If you’ve ever skied in Colorado, chances are you know “Blucifer” – the demonic blue horse statue with glowing red eyes at Denver international airport.
For years, this bizarre Mustang sculpture at the transit hub between ski slopes was the most Aussie travellers knew about Denver. The sparse industrial sprawl beyond the runway never seemed worth more than a passing wave through circular windows of a Dash-8 headed to Aspen.
If you did stay over downtown, then it was a lap or two around Cherry Creek Mall to ward off the jet lag with some retail therapy and that was about it.
But those times have changed. Denver is officially hip, happening and the hottest city in the USA.
The Mile High City (as Denver is nicknamed for its altitude) is literally on the up – it’s the second-fastest growing city in the US after Austin, Texas. The Colorado capital’s stagnating economic situation has transformed in an urban renaissance over the past decade.
Denver is even being dubbed “the new San Fran” for sunny skies and a booming tech start-up scene drawing parallels to Silicon Valley – albeit with a much lower cost of living and outdoor lifestyle close to the mountains.
“Denver is Old West history meets casual cool with great restaurants, bars, museums and parks. It always sunny so you’ll spend most of the year outside,” says Kristin Rust, Vice President of Communications at Alterra Mountain Co, and Denver native for more than 50 years.
Rust isn’t exaggerating – Denver claims an average 300 days of sunshine every year, and hordes of new restaurants open every month (24 opened in October alone). It’s also America’s youngest city, with the nation’s lowest median age of just 34.
Denver restaurants have begun to attach the word “elevated” to everything from steak sandwiches to salt-rimmed cocktails. They’re not referring to the altitude, or the effects of legal cannabis in Colorado, but a legitimately high-class dining scene developing in the city.
Pizza is a winter favourite. The newest and among the tastiest Neapolitan-style slices are baked in a trendy, remodelled muffler-shop-turned restaurant called Benzina (gasoline in Italian) or The Greenwich in the RiNo precinct for New York style pizza with a gourmand twist.
Feeling fancy? Book ahead for Beckon (also in RiNo), the intimate chef’s counter has limited space but you’ll be rewarded with degustation tasting menus for the fine dining lover. You’ll find the team in a cute as a button old world bungalow. Thank us later.
Impress your mates with a night out at The Wolf’s Tailor. The menu changes constantly and focuses on a binchotan grill, woodfire oven and clay pots in an inspired blend of Japan meets Italy. Some produce is grown and milled on site and while we could wax lyrical about the dishes, they are really only understood when by those that go.
Mexican is, of course, a sure bet – whether from a taco truck like Kiké’s Red Tacos or a legendary torta shop like ATM. And if you enjoy food trucks, be sure to check out the many food market halls that offer drinking, dining, shopping – sometimes even hotel rooms – under one roof.
Of course, you can’t make an authentic visit to the US without chowing down on the cheap in a typical American diner. Kristin Rust tips visiting Pete’s Kitchen – an original that opened in 1962 and has become a landmark on the colourful, vibrant main street of Colfax Avenue.
Nor can you walk away from the US of A without experiencing “barbecue”. Hit up Pit Fiend Barbecue, also in RiNo, for brisket, spare ribs, quesadillas, burgers, smoked zucchini, mac and cheese and all things Americano.
The first permanent building in Denver wasn’t a home, a church, or a post office; it was a saloon. More than 150 years since gold prospectors established the town, Denverites still love their beer. Tours of renowned Coors Brewery – the largest single brewing site in the world – start from US$20. But you can also try more than 150 smaller and micro-breweries across the metro area. Follow the Denver Beer Trail to plot your route.
Speakeasys and hidden bars are flourishing in Denver, though you must have to work to find them. The cosy and mysterious B&GC in Cherry Creek might be the most authentic; reservations highly recommended and you can only make them by texting the number on the website. Williams and Graham is another prohibition-style space in an old book store with handcrafted cocktails in an intimate atmosphere.
The rooftop bar of The Red Barber, perched above the Catbird Hotel, has gorgeous 360-degree city and mountain views (plenty of snow to see in winter).
You’ll find the uber cool Death & Co in the hippest hotel in Denver, The Ramble. Filled with high ceilings, textured furnishings, moody chandeliers and arched mirrors, it just oozes cocktail class.
As for Rust, our insider and Denver native, she recommends the below:
“The Cruise Room in The Oxford Hotel is a trip back in time to cruise ship days and coup glasses. The Cooper Lounge in Union Station offers a gorgeous view of Union Station and fancy cocktails. Ship’s Tavern in The Brown Palace – great place to drink all day in one of the most beautiful hotels in the country.”
Where to stay
The best areas to sleepover are downtown LoDo for restaurants and bars plus being able to walk to almost everything; River North Arts District (“RiNo”) for boutique hotels and the nightlife on weekends; or Cherry Creek, an upscale shopping and dining area further from town but great for business, luxury, or families.
Perhaps the most iconic stay is Crawford Hotel – situated right above Denver’s historic Union Station, the cultural hub of the city that has just emerged from a glowing US$500 million facelift.
Denver’s coolest new boutique hotel is Thompson Denver by Hyatt, which opened in February 2022 in the trendy LoDo (short for “lower downtown”) district. This is a supreme location just a short walk to historic Union Station and buzzy bars and restaurants.
Chic and sophisticated are probably the best words to describe the plush rooms; however arguably the highlight of staying here is tasting the French-styled Colorado produce of restaurant Chez Maggy. It’s the brainchild of Michelin-starred chef Ludo Lefebvre and has been receiving rave reviews all year.
The Slate Hotel is another new choice, which opened May 2022 in the heart of downtown. It’s right next to the Colorado Convention Centre, Art Museum and nearby Ball Arena – great for sports fans hoping to catch an ice hockey match featuring local team Colorado Avalanche.
Things to see and do
Larimer Square is the cultural and creative heart of Denver and worth a stroll through the milieu it attracts. Post-pandemic, the historic block and nearby Union Station have turned into a pedestrian-only hub bustling with new restaurants and great shopping, umami street food nibbles, plus a year-round farmer’s market.
Denver is a sporting capital, with local team the Colorado Avalanche the current reigning national ice hockey champions. Catch them in action when you stop over on a ski trip – their schedule runs throughout winter.
If you’re lucky enough to score tickets, American football team the Denver Broncos play at horseshoe-shaped Mile High Stadium. Baseball team the Colorado Rockies play at Coors Field downtown.
It can surprise international visitors to know Denver is known for its art scene. Every month you can experience it among thousands of others on popular First Friday Art Walks through the Art District on Santa Fe (ADSF) between 5.30-9.30pm.
Denver Art Museum is a must-visit; especially since its US$150 million renovation and reopening in October 2021. And lately, immersive art has been in vogue. The most popular new installation is the trippy, four-storey immersive exhibition called Meow Wolf, which is like a psychedelic fair ride with art from 300 creatives.
Good news for skiers is the slopes are close: Keystone and Araphoe-Basin (A-Basin to locals) are just over two hours’ drive away, so can be done in a day if you’re keen. Getting to family-friendly Winter Park is as easy as hopping on a two-hour train.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a 1.5-hour drive north of Denver, and worth a visit if you have time for its stunning topography, hikes, alpine lakes and wildlife.
The best day-trip, though, might be a 35-minute jaunt to Denver’s unofficial sister city of Boulder. This is a vibrant student town, home to University of Colorado, with a safe atmosphere but lively nightlife centred on trendy breweries and distilleries (Our Mutual Friend is a favourite).
Local Boulder insider and former Denverite Esthur Checksfield recommends a lazy afternoon chai at the architecturally dazzling, immediately stress-detoxifying Dushanbe Tea House.