The first permanent building in Denver wasn’t a church, a home, or a bank; it was a saloon. More than 150 years after gold prospectors began to arrive, Denverites still love their intoxicants, only they’ve settled in enough to establish an increasingly cosmopolitan city that honors its past while looking ahead. For many years those mountains near Denver’s doorstep made the city an afterthought among outdoorsy types. But by reinventing historic structures, blending in modern architecture and art, and applying 21st-century tweaks to its landscape and public policies, Denver has staked its claim as one of America’s most underrated cities.
Most people wouldn’t think of bunking in a train depot, but the unique Crawford Hotel ($279-$689) makes it downright desirable. It debuted in 2014, part of the Union Station renovation project, which transformed the rickety terminal into an innovative transit hub. Featuring a Western-modern mash-up of decor, the Crawford opens onto the station’s atrium (otherwise known as “Denver’s living room”), a grand 1914 space ringed with shops and restaurants. Mercantile Dining & Provision brews a mean almond milk-infused chamomile tea, or you can grab coffee and browse the stacks at the venerable Tattered Cover Book Store across the way on the 16th Street Mall, a 1.25-mile promenade designed by I.M. Pei. Beyond the ultramodern Union Station train platform, the Millennium Bridge’s 20-story cable-stayed mast beckons you toward LoHi (Lower Highland), Denver’s hood du jour and a popular spot for brunch or lunch. Inside a former mortuary, the buzzy Linger serves international street food in an airy, industrial-chic space that overlooks the giant milk-jug exterior of Little Man Ice Cream, home to some of the tastiest scoops in town. Five minutes farther is Duo, long one of Denver’s most esteemed restaurants; the chocolate French toast and Colorado brisket crock will strand you in a sweet-or-savory dilemma. If you’ve come this far, it’s worth a stroll around the corner to Potter Highlands, a meticulously preserved historic sector with varied architectural styles dating to the 1870s.
Wildly popular since its 2010 launch, Denver’s B-cycle bike-sharing program offers 85 docking stations that make riding convenient. But go easy if you detour through the dark and divey My Brother’s Bar. The city’s oldest tavern, born in 1873, plays a soundtrack of classical music and grills a juicy jalapeño-and-cream cheese burger. Down the block, Proto’s Pizza bakes light and flaky Neapolitan-style pies, and for more up-to-the-minute imbibing, the Denver Beer Co. is one of the city’s busiest craft breweries. You’re also near the old red-brick tramway powerhouse, now the flagship store of REI, with its 47-foot indoor climbing “pinnacle.” Right outside you can rent a kayak at Confluence Park, where the South Platte River meets Cherry Creek. The adjacent Cherry Creek Trail winds past downtown to the museum district, 30 minutes on foot, 10 by bike. The Denver Art Museum and History Colorado Center showcase far-flung exhibits and regional work, respectively. But if only one museum will do, make it the Clyfford Still. The block of textured concrete is home to the abstract expressionist master’s rotating collection. Afterward you can rest your soles at high tea in the soaring Gilded Age atrium of the Brown Palace Hotel. Should you be more interested in the “high” part, the Euflora Cannabis Dispensary is the only retail marijuana outlet on the 16th Street Mall; other dispensaries abound, along with trendy bars and restaurants, a mile or so away in the South Broadway neighborhood.
The area around Coors Field can get fratty after dark, but ample grown-up food and drink options line the LoDo (Lower Downtown) fringes. Lower48 Kitchen serves sophisticated variations on traditional American cuisine, from a $2 bite-size gourmet corn dog to an $83 dry-aged Colorado rib eye. Several blocks up is RiNo (River North), a former warehouse district that brims with galleries, craft breweries, and restaurants, like the multiethnic, communal Populist. The Source, an artisanal marketplace in a repurposed 1880s foundry, houses Acorn, which offers eclectic contemporary cuisine, and the Crooked Stave, known for sour beer. A cocktail at the downtown Hyatt’s Peaks Lounge comes with some of the city’s best views, while the art deco speakeasy the Cruise Room, off the historic Oxford Hotel lobby, is refined and old-school cool. But if the timing’s right, save the drinks for later and catch RiNo’s First Friday art walk to get a local’s perspective on Denver’s creative side.
Even if you’re not seeing a show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (July’s lineup includes Neil Young, Wilco, and the Avett Brothers), a visit to the venue will inspire. Twenty-five minutes from downtown, the area is laced with hiking trails, and ascending 380-plus steps—6,450 feet above sea level—in order to sample the God-given acoustics provides its own inspiration.
The light-rail line from Denver International Airport to Union Station opens in 2016; for now you’ll require traditional ground transportation for the 30-minute trip to and from downtown.
Despite the Rocky Mountains’ rep as a skiing paradise, Colorado annually welcomes far more summer tourists; expect the need to make reservations for restaurants and tours.
Denver in July is sunny, hot, and dry (with occasional late-afternoon showers), so carry water, sunscreen, and lip balm. The high-plains air makes most nights cool and pleasant.