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Aspen has become synonymous with posh, upper-class ski culture and unattainable aristocratic living. Sure, the town is one of the most expensive cities in America and frequented by the mega-rich and a roster of celebrities. But that doesn’t mean Aspen-Snowmass isn’t for regular folk, too—especially now that the IKON pass now grants access to all four Aspen-area resorts. We talked to longtime locals about how they enjoy the ample snowfall, epic terrain, world-class dining and cultural attractions that made Aspen famous—without breaking the bank.
Believe it or not, Aspen has some great dining deals—and $120 for caviar crepes is not one of them. The town comes alive during ski season, with many restaurants offering extended happy hours and high-quality specials. The lounge at the Limelight Hotel has the longest happy hour in town, offering daily specials on truffle fries, hummus, and more from 3 to 7 p.m. Local Pilates instructor Hannah Surnow says locals love the Limelight for its “cozy atmosphere with live music.” Surnow also says the $10 Local Burger at Aspen Public House is one of the best deals in town for those needing to fuel up after a cold day on the mountain. Looking for a late-night bite? The Red Onion, a local landmark with a mind-bogglingly long whiskey list, offers happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m., where you can save on beer, wine, well cocktails, and apps.
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Locals also swear by the bar menus—often available all day—offered at some of the high-end restaurants in town. Su Casa is popular for its taqueria menu, an extensive selection of $4 street-style tacos and $8 burritos that’s also available late-night Thursday through Saturday. Jing, a new sushi spot, features a selection of $7 rolls and $6 dim sum dishes for those who sit in its bar lounge (first come, first serve). Kim Edwards, a local sales and marketing professional, loves the bar menu at L’Hostaria, which features smaller portions (read: lower prices) of dishes like salmon tartare, beef ravioli, and chicken parmesan—many of which are still ample enough to provide leftovers.
On-mountain dining at ski resorts is notoriously pricey anywhere you go, but many Aspen/Snowmass resort restaurants seem to provide more bang for your buck with larger portion sizes and greater menu variety (think pho, ramen, pay-by-the-weight salad bars, and ahi tuna sandwiches). Bonnie’s Restaurant at Ajax—famous for its pancake breakfasts and homemade apple strudel— has been independently owned since the 1960s, helping to keep the sky-high resort pricing at bay. Edwards says locals also flock to Bonnie’s for its “sunny deck and authentic vibe.”
With proper planning, you can also take advantage of tasty on-mountain freebies like complimentary Lavazza coffee at 9 a.m., while supplies last, and complimentary energy bars and hot cider available at guest service stations for snack breaks. And if any resort reports eight or more inches of fresh snow, free pancakes are served at designated mountain-top restaurants.
Of course it’s most likely that lodging, not food, will eat up most of your budget. The classic real estate adage rings no truer than in Aspen, where a prime hotel location within walking distance to the mountain will cost you an arm and a leg. More affordable options might be available “down valley” in the neighboring towns of Snowmass or Carbondale (another perk of staying in Carbondale is gaining proximity to budget-friendly hot spring spots). Free transportation options abound to make up for the distance, like a free public bus system and various hotel ski shuttles. Free parking is also available at Highlands and Snowmass for cars carrying four or more passengers.
In town, you’ll have to look to amenities and packages for added value, like the complimentary après spread at the Molly Gibson Lodge and free parking at the St. Moritz Lodge , an upscale hostel featuring both private and shared rooms starting at just $75 per night. Some hotels, like the Snow Queen Lodge, offer apartment-style rooms with multiple beds for groups and families, and kitchenettes for prepping meals and re-heating restaurant leftovers. Book a stay at the Limelight Hotel for a minimum of three nights and they’ll throw in up to two lift tickets per day—with access to all four mountains—for free. Many hotels in town offer complimentary breakfast buffets and shuttle services as well.
If you’re coming to Aspen armed with the IKON pass, you know you can ski your heart out at all four Aspen Ski Company resorts—Aspen Mountain (also known as Ajax), Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. What you might not know is that these mountains offer a plethora of free services to amplify your stoke. For example, sign up for the First Tracks program to hit the hills a full 30 minutes early and start your day with an untracked run. Planning to hike Highland Bowl? Hop on the free snow cat to save you time and energy. Less adventurous types can opt to take a free ski or snowshoe tour instead, led by a knowledgeable guide.
No pass? No problem. Skinning is permitted at all four Aspen-area resorts on designated trails—you’ll only need a pass if you plan to ride a chairlift or gondola. The valley also has an expansive trail network for backcountry exploration on foot, ski, snowmobile, or bike, and some hotels provide complimentary gear.
There is plenty to see and do off the slopes, too. Free admission is offered to the architecturally stunning Aspen Art Museum, which is home to rotating exhibits and a light-filled rooftop café, as well as the four nature centers operated by the the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, featuring wildlife displays, trail networks, and educational programs for visitors of all ages (some programs and events require a fee). Finally, it won’t cost you a penny to partake in some of Aspen’s most classic pastimes—window shopping and people watching.