If you think of Denver as a convenient gateway to an amazing mountain or nature trip, you’re right. For skiers and hikers, it’s the closest major city to such perennial favorites as Telluride, Aspen, and Breckernridge. But with breweries galore, a charming restaurant district, affordable hotels, and a mile-wide cultural streak, the Mile-High City is developing into a travel destination unto itself. Here’s how to eat and drink your way through this affordable, good-natured city. In fact, you may never even make it to the mountains.
Start With the Basics: Brew and Barbecue
With more than 100 breweries just in the Denver metro area, beer lovers could spend a week here without leaving the city limits, and without repeating a single pint. Breckenridge Brewery is the poster child for the beer scene’s success: They’re on the verge of a major expansion into new digs in nearby Littleton. For now, though, you can tour their Denver facility for free and enjoy a sample of their signature beers. (Our favorites included the unfiltered agave wheat and the vanilla porter.) If you want to hang around a little longer – and you’ll want to – try the barbecue in the on-site pub. Basics like pulled pork and brisket are the perfect companions to the beer, and portions start at just $8. If you don’t have time for a full tour or a meal, a Monday-Saturday happy hour offers all beer for $4. For a slightly quirkier, scene-ier experience, head to the small-yet-bustling tap room at Great Divide Brewing Co. Tours take 30 minutes and are free.
Go Upscale Downtown
Denver’s restaurant scene is hardly confined to beer and burgers – although you’ll find excellent versions of both in town. Wander down Larimer Street between 14th and 15th and you’ll find a short stretch crammed with restaurants. Strings of overhanging light bulbs and the street’s old-fashioned lamps give the area a cozy, neighborhood-y feel, and subdue the surrounding glass and concrete. We made two stops here – both at restaurants founded by Jennifer Jasinski, who took home Denver’s first James Beard Award in 2013. Bistro Vendome focuses on French-inspired fare – think local tweaks on steak frites, Nicoise salad, and ratatouille. Directly across the street, Rioja focuses on fresh Mediterranean-inspired ingredients in anything-but-humdrum combinations. The New York strip is prepared with eggplant kimchi, shishido peppers, pickled enoki mushrooms, and a 63-degree egg, and a halibut ceviche gets a kick from strawberries, jicama, and jalapeno. For desert, fig and sweet goat cheese-filled beignets will satisfy any sweet tooth while white and black cheesecake, served with toasted black sesame ice cream and blackberry coulis, is fit for even the most sophisticated palate. Entrees at both restaurants cost about $20-$30, so these are definitely choices for a splurge-y night out. But if you’re looking to save and you're traveling in February or in August, try to catch one of the city's two restaurant weeks where you have a three-course dinner for $30 per person. Both Rioja and Bistro Vendome participated this year.
Stay for Less
Downtown Denver’s high rises are home to a concentration of big-brand hotels that keep things simple and affordable. One of the newest additions is the Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown Convention Center, which shares a building with the Homewood Suites by Hilton. The former offers travelers spotless rooms (including a freshly washed bedspread for every guest) and modern, unfussy décor. Friendly staff and a 100% satisfaction guarantee make this an appealing choice – plus the fact that it’s currently ranked number 9 out of 148 hotels in Denver on TripAdvisor. We found rooms in October and November for about $179-$200 per night. The Homewood Suites offers similar quality and style, but is designed with kitchens and other suite-like amenities for larger groups, and those who are interested in longer-term stays. If you're craving a more boutique-style option, check out the brand new Crawford Hotel, which is housed in the city's newly and beautifully refurbished Union Station. Rooms start at about $275 per night.
Soak Up the Scene
Even if you don’t go inside the Denver Art Museum, the building’s exterior is plenty enough to gawk at. Designed by Daniel Libeskind and looking a bit like a giant ice shard, the Frederic C. Hamilton building houses the museum’s modern and contemporary collections, naturally. Regular admission costs $13, but there are discounts for kids, seniors, and members of the military. If you’d rather spend the day outdoors, head to the Denver Botanic Gardens. The current exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass, with pieces positioned alongside equally colorful plants and flowers, runs through November. But even without the fanciful glass sculpture, expansive water lily ponds, a Japanese garden, and a “birds and bees” walk make this a good place to explore for a few hours. For those who’d rather sit with a cold drink and soak up the ambiance, head to the Brown Palace Hotel downtown. Known for the slew of famous guests who’ve stayed since its 1892 opening, including the Beatles, the Brown offers a classic afternoon tea under its soaring glass atrium, and classic cocktails in the Ship’s Tavern bar.
Travel generously provided by Hampton Inn & Suites and Visit Denver.