Denver: Stay and play on the way to the Rockies
By Tab Hauser
Located exactly one mile high and 20 miles east of the Rocky Mountains is the city of Denver. To many, Denver is just an
airport stop when heading to the mountains for skiing or summer adventures. Visitors to this area should consider spending a few days taking in the sites and tastes here. A Denver bonus is its 300 sunny days a year.
Culturally, the Mile High City has a lot to offer. This is because of its thriving economy and its 2.6 million metro area people. Denver has some top museums, the second largest performing arts center after Lincoln Center in New York, and a vibrant art scene featuring monthly art walks in fun neighborhoods.
The food in Denver is diverse and appreciated. The Michelin Guide people came to town in September of 2023 and awarded a star to three restaurants while recognizing another 26.
Golden Triangle Creative District
Located near the center of the city is one of Denver’s oldest neighborhoods known as the Golden Triangle Creative District.
It is a hub for 16 museums, galleries, and food that fits into a walkable triangle-shaped neighborhood. It also includes The Colorado State Capital and its distinct gold leaf dome.
The Denver Art Museum, or the DAM, is one of the largest art museums west of Chicago. It houses 70,000 pieces of art from all over the world and over many centuries. This includes the grand masters to the best of contemporary art.
There is also an outstanding collection of Native American Art. Overall there are 20 exhibits on over a dozen art disciplines covering 166,000 square feet. Allow three hours to all day depending on your interests. https://www.denverartmuseum.org/
All About Colorado
The History Colorado Center is the best way to understand the Rocky Mountain State under one roof. There are over twenty exhibits on four floors that tell the story of this part of the American West.
Exhibits include the state’s indigenous residents, Spain’s influence, minorities, skiing, mining, Dust Bowl history (with a reenactment in a little cabin), and photography.
I favored Colorado A-Z where each letter corresponded to something significant in the state’s history. There we saw the first-ever ski chair and learned that colored Christmas lights first came from Denver. Allow two hours for casual viewers. website
Denver’s Decorative Arts
The Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art specializes in decorative items as well as the works and studio of Vance Kirkland (1904 to 1981). The museum has over 4000 items on display. Visitors should watch the short video to get familiar with the place and Mr. Kirkland.
The International Decorative Arts section is displayed salon style in eight rooms. Each room has a different artistic period starting from the 1870’s to the present. The Colorado / Regional Collection has fine and decorative pieces from 700 regional artists. The Vance Kirkland Collection features his work in realism, surrealism, and abstraction.
In 2016, in a major rigging feat, Mr. Kirkland’s three-room studio was moved eight blocks and placed behind the museum.
It has been restored to 1911, including the sling that allowed him to hang over large canvases.
The studio, like those of Jackson Pollack, Georgio O’Keef, and NC Wyeth is part of the National Trust of Historic Preservation. A casual visitor should allow 90 minutes. https://www.kirklandmuseum.org/
Denver’s Unsinkable Molly Brown
The Molly Brown Museum was home to Margaret Brown. She is best known as the Heroine of the Titanic or later, as the unsinkable Molly Brown.
Her 7,000-square-foot house in Capital Hill was built in 1889. Its architectural style includes Queen Anne with Richardsonian Romanesque.
The Brown’s bought the house in 1894 for $30,000. (About $1 million in today’s dollars)
In 1970 Historic Denver, Inc. saved the house from neglect. Using research, original photos, and analyzing paint chips, the house was brought back to life as it was when Margaret lived there. It is decorated with her personal items as well as Victorian-era artifacts. It is listed under the National Register of Historic Places.
The Titanic incident that made her famous, helped her activism. This included women’s voting rights, conditions of working women, education and literacy for children, and preservation, as well as recognition of the chivalry of the men aboard the Titanic.
Reservations are needed for guided tours. Docents here discuss Mrs. Brown’s life, history, and some of her artifacts in a setting that shows how Denver’s wealthy lived at the time. http://www.mollybrown.org
Capitol Hill Historic Walk
The Capital Hill section of Denver is where the rich and powerful, socialites and captains of industry lived. The 90-minute, two-mile Capitol Hill Tour stops at 20 homes to discuss the architecture and history of the area along with its service workers.
Most of the homes and mansions viewed were from the Victorian Era dating back to the late 1800s.
The tour also included stops at old inns, mansions, and small art deco apartment buildings dating from the early 1900’s. Our volunteer guide, Leslie, could not have kept us better informed of the area. website
Meow Wolf is a 90,000-square-foot, four-story immersive art experience. It is a brightly colored wild mix of media including painting, sculpture, music, audio, and video.
Some of this is interactive. The place is full of shapes, little nooks, portals, and tunnels all put together by 300 local artists. Meow Wolf has three locations around the country, each with a different theme.
Denver’s Meow Wolf theme is a “Convergence Station which acts as a transport center for the Quantum Department of Transportation that links convergence of worlds to Earth.” While I did not get all of that walking around, I did like exploring the different rooms, corners, and large fantasy atrium spaces that were covered in bright colors and shapes.
Visitors in the know may want to get a swipe card to scan at different stations that help you on your journey in the Meow Mix cosmos.
Afterwards, take a break at their modern bar where drinks and a light menu are available. website
Something Fishy in Denver
A mile from Meow Wolf is the Denver Aquarium. This is a nice place to visit on a rainy day, with children, or if you enjoy marine life. Here you will find more than a million gallons of underwater exhibits. Near the center and spanning two floors is the main tank full of large fish, sharks, and rays. Fish tanks of all sizes are spread around with different themes.
Sections you pass on the one-way walk include North America (don’t miss the cute otters and six-foot minnows), coral reefs, life at a wharf, the rainforest, sea life at the beach, and a lagoon.
There is an impressive display of how a flash flood can take a hiker by surprise. Visitors get to feed shrimp to the small rays in the touch tank and can take in a 4D movie. The full-service restaurant has views of the large tank. http://www.aquariumrestaurants.com
Denver Graffiti Tour
Located in the RiNo Art District is the Denver Graffiti Tour. This is a two-hour / two-mile walk highlighting street art, murals, and graffiti. On tour, we learned about the artists, how the work changes, and about the evolving neighborhood. Besides the large pieces on the walls, our guide Jana pointed out many smaller or obscure pieces of art on the floors, lamp posts, restaurants, garage doors, or hidden away in aisles.
All tours start at the colorful “Love this City” Denver mural and are given on Saturdays and Sundays at 10 AM with additional times during the summer season. https://www.denvergraffititour.com/
Wings Over the Rockies is Denver’s air and space museum.
Look for the large eight-engine B-52 bomber with its 185-foot wing span at the entrance. Located inside Hanger 1 of the former Lowry Air Force Base is a collection of jets, airplanes, helicopters, spacecraft, historical artifacts, and dozens of other exhibits about flight and its history.
The largest airplane inside is the B-1 bomber. During our visit, there was a life-size Star Wars X-Wing fighter signed by the cast and production team along with other Star Wars crafts on a temporary exhibit.
Go interactive with a free simulator on the first flight of the Wright Brothers. This is a slow experience that has you lay flat on the stomach using your hands and body to steer.
For more of a thrill, there are simulators for dog fights and high-flying maneuvers. Aviation fans can watch their monthly PBS TV show called Behind the Wings. website
Located to the west of Denver is a famous dinosaur site called Dinosaur Ridge. The area was first excavated in 1876 and is where the first Stegosaurus was found. (Colorado’s state dinosaur).
Fossils from this area are from the Cretaceous and Jurassic Periods. The ridge has one of the best viewing places for dinosaur tracks.
Two ways to see the tracks and fossils are on foot or with a 45-minute guided mini-bus tour. I recommend the tour as it gets you easily to both the west and east ridges.
Our driver, “Cretaceous Ken” was an enthusiastic expert on the area. He stopped the van four times to show us the large areas of dinosaur tracks and fossils.
Stop four had an extremely rare “dinosaur bump”. This is the underside footprint creating a bulge in the rock layer seen due to erosion. Van tours are $18.
Visitors can also walk the 2.5-mile roundtrip free. While there are signs at the sites, it is recommended to download the map and audio tour. At the entrance is a small museum that takes about 10 minutes to view. https://dinoridge.org/
Two Fun Denver Markets
The Stanley Marketplace calls itself “a community of 50 + independently owned Colorado businesses”.
It is located seven miles east of downtown in a reclaimed 140,000-square-foot factory that produced ejector seats for jets. (Look for the interesting historical signs inside).
This is a fun place with restaurants, a beer hall, a microbrewery, gym, wine and boutique grocery store, shops, dentist, cooking center, and an outdoor playground.
Our experience started with shopping at Aktiv. Owners Nate and Leslie took their love and experience of the Nordic lifestyle and brought it to Denver. Their clothes are stylish and functional for the outdoors. https://aktivstyle.com/
Cheluna, Colorado’s first Latin-owned microbrewery, gave us a mini-tour and a beer flight. They are winners of gold and silver medals at the 2023 Great American Beer Festival. There are always over a dozen beers on tap.
At Chin Lin Asian Eatery don’t miss the dumplings, steamed pork buns, and ramen. We washed it down with some hard-to-find Japanese beers. Walking by Churreria de Madrid, the smell was too tempting not to try their made-in-front-of-you churros with hot dipping chocolate sauce.
The Stanley Market is a nice destination for lunch, dinner, or for one of their many special events. At 20 minutes from the airport, consider a visit here if you have a long layover or delay.
The Denver Central Market in RiNo is a lively place for lunch or dinner. It is perfect when a group of friends have diverse tastes.
During our two visits here, the place was buzzing with people enjoying good food from 11 different chefs. Tables are located at the bar near the doors.
My fish and chips from the Tammen’s Fish were the best I had in Denver and large enough to share.
The tzatziki wrap from the Lunch Box was full of flavor and the peanut butter soba time at Green Seed had the right amount of crunchiness from the peanuts and green apples.
Don’t leave here without trying Temper’s handmade chocolates. https://www.denvercentralmarket.com/
El Five in LoHi offers the tasty flavors of Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa with a view. For two people I recommend sharing three courses.
This should include a starter of “The Spread from the Med”, one tapas plate, and one paella dish. Wash it down with creative craft cocktail or their many wine-by-the-glass offerings.
The vibe at El Five (on the fifth floor) is modern with service attentive. Step out on the patio to take in the view of the night lights of Denver. https://www.ediblebeats.com/el-five
AJ’s Pit Bar-B-Q is a Michelin Bib Gourmand Winner located in a simple friendly restaurant in South Denver.
Do not miss their wagyu smoked pastrami that practically melts in your mouth. We enjoyed the burned ends and pulled chicken but found the pork ribs a little chewy and lacking flavor. The main courses went well with their truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, coleslaw, and tasty baked beans with chunks of meat in them. On a later take-out order we arrived back home dissappointed to find a quarter of the order not packed so you may want to check the bag before leaving. https://www.pitbarbq.com/
Entering Luca, you are met by the smell of the wood-burning kitchen that fires up their pizza.
If that does not tempt you, their homemade pasta dishes and main courses will. While the menu is diverse, I recommend trying the pre-fix on your first visit. Here at a reasonable rate, you get to taste a little bit from all parts of the menu. Try the three meat meatballs. Their wine list is strictly Italian. https://www.lucadenver.com
The Buckhorn Exchange is Denver’s oldest restaurant established in 1893. Its ambiance is a classic cowboy steakhouse and frontier museum.
About the restaurant are 125 old Western firearms and 500 stuffed animals. Included in the collection is an African Cape Buffalo President Theodore Roosevelt shot.
The menu is meat and game-driven with some oddities. We shared the Rocky Mountain oysters (not what you think), sirloin tips of beef, elk and buffalo, and rattlesnake cheese dip (tasted a bit like dried crumbled chicken breast).
Main courses included roasted Buffalo Prime Rib, elk steak, quail, Colorado lamb chops and “gramma’s pot roast”. The food was all good, the ambiance was very Western, and the service was attentive. One note is that if you arrive early, you may have to wait outside as the bar is very small.
The Family Jones is a Denver-located distillery and bar. They produce vodka, gin, rye whiskey, bourbon, rum, and pre-mixed cocktails.
They promote their use of regional ingredients with their website featuring their suppliers.
When entering Family Jones you see a small copper still directly above the bar where the craft cocktails are created.
The rest of the bar/lounge is large and airy with a giant picture window. For tours and tastes go to https://thefamilyjones.co/
Festivals and Events
Denver has festivals and events taking place year-round. During my visits, I took part in three. For a list of annual festivals go to https://www.denver.org/events/festivals/
Santa Fe Arts District Art Walk
Formed in 2003, the Santa Fe Arts District became the first certified Creative District in the state in 2012. The area spans from 13th Avenue to Alameda Avenue and Kalamath Street to Inca Street. The bulk of our galleries are between 5th and 11th Avenues.
A highlight in the Santa Fe district is the First Friday Art Walk. This is a lively event that takes place on the first Friday of the month at 5:30. During the evening, every gallery, studio, and art co-op is open to show their best. Restaurants, shops, and food trucks are also open to serve the crowd.
During our visit, a colorful parade took place by the Mexican community to celebrate the Day of the Dead. https://denversartdistrict.org/
The BBQ Festival
Whether you are interested in eating, learning to cook, or just want a fun time out, the Denver BBQ Festival is a meat eater’s paradise.
This springtime two-day food orgy serves up 30,000 pounds of smoked, grilled, and BBQ-style food by the best pit masters.
Visitors get to pay for three-hour sessions with VIPs getting four hours (I was done after two hours).
Options are to pay as you go or (recommended) buy an unlimited VIP pass for all the stations with special seating and drinks included.
During the weekend there are eating contests, food demonstrations, and live music. Come hungry. https://qbbqdenver.com/
Mile High Tree Lighting
Winter brings the Mile High Tree Lighting event. The tree is a 110-foot by 39-foot diameter conical structure covered with 60,000 LED.
It creates a magical music and light show that be seen from the outside as well by people inside the cone. Near the tree is the pop–up Christmas German-themed village with good food and crafts.
Denver has a very walkable downtown. What may not be close for walking is usually no more than a 10-minute ride away. We always found parking easy and reasonable for a major city.
One place that we will come back to for a separate review is the famous 16th Street Pedestrian Mall. This important section of Denver is undergoing a major renovation and will be open later in 2024
Getting to Denver is stress-free on the airport rail. The 37-minute ride takes you to the restored Union Station. Trains leave every 15 minutes during the day.
When visiting the city, consider purchasing the Denver City Pass or Cultural Pass that gets you into seven of the top attractions. https://www.citypass.com/denver
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