As I landed at Denver International Airport, I wondered why they call it the mile-high city. I was expecting mountainous terrain and a lot of green.
At first glance, Denver looks like any other major city in the USA, with urban sprawl and a city center with tall buildings.
But some points in the city are at an elevation of 5,280 feet (1.61 km), exactly one mile above sea level.
Interesting fact: The highest city in the US is in the state of Colorado. The city of Alma sits at an elevation of 10,578 feet.
A brass plaque embedded in one of the steps of the Colorado State Capitol Building's Western entrance marks the exact spot where Denver's altitude is precisely one mile high.
The Denver area is considered part of the High Desert Prairie, but it sits at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The area offers the residents and visitors of this metro area an immense natural playground for hiking, fishing, camping, rafting, and snow sports.
Interesting Fact: Denver’s bright blue sky really is bluer than many other cities. Because of Denver’s elevation, the air has less water vapor than it would at a lower altitude, making for a gorgeous sky!
Denver offers many opportunities for entertainment, activities, and dining. So, what can you do in Denver?
Take a walk
Leave your car at home (or the hotel) and walk the bustling streets for a closer look at restaurants, shops, and museums. Here are some of the most walkable neighborhoods in Denver:
Within a one-mile radius, you can kayak on the Platte River, explore some of the city's best museums, shop at art galleries and boutiques, and see a Broadway touring show. You can also enjoy live music, rollercoasters, or cool off in a water park.
If you are a sports fan, you can catch a baseball game at Coors Field downtown.
Denver is also home to chef-driven restaurants and innovative craft breweries. Take the Denver Beer Trail to sample local brews – or visit Food Halls to experience world cuisines.
Interesting Facts: A food hall is basically a food court run by one master chef. The chef tries different high-quality dining concepts. If one idea fails, it is easy to replace it with another.
Visit the 16th Street Mall for big-name stores, dining experiences, museums, and entertainment. Part of the street is blocked off to traffic to allow for a relaxed walk.
Larimer Square is another shopping and dining area in Downtown Denver. Larimer Street is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare with popular restaurants and street performers.
Even if you are not attending a concert, try to walk to and through the Denver Performing Arts Complex on 14th Street. The complex covers four blocks containing ten performance spaces with over 10,000 seats.
Walking through the Performing Arts Complex, you can enjoy the building design and the public art displays.
The renovated Denver Union Station in the historic Lower Downtown (LoDo) is a destination on its own.
Interesting fact: In 1902, the police at Denver Union Station started enforcing a “no kissing” rule on platforms because it slowed down the trains.
Admire the Victorian buildings that house restaurants, galleries, shops, bars, brewpubs, and coffee houses.
One suggested walk takes you from Union Station and 16th Street Mall over the Millennium Bridge, connecting to Confluence Park, over the Platte River, and into the Highland Neighborhood.
Alternatively, you can follow the Platte River Trail inside Confluence Park – which turns into Commons Park and then the City of Cuernavaca Park. If you take the trails through those parks, you can spend 20 to 30 minutes enjoying nature while gazing at the Denver Skyline.
Highland is on the other side of the Platte River and is easily accessible by the Millennium Bridge.
Walking around this neighborhood, you will find Victorian-era homes and buildings, lush gardens and parks, shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
The area is divided into three diverse districts: Highlands Square, Tennyson Street, and Lower Highland (or LoHi).
Interesting fact: In 1858, there was not a single person living in the Denver metro area. Thirty years later, Colorado was a state with a population of almost 200,000. It was a gold rush that caused this boom.
Highlands Square has boutique stores, wine shops, bookstores, restaurants, and bars. Tennyson Street is a cultural district that you could spend days perusing.
For architecture enthusiasts, a walk through Lower Highland is a must.
While in Highland, make sure to visit Sloan's Lake Park, a beautiful park with a large lake – the largest lake in Denver.
The park boasts two playgrounds, tennis courts, multiple athletic fields, boating, basketball courts, multi-use trails, and picnic areas.
Interesting Fact: Denver has the largest city park system in the nation, with 14,000 acres of mountain parks and 2,500 acres of natural areas.
It is also a wonderful place to catch the sunset, with stunning views of the Rocky Mountains and Denver skyline.
Denver Nature And Science Museum
I am a science and nature buff and can't help visiting the science museum in every city I visit. I am glad I decided to visit this Denver Museum because it was an excellent source for informal science education in the Rocky Mountain region.
The museum has a variety of exhibitions, programs, and activities that help museum visitors learn about the natural history of Colorado, the Earth, and the universe.
The 716,000-square-foot building houses more than one million objects in its collections, including natural history, anthropological materials, and archival and library resources.
I especially enjoyed the Space Odyssey exhibit, which has a full-scale replica of a Mars Exploration Rover, a Planetarium, and a Spaceship replica.
Many of the displays are interactive. I especially enjoyed controlling my own Mars Rover on a simulated Mars landscape.
Other exhibits are Expedition Health, Wildlife Halls, Gems and Minerals, North American Indian Cultures, and Discovery Zone.
And don't forget the IMAX theater highlighting scientific films like Dinosaurs of Antarctica 3D and Wings Over Water.
The dining scene in Denver has been growing and evolving recently with chef-led dining halls, high-end restaurants, breweries and wineries, and ethnic foods.
You can spot Snooze as you walk by Union Station. At first glance, it looks like a tiny breakfast place, but once you go in, you will notice it extends inside the station with indoor and outdoor seating.
The place offers delicious pancakes, French toast, Eggs Benedict, breakfast burritos, oatmeal, breakfast sandwiches, bacon & more.
They also have selections for special dietary needs like paleo, vegetarian & vegan, or dairy-free & gluten-free.
I stopped there twice during my stay and tried their OMG French toast and breakfast burrito. Both were delicious and very filling.
Corridor 44 restaurant
This high-end eatery is in the walkable Larimer Square neighborhood and offers elegant seating and tasty creations.
It is also the only Denver's only Champagne bar with 115 Champagne flavors, 18 Champagne cocktails, and martinis. They even feature Champagne in their recipes.
While listening to a great music selection, I tried Salmon on Angel Hair Noodles. The food was delicious and satisfying, and my vanilla bean cheesecake dessert was a great finale for this dinner.
"Hapa" is a Hawaiian term that means "a harmonious blend of Asian & American cultures." And Hapa Sushi is a place where you can find traditional Japanese cuisine with an international flair.
Hapa offers an extensive menu with various rolls, sushi, Sashimi, bowls, poke, and Curry dishes.
I went for the sushi and ordered the Sushi Sampler, which includes California roll, maguro, sake, hamachi, ebi, saba, and shiromi. This was an excellent choice, as I got to try several items at once.
The food was delicious and satisfying – I had a few leftovers.
I first visited Marco's Pizza as part of a food tour. The one slice of wood-fired pizza offered during the tour convinced me to return later for a whole pie.
Marco makes the pizza by hand with imported tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, and lemon cello made with vodka in a wood-fired oven.
The resulting pizza is different from chain pizza places and is flavorful.
The official name is Marco's Coal-Fired Restaurant because they used coal for the fire when it first opened.
An empanada is a baked or fried turnover consisting of pastry and filling, originating in Spain's Catalan region.
It is a popular food in Latin America, and Lazo empanada is the Argentinian take on this savory food.
Lazo makes their empanadas on-site using a press and a variety of fillings like ground beef, steak, chicken, and mushrooms. They even offer breakfast empanadas and dessert empanadas.
The chimichurri sauce is a must with those delicious empanadas.
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
Is it possible to have a gourmet dog? After all, this quintessentially American food is available everywhere, so why should I stop at this place?
I stepped in because a friend raved about it, so I tried the Jalapeño Sausage and the Wild Boar. I shied away from items like Rattlesnake & Rabbit and Ostrich.
I didn't know it then, but I found out later that this place was featured in bizarre foods, Anthony Burden. Gourmet dogs.
Katchina offers a twist on Mexican and South American food with dishes like shrimp ceviche, green chili stew, and seven distinct types of tacos, including one with fried bread.
I tried the Fried Bread Taco as a sample during a food tour during my visit. I am not a fan of fried foods, so I wasn't overly impressed with it.
Mariscos El Muchacho Alegre
This restaurant is a little outside of Denver in the suburb of Aurora, but worth a visit.
If you love authentic Mexican food, you must visit this place with loud Mexican music and delicious and filling dishes.
Interesting Fact: Denver was home to the very first Chipotle Mexican Grill.
I tried the Asada Y Camarones Fajita during my visit -the steak and shrimp fajita, and loved it. The portion was large enough for two people, and the meat was cooked exactly right.
The only thing missing in this restaurant is diet drinks – but after eating all this high-calorie food, it doesn't make sense to have a diet drink.
Things to do Nearby
Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods is a majestic red rock formation next to the city of Colorado Springs and designated as a National Natural Landmark.
The visitor center is a good launching pad for your adventure with a large parking lot, theater, café, and souvenir shop.
From the center, you can hike to the rocks, take the shuttle, or go on a guided tour.
During my visit, I hiked to the garden, circled the formation, and then took the shuttle for the return trip.
You don't really have to visit the center to enjoy this natural wonder. You can just cruise around the rocks in your car or park right next to the rocks if you are lucky enough.
The visitor center website offers much information about activities, tours, and guided hikes. You can also rent bikes or book the "Perfect Day Package," which includes a trolley tour, a movie, and a boxed lunch. For even more adventure, you can replace the trolley tour with a Jeep tour.
After visiting the Garden of the Gods, you might as well explore Colorado Springs's other landmarks and activities.
Start with a trip to The Broadmoor Seven Falls, but park at the Norris Penrose Event Center and take the shuttle, as there is no parking at the falls.
Another great destination is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, 6,714 feet (ca. 2 km) above sea level, considered the highest zoo in America.
The zoo covers 140 acres, 40 of which are in use. The zoo houses more than 750 animals, representing nearly 150 different species, with more than thirty endangered species.
Known as the base camp for Rocky Mountain National Park, Estes Park offers park visitors a last chance to shop for essentials or grab a meal.
You can go hiking, cycling, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting from this small town. You can also join a guided tour into the Rockies.
Elkhorn Ave, downtown, is home to unique shops, restaurants, and coffee shops, with a mile-long Riverwalk Behind the shops.
For a longer hike, you can take the trail around Lake Estes.
For stunning views of the valley and the mountains, take the Aerial Tramway, which whisks you above the treetops to the summit of Prospect Mountain.
Rocky Mountains National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park in northern Colorado spans the Continental Divide and encompasses protected mountains, forests, and alpine tundra.
The park's mountains, alpine lakes, forests, and wildlife offer a wide range of activities and adventures for Denver area residents and visitors alike.
Interesting Fact: The 30-mile-long Continental Divide Trail runs right through the middle of the park, splitting it into its Eastern and Western sections.
Visitors can enjoy hiking, camping, whitewater rafting, fishing, and hunting.
Many mountains in the park soar to an elevation above 11,000 ft (3.35 km), and the highest one, Longs Peak, reaches 14,259 feet (4.35 km).
Driving from the mile-high city of Denver to the highest point along Highway 34, you can see the terrain and weather change along the way.
On a summer day drive, we started from the Denver high desert with temperatures reaching 98 degrees, went through glacier valleys, to Alpine Lakes, and finally to the Alpine Forest, where the temperature dropped below freezing with a sleet storm.
Interesting Facts: The park features the country’s highest continuous paved road, Trail Ridge Road. Reaching its highest point at 12,183 ft., Trail Ridge Road is 48 miles of pristine mountain views, 11 of which sit above tree line, offering spectacular scenes of Rocky Mountain National Park.
The park contains approximately 450 miles (ca. 724 km) of rivers and streams; some flow to the south and west and eventually end in the Pacific Ocean, while others eat and end up in the Atlantic.
The park requires timed reservations, so head to their website for more information and make a reservation.