Visitors to Denver are generally focused on a few sightseeing points, which are becoming overused and overplayed. The city is a playground for people with almost any interest and there are more activities to do than we have time in a year. We want to share Denver how we see and experience it, focusing on local businesses and one-of-a-kind adventures. In order to frame our suggestions, we’ve included the typical choice on visitor’s guides, offering three or four alternative options to try next time you visit or next time you have to entertain family or friends coming to town.
Food + Booze
Instead of Casa Bonita + Coors Try…
The Fort: If you’re looking for a themed experience like Casa Bonita, try classing it up at The Fort in Morrison. Their specialty is definitely meat— with an emphasis on “food and drink of the early West”— with wild game, buffalo and other regional meat dishes. All of the items on the menu were available in Colorado in the 1830s, so you can feel like an old-school local, and you won’t get food poisoning.
Buckhorn Exchange: The Buckhorn Exchange may not have cliff divers but it does have an insane history that’ll make your jaw drop. Legend has it that the founder, Shorty Scout” Zietz, was not only friends with Buffalo Bill but Chief Sitting Bull as well (it’s said he gave him his nickname). Five US presidents have eaten here including Theodore Roosevelt, who also later befriended Zietz as a hunting partner. Beyond its historical memorabilia, the restaurant is known for holding the first liquor license in the state (which you can see upstairs) and having a wide array of game meats including the infamous Rocky Mountain oysters.
Taco Carts or Pho on Federal: It might take a more adventurous appetite to venture to the streets to find food, but finding a taco cart that makes you feel like you’re on a street in Mexico City is a rewarding experience. Bonus points if there isn’t much of a menu to choose from, or you use a little Spanish to order. Some of the best options if you’re new to the taco game are Al Pastor or Barbacoa. If you’re looking for something a bit more sit-down, check out our guide to where to get Pho on Federal. Most locals (and visitors) agree Denver has some of the best stuff around.
Avanti Food and Beverage: This food court style dining experience will allow you to soak in the hip Denverites while also looking out at Denver’s small but beautiful skyline. With food options ranging from fried chicken sandwiches to pizza to arepas, groups with varied tastes will be able to satisfy everyone. Several bars and enough space to hang out on the ground floor and on the rooftop patio justify staying after you finish eating.
Stanley Marketplace: Similar to Avanti in the sense of variety, Stanley Marketplace is one of the best places to go if you want to try all that Denver has to offer for food. The one catch — it’s technically not in Denver. But a quick drive to Aurora will bring you to a hotspot where a ton of the Mile High’s most beloved restaurants set up a second outpost. The list includes Denver Biscuit Company (which serves biscuits all day, unlike its Denver locations), Rosenberg’s Bagels, Maria Empanada, Sweet Cow Ice Cream and more. We actually made a guide just on how to eat your way through the marketplace, so you can navigate with ease.
Craft Beer, Spirits and Wine Tours: A lot of people tend to check out Coors brewery tour when they come to town, but with Denver’s bustling brewery scene we urge you to head to a smaller spot. Great Divide in Downtown Denver is an awesome place to start because while they are known internationally, the brewery is truly a local setup. If you want to get a more hands-on look at an operation, head to the River North District (starting at Broadway and Larimer) and head north. There you’ll find a ton of local breweries as well as Infinite Monkey Theorem, a well respected urban winery that has tours you can book. Along the way, you’ll find breweries such as Epic Brewing, Ratio Beerworks, Beryl’s Beer Co., Bierstadt Lagerhaus and more all within spitting distance. While these breweries might not all offer tours, sometimes you can snag a look behind the scenes. It’s more than likely the brewer himself will be on hand. For distilleries, checking out Stranahan’s is definitely worth the trip, but you may want to head a bit more south on Broadway and also check out Laws Whiskey House for a truly special tour. Recently, the distillery made history by producing a new series of bottled in bond whiskey — an increasingly rare distinction only certain whiskeys can acquire.
Instead of Cherry Creek Try…
Tennyson Street: The blocks between 38th and 44th Streets on Tennyson are a great way to spend an entire afternoon. It’s a lot like those picturesque main streets in movies, with shops, bars, restaurants and other finds in little brick buildings on either side of the street. Shops like Inspyre, Feral Mountain Co., Berkeley Supply Company and Ooh! Ahh! Jewelry will provide shoppers with unique and mostly local finds.
South Broadway: Consignment stores, funky boutiques and thrift stores dominate South Broadway, with stores like Buffalo Exchange, Boss Vintage, Steadbrook and Abstract. It’s best to dip in and out of everyone because you never know what you’ll find. This is for the more dedicated shopper who is willing to hunt for the best deals and discoveries. The most concentration of stores can be found between 6th Avenue and Alameda Avenue.
Downtown Littleton: If you’re willing to venture a little further out of central Denver to do some shopping, downtown Littleton is a quaint area that can be reached via the RTD light rail system, so you don’t even have to worry about driving or parking. One of the best costume shops— Reinke Brothers— is located here, as well as a few smaller boutiques with clothing and accessories. There’s plenty of food and beverages to keep you going between stores, and everything is within a few minutes walk from the RTD station.
Instead of Lodo Try…
LoHi: Just on the west side of I-25 is a bustling nightlife scene that is generally considered LoHi, or Lower Highlands. Get a ride from downtown, or walk over the Highland Bridge from Platte Street, to access the most densely populated area. From many of the restaurants and bars in LoHi there is a stunning view of the Denver skyline (and the fireworks on New Years). Places like El Five, Linger and Root Down are insanely busy on weekends— but with good reason. Also look for the special ambiance at Forest Room 5, Postino, The Family Jones and the famous Williams & Graham. Reservations, if allowed, are recommended.
RiNo: This neighborhood, which recently landed in the national media spotlight for a coffee company’s comments on gentrification, is a hotbed for up and coming nightlife spots. Go underground at Meadowlark, or sit on the patio at Denver Central Market, discover a new band at Larimer Lounge or listen to jazz at Nocturne. The general vibe is to keep things hidden, exclusive, with many bars having small or obscured entrances. But once you find your way inside, the atmosphere bursts with conversation, live music and the buzz of angsty creatives.
Five Points: This Denver neighborhood is famous for its storied past. Once called “The Harlem of the West,” the community was known for hosting some of the most famous jazz musicians at the height of the genre’s time. Now the neighborhood is revitalizing as a hub of culture with bustling venues such as Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom where you can see a show almost any night of the week. If you want to grab a drink and get a feel for how the neighborhood once was, head to 715 Club — which was recently re-opened after three decades. There you can grab a drink and shake it on the dance floor to some great ’70s disco and more. For the beer lover, you also can’t miss Goed Zuur, the nation’s only sour beer bar, and Spangalang.
South Broadway: South Broadway is great during the day, but it may be even better at night. The area is an awesome mix of bustling multi-story bars (like Historians, Irish Rover and Punch Bowl Social) and hip dives with great local music (like Hi-Dive, Sputnik, and 3 Kings, Skylark Lounge and Syntax Psychic Opera) and brand new clubs (like Temple). Just make sure to end your night with some late night eats at Pie Hole and you’ll feel like a true Denverite.
A Comedy Club: Denver might not be well-known for its comedic geniuses, but we are making a name for ourselves locally at least. With clubs like Comedy Works (with locations in Downtown and in Littleton) bringing big names into town, and then all the smaller venues allowing local talent to shine, there is probably a stand-up comedy act every night of the week somewhere in Denver. Each summer, Denver hosts the High Plains Comedy Festival, showcasing hundreds of comedians in different venues around town.
Burlesque: This is one of the better-kept secrets of Denver — which means you may have to do some digging. But for starters, a classic spot to check out is the iconic clocktower cabaret located downtown (formerly known as Lannie’s Clocktower). Here you’ll find a burlesque show every single weekend alongside sexy circus acts and tons of drag performances. If you want to venture beyond a club, head to Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. Formerly a brothel, the chic restaurant also doubles as a venue that hosts a Sunday Peepshow about once a month (for the most up to date listing, check out their Facebook). Aside from those two venues, check out the Oriental Theater for occasional shows or follow groups (like Punk Rock Burlesque) for more listings. It also helps to follow well-known faces of the burlesque scene (like Vivienne VaVaVoom or Kitty Crimson) to see where they’ll perform next.
Instead of Red Rocks Try…
Cruise through the mountains on the Peak to Peak: Within a few hours from Denver, the Peak to Peak highway provides an easily-navigable path to exploring dozens of hikes, scenic vistas and quirky mountain towns. You can take your own approach to the mini road trip, focusing on the oddities of each town, or shuttling between trailheads, or enjoying a beer at one of the many mountain breweries (with a designated driver, of course.)
Go on a Hike (even in the winter): As good Coloradans, we love a great hike. That’s why we’ve scoped out all the ones you can possibly imagine in our 101 Most Beautiful Hikes in Colorado. While that pretty much covers it, we have a smaller guide to all the seasonally appropriate jaunts including the best hikes to see wildflowers, hikes that’ll take you to a winter wonderland, unknown spots in Rocky Mountain National Park, where to see the best fall colors and even haunted hikes. And if your visitor is really ambitious (and is prepared), check out our list on fourteeners for beginners.
Mount Evans: Part of the beauty of Red Rocks are the views, which Mount Evans can top if you like mountains more than cityscapes. In less than a hour drive from Denver, this fourteener is best experienced in the morning before clouds move in during the afternoon. Mount Evans is accessible— from Memorial Day to Labor Day— by driving to the top on the highest paved road in the country—or by hiking. If you decide to hike, make sure you are aware of the possible dangers with such high altitudes.
Biking the Cherry Creek Bike Path: If you don’t have a bike with you, no worries. Find one of the Denver B-Cycle stations around Denver that rents bikes for $9 for 24 hours and allows you to return them at any other station. Then find your way to an entrance to the Cherry Creek path and bike either direction. During your journey, you’ll have the chance to see a wealth of murals and street art along the walls by both Denver artists and visiting ones. If you want to explore a bit more, here’s a great guide on how to see all of Denver’s parks via two wheels.
SUP at Aurora Reservoir: Maybe traveling to a city isn’t really your thing and you crave a taste of the outdoors but can’t drive to the mountains. If so, heading out to the Aurora Reservoir will satisfy your cravings with an unrealistically beautiful lake (for the arid Denver climate) that has a lot of options for extreme or relaxing fun. SUP (stand up paddleboard) is a little bit of both, especially when speedboats create some waves, and rentals are available at the reservoir through 5280 Paddle Sports. Those who want more relaxation will find sandy beaches and a park for the kiddos.
Visit an Underrated Landmark: Colorado is full of incredible destinations you’ve probably never heard of if you’re not from Colorado (and sometimes, even if you are). Our list includes beautiful Paint Mines, gorgeous caves and fascinating geological parks you can’t miss. Most of these require a decent drive out of Denver so plan ahead for a day trip.
Instead of Denver Art Museum Try…
Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA): Although smaller than the DAM, the MCA holds a lot of treasures in its multi-floor facility, including five separate gallery spaces and a rooftop café. As the first dedicated home to contemporary art in Denver, the museum is a must-see for art lovers that appreciate creative experimentation more than classics. The building itself is also a piece of art, with slanted skylights and an entire wall of windows. Don’t forget to look on top for Denver artist Scott Young’s neon sign “Wish you were here/her.”
Center for Visual Art (CVA): Located in the Santa Fe Art District (a treat to walk through before or after visiting the CVA), this little gem is the off-campus art gallery for Metro State University, serving as a functioning gallery and as a laboratory for art students from Metro. With murals on the outside by Denver artists like Sandra Fettingis and Jaime Molina and the newest contemporary art on the inside, CVA will expand your understanding of specifically Denver art.
K Contemporary/1261/Abend Gallery: Recently opened in the space that used to be Mike Wright Gallery on 14th and Wazee in Downtown Denver, these three galleries exist on separate floors but are organized as one unit. Part of the benefit of sharing the building—aside from a reasonable rent for an art gallery— is that visitors who might want to see traditional art might be exposed to modern styles, and vice versa.
Millers & Rossi: Make the whole art-viewing experience a little more adult-themed with this art gallery that has a speakeasy in the back. Enjoy the front gallery, sometimes displaying photographs, modern art, sculptures and prints and then find the (not so secret) door and saddle up to the bar for a cocktail. Part of the experience in Millers & Rossi is enjoying their artistic bartenders, whose concoctions are nearly performances to make and drink.
RiNo Alleys: You don’t have to step inside a gallery or a museum to experience some of Denver’s best art. Rather head to RiNo and get lost in the alley to see some of the best street art in the city. There you’ll find hundreds of murals, largely thanks to the street art festival CRUSH. Occurring in mid-September the annual event brings in 100 artists from all over to beautify the neighborhood. Luckily for visitors, the murals are accessible no matter the time of year but are likely to change after each year’s CRUSH. For the best (and most well-lit alleys) head to the spot between Walnut and Larimer on 26th and head north. You can go here to get a glimpse of what you can expect to see.
If all of this convinces your visitor to stay in Denver permanently (like most do), we have a couple tips on how to help them with that as well. Give them these guides to keep them from being a lost transplant, asshole hiker (or skier) and rude mountain town visitor so we can all keep Colorado the awesome and visitor friendly place it is.