Framed by the pristine Rocky Mountains that soar in the distance, Denver is a city that revels in its lofty surroundings. The city itself, located exactly one mile, or 5,280 feet, above sea level, is a burgeoning megalopolis of 2.5 million people, many of them transplants who have moved here for the cobalt blue skies, abundant recreational activities and healthy lifestyle. Tight-knit, urbanized neighborhoods dotted with Sherbet-hued Victorian mansions share sidewalks with contemporary lofts occupied by trendy denizens too young to remember the oil crash of the 80s that plunged the Mile High City into an economic slump. Today, Denver is a thriving oasis that lays claim to more than 20,000 acres of parkland, 2,000 restaurants, nearly 11 million overnight visitors each year and the 5th busiest airport in the country.
And while you've no doubt heard about Denver's raging winter blizzards — it's true that we get our share of fresh powder — the city actually enjoys an average of 300 days of radiant sunshine a year. It's quite possible that you'll be sitting on a rooftop deck in the middle of January in shorts and a T-shirt soaking up the warming rays. Because of its high elevation, however, Denver is steeped in altitude (but not attitude), and it may take a few days to acclimate yourself. Drink plenty of water during your first day here and be forewarned that alcohol — even in small shot glasses—can send your head spiraling into a quick stupor.
By and large, downtown Denver is easily walkable and unless you're heading out of the city, a car is generally not necessary. The complimentary mall shuttle, which runs east and west along the pedestrian-only 16th Street Mall, is safe and reliable transportation for checking out the downtown sights. Denver also has a light rail system that travels to the outlying neighborhoods and suburbs, but if you plan to embark on side trips or mountain jaunts, it's best to rent a car — and in the winter, an SUV.
When it comes to overnight slumbering, downtown Denver has a host of options that run the gamut from sleek and stylish to old-world and opulent. Most of the hotels are centrally located near popular attractions, restaurants, galleries, shops and watering holes. Cherry Creek North, a tony enclave of high-end boutiques, fashionable restaurants and swanky bars, just ten minutes east of Denver, is another terrific area in which to base your stay. If you choose to stay in Cherry Creek, we highly recommend the boutique J.W. Marriott, renowned for its superb accommodations and customer service or the Inn at Cherry Creek, a pet-friendly, intimate hotel with posh amenities, an exercise room, a rooftop terrace and an on-site restaurant.
If you plan to spend the majority of your time downtown and want to splurge, we can't say enough about the The Ritz-Carlton, Denver, a swanky, citified hotel that rolls out the high-style red carpet for its guests. If you do stay here, make sure to book dinner reservations at Elway's Downtown, the hotel's Rocky Mountain-inspired restaurant monikered after the famous Denver Broncos quarterback. The Four Seasons — new to Denver — is another amenity-rich hotel at which to slumber in luxury, and EDGE, the in-house restaurant, turns out an excellent board of local and regional cuisine. We also suggest the historic, pet-friendly Hotel Teatro, ideally situated directly across the street from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts and home to two restaurants, including Restaurant Kevin Taylor, easily one of the best chef-driven gastronomic food temples in the city. And of course, we love the Hotel Monaco, another Fido-friendly boutique hotel that's whimsically decorated in bold, kaleidoscopic hues.
You should also consider the Oxford Hotel in Lower Downtown (LoDo). While the city is legitimately proud of its explosive growth and development, Denver's fabled past colors the landscape with a distinctive hue, and this historic, old-world boutique hotel in the heart of LoDo is a perfect example of the city's commitment to preserve its bygone era. Built in 1891, the 80-room Oxford Hotel showcases sumptuous room décor bedecked with paintings, French antiques and Art Deco-styled furnishings and accessories, and stylish, tiled bathrooms. Often called the Grand Dame of Denver hotels, The Brown Palace Hotel, steeped in history and the sleeping oasis of numerous presidents, A-list celebrities and world dignitaries is another impressive classic, complete with a luxurious spa, several restaurants and a cigar bar. For more moderately-priced rooms, check into the Comfort Inn Downtown, located directly across the street from the Brown Palace. The rates are less expensive than its pricy neighbor, but visiting guests can enjoy the Brown's coveted comforts and conveniences.
Also worth noting is the Curtis Hotel, an irreverent, Pop Art-motifed dwelling pad that outfits its groovy rooms with retro VW beetle alarm clocks that wake up guests with a crooning Elvis. If you're looking for kitsch and a cool vibe, this is an excellent place to bunk for the night. So, too, is The Burnsley All Suites Hotel, located just south of downtown and an ideal place to spend a longer vacation, especially since the spacious rooms come equipped with kitchens. Catering to families, convention-goers and business travelers, the Grand Hyatt Denver, just steps away from the 16th Street Mall, parades large rooms, a slew of amenities, comfy beds and a fireside lounge touting piano man Mark Pressey, the town's top ivory tickler.
No matter your budget and preferences, you'll sleep well in Denver. In the morning, gear up for a whirlwind tour of Mile High magic.
Denver International Airport (DIA) is where you'll likely begin your trip. Before heading into the city, however, it's worth beholding the airport's stunning architectural design. The most dramatic feature of DIA, a Teflon-coated roof shaped to resemble the mountain peaks that symbolize the Rockies, supports wind and snow by a catenary cable system like that used in some bridges. The gorgeous marble used to build the terminal walls, hails from Marble, Colorado, a small mountain town that also supplied marble for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Lincoln Memorial. Once you've brushed up on your architecture quotient and collected your luggage, step outside the baggage claim exit doors, and you'll see taxis, limos and shuttles with their respective company name slowly circling the airport terminal. Rental car counters are located in the Jeppeson Terminal, on the fifth level, and all provide shuttle service to their facilities. It's approximately a 40-minute drive from DIA to Downtown Denver.
Head straight to the historic LoDo area and hit up Snooze, a local favorite for steaming mugs of java and wonderful pineapple upside down pancakes. LoDo, a former skid row, painstakingly revitalized into a bona fide hot bed of art galleries, chic boutiques and snazzy bars and restaurants nesting in restored Victorian buildings, is a 26-block area that also includes Larimer Square, a trendy one-block enclave pulsating with verve and energy. LoDo is the city's heartbeat, and you could easily spend the entire day here. In this historic area, it's easy to imagine Denver's former Gold Rush days when money was rolling and 17th Street, which ends at Union Station, was strewn with horse-drawn carriages, bustling brothels and wealthy businessmen — familiar images in the Western movies retracing this era. Union Station, which will undergo a massive renovation in the coming years, complete with retail shops, restaurants and bars, fortunately survived the post-World War II Sunbelt boom that caused the demolition of so many landmarks to make space for new structures. The stunning train depot, worth seeing for its antique beaux-arts architecture alone, is also near the Tattered Cover Bookstore, one of the most fabulous independent bookstores in the country and the eco-conscious, LEED-certified Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, a stellar display of five modern galleries, bolstered by a rooftop sculpture garden festooned with native plants and an organically-focused museum café.
LoDo is also the motherland of the microbrewing industry, and beer connoisseurs shouldn't miss the Wynkoop Brewery, Denver's first brewpub, opened by Colorado governor John Hickenlooper. More than a half-dozen brewpubs and microbreweries are located in LoDo, all of them unique in their own right. During baseball season, hit the Sandlot Brewery before catching a baseball game at Coors Field, renowned for its panoramic views of the city skyline, equally impressive Rocky Mountain backdrop and Colorado Rockies baseball team.
LoDo peddles an astonishing number of notable restaurants, including Rioja, a Mediterranean-influenced food temple, Bistro Vendôme, a lovely French restaurant flaunting a terrific patio, Osteria Marco, an Italian dining den that does Sunday night pig roasts and Euclid Hall, a relative newcomer that may very well be the top restaurant in the city — with a notable craft beer list to boot. If you're hankering for fresh oysters, seafood and fish, steer your way toward Jax Fish House, a wildly popular sea of aquatics or McCormick's Fish House & Bar, located in the Oxford Hotel.
When night falls, check out El Chapultepec for live jazz, Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret for national blues, the Green Russell, a speakeasy that pours inventive cocktails concocted by the city’s best mixologists, comedy and burlesque acts or the Denver Performing Arts Complex, a catchall of culture that includes Broadway plays, ballets, opera, classical music concerts and lectures.
* Denver images courtesy of Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau