12 ways Denver will surprise you

BELOW THE RADAR of everyday press coverage flies the fact that Denver is booming in 2017. Resting between the skyscrapers of downtown and towering mountains to the west, the Colorado capital is a thriving cultural hub rivaling cities on both US coasts. The music scene is alive and well, and the outdoors-y vibe on our streets gives Denver a personality all its own. Not to spoil the surprise, but hey — a city like this is worthy of a dive beneath the surface.

1. Denver Union Station isn’t just a train station.

Union Station Denver

Denver Union Station. Photo: Scott Dressel-Martin

For someone born and raised here, nothing sparks a fire of hometown pride quite like Denver Union Station. This once was a place that performed one very basic function: getting train travelers in, out, and on their way. The station first opened in 1881, underwent a remodel in 1914, and served primarily Amtrak passengers and, in more recent decades, skiers heading to Winter Park. So it went until 2014, when the doors of Denver Union Station opened again to reveal a massive facelift.

The standard high-back bench seats gave way to a lounge area complete with shuffleboard and seating that’s actually comfortable, all served by a bustling lounge dubbed Terminal Bar — yes, with Colorado craft brews on tap. The station now hosts The Crawford Hotel, a diverse collection of restaurants — including Stoic & Genuine and The Kitchen Next Door — the Tattered Cover Book Store, Cooper Lounge, and more. It’s possible to spend hours here without getting bored. If ever there was a place to escape without ever leaving the city, it’s Denver Union Station.

2. The legends you’ve heard about Red Rocks totally undersell it.

Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre must be seen to be believed. As the most stunning concert venue on the planet, it hosts the world’s best musicians for 130+ nights of unforgettable shows each year. Nowhere else will you find a roster that includes Tom Petty, Dave Chappelle, and Kings of Leon — with the Denver skyline, Rocky Mountain foothills, and more than 9,500 screaming fans cementing the night into your memory. Be sure to bring your camera.

But that’s just on the inside. Outside the walls of the amphitheater are an amalgam of hiking trails, a music museum, and the best tailgate scene this side of a Broncos game.

3. It’s hip to be at Larimer Square.

Denver Larimer Square

Larimer Square. Photo: Evan Semón

If you’re looking to relax and check out Denver’s extensive history, Larimer Square is the place to be. Denver’s oldest block — birthed by the Gold Rush and where, later, figures like Jack Kerouac were known to prowl — is also its most vibrant. You can really make a day of it here — contemporary boutiques and clothing shops are a highlight, as is some of the city’s best dining. Or take in some people watching while sipping a cocktail on the patio at Corridor 44. After dark, the Crimson Room is the place for jazz.

The nation’s top stand-up comics perform here at Comedy Works, and no shortage of celebrities have been spotted enjoying a late-night meal in Larimer Square. The city’s light rail will get you downtown from just about anywhere in the metro area, and Larimer Square is an easy jaunt from the 16th Street Mall or Denver Union Station.

4. There are 100 craft breweries in the metro area.

Denver Beer Company

Denver Beer Co. Photo: Evan Semón

Okay, I lied. This statement is false. There are actually more than 100 craft breweries in the metro area. Denver has really embraced its beer culture. In fact, Governor John Hickenlooper got his start here by co-founding the now legendary Wynkoop Brewing Company, our original brewpub, across the street from Denver Union Station back in 1988. These days, finding amazing craft beer is commonplace — breweries are located everywhere from century-old buildings to quirky urban spaces.

If you’re not sure where to start, the Denver Beer Trail will put you on a path to success. The guide to some of the city’s best brews is downloadable and serves as a self-guided liquid tour of historical buildings and sights throughout Denver. Note that many brewpubs specialize in certain styles, so it never hurts to do a little advance googling. If you’re looking for some solid recommendations, Tivoli Brewing is Colorado’s oldest and most historic; Denver Beer Co. has one of the largest patios in the city; and Prost Brewing comes right out of the heart of Bavaria.

5. What are you into? We’ve got a museum for that.

The Golden Triangle neighborhood is the backbone of Denver’s art scene, and its anchor is the Denver Art Museum — one of the most recognizable buildings in the city. The museum houses an impressive collection of Western American art to complement other standing exhibits showcasing American Indian art, colonial-era standouts, and contemporary masterpieces.

The Denver Art Museum manages to keep locals coming back again and again with a stellar lineup of traveling exhibitions. This summer, see innovative installations by Latino artists at Mi Tierra: Contemporary Artists Explore Place, and in October, Her Paris: Women Artists in the Age of Impressionism comes to town.

This is impressive enough, but we’re not done yet. The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art will be re-opening in early 2018 after a significant expansion, adding another dose of flare to the campus. At the Clyfford Still Museum, across the street from the Denver Art Museum, you can peruse the most celebrated work from one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism. A bit of insider knowledge: Admission is free on the final Friday of every month. Wink, wink.

6. Street art is defining contemporary Denver.

Love this City Denver

RiNo – River North Art District. Photo: Evan Semón

With the influx of artists to the city, street art is more prevalent than ever. This is particularly true in the River North (RiNo) neighborhood and the Art District on Santa Fe. A haven for musicians, artists, and brewers, these districts stray from the appearance of other parts of the city by prioritizing commissioned murals over chic, empty building sides.

The best-known pieces are the Love This City murals, created by pro snowboarder and artist Pat Milbery. His work reflects the artist’s strong local pride, as well as the art scene that’s an increasingly large part of Denver’s culture. The murals can be found in three neighborhoods:

  • Art District on Santa Fe (7th and Santa Fe Drive)
  • RiNo (River North Art District, Broadway and Arapahoe)
  • Golden Triangle (12th and Bannock)

Also worth checking out:

  • The “Larimer Boy” and “Larimer Girl,” found at 2732 Larimer Street. Hint: You’ll have to walk by this one twice.
  • “The Mermaid,” eye-catching colors at 9th and Santa Fe.
  • “Smiling Boy,” part of a whole row of murals in the alley between Inca Street and Santa Fe Drive.

7. Amusement parks can be in the middle of downtown.

Elitch Gardens and Theme Park

Photo: Garrett W. Ellwood for Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park

“Not to See Elitch’s Is Not to See Denver.” So says the sign outside the front gate of Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park. Since moving downtown in 1994, the park’s famous Twister II and Sidewinder rollercoasters, along with the 250-foot Observation Tower, have become staples of the city’s skyline. Elitch’s, as it’s known around town, is a place to see and be seen during the summer months. The park has a full gamut of thrill rides (like the new Star Flyer), games, entertainment (how about that guy who plays 15 instruments by himself!?), and several options for food and drink. A connected waterpark is available to cool off on hot days.

Go in the early morning to get a full day in, or avoid the lines and head over in the evening. A local’s hint: A great time to visit the park is on weekends throughout October. The kids are back at school — meaning shorter lines — and nowhere else in Denver celebrates Halloween quite like Elitch Gardens.

8. The Old West lives side by side with the New West.

National Western Stock Show Denver

National Western Stock Show & Rodeo. Photo: DT

You might have already heard about Denver’s significant growth over the past 30 years. With the revitalization of Denver Union Station, a budding tech and entrepreneurial sector, and thriving brewery and arts districts, one may be led to believe our city is all new and modern. But the heart of the Old West still beats strong here. Each year in January, the National Western Stock Show & Rodeo takes over town for nearly three weeks. With it comes cowboys, rodeos, and the famous National Western Stock Show Parade.

The rest of the year, Denver’s Western roots are celebrated at the legendary Rockmount Ranch Wear on 16th and Wazee. Founder Jack A. Weil invented the snap shirt, now a staple in contemporary Western fashion. This revolutionary piece of clothing has become quite a hot item, with rock stars, movie stars, and the occasional professional athlete popping in to buy one. It’s perhaps the best way to honor the prospectors and cowboys who created makeshift settlements along the South Platte River and became Denver’s first permanent residents.

9. Yes, we can actually do fashion.

Cherry Creek North Visit Denver

Cherry Creek North. Photo: Visit Denver

Cherry Creek Shopping Center may be the state’s most renowned shopping mall, but the district surrounding it is also flush with boutiques. Cherry Creek North offers the same posh retail experience, but with a heavy dose of Colorado thrown in.

Namely, the fresh air. Denver’s high altitude air is a welcome setting for exploring the boutique shops in the area, like Show of Hands and Spinster Sisters Co. Also on show is ample proof that, contrary to popular belief, Coloradans can dress up on occasion. Don’t tell that to any fashion bloggers, though — we’re fine with our laid-back image. To feel like a true Denverite, stop into the Cherry Cricket for happy hour and a burger to round out the day.

10. You don’t have to go to the Rockies to escape.

Denver Lush Garden

Denver Botanic Gardens. Photo: Visit Denver

Denver Botanic Gardens is a lush oasis in the city, and perhaps the most tranquil space there is Sho-Fu-En. This traditional Japanese garden has a stunning array of plant life, with the central focus naturally shifting from season to season. If you find yourself needing to momentarily step away from the hustle and bustle of the city, there isn’t a better spot to do so.

Adding to the beauty and allure of the gardens is a selection of traveling showcases in which renowned artists, decorators, and scientific exhibits highlight the beautiful scenery. This, in addition to the four distinct seasons we experience in Denver, keeps locals and tourists coming back again and again — the Gardens always offer something new. Exhibits this year include works by Alexander Calder in Calder: Monumental, a display of sculptures formed out of bolted steel plates that still somehow manage to capture the curves and flow of nature.

11. Broadway’s second home is right here.

Denver Performing Arts Complex

Denver Performing Arts Complex. Photo: Geoff Livingston

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts is a regular host of Broadway shows fresh from New York. The largest tenant of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, the DCPA brings premiere theatre productions from around the world into its collection of venues. Experiencing a concert, ballet, or theater production inside the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, with its plush red seats and high ceilings, is an unforgettable night.

This coming season at the DCPA promises to be a good one — and not just because we’ll see the world premiere of Frozen: The Musical. There’s something for everyone: The Colorado Symphony Orchestra plays regularly at Boettcher Concert Hall, the country’s first in-the-round concert hall when it opened in 1978; Hamilton (yes, that Hamilton) will take over the Buell Theatre February 27 – April 1 next year; and for fans of Jack Black, School of Rock: The Musical is coming to the Buell, May 29 – June 10, 2018.

12. Dinosaurs are everywhere.

This is readily apparent from your first steps inside the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — my earliest school field trip memory is of being greeted by the giant T-Rex skeleton as I walked into the museum for the first time. The Prehistoric Journey exhibit is like nothing else in the country, to the point of almost being intimidating. Dinosaurs do battle in front of you, some fossils are actually touchable, and you can watch scientists work in the lab. This fall, the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit will hit the museum as well.

Across City Park, Denver Zoo hosts 19 animatronic life-size dinosaurs this summer for the DINOS! Live exhibit. Finally, a chance to solve that lingering curiosity of how an elephant stacks up against a Suchomimus. Beyond the museum and zoo circuit, Dinosaur Ridge out by Red Rocks offers some cool fossil viewing and a moderately intense uphill bike ride for those up to the challenge.

And to round out the list, the Colorado Rockies mascot is a giant purple dinosaur (not the one you’re thinking of — this one’s name is Dinger) who “hatched” in the outfield before a game back in 1994. It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?

What to do in Denver

Denver is burning up. And, no, it has nothing to do with its 300 days of annual sunshine. Between award-winning chefs, secret-box-making artists, polyethnic cajun slamgrass bands, canned wine, and a historic brick foundry turned open-air market, Denver is a place where — perhaps more so than anywhere else in America — creative people are encouraged, sponsored, and enthusiastically celebrated. If you’re visiting for the first time, there’s a lot to do, but here’s a quick rundown of things to do and see.

Editor’s note: These spots are all taken directly from travelstoke®, a new app from Matador that connects you with fellow travelers and locals, and helps you build trip itineraries with spots that integrate seamlessly into Google Maps and Uber. Download the app to add any of the spots below directly to your future trips.

Cherry Creek Bike Trail

 Cherry Creek Bike PathDenver, United StatesWind your way through the city’s history on the Cherry Creek Bike Path.

You’ll see a few shades of Denver on the Cherry Creek Trail, all while traversing the city from the downtown southeast along the creek past ritzy shopping districts, neighborhoods, and homeless camps. The trail crosses under several of the city’s big thoroughfares, making it a popular part of biking home after a night of partying downtown.

Denver Art scene.

The African art gallery in the Denver Art Museum's Hamilton Building. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

The African art gallery in the Denver Art Museum’s Hamilton Building. Photo courtesy of Denver Art Museum

The Denver Art Museum has put itself smack dab in the middle of the map. Or rather, the museum’s director, Christoph Heinrich, put it on the map with his notable exhibits, bringing national attention to the thriving art scene right here in The Mile High City.

Exhibits under Heinrich have included Yves Saint Laurent: The Retrospective, celebrating the life and achievements of the most revolutionary fashion designer of the 20th century; Becoming Van Gogh, which introduced more than 60 public and private collections from Europe and North America; and Brilliant: Cartier in the 20th Century, a Denver exclusive, organized by the museum to feature an array of objects created between 1900 and 1975 — think jewel-studded necklaces and watches so fancy you have to call them “timepieces.”

Of course, not all art lives in a gallery, so let’s not forget the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the nation’s largest nonprofit theater organization. It hosts no shortage of the shows you’ve heard about a hundred times, but never dreamed you’d make it to. Kids still humming “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” and dressing up like Elsa? Take them to see Frozen onstage before it even makes its debut on Broadway. Because believe it or not, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is actually one of the preferred destinations for Broadway tours in the nation. And yes, you can expect Hamilton here in 2017.

Willy’s Wings

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If you’re heading to Red Rocks or spending time in Morrison, people will likely tell you to stop by the Morrison Inn. That’s all well and good, but for amazing wings served alongside the road in a setting that doesn’t give a shit about modern trends, this little shack is as good as it gets.

Beau Jo’s

 Beau Jo’s Denver – University HillsDenver, United StatesMountain Pie, the long-running champion of Denver’s food scene.

Ever hear of Colorado style pizza? It’s as good as New York or Chicago as long as there’s plenty of honey. Get a mountain pie. Also, don’t skip the salad bar. The original location in Idaho Springs is the best place to fill up on the way back from skiing.

Washington Park

 Washington ParkDenver, United StatesDenver’s mini-Central Park. In the city, but big enough you can feel secluded.

Wash Park is an incredible place to people watch. On summer weekends, it fills up with lively, drunken volleyball matches, but throughout the week you’re likely to catch a glimpse of Denver’s best-looking joggers, tennis players, and even croquet hounds.

Get into the community spirit

collabfest

Collaboration Fest, Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Photo: Brewtography Project

Denver is like that rare kid who actually enjoys group projects. We even have a festival named for it. Collaboration Fest encompasses more than 75 collaborative and global beer projects, where each beer must be the delicious result of at least two breweries working together. And it’s followed by one heck of an after-party.

Other collaborations have brought us the 18-piece ensemble of Michal Menert Big Band as well as the foamy and frothy romance between New Belgium Brewing Company and Novo Coffee (coffee-cherry-infused beer, anyone?).

Govnr’s Park

 Govnr’s Park TavernDenver, United StatesThey say Denver is a city that loves its neighborhoods. To be more specific, it’s a city that loves its neighborhood pubs.

The neighborhoods of Denver are full of quirky dive bars and pubs like Govnr’s Park Tavern that, beyond the laid-back vibe and dress code of the city, have served to define Denver’s culture. Grab a bike and check out as many of them as you can. It seems as though everyone living in Cap Hill, Wash Park, or Governor’s Park has a bar they claim as home turf, but it’s not uncommon to float between a few of them on Broncos’ game days.

Denver’s music scene

denver music

Tickle Me Pink at Summit Music Hall. Photo: Stepan Mazurov

Everyone knows where John Denver got his name, but did you also know Earth, Wind & Fire’s singer Philip Bailey is a Denver native? And that’s just the beginning. There’s also Big Head Todd and Leftover Salmon, both of whom got their start in the area. And if those names alone aren’t interesting enough to make you buy an album, jam band Leftover Salmon describes their genre as “Polyethnic Cajun Slamgrass” — which is a fusion of bluegrass, rock, country, and cajun/zydeco. Sold on some slamgrass? Of course you are.

It doesn’t stop there. Denver bands like Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, The Lumineers, Tennis, DeVotchKa, Pretty Lights, The Motet, and Big Gigantic have been taking the world by musical storm. And you don’t have to head to Red Rocks to see killer shows by these artists (although you should if you get the chance). There are plenty of smaller venues in Denver to check out the local live music scene, especially in neighborhoods like South Broadway, LoDo, East Colfax, RiNo, and Five Points.

East Colfax

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It’s impossible to say you’ve been to Denver if you haven’t spent some time on Colfax. Many of the city’s most legendary bars, restaurants, music venues, and long-running mom and pop shops dot this legendary street. Park the car and walking around because odds are that you’ll wind up having some interesting conversations (and learning a thing or two about the city in the process).

Pete’s Kitchen

 Pete’s KitchenDenver, United StatesYou haven’t partied in Denver if you haven’t ended a night at Pete’s Kitchen.

If there is one place to go in Denver after the bar’s close, it’s Pete’s Kitchen. Open all night, shaving gyro meat right off the leg of a lamb in front of customers after they order, and always full of crazy characters. Not into gyros? It’s all good, they’ve got an extensive menu that includes everything you’d expect from a late night diner plus some special surprises.

Cherry Cricket

 Cherry CricketDenver, United StatesThe old standby for burgers in Denver.

Ask a Denverite where the best burger in town is, and Cherry Cricket will be the response. The Cricket, the dive-iest place in ritzy Cherry Creek North, has been around since 1945 and as long as I’ve known about it, has been considered a living legend. The burgers bring people in, but the solid beer selection and friendly staff keep them hanging around.

Shop local

Topo Designs

Photo: Topo Designs

Between a bounty of boutiques, shops, markets, cafes, and restaurants, you’d have more of a difficult time trying not to shop local here. Some local businesses to check out in Denver are Topo Designs, an American-made outdoor apparel, gear, and bag store that shapes their philosophy around mimicking the simplicity of nature in their merchandise; Spinster Sisters, which sells natural soaps and lotions; and Tattered Cover, a massive independent bookstore that hosts as many as 400 authors, illustrators, and other people-with-interesting-things-to-say every year.

Grocery shopping? Hit up The Source, an artisan food market that occupies an 1880s brick foundry; Denver Flea, which has anything and everything from magnetic cutting boards to homeopathic bath salts to honey sage biscuits; The Big Wonderful, bringing together art, music, and food (and drink!) in weekly markets in an effort to rejuvenate local neighborhoods; Stanley Marketplace, which is new this year and will feature roughly 50 independent local businesses in one space; Central Market, a collective of community-oriented food artisans (creating anything from ice cream to ramen to homemade pasta) that’s opening this year; and Horseshoe Market, which is the city’s prime spot for indie crafts and vintage goodies.

Denver craft culture

WHEN THINKING about Bohemian lifestyle in Colorado, Boulder is and always has been top-of-mind. But I’m here to argue that it’s the capital city up the 36 turnpike that is actually doing the most to support individual expression through craft culture, and here’s why.

The distillery movement is spreading like wildfire.

Governor John Hickenlooper, famous for opening the legendary Wynkoop Brewing across from Denver’s Union Station (and a stop on the wildly popular Denver Microbrew Tour) signed into law HB15-1204 on April 15, 2016. This monumental ruling effectively created a Distillery Pub License. Similar to a standard brew pub license, the law outlines and enforces the previously confusing and inefficient process of opening a distillery pub. Even before this, though, Denver became a hotbed for craft spirit lovers, with places such as Declaration Brewing Company, Chain Reaction, and Fiction Beer Company. The DSTILLfestival serves as the city’s grand tasting, while many smaller events happen throughout the city and region each year and there are dozens of tasting rooms in the Denver area to whet your whistle, often in repurposed old warehouses.

The city’s second Food Hall just opened.

The Denver Central Market joins Avanti Food and Beverage as the city’s freshest Euro-inspired haven for foodies and craft drinkers. Meat counters, gourmet chefs, a greengrocer, and more. Down in RiNo, The Preservery has taken the food hall concept a bit further, adding live music and a marketplace vibe. These three spots represent a culinary revolution for a city that many in the food world, including personal hero Anthony Bourdain, don’t seem to give much thought to.

There are now numerous locations for First Friday and to celebrate the city’s artistically inclined.

The Arts District on Santa Fe popularized the monthly arts walk gathering, which has been replicated in the RiNo Arts District and the burgeoning 40 West Arts District evolving along West Colfax Ave through Lakewood. The movement is thriving. Denver, in fact, collects more money per capita to support the arts than any other city in the country.
But the heart still beats from Santa Fe Drive. Food trucks, free wine (if you look hard enough), thousands of people, and just about every type of art imaginable are available en masse on the first Friday of every month.

Levitt Pavilion is coming to town.

I’ve written about Denver’s music scene for Matador many times. This summer, this already thriving part of our city’s culture will get even better with the opening of Levitt Pavilion in Ruby Hill Park. Featuring 50 free concerts each year, the non-profit outdoor amphitheater will give a new voice (and stage) to the city and increase the national attention that the music culture here is demanding.

Residents are willing to open their wallet to keep these movements going.
Voters overwhelmingly supported a measure to continue important funding for arts and culture in the city this past November. I haven’t heard any opposition to Hickenlooper’s plans for this.

Denver brews more beer than any other city, so raise a glass and drink up to a city that is working hard to show off its personality (and because we need to make some space in the walk-in cooler).