Artsy Explorations in the Mile High City: Denver, CO Travel Journal
Most people know Denver as a solid spot for all kinds of outdoor adventuring. They’re not wrong, but there’s a whole lot more to the city than hikes and skiing. I recently had the chance to revisit this midwestern hotspot and found it pretty easy to fill up a whole week with art, food, shopping, and coffee. Lots of coffee.
If I’m the fifth person to tell you that Denver’s pretty rad, I can’t say I’m surprised. Talk about Denver growing as a technology and cultural hub has been a lot louder in recent years, and it feels like the city’s real estate market is doing very well--a good sign of population growth and city development.
For a week or a long weekend, Denver is a people pleaser. Here are my suggestions for neighborhoods to wander through, things to do, spots to eat at, and good places to stop for a coffee break and cool off (if you’re visiting in the summer it can get preeeetty toasty).
Travel tips for Denver first-timers
They don’t call it the Mile High City for nothing. Somehow I always forget about the altitude in Denver until I get a headache after landing and then drunk off half a beer. If you’re subject to altitude sickness like me, remember to bring some medication, drink tons of water, and give yourself time to acclimate, especially if you plan on doing a fourteener (read: summiting a 14,000-foot peak, of which Colorado has 53(!!)).
Traffic can be heavy at weird times, which is a drag since you really need a car to see most of Denver. And parking is kinda unconventional, too. Street meters and parking restrictions go until as late as 2 a.m. and you’ll have to move your car at least 100 feet every two hours. My sister lives in Denver and warned me that these are no hollow threats--abide by the rules or expect to see that comically small parking enforcement car come along with a ticket and a boot for your ride. The city’s website has helpful info on transportation of all kinds.
If you’re renting a car, you’re all set for airport transportation, but if not, expect a Lyft ride into town to be pricey. The airport is kinda out there. The cheapest ($9) and easiest thing to do is take the A Line train from the airport into Union Station. I found the ride to be easy and quiet. And Union Station is a beautiful old building that you should try to see anyway. Might as well kill two birds with one fast-moving train.
Good streets for wandering feets
My go-to travel approach is to find streets that are central to cool neighborhoods, then park it and walk until I’m tired or hungry. So far, this laissez-faire approach has led me to several worthy discoveries when combined with a tiny bit of help (usually in the moment) from Yelp, Instagram, and Google.
These are a few of my favorite areas, but one of the charming things about Denver is how many little pockets of awesomeness are hidden throughout the city. Drive around and explore for yourself. I’m sure I haven’t covered the half of it.
RiNo (River North District) - Larimer Street between North Broadway and 30th Street
LoDo (Lower Downtown) - The area around Union Station and 16th Street
Highland / LoHi (Lower Highland) - Platte Street and the area northwest of I-25, 32nd Avenue between Julian Street and Meade Street
Berkeley - Tennyson Street between West 38th Avenue and West 44th Avenue
Wash Park (Washington Park) - South Gaylord Street between East Tennessee Avenue and East Mississippi Avenue
Civic Center / Golden Triangle - the area around the Denver Art Museum
Broadway - Broadway from above I-25 to 6th Avenue
Pearl Street - South Pearl Street from East Arkansas Avenue to East Jewell Avenue
Santa Fe Art District - Santa Fe Drive between West 5th Avenue and West 12th Avenue
Littleton - South Rapp Street and West Main Street between South Rapp Street and South Sycamore Street
Get that coffee fix
Although I’m sold on the health benefits of coffee consumption, there is still a limit to the amount of bean juice I can physically ingest on a daily basis, so sadly I did not make it to all of the coffee shops I had on my list to see. Next time…
The upside is that the ones I did try were more than sufficient to inspire a return trip. Huckleberry Roasters at the Dairy Block is a fairly new addition to the scene, nestled amongst a plethora of bustling eateries inside the new Denver Milk Market downtown. Their slightly puzzling mix of healthy and super-not-healthy options actually vibes with my eating habits quite well. Little Owl Coffee in LoDo is a cute little spot with a small front patio and tasty chai lattes, while Allegro Coffee Roasters in Berkeley is an expansive, light-filled piece of modern design eye candy. Lots of seating, wood grain, good coffee, and coffee related goods.
In the quaint suburb of Littleton, stop in at Dirt Coffee Bar for a drink and a treat. The renovated old home is so cozy, complete with a front yard sporting picnic tables and cornhole boards. Stay until it’s beer o’clock and they’ve got you covered there, too. This shop is a nonprofit with a high commitment to sustainability. Gotta love that!
Allegro Coffee Roasters
Buy all the things
While walking in RiNo, Modern Nomad sucked me in like a California bohemian to a handmade mudcloth pillowcase. The shop is a combination of several sellers that work well together aesthetically, with clothing, accessories, home good, and earth-friendly body and cleaning products up front and larger furniture in the back. Also in RiNo, colorful and modern (yet totally functional and badass) outdoor gear can be found en masse at the Topo Designs flagship store. Head to Feral in the Berkeley area for more outdoor gear for purchase or rent, and to cozy up in their map room among their extensive collection of maps and books for trip planning.
Fellow crafty plant ladies should head to Broadway to shop at Fancy Tiger Crafts and Rosehouse. Fancy Tiger has a large selection of yarns, fabric, patterns, and craft materials (as well as classes if you need some help getting started), while Rosehouse is a lush plant store packed with modern succulents, cacti, and air plants displayed among unique decor and home goods. There’s also a friendly one-eyed shop cat, so that’s a huge plus in my book.
Larimer Square and the 16th Street Mall in LoDo also have a nice mix of local and big box retailers. A favorite for souvenirs of the literary kind is the Tattered Cover Book Store, a Denver institution. It’s huge, but feels like a cozy little bookshop.
Plants on stripes at Modern Nomad
Food worthy of face stuffing
Let’s start with the healthy stuff, shall we? It’s good to have some options when your stomach needs a rest from vacation food, and these spots are honestly good enough that it won’t feel like a concession. Vital Root is a beautiful spot in Berkeley with a shaded outdoor garden and to-go food as well as vegan/vegetarian/whole-food-focused breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Downtown, Protein Bar was a great fast-casual healthy stop with a good-sized smoothie menu as well as breakfast and veggie bowls, and Modern Market Eatery has lots of options for whole foods and healthy ingredients like salmon. Call was a favorite in RiNo, partially because of the lovely outdoor patio and mostly because of the fresh salads and fun drink options, like shrubs and spritzs.
If you’re an indecisive eater, Denver’s market-style food destinations are your best bet. The Denver Milk Market is the newest addition, opened just this June in LoDo and boasting 16 vendors from donuts to craft cocktails, butcher shops and bao pork buns. The Denver Central Market in RiNo is another sure thing, with coffee, Neapolitan pizza, ice cream, fresh fish, and salad bowl spots. The Source is a larger, longer-standing market concept with 25 artisans including a bakery, taqueria, modern wood-fired restaurant, barber, art gallery, kitchen goods store, apparel shop, florist, brewery, and barbecue. So go to eat, but you could also do some shopping and get a haircut if you’re one of those “maximize my time” kind of people.
Other indulgent carb-loaded noshfests include local favorite breakfast bomb Snooze (pineapple upside down pancakes, green chile verde benedict), classic Italian Osteria Marco (tasty chicken parmesan sandwich), bruschetta bar Postino LoHi (great for groups), and La Loma for Mexican fare (the seafood enchiladas were the standout for creative flavors). For a fun night out, head to First Draft Taproom & Kitchen. Taps line the walls so you can pour yourself a taste of as many beers as you want. And once you get tired of beer, kombucha and coffee are on tap, too.
Denver Milk Market
Scoping the art and culture scene
To fill in the few hours between meals and coffee breaks, keep an eye out for bright street art. Denver is practically exploding with it, especially in the LoDo and RiNo areas. There are also tons of breweries in town, but I didn’t make it to many this trip. You almost don’t need to plan ahead for this though--just walk 10 feet and I swear you’ll run smack into one.
Another highlight of my trip was seeing an outdoor concert (Third Eye Blind, my "I'll never get tired of hearing this music" standby) at Hudson Gardens, a lush botanical garden in Littleton that has free regular admission and a great summer concert series.
For museum nerds, the Civic Center / Golden Triangle area hosts not only the Denver Art Museum, but also the Molly Brown House, Museum of Contemporary Art, Clyfford Still Museum, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and more. I loved the Denver Art Museum’s curation and the interactive maker space on the ground floor. Two current exhibits were especially fun--Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer and New Territory: Landscape Photography Today. Gibson’s exhibit dives into his Native American heritage to surface complex issues in deceivingly happy-looking, colorful works of beading and paint. In New Territory, the range of photographic techniques--some classic, some newly invented--utilized to capture landscapes from fresh perspectives was inspiring and eye opening.
Jeffrey Gibson, Denver Art Museum
Easy Day Trips
If you have time to get out of the city, these three spots are within an hour and have plenty to keep you busy all day.
Walk along Pearl Street, stopping for coffee at Alpine Modern Cafe and a cupcake (or two, or three) at Boulder Baked. Tour the Celestial Seasonings tea factory for a face full of peppermint (it’s enjoyable, I swear).
Go for a hike on your choice of several Jeffco Open Spaces (short for Jefferson County). Our hike with friends through Alderfer/Three Sisters Park was a lovely taste of the Colorado Rockies and not too hard. Afterward, stop for a drink and lunch on Revival Brews’ outdoor patio.
A historic gold rush town, there’s plenty of charm still left in Golden. Two good activities for visitors include a tour of the massive Coors Brewery and a show at the famously beautiful Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
With my sister and several good friends living in Denver, I hope to make it back more often in the coming years. Which is a good thing, because it’s a truly cool city.
Want an easy way to keep track of places mentioned in this post? Check out my Yelp Collection for the full list plus a few more.
Neon sign at Call
Jeffrey Gibson, Denver Art Museum
Wall decor at The Rolling Pin Bakeshop
Lunchtime at Vital Roots
The hands-on making room at the Denver Art Museum
Aesthetic pleasures at the Denver Milk Market
Trail maps and resources at Feral
Coffee sign at Huckleberry Roasters