diner of diners. Think milkshakes, big baskets of greasy fries, an extensive breakfast menu (served all day, of course) and plenty of counter seating. Sam’s was featured on television’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” — a fact that draws many a Food Network fan to the downtown Denver restaurant (there’s also a Sam’s in Aurora, Colorado).
Simple, understated decor lends a homey ambience to Fruition Restaurant, a farm-to-table eatery that serves locally grown foods. A simple one-page dinner menu offers well-prepared meat, fish and vegetarian entrees. The food is unpretentious, fresh and delicious. This popular restaurant fills up (especially on weekends), so make your reservation in advance.
Located in LoDo, Aloy Modern Thai is brand-new on the Denver restaurant scene but has already made a name for itself by serving what one of the owners calls “Mom’s recipes with a modern twist.” This includes familiar favorites like pad Thai and some of the best tom kha soup we’ve ever had.
Little India serves up curries, kormas and other classic Indian dishes in several locations around Denver. The restaurants are run by two Indian families and include a popular lunchtime buffet.
Join Denver’s young and trendy set for vegetarian fare at City, O’ City, located just a few blocks from the Capitol and the Denver Art Museum. The menu ranges from “burgers” made of quinoa and pinto beans to pumpkin curry pasta and Waldorf pizza with apples, walnuts, arugula and blue cheese. Gluten-free options are available.
Shopping in Denver
In and around Denver, shopping options range from indoor malls to trendy city neighborhoods where boutiques and restaurants flourish. Where should you head for the best shopping opportunities? It all depends on what you’re looking for. Luxurious, rare goods like handmade jewelry or fine wines are best hunted in the Cherry Creek North Shopping District or Larimer Square. Budget-friendly finds are the star at Colorado Mills, an outlet mecca set in the Denver suburbs. The most popular place to spend some cash in Denver is the 16th Street Mall, a bustling area where crowds and street performers mingle.
The 16th Street Mall lures hordes of visitors with its colorful agglomeration of shops and restaurants. There’s always something interesting going on at the picture-perfect pedestrian mall, which is brilliantly lit with thousands of sparkling lights at night and features a bounty of street performers singing ballads or performing dance routines by day. Blow your budget at hundreds of stores along the mall. Watch the crowds go by while you eat at one of the mall’s dozens of outdoor cafes. Tired of walking? Hop on the free shuttle, the MallRide bus, which travels from one end of the mall to the other.
An upscale indoor mall set in one of Denver’s more exclusive neighborhoods, the Cherry Creek Shopping Center (also known as the Cherry Creek Mall) houses more than 160 shops and restaurants, including major department stores like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, and a movie theater. During warmer months, you’ll find fresh local produce at the Cherry Creek Farmer’s Market, a huge outdoor market that opens in the parking lot of Bed Bath & Beyond on Saturdays.
Not to be confused with the Cherry Creek Mall, the Cherry Creek North Shopping District is a 16-block area brimming with upscale shops and restaurants, including boutiques, day spas, jewelry stores and wine shops. While there are several chain restaurants and stores here, there are enough unique-to-Denver spots to give visitors an experience different from one that they would have at their local mall.
Do you live for the thrill of the sale? Or maybe you just need a new pair of pants and don’t want to pay half a month’s rent for designer jeans. If so, Colorado Mills, set in Lakewood, Colorado (it’s roughly a 15-minute drive from Denver’s city center), is the place for you. Factory stores, outlets and seasonal clearances abound here — and Colorado Mills is a sublime day-trip destination for travelers on the hunt for deals. There are more than 200 brand-name factory and outlet stores in this shopping center, including Neiman Marcus Last Call, Gap Factory and NIKE Factory Store.
Historic, hip Larimer Square is the prime place to find fashionable restaurants and unusual gifts in Denver. The one-block concentration of sophisticated stores, clubs and restaurants is a popular spot for evening entertainment as well as daytime shopping. Keep in mind that you’ll need reservations at most restaurants in “the Square” (as the locals call it).