What makes Denver, well, “Denver”?
It’s a question we are frequently asked and one we love to write about (ahem, see pretty much everything we publish here at 5280). Still, there are places that we return to—again and again—because they have a certain something that just can’t be recreated in other locales. These are the spots we drag out-of-town guests to, that we rave about to people considering a move here, and (let’s be honest) that we sometimes don’t talk about because we love them so much we want to keep them to ourselves.
We figured it was high time we pulled together a list of Denver’s classic spots. Of course, we needed some parameters. First, to make the list, the event or business had to be located in a Denver ZIP code (sorry, Casa Bonita, the Fort, the Flatirons, and Gold Hill Inn).* Second, it needed to be at least 10 years old (sorry, Sweet Action Ice Cream, Clyfford Still Museum, and the Source). We also decided that a business didn’t have to start in Denver but had to have made Denver a home for a decade or more (sorry, White Fence Farm and Tony’s Market.) Here, the places and things we think are Classic Denver—do you agree?
Catch a set at El Chapultepec
Since its inception, OG hipster Denverites have flocked to “the ’Pec” to hear local and big-name artists ply their jazzy trade, drink no-frills beer, and nosh on Mexican food. The charmingly grungy outpost has thus far staved off the gentrification that’s encroaching on the space from all sides, which would’ve made Jack Kerouac and his friends—who frequented the joint during the Beats’ heyday—very proud indeed.
Visit the Denver Art Museum’s other building
With its striking titanium-covered angles, we get why the Frederic C. Hamilton Building of the Denver Art Museum receives a lot of attention. But we’re equally captivated by the museum’s North Building (the one that looks like a futuristic castle; it was designed by Gio Ponti and is the only North American example of the Italian modernist’s work). Don’t miss the building’s extensive collection of American Indian art (there are two floors, so plan to stay awhile). The museum knows how important the space is: The North Building is part of a $150 million renovation scheduled for completion in 2021.
Attend mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
This stunning cathedral—designed by Leon Coquard of Detroit and crafted from limestone from Indiana, granite from Gunnison, Colorado, and marble from Marble, Colorado—is an architectural treasure with deep history. Downtown visitors may recognize its twin bell spires (the façade and some parts of the interior are currently under renovation) and large brass doors. Inside, you’ll find 68-foot vaulted ceilings, Carrara marble altars, pedestals, and statues, and its crowning feature: 75 intricate stained-glass windows, more than any church of any denomination in America. Visit during one of the daily services, so you can enjoy the church’s full grandeur.
Remember the city’s past at Riverside Cemetery
Take a trip through time at the 141-year-old Riverside Cemetery, an often-forgotten piece of city history just off the South Platte River. Riverside’s graves remind us of the the stories of many of Colorado’s most important residents. From suffragists to 19th-century politicians to athletes to soldiers, there is no better—or more surprising—place for discovery in Denver.
Time-travel at Bastien’s Restaurant
Unchanged in the most important ways since it opened as Bastien’s in 1958 (the family acquired the location as the Moon Drive Inn in 1937), this unpretentious steakhouse is famous for its thick-cut, sugar-rubbed steak. This might not be Denver’s best steak (that’s a hard title to win in this cowtown), but we love how the delicate, sweet-and-savory exterior crust is offset by its juicy, medium-rare interior. Save room for the apple pie, which arrives in a sizzling pool of brandy butter with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream on top.
Climb to the top of the Colorado State Capitol
Come for the history or to see politicians make history at the state Capitol, home to the governor’s office and General Assembly. The stately building was built using the entire known supply of Colorado rose onyx (mined in Beulah, Colorado). The gilded dome, which you can only visit during a free guided tour, was originally plated in copper, but was swapped out in 1908 for 24-carat gold leaf to commemorate the Colorado Gold Rush (it was restored in 2014). If you tour on your own, stop by Mr. Brown’s Attic on the third floor, where you can get a quick tutorial on Colorado history and view the original construction plans for the remarkable building.
Race on Sloan’s Lake at the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival
What started as a small plan to celebrate Denver’s diverse Asian communities with a traditional Chinese dragon boat race on Sloan’s Lake has turned into a two-day party complete with nearly 50 racing teams, more than 125,000 spectators, food trucks, and cultural performances. Bring plenty of sunscreen, because the weekend is usually hot, hot, hot—and you can’t stop watching after just one race.
Discover a new artist on First Friday Art Walks
If “art is literacy of the heart,” as Elliot Eisner once famously said, then Denver’s First Friday Art Walks are, perhaps, the most tangible expression of the city’s soul. What started as a way to draw people to explore the Art District on Santa Fe on the first friday of the month now includes more than 60 galleries and cultural institutions in several neighborhoods. Thumb through locally made prints, watch painters splash color onto canvases in real time, and quietly observe some of the city’s finer pieces of art—for free.
Find your inner artist at Meininger Art Materials
So you want to be an artist? Or at least ramp up your coloring book game? Or start a bullet journal? If you do, the place to stock up on all things art is Meininger. Fair warning: Don’t be surprised if you go in for just one new watercolor brush and walk out with everything you need to start painting pastels; it’s just the spot to find a new hobby.
Order—and finish eating—a side of Rocky Mountain oysters at the Buckhorn Exchange
What’s the number one way to mess with a transplant? Ask them to sample Colorado’s finest delicacy: Rocky Mountain oysters (aka sliced, breaded, and fried bison testicles). There’s no better place to take up the challenge than at Denver’s oldest restaurant, where you can enjoy a Wild West vibe and taxidermy-covered walls as you eat.
Become a history buff at the Denver Central Library’s Western History Collection
For amateur and professional sleuths alike, this magnificent collection atop the main Denver Public Library is the repository for any history-minded person in Colorado. Pull family tree information from Census data, search clips from the state’s Civil War-era newspapers, or peruse the thousands of original documents that detail the city’s development as the crown jewel of the Rocky Mountain West. Oh, and the view of Civic Center Park from the reading area is spectacular after a snowfall.
Drink (too) many brews at the Great American Beer Festival
Long before Denver had (legal) pot, it had craft beer. To wit, the city has hosted one the world’s largest celebrations of American craft brews since the early 1980s—arguably decades before the sweet smell of local batch hops and malts would find its way into mainstream drinking culture. Tickets to GABF might be nearly impossible to get but we keep trying, year after year, because there’s no better place to sample hundreds of suds from all over the United States at once.
Challenge your brain at the Wizard’s Chest
Since being a nerd is officially cool (see: Harry Potter, Star Wars, superhero blockbusters, and Pokémon Go), Trekkies, hipsters, and strategy-game aficionados alike gather at the Wizard’s Chest’s 12,000-square-foot Broadway shop (the store moved from Cherry Creek North in December 2015). Go there for puzzles, games, wigs, costumes, and Stormtrooper statues, or drop in on Mondays for Magic: The Gathering matches.
Raise a pinky at the Brown Palace Hotel’s high tea
Even if you aren’t inherently fancy, this downtown ritual will make you feel like royalty. Sip some tea, snack on fresh scones and finger sandwiches, listen to the dulcet sounds of a harpist or pianist, and soak in the luxurious atmosphere in the exquisitely ornate atrium that’s been hosting visitors like you for 125 years. (Tip: Make reservations well in advance around the holidays.)
Order two scoops at Bonnie Brae Ice Cream Shop
Long before Little Man Ice Cream and Sweet Action Ice Cream, Denverites stood in line for scoops from this iconic neighborhood shop—more than 8 million scoops, to be precise, over more than three decades of business. Wait in line for a freshly made waffle cone heaped with a baseball-sized mound of cappuccino crunch or triple death chocolate (or both!).
Save some dough on a free tour of the U.S. Mint
The original mint opened in 1863 as an assay office—a place where miners could bring their gold and silver to be melted, assayed (tested), and cast into bars. In 1904, the federal government decided to build a production mint in the area, creating the grand, Italian Renaissance-style building that still stands on the corner of Colfax Avenue and Cherokee Street and makes more than 50 million coins each day. You can tour the facility and see the complicated coin-making process to get a better appreciation for that penny in your pocket.
People-watch at Union Station
Established: 1881 (remodeled in 2014)
An almost perfect blend of classic and modern, the recently overhauled Union Station has become the gateway to Denver as it once was and always aspired to be. From its mix of upscale bars, shops, and restaurants to the “retro-futuristic” Crawford Hotel and surrounding open plazas, this remodeled transit hub is what 21st century urban gathering places are supposed to feel like. Folks-in-the-know grab a latté-to-go from Pigtrain Coffee, a book from the Tattered Cover outpost, and settle into one of the hall’s oversized chairs for a few minutes—or hours.
Sample “Den-Mex” at Blue Bonnet Restaurant
Originally opened as an American café in the 1930s, the Mobell family purchased the South Broadway restaurant in 1968 and decided to bet on Mexican food. For almost 50 years, Denver families have packed the Blue Bonnet’s festively lit patio for legendary crispy chiles rellenos, green-chile smothered Mexican hamburgers, and generous margaritas. If you’re looking to taste the Mile High City’s distinctive “Den-Mex” style of cookery, this is a safe bet.
Enjoy a Western tradition at the National Western Stock Show
Starting with a steer parade through downtown every January (except 2017 thanks to a snowstorm), this rodeo, horse, and livestock show delivers a true taste of the Old West to Denverites each year. Locals, tourists, farmers, and ranchers alike dress in their best western wear, and there’s entertainment aplenty thanks to the full 16-day schedule of bull riding, horse dancing, barrel racing, and mutton bustin’ (small children wearing helmets and attempting to remain astride sheep), not to mention an art show, carousel, and petting zoo. To boot, the grounds and surrounding areas are part of a planned $1 billion renovation, which will help cement the show’s spot in Denver’s future.
Order a classic cocktail at the Oxford Hotel’s Cruise Room
When you enter downtown Denver’s longest-running bar, which just so happens to be located inside the city’s oldest hotel, it feels like the spot hasn’t aged a bit since it opened the day after Prohibition lifted. Modeled after the timeless elegance of a lounge on the famous Queen Mary ocean liner, we’re keen on the red-lit bar’s cocktail menu of vintage-inspired sippers like the Silver Fizz, made with gin, lemon, sugar, egg white, and seltzer.
Buy vinyl (yes, it does exist!) at Twist & Shout
Twist & Shout’s listening stations can be hit or miss (as in, they don’t always work), and it has a DVD library that’s becoming more pointless by the day in this age of streaming. But for those who still revel in the joy of physically owning or collecting music, the store offers a trove of vinyl and CDs that’s unmatched in Denver, along with a helpful and knowledgeable old-school staff.
Serve a meal to those in need at the Denver Rescue Mission
On a busy day, it’s hard to remember that gathering for a meal is sometimes the most important gift we can give to one another. Spend an hour or two serving up mashed potatoes and homemade rolls at the Denver Rescue Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter one night, and you’ll remember how important it is to slow down, share time, fill stomachs, and spread hope.
Watch a show at Curious Theatre
This small but powerful theater has gained a reputation for breaking artistic boundaries (after all, the company motto is: “No guts, no story”). To wit, in 2015, producing artistic director Chip Walton launched a serial storytelling initiative, where the theater dives into three works written by one playwright over the course of a season. Each play stands on its own, so audiences can always jump right in and watch the inventive works in action.
Buy a new (or used) book at Tattered Cover
Whether you’re at this bookseller’s creaky-floored LoDo space or its larger, auditorium-like flagship store on Colfax, the Tattered Cover always has a quiet but lively vibe that all purveyors of literature strive to achieve. At a time when bookstores are on the endangered species list, just buying something from the place becomes a personally satisfying act of cultural preservation.
Cheer on the Pioneers at a University of Denver hockey game
Bundle up in crimson and gold and grab a Molson (yep, they sell beer) to watch one of college ice hockey’s powerhouses (the team just won its eighth national championship). The players—some bound for the NHL—are plenty entertaining as they fly across the ice and pound one another into the glass, but we also enjoy watching the rabid student section and Pioneer Pep Band. This team is a perennial postseason contender, which is more than we can say these days for the experience of watching some of Denver’s professional teams (cough, Avs, cough).
Watch the dancers at the Denver March Powwow
If you’ve never experienced the power and beauty of the Powwow’s Grand Entry—a processional of drums, flag bearers, and dancers—you’ve missed out on an almost indescribable experience that every Denverite should have. And that’s just the beginning of this multi-day celebration of tradition, dance, and culture. Each competition is compelling, but a fan favorite is always the Jingle Dress Dance, which was originally used as a healing dance—something that rings true still today.
Stuff your face at Pete’s Kitchen at any time of the day
Denver has but one officially designated cultural area: Greek Town. This six-block stretch runs along East Colfax Avenue from St. Paul to Elizabeth streets, and is home to, among various other Greek eateries, the 75-year-old Pete’s Kitchen. Make sure to order the beef-and-lamb gyro, a house specialty, sliced from a rotating spit and served any way you like (on a Greek salad, as a sandwich melt, in a pita with chopped tomato and onion, in an omelet) because every iteration is downright tasty. And since the place is open 24 hours a day, you can fill up whenever you want.
Chill at City Park Jazz
Is there a better soundtrack to a warm Sunday evening than the buoyant hum of live jazz? The answer is no, which is why we make a point to find blanket space at City Park on as many summer Sundays as possible. The energy of the 31-year-old tradition is simultaneously nostalgic and kinetic—just like the local musical roots it celebrates.
Get turned upside down at Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park
Established: 1890 (current location opened in 1995)
What started as a botanic garden and zoo is now a sprawling downtown theme park, complete with massive, twisting roller coasters and an adjacent water park. There are more than 53 rides and attractions—the Boomerang, Brain Drain, Mind Eraser—to keep you busy, but make sure to ride the Twister II (the second coming of the original wooden coaster, Mister Twister) for soaring, twisting views of the Mile High City.
Order a pint at Great Divide Brewing Co.’s (original) taproom
Great Divide might have opened their five-acre Barrel Bar in the city’s trendy RiNo neighborhood in 2015, but that hasn’t made us give up the classic coolness of its original Ballpark taproom. The bar features 16 of the brewery’s award-winning beers at any given time (we heart the bombastic Titan IPA or anything of the Yeti variety) and faces Arapahoe Street, which means you can sip on a brew and watch Denver’s urban current of cars and people stream by.
Take a selfie in front of one of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s dioramas
Any schoolkid who grew up in Colorado probably has memories of racing around the museum’s dark halls and staring at the large-as-life wildlife dioramas. As adults, we’re still partial to the North Sea Lion exhibit—which shows a majestic animal arching his back and resting with his family on a dirt coastline—and we find ourselves coming back again and again to look at the other 103 scenes.
Nurse a hangover at Butcher Block Cafe
The slightly run-down, tchotchke-filled, original location of the Butcher Block Cafe stands in stark contrast to the newfangled, hipster-filled restaurants that are now popping up all over the once-industrial RiNo neighborhood. Regulars, however, continue to frequent this 30-year-old eatery for the baked-each-day cinnamon rolls (especially on weekend mornings after a night out). These gooey, slightly underdone pastries eschew the typical cream cheese icing in favor of a rapidly melting pat of butter and are as homespun and comforting as ever.
Eat a Rockie Dog while watching the Rockies in the Rockpile at Coors Field
In the history of baseball, Denver’s Coors Field is young. But in the 22 years we’ve been watching players destroy pitchers’ confidence at this stadium, the place has helped transform the surrounding neighborhood from a dilapidated warehouse district into, well, just about the best place to hang out in town. There’s really not a bad seat in the house (even when the team is awful, the views are endearing), and we like to grab a cheap seat in the Rockpile (behind center field), order a footlong hot dog, and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as the sun sets.
Watch the next big band at Hi-Dive
As the name quite accurately implies, this low-ceilinged, bicameral bar is a true dive and an ideal place to see local rock acts. It’s also a spot to get an early look at regional and national up-and-comers that will be playing much bigger (and more expensive) venues the next time they swing through Denver, all at ticket prices that rarely top 15 bucks apiece.
See one (or 10) Big Head Todd and the Monsters show(s)
The venerable rock-and-blues men have become Colorado’s “first band” during their 33-year-and-counting road-warrior career. Seeing their annual Red Rocks show is a bucket-list type of concert, but if you can catch them at more intimate venues such as Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox or Pueblo’s Memorial Hall Theater, even better. Front man Todd Park Mohr and other band members have also been known to play unannounced sets at bars around Denver and Boulder.
Hit the pavement on Cherry Creek Regional Trail
Despite being designed over the course of decades in response to flooding in 1933, this 42-mile trail is a cohesive trek through Denver’s past, from Confluence Park to Castlewood Canyon State Park (parts of path are the same as those used by Native Americans in the 1800s). Worthy pit stops include Four Mile Historic Park, which touts plenty of pioneer history and Denver’s oldest standing structure, now the Four Mile House Museum.
Dress the part, thanks to Rockmount Ranch Wear
With each new development and glassy high-rise building, Denver’s cowtown image fades a little. There’s one place—right in the middle of LoDo—where it doesn’t: Rockmount. Stop by to admire the epic collection of boots and hats, but make sure to pick up your very own Western-style snap-down shirt, which was created by owner and unofficial founder of high-end rancher fashion Jack A. Weil (RIP).
Drink where the Beat Generation did at My Brother’s Bar
My Brother’s Bar is such a Denver landmark that it doesn’t even have a sign outside; people just know it sits at the corner of 15th and Platte streets, which is exactly where Beatnik icons Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac found it back in the 1950s (it was called Paul’s Place then; its name changed in 1970). Nowadays, settle into a barstool with a secondhand copy of On the Road and order a JCB (jalapeño cream cheese burger). This iconic Denver bar changed hands earlier this year, but the new owners—a longtime waitress and general manager, her husband, and son—don’t intend to change a thing.
Take a tour of the Molly Brown House Museum
Established: 1972 (House built in 1889)
If you’re looking for a hero these days—the unflappable, unintimidated, and inspiring kind—head to Capitol Hill for a tour of the Molly Brown House. The mythologized figure (her name was actually Margaret; and you’ll learn a few more truths about her life on the tour) fought for women’s rights, ran for political office twice, and took up acting in her later years, just because. Her Denver mansion, which was once set for destruction before being saved by a group of local preservationists, pays tribute to both her life and the issues she cared about most.
Sip a salt-rimmed margarita (or three) at Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant’s patio in LoDo
Established: 1999 (Original Fort Collins location opened in 1986)
We have to agree that the three-margarita limit at the Rio is, as one of the restaurant’s founders Pat McGaughran says, “a really good recommendation.” But that doesn’t stop us from testing the theory at the occasional happy hour—or annually on the Rio’s downtown patio before the Rockies’ opening day.
Catch an indie flick at the Mayan Theatre
The seats are creaky and not too comfortable, and the sound is just OK. But the Mayan is ornately decorated inside and out and offers one of Denver’s finest selections of art-house films, as well as occasional screenings of live operas and other special events. And we can’t complain about being able to bring an Odell IPA from the bar upstairs into the theater with us.
Tour East High School’s vintage halls
East’s standout, 162-foot clock tower might have been modeled after Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, but this building is all about Denver. Located along Colfax Avenue, East is one of only a handful of operating schools in Denver listed on the National Register of Historic Places, though it somehow avoids the pretension that might come with this designation. The building—a combination of late 19th- and 20th-century Revival styles—is a literal old-school mix of sturdiness and flair.
Crush your PR at the Kaiser Permanente Colfax Marathon
While a young addition to this list, the Colfax Marathon makes the cut because it gives runners the ultimate urban tour of Denver’s past and present. The 26.2-mile race starts and ends at City Park, but runs through Sports Authority Field and Denver Fire Station #1, along the Platte River, around Sloan’s Lake, and down the city’s most famous street. So lace up your sneakers, pick a charity partner to raise funds for, and hit the pavement because this Boston Marathon qualifier is on a relatively flat course and should be on every runner’s bucket list.
Get the travel bug at Shaver-Ramsey Fine Rugs
You don’t have to be in the market for a $1,000 handmade rug to enjoy perusing the textiles founder and co-owner Paul Ramsey has brought back to Cherry Creek North from far-flung locales such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Turkey, and Iran over the past 40 years. In fact, some of the tapestries—such as the Kazakh man’s wedding coat from Central Asia (circa 1925) hanging in the loft—in Shaver-Ramsey Fine Rugs’ gallerylike space aren’t even for sale and will likely end up in a museum one day.
Overload on sugar (in a good way) by eating a Duffeyroll
Nick Ault created a Grey Poupon of cinnamon rolls when he began selling his croissant-like, bite-size confections (which come lightly glazed in flavors such as Irish cream and mountain maple) in the local area more than three decades ago. Denverites loved the sugar rush, and Ault now sells his doughy creations at three locations in Denver and a fourth in Englewood.
We’ll update this list throughout the year, so if you think we missed a business, activity, or spot that you love (and that’s been in Denver for more than 10 years), send a nomination to firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Story edited by Natasha Gardner