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—Photo courtesy of Vail Resorts/Jack Affleck

First-Timer’s Guide: Vail

Ditch your car and don your winter wear. Lionshead-Vail Village is a skier's—and pedestrian's—paradise.

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A weekend spent in the mountains is the pinnacle—literally—of what makes living in Colorado so great, even if the I-70 traffic and questionable, or downright treacherous, road conditions can be trying (to say the least). That’s why our ideal ski weekend involves zero car time. It’s also one of Vail’s strongest draws: The praised ski destination is unique in that it was a resort first and a town later. The hyperlocal community, free bus system, and centralized businesses that popped up around the resort, which opened in 1962, provide a practically ski-in, ski-out city center. If you’re new to skiing or snowboarding, the Centennial State, or have simply never been to Vail, venture (safely) west this winter, park and unpack your Subaru, and treat yourself to a stress- and car-free weekend.

The Odometer: 106 miles from Denver, one-way

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The base of Gondola One in Vail

Get Outside

Vail Resorts—the United States’ third largest ski area, with more than 5,000 acres—is ripe with adventurous and unique terrain for any level of skier/boarder. The mountain’s most popular entry point, Gondola One, opened in 2012 and sits in the heart of Vail Village. On busy days, avoid some bottlenecking by opting for one of Vail’s western options, such as the Eagle Bahn Gondola (#19) in Lionshead Village; its Avanti chairlift was upgraded from a four-passenger bench to six for the 2015–16 season. Intermediate-and-up powderhounds should challenge themselves on one of Vail’s seven legendary back bowls. Unless you’re an expert, start your open-spaced ski day on China Bowl’s Poppyfields West run.

Parental Advice: Kiddos can be dropped off at Golden Peak kids’ ski school, just east of Vail Village, so you can enjoy a stress-free day on the slopes.

Pro Tip: First-time visitors to Vail should take advantage of the resort’s complimentary guided mountain tours. In Lionshead, spend your morning at Eagle Bahn and find the Game Creek Desk at 10:15 a.m. (sharp) to sign a waiver before the 10:30 takeoff; in Vail Village, make your way to the Mid Vail Ski School desk near Gondola One at the same time. Both tours last roughly two hours and, in addition to being informative and fun, serve as a savvy way to get some (free) skiing time in with Vail staff riders. Find out more about the tours, and others, here.

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Dine

In Vail, you can find pizza-and-beer lounges and white table-clothed dinners, but mid-range dining opportunities are limited. Despite the dichotomy, Vail’s small food scene is saturated with noteworthy institutions. Discover few of our favorites below, organized by time of day.

Breakfast
Vintage, a French-inspired brasserie that opened in 2015, offers breakfast and dinner, but its champagne brunches make the eatery an A.M. standout. Pair your classic breakfast plate with a champagne cocktail or float (sparkling white wine poured over specialty sorbet flavors made in house).

It’s important to fuel up before a day on the slopes. Head to Crespelle for a sweet (nutella and strawberries) or savory (green chile, eggs and chorizo) carb-load.

Pictured: Mountain Standard’s PBLT (pork belly lettuce and tomato sandwich); Photo by Scott Cramer

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Lunch
Big Bear Bistro, just around the corner from Vail Village’s Gondola One, serves classic deli sandwiches made with fresh ingredients and homemade sauces on organic or gluten-free bread. Its prime location means you can duck in and out in a timely manner mid-ski day.

Mountain Standard, the sister institution to the well-known Sweet Basil, offers well-conceived—and filling!—lunch plates. The creekside eatery expertly tows the line between upscale and accessible, making it an apt destination for dinner or après, as well.

Speaking of après…
Lionshead/ Eagle Bahn Gondola: Just concluded a rad day at the base of Gondola 19? Head to Garfinkel’s for a lively, come-one, come-all atmosphere and affordable drinks and bar bites.

Vail Village/Gondola One: The Red Lion, which has been around essentially since the town was founded, also offers cheap eats and drinks, served in a biergarten-meets-sports bar setting.

Austrian skier Pepi Gramshammer moved to Vail in the 1960s for its epic back-bowl skiing, and opened Pepi’s Restaurant and Bar not long after. The restaurant is plentiful in both space and menu options, is family friendly, has a heated patio, and features live music nearly every night.

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Just around the corner, you can order a whiskey flight from 10th Mountain Whiskey & Spirit Co. Tasting Room. It goes without saying, but: mind the 8,150-foot elevation.

—Photo courtesy of Kim Fuller

Head to Vail’s newly opened wine bar Root & Flower to satiate any cravings for excellent vino and cheese-and-charcuterie boards. More than 40 wines by the glass and expert service is provided by a team that previously worked at the highly regarded but now shuttered Restaurant Kelly Liken.

Up The Creek’s riverside views and weather-permitted patio seating are a delightful way to close a long day on the slopes. The stalwart (it’s been open since 1988) also boasts a fresh and reliable lunch, dinner, and cocktail menus.

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Every day from 5 to 6 p.m., Terra Bistro hosts an “appy” hour, where you can take advantage of half-priced appetizers and drink specials. You won’t find any bar food here; just excellent bites like the 7X Ranch sliders. The beef comes from Colorado’s 7X Ranch and is topped with aged cheddar, bacon jam, and chipotle-cocoa ketchup.

Dinner
You can still find the owner of Osaki’s, Takeshi Osaki—who was taught the tricks of the trade by his grandfather in Osaka, Japan—behind the sushi bar of the traditional Japanese joint. Watch Osaki work; his careful attention to detail turns out some of the finest rolls and sashimi in the state.

When in the mood for an Italian meal, spend an evening at Campo de Fiori. (Their mushroom ravioli is pictured above.)

For Vail’s finest dining, make a reservation at La Tour, a French restaurant with an impressive wine list; or Sweet Basil for creative, American dishes.

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Night Life
While much of Vail shuts down fairly early, there are some night-life options for those who wish to imbibe. Shake your tail feather at Shakedown Bar, a late-night, subterranean joint next to Big Bear Bistro. The intimate venue hosts live music nearly every night; check their calendar here. Or head to The George, a locals’ hangout and pub with pool tables, foosball, and a happy hour that lasts from 3 to 9 p.m. For a no-frills Italian joint, head to Vendetta’s. The Vail staple—open for more than 30 years—has a full service bar until 2 a.m. For a more posh setting, hop on the town’s free bus toward Lionshead for a drink at the Four Seasons’ bar, The Remedy. The cozy and smartly decorated hangout offers a date-night feel, a creative cocktail list, and experienced bartenders who execute the classics well, too.

Stroll

Meander down East Meadow Drive—and get lost in its connecting winding walkways—to window-shop Vail’s high-end boutiques, galleries, and jewelry stores.

—Photo by Dylan Crossley

Perch (pictured, above) is a favorite for women’s fashions. Pieces (think: brands like Rag & Bone, Vince, Veronica Beard) are hand-picked by owner Laurie O’Connell. The tucked-away corner of Gore Creek Drive and Willow Bridge Road—alongside Gore Creek and to the west of Mountain Standard and Sweet Basil—has a few of our favorite shops in Vail. The Golden Bear, open since 1975, sells oh-so Colorado jewelry, accessories, and gifts—all dawned with its signature bear design. Venture just a few steps to peek into Artful Sol’s small but envy-worthy collection of contemporary art pieces and delicate necklaces, rings, and bracelets. Across the pathway you’ll discover Squash Blossom’s curated selection of jewelry by renowned designers from around the world, hand-selected by Colorado natives and longtime Vail residents John and Patti Cogswell.

To learn more about the 10th Mountain Division—a present-day Army division that was formed in 1943 and trained in the tough terrain of Camp Hale in Eagle River valley for WWII—head to the Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum.

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—Image courtesy of Tivoli Lodge Vail

Stay

You’re in Vail. Embrace luxury. If you’re hoping to limit extravagent spending, check travel websites for deals (or consider visiting the Eagle County town during the off-season, May through December). For a ski-in, ski-out spot in Lionshead, reserve a room at The Arrabelle at Vail Square. For a cozy lodge near Gondola One, opt for the Tivoli Lodge (pictured, above) in Vail Village, which was just named one of the United States’ top 25 hotels in 2016 by Trip Advisor. Both hotels have valet parking, a space to store ski equipment, one or more hot tubs, and are pet friendly.

Psst… make sure to ask about your hotel’s parking situation. While some offer complimentary valet, many don’t. If your lodging is in the latter category, you can park overnight in the Solaris parking garage near Vail Square for $40 for a night.

—Image courtesy of Vail Resorts

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If You Do One Thing

Make a reservation at The 10th (pictured, above). The mid-mountain restaurant—which is owned and operated by Vail Resorts—offers a cozy place to take a break during your ski day. Take off your boots and warm up those frozen toes with complimentary slippers, enjoy sweeping views of Gore Creek, and refuel with a snack paired with an Avery Maharaja IPA or hot cider.

Before You Go…

You don’t want to be hungry during an eastbound I-70 commute on a Sunday morning. Grab a specialty latte (like Mud Season: hazelnut and white and dark chocolate) from Yeti’s Grind in Vail Square. Then, avoid the mid-morning rush with a rave-worthy breakfast from Westside Café. Order one of 12 specialty eggs benedicts, or the Local Special for a filling and traditional breakfast of two eggs, hash browns and toast with your choice of protein. (The Tourist Special is the exact same plate for two dollars more.) You’d be remiss not to visit from Northside Coffee and Kitchen pastry case next door. One of their giant, freshly baked doughnuts will make the perfect snack for your car ride home.

—Unless designated, photos by author

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