Denver is full of new arrivals–a visit to this exciting city and capital of the west shows why
By Max Hartshorne
On my last trip to Denver, in 2012, I was told by a loquacious local man named Johnny to watch what the new Union Station would do to his city.
“It will be the center of everything–Denver’s Living Room!” he exclaimed.
Five years later, in March, 2017, it’s all true. A beautifully restored Union Station, a special Ski Train to city-owned Winter Park Ski Resort, a seamless rail connection to Denver International Airport and connecting all of the city by light rail has indeed changed things dramatically in Denver.
Though the state of Colorado is a place where cars still predominate, the city of Denver has made living without a car pretty easy.
There is also a free electric bus that travels up and down the two-kilometer long 16th Street
Mall, where 300 shops and restaurants serve a population of walkers and bus riders.
In case I wanted to visit one of the many more remote neighborhoods like Five Points or RiNo, (River North), an Uber or Lyft is never hard to find.
By making parking expensive and tickets feared (remember the Denver Boot?), the city has encouraged a new generation of younger citizens to ride bikes, walk, or use mass transit.
It all makes for a very pleasant city to visit.
The Ski Train
The Winter Park Express Ski Train is an old idea in Denver, starting in 1940 when the Moffat tunnel cleared a path to the newly opened Winter Park ski resort. It ran under various ownerships until 2009, when even the deep pockets of local billionaire Phil Anshutz couldn’t keep it going profitably. The city teamed up with Amtrak and local sponsors to bring back the train for weekend excursions starting in 2016.
We took the last ski train of the season at the end of March this year, on a perfect sunny day, departing Union Station at 7 am and arriving in time for a great day on the slopes, with a 4:30 pm trip back to Denver. Skiing the big mountain was a thrill, there are 26 lifts and 103 trails, and even on a crowded day, there are minimal lift lines. Besides, people here are so friendly you hardly even feel like you’re standing in line.
It’s true. Denverites are among the most friendly and outgoing people you can meet.
Stand in line for a coffee, you’ll strike up a conversation.
Stop into one of the hundreds of marijuana dispensaries that have made Colorado famous, and all of a sudden you’re talking to new friends. Enjoying a newly-legalized, ancient form of bonding, smoking weed, can do that.
But it’s not just the pot that sets the mellow tone of the city. It’s a feeling of pride that creeps into so many conversations. People are proud of their light rail, proud of the beautiful mountains just over the horizon, and brag happily about the city’s burgeoning music scene.
I was told a few times that there are more live music venues here than anywhere else in the country. Even Austin. The score is officially 98 venues to 82, but really, the point is, that just means there’s a lot to enjoy in both of these exciting cities.
Denver’s number one tourist draw in the city is also a music venue–Red Rocks Amphitheater, where the Grateful Dead played more shows than any other venue! It’s only about 30 minutes outside of the city in Morrison. Colorado.
A trip to Red Rocks during its season beginning in early Spring is a must do. And if there’s not a show doing on, join the locals and do yoga or run up and down the stands for the perfect workout. The lobby areas of Red Rocks showcase the astounding variety of musicians who have played there. It’s truly the Fenway Park of music arenas!
And because Denver is the largest city within 400 miles… it’s a magnet for culture, arts and beer. The minute shows are announced at one of the many top venues like the Bluebird Theater, Sports Authority Field, the Pepsi Center or Red Rocks, music lovers from all over the west jump on it. Advice for music fans– get on the web as early as possible for any hot ticket.
A Beacon on the Front Range
Denver is like the Emerald City–a beacon for the surrounding states, where four pro sports teams play to big crowds, and locals go crazy for their Broncos, Rockies and even the pathetic Avalanche hockey team.
It feels like the center of the universe because these teams draw from such a wide radius.
And what would a world-class city be without a collection of outstanding museums? Denver offers a special “Mile High Culture Pass” which for $30 provides admission to six museums and attractions, including the Denver Zoo, Denver Art Museum, the History Colorado Center, The Denver Botanic Gardens and more.
With the pass, you also get 50 percent off the city’s bikeshare system, Denver B-Cycle. I tried this out and it’s a great feeling to be able to explore the city by bike since bike trails are everywhere and it pairs so well with mass transit. It’s all very 2017, I must say.
Dining, Lodging and Having Fun
In a city like Denver, it’s hard to choose which of the many up and coming eateries to recommend. We went with a few that the NY Times choose when they published their 36 Hours in Denver in 2015.
Acorn, located in the low-slung industrial-feeling River North neighborhood, was generally agreed to be a supremely up and coming dining spot. With small plates that fill a huge, long menu, our choices of oak-roasted cauliflower, hen of the woods mushrooms, lobster arancini (rice balls), crispy Icelandic cod, took full advantage of the restaurant’s open kitchen wood fire. www.denveracorn.com 3350 Brighton Blvd.
The restaurant is located in The Source, a wonderful assembly of boutique shops including a butcher, a wine shop, a grocer and other retail booths with the big restaurant taking the biggest space. A new hotel will open in 2017 to bring even more people to the up and coming RiNo.
Breakfast was another standout at the very popular Snooze, located in Union Station, and always with a line out the door. No wonder–who else offers an egg-topped pot pie filled with sausage gravy and such a great assortment of huevos ranchero and egg-white omelets? www.snoozeatery.com
A third downtown restaurant that made the Times take notice is ChoLon Bistro, inspired by a big market in Saigon. This Asian/French fusion joint, right on the 16th Street pedestrian mall, is not cheap but the grilled octopus, Colorado beef tartare, and umami-filled potstickers bring in big crowds. www.cholon.com/denver
Where to Stay
We loved being right in the thick of things, so we stayed at the Crawford Hotel, located on the second floor of Union Station. Room rates are around $249 per night, and they offer a special menu of treats like free small coffees, beers, bottled water, and other snacks at certain times of the day. www.crawfordhotel.com.
There is truly no place you could stay that offers more convenience–hey, even to go skiing all we did was walk downstairs and step on the train. Connections to light rail are a breeze and Coors Field and the Convention Center are close by.
Another beautiful downtown hotel is the Brown Palace Hotel, the choice of Presidents and visiting rock stars, located near the convention center. It’s more dated, but boy what a lobby, and what a history!
If you, like many of the city’s visitors, are a bit intrigued with this new-fangled legal marijuana for sale thing, there are plenty of friendly dispensaries waiting for you. We enjoyed the Lodo Wellness Center, which, like all of the city’s pot shops, only takes cash and also closes nightly at 7 pm.
You’ll notice there are hundreds of both medical and recreational pot shops, but the only ones tourists can visit are recreational.
A Few More Favorites
One place we really enjoyed for burritos and beers is Illegal Pete’s, South Broadway in Lodo. Great vibe, cheap eats. We also liked Zep’s, near the History Colorado Museum, 1147 Broadway for great big sandwiches.
For a great Sunday afternoon session, the music and atmosphere at The Matchbox was a great choice, at2625 Larimer St. Next door is munchies heaven at the Sushi-Rama, where delectable sushi and sashimi float by on a belt, a neverending umami fest. 2615 Larimar St.
Denver is riding a wave of popularity, with the huge influx of new residents pouring in and jobs aplenty, the secret is out. Now is the time to pay a visit to this Emerald City, this beacon of fun, craft brews, snow and high spirits!
This story was written with assistance from Visit Denver, but the opinions are the author’s own.
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Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.