Landing at Denver International Airport, I was curious about why Denver is known as the mile-high city. Expecting a landscape of mountains and lush greenery, I was initially greeted by a view typical of major American cities - urban sprawl and a skyline dotted with tall buildings.
However, Denver's unique charm lies in its elevation. Some parts of the city sit at 5,280 feet (1.61 km) above sea level, precisely one mile high.
Interesting fact: Colorado is home to the highest city in the US. Alma, Colorado, sits at an elevation of 10,578 feet.
A notable landmark is the brass plaque embedded in a step of the Colorado State Capitol Building's Western entrance, marking the exact spot of Denver's mile-high elevation.
Denver, part of the High Desert Prairie, is nestled at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, offering a natural playground for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, camping, rafting, and snow sports.
Interesting Fact: Denver’s sky appears brighter blue than many other cities. The city's high elevation means the air contains less water vapor, resulting in a clearer, more vivid sky.
Denver is not just about natural beauty; it's a hub for entertainment, activities, and diverse dining experiences. So, what can you do in Denver?
Take a walk
Exploring Denver on foot is a delight. Leave your car behind and stroll through the city's vibrant streets, discovering restaurants, shops, and museums. Some of Denver's most walkable neighborhoods include:
Downtown Denver is a bustling area within a one-mile radius where you can kayak on the Platte River, visit top museums, shop at art galleries and boutiques, and enjoy a Broadway show. The area is also known for live music, rollercoasters, and a water park.
Sports enthusiasts can catch a baseball game at Coors Field. Denver's culinary scene is vibrant, with chef-driven restaurants and innovative craft breweries. The Denver Beer Trail is a great way to sample local brews, and Food Halls offer a taste of world cuisines.
Interesting Facts: A food hall is essentially a food court managed by a single master chef, where various high-quality dining concepts are tested. If one concept fails, it can be swiftly replaced with another.
The 16th Street Mall is a hub for big-name stores, dining, museums, and entertainment, with part of the street pedestrianized for a more relaxed experience.
Larimer Square, another popular area in Downtown Denver, is a pedestrian-only street filled with renowned restaurants and street performers.
The Denver Performing Arts Complex on 14th Street, spanning four blocks with ten performance spaces, is worth a visit even if you're not attending a show. The complex's architecture and public art displays are a feast for the eyes.
The renovated Denver Union Station in the historic Lower Downtown (LoDo) area is a destination in itself, boasting Victorian buildings that house restaurants, galleries, shops, bars, brewpubs, and coffee houses.
Interesting fact: In 1902, Denver Union Station enforced a “no kissing” rule on platforms to prevent train delays.
A recommended walk starts from Union Station and 16th Street Mall, crossing the Millennium Bridge to Confluence Park, over the Platte River, and into the Highland Neighborhood.
Alternatively, the Platte River Trail in Confluence Park, which turns into Commons Park and then the City of Cuernavaca Park, offers a nature-filled walk with views of the Denver skyline.
Highland, located across the Platte River and accessible via the Millennium Bridge, is known for its Victorian-era homes, lush gardens, shops, art galleries, and restaurants.
The area comprises three distinct districts: Highlands Square, Tennyson Street, and Lower Highland (LoHi).
Interesting fact: In 1858, Denver was uninhabited. By 1888, Colorado's population had surged to nearly 200,000, thanks to a gold rush.
Highlands Square features boutique stores, wine shops, bookstores, restaurants, and bars. Tennyson Street is a cultural district with endless exploration opportunities.
Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy a walk through Lower Highland.
Don't miss Sloan's Lake Park in Highland, Denver's largest lake, offering two playgrounds, tennis courts, athletic fields, boating, basketball courts, multi-use trails, and picnic areas.
Interesting Fact: Denver boasts the nation's largest city park system, with 14,000 acres of mountain parks and 2,500 acres of natural areas.
Sloan's Lake Park is also an ideal spot for sunset views, with the Rocky Mountains and Denver skyline in the backdrop.
Denver Nature And Science Museum
As a science and nature enthusiast, I make it a point to visit science museums in every city. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science was a highlight, serving as a premier resource for informal science education in the Rocky Mountain region.
The museum's diverse exhibitions, programs, and activities provide insights into the natural history of Colorado, Earth, and the universe.
Spanning 716,000 square feet, the museum houses over one million objects, including natural history and anthropological materials, as well as archival and library resources.
The Space Odyssey exhibit, featuring a full-scale replica of a Mars Exploration Rover, a Planetarium, and a Spaceship replica, was particularly fascinating. Interactive displays, like controlling a Mars Rover on a simulated landscape, added to the experience.
Other notable exhibits include Expedition Health, Wildlife Halls, Gems and Minerals, North American Indian Cultures, and Discovery Zone.
The IMAX theater showcases scientific films, adding another dimension to the museum experience.
Denver's dining scene has seen significant growth and evolution, with an array of chef-led dining halls, high-end restaurants, breweries, wineries, and ethnic eateries.
Located near Union Station, Snooze appears as a quaint breakfast spot but extends inside the station with both indoor and outdoor seating. The menu offers a variety of breakfast favorites like pancakes, French toast, Eggs Benedict, breakfast burritos, oatmeal, and sandwiches, catering to various dietary needs, including paleo, vegetarian, vegan, dairy-free, and gluten-free options.
During my visit, I tried their OMG French toast and breakfast burrito, both of which were delicious and satisfying.
Corridor 44 restaurant
Corridor 44, nestled in the walkable Larimer Square neighborhood, offers an elegant dining experience. It's Denver's only Champagne bar, featuring an extensive selection of Champagne flavors, cocktails, and martinis, with Champagne even incorporated into their recipes.
The ambiance is enhanced by a great music selection. I enjoyed their Salmon on Angel Hair Noodles, and the vanilla bean cheesecake was a perfect dessert to end the meal.
"Hapa," a Hawaiian term meaning "a harmonious blend of Asian & American cultures," perfectly describes Hapa Sushi. This restaurant offers traditional Japanese cuisine with an international twist. The extensive menu includes various rolls, sushi, sashimi, bowls, poke, and curry dishes.
I opted for the Sushi Sampler, which included a California roll, maguro, sake, hamachi, ebi, saba, and shiromi, allowing me to sample a variety of items. The sushi was fresh, flavorful, and satisfying.
Marco's Pizza, initially discovered during a food tour, impressed me enough to return for a full pie. The hand-made pizzas are crafted with imported tomatoes, Buffalo mozzarella, and house-made lemon cello, cooked in a wood-fired oven.
The pizza, distinct from chain offerings, is rich in flavor. Marco's Coal-Fired Restaurant, its official name, reflects its original use of coal for the oven.
Lazo empanada, offering an Argentinian take on this traditional Spanish pastry, makes their empanadas on-site with a variety of fillings like ground beef, steak, chicken, and mushrooms. They also offer breakfast and dessert empanadas, with chimichurri sauce as a recommended accompaniment.
Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs
Is it possible to have a gourmet dog? This quintessential American food, often found everywhere, takes a unique twist at Biker Jim's. I was initially skeptical, but a friend's recommendation led me to try their Jalapeño Sausage and Wild Boar, though I steered clear of the more exotic Rattlesnake & Rabbit and Ostrich options.
Little did I know at the time, but Biker Jim's has been featured on shows like Bizarre Foods with Anthony Bourdain, elevating its status in the world of gourmet dogs.
Kachina offers a creative spin on Mexican and South American cuisine, with dishes like shrimp ceviche, green chili stew, and an array of unique tacos, including one with fried bread. During a food tour, I sampled their Fried Bread Taco. As someone not overly fond of fried foods, it didn't leave a lasting impression on me, but it's a must-try for those who enjoy such flavors.
Mariscos El Muchacho Alegre
Located in Aurora, a suburb of Denver, Mariscos El Muchacho Alegre is a gem for authentic Mexican cuisine enthusiasts. The lively atmosphere, complete with loud Mexican music, sets the stage for a delightful dining experience.
Interesting Fact: Denver is the birthplace of the first Chipotle Mexican Grill.
During my visit, I indulged in the Asada Y Camarones Fajita - a steak and shrimp fajita that was both delicious and generously portioned, easily enough for two. The meat was cooked to perfection.
The only thing missing at this restaurant is diet drinks, but considering the high-calorie feast, it's perhaps for the best.
Things to do Nearby
Garden of the Gods
The Garden of the Gods, next to Colorado Springs, is a National Natural Landmark known for its majestic red rock formations. The visitor center, with ample parking, a theater, café, and souvenir shop, is an excellent starting point for exploring this natural wonder.
From here, you can hike to the rocks, take a shuttle, or join a guided tour. During my visit, I hiked around the formation and then took the shuttle back.
You can also enjoy the Garden of the Gods without visiting the center, by simply driving around the rocks or parking nearby, if you're lucky to find a spot.
The visitor center website provides extensive information on activities, tours, and hikes. Options include bike rentals and the "Perfect Day Package," which features a trolley tour, a movie, and a boxed lunch. For an added thrill, consider replacing the trolley tour with a Jeep tour.
After the Garden of the Gods, explore other attractions in Colorado Springs. Start with The Broadmoor Seven Falls, but remember to park at the Norris Penrose Event Center and take the shuttle, as there's no parking at the falls.
Don't miss the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, situated at 6,714 feet above sea level, making it the highest zoo in America. Covering 140 acres, with 40 in use, the zoo is home to over 750 animals across nearly 150 species, including more than thirty endangered ones.
Estes Park, the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, offers visitors a chance to stock up or dine before venturing into the park. Activities here include hiking, cycling, rock climbing, and whitewater rafting, along with guided tours into the Rockies.
Elkhorn Ave, downtown, is lined with unique shops, restaurants, and coffee shops, complemented by a mile-long Riverwalk. For those seeking a longer hike, the trail around Lake Estes is a great choice.
For breathtaking views, take the Aerial Tramway to the summit of Prospect Mountain.
Rocky Mountains National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park, spanning the Continental Divide, is a haven of mountains, forests, and alpine tundra. It offers a plethora of activities for both locals and visitors.
Interesting Fact: The park features the 30-mile-long Continental Divide Trail, dividing it into Eastern and Western sections.
Activities include hiking, camping, whitewater rafting, fishing, and hunting.
The park's many mountains, some soaring above 11,000 ft, with the highest, Longs Peak, reaching 14,259 feet, offer diverse and stunning landscapes. A drive from Denver to the park's highest points showcases changing terrain and weather, from high desert to alpine forests.
Interesting Facts: Trail Ridge Road in the park is the highest continuous paved road in the country, offering 48 miles of mountain views, 11 of which are above the tree line.
The park's rivers and streams flow towards both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Timed reservations are required for entry, so visit the park's website for more information and to make a reservation.