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Denver has experienced massive growth in the past decade, and no place is this boom more obvious than in downtown Denver’s epicenter and economic core, Union Station. The transitions in this burgeoning neighborhood are inextricably tied to its namesake and most iconic landmark—the storied transit hub located on Wynkoop, which has been reborn again and again over the course of its nearly 150-year history.
The original Union Depot opened in 1881, connecting Denver to the Transcontinental Railroad. After being partially destroyed by a fire in 1894, the current building was erected in 1914, including the notable exterior façade that still remains today. For decades, the building—and the surrounding area—languished as train travel decreased. Then, in 2010, the Union Station Revitalization Project was announced (but not without controversy). Four years later, just in time for its 100th anniversary, the Denver landmark reopened, with a new host of restaurants, a swanky hotel, and a renewed focus on bus and train transit.
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Since then, the Union Station neighborhood has blown up. From new office buildings and apartment complexes to restaurants, bars, and green spaces—even a decked-out Whole Foods—Union Station is now a true destination for locals and visitors alike.
Boundaries: From the South Platte River at Confluence and Commons Parks to the west, to Lawrence Street to the east, the Cherry Creek Trail to the South, and 20th Street to the North.
The Vibe: Buzzing. Under the shadow of skyscrapers, jay-walking pedestrians navigate traffic humming down one-way streets. Though the foot (and vehicle) traffic diminishes on evenings and weekends, when offices are closed, myriad happy hours, restaurants, bars, and weekend brunches keep the ‘hood lively.
Getting Around: Get there via bus, bike, ride-share, or light rail. If you’re thinking about driving on a weekday, prepare yourself to spend some time circling around before finding a metered parking space, and then plan to move your car every two hours to avoid a ticket. Traverse the 16th Street Mall via its free Mall Ride.
Don’t be surprised to find a line out the door of local restaurants (even the grab-and-go options) during lunchtime on weekdays. Some favorites include Troy Guard’s (of TAG Restaurant Group fame) Bubu, an Asian-fusion, build-your-own bowl concept in Larimer Square. Create a bowl from scratch, or try out one of the expert combos, like the Thai bowl, with green papaya slaw and toasted rice. Another downtown favorite is Steamboat Springs-born Backcountry Deli, where you’ll find heartily crafted sandwiches, like the Hidden Valley, with artichoke hearts, goat cheese, and balsamic, or the Grand, featuring three Italian meats, garlic mayo, and red wine vinaigrette (Pro tip: order online for pickup to avoid a long wait).
On weekends, the neighborhood is home to some of the city’s best brunches. Bistro Vendôme is perfect for a fancier, French-inspired morning—the croque monsieur will put you right in a Parisian plaza. For a classic brunch, head over to the Nickel in Hotel Teatro, where $20 will get you a two-hour bottomless bar car with White Russians, mimosas, and Bloody Marys.
Union Station restaurants tend to trend toward the third dollar sign on Yelp, so dinner should be reserved for special occasions. Urban Farmer offers a modern steakhouse vibe with stunning interior finishes. Here, the menu focuses on using whole cows, which are butchered and dry-aged in house. Another can’t-miss option is Mercantile Dining & Provision inside Union Station. Owner and chef Alex Seidel (who has earned numerous James Beard Awards nominations for Best Chef: Southwest) is great for family-style dining. Try the paella valencia at dinnertime—a rich dish that features squid, scallops, sausage, prawns, and chicken confit—or stop by during daytime hours for craft sandwiches (try the braised short rib sandwich), pastries, coffee, and more.
Catch a Coffee Buzz…
You’d be remiss not to visit the Tattered Cover—Denver’s OG indie bookstore—while in the area. Grab a cup of joe, roam its bookshelves, grab a binding that piques your interest, and enjoy some quiet time in one of the many mismatched seating arrangements at its location in the historic Morey Mercantile Building. For a café that’s all about the java, venture to the nearby Little Owl. The tiny space focuses on the beans, with a farm-to-cup mission and single-origin brews. For a livelier environment, try out Huckleberry Roasters in the new Dairy Block development on 18th and Wazee streets.
Or a Boozy Buzz
In this hood, you can’t go wrong when it comes to happy hour. Lucky Pie‘s post-work deals include $5 pizzas, $2 beers, and toppings like prosciutto or arugula for a few dollars extra. Jax Fish House offers oysters for $1.50 each, as well as discounts on many dishes from their kitchen. You can also find $3 cans of beer and oyster shooters (oyster, vodka, and Bloody Mary mix), $6 select wines, and cocktails from $5 to $7. Citizen Rail’s happy hour offers a luxurious vibe and is always buzzing. We enjoyed the “From The Fields” bite, a fresh, Mediterranean-inspired dish with eggplant caviar, spring pea hummus, and cauliflower tabbouleh. Pair that with one of their playful shot-and-drink style combos (like the glass of rosé and a shooter of mezcal) for a great post-work pick-me-up.
If you’re heading downtown on a weekend, try Poka Lola Social Club, a sophisticated-but-fun, soda-fountain-inspired cocktail bar located at the Dairy Block, or head to The Black Buzzard at Oskar Blues Bar & Grill for anything from a comedy show to live blues and plenty of beer.
For trendy boutiques, head to Larimer Square, where you’ll find Hailee Grace, a local favorite that keeps things affordable, or Frinje, a go-to for finding contemporary clothing and accessories. Looking to put your best foot forward? Check out Scarpaletto for Italian footwear. If you’re looking for more Western-inspired getups, a visit to Rockmount Ranch Wear, established in 1946, is a must. Here, you’ll find denim jeans, cowboy hats, and bolo ties galore. For artisanal grocery shopping, check out EVOO Marketplace‘s olive oil and aged balsamic sampling room, or Rocket Fizz for its old-timey sodas and candies (think: Big League Chew, Necco Wafers, saltwater taffy, and more). Finally, head to Cooper + Dash for fun knick-knacks and smile-inducing gifts.
Union Station is ripe with art galleries, like the David B. Smith Gallery or Robischon. Or get your artistic fix at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which has made a name for itself for bringing in renowned (and often controversial) exhibitions and attracting a younger audience. History buffs should consider going on one of the area’s many walking tours, like a historic tour of LoDo, Larimer Square, or 16th Street. Another option? Skip the tours and take a stroll around Union Station itself. The more-than-a-century-old train station is rich with history—and probably the Mile High City’s best place for people-watching.