Just about anyone headed to Denver knows about the many rightly celebrated outdoor activities and adventures the surrounding area offers: whitewater rafting, skiing, snowboarding, climbing and biking the Rockies, kayaking and on and on.
Admittedly, Denver might not be the first place that comes to mind for those looking for a sophisticated city break, but it’s worth serious consideration. When I visited last July with my 12-year-old son in tow, I found a place with some obvious similarities to Austin. Both are Western capital cities that maintain a certain small-town friendliness (well, for the most part), love homegrown craft beer, have a tolerance for the offbeat and attract a lot of young talent.
One important difference from Austin: Denver seems much more at ease with getting impressive public transportation projects — notably, ones that don’t involve cars and highways — not only done, but working well. Points for Denver: The 40-minute RTD (Regional Transportation District) Rail ride from the airport to the stylishly renovated Union Station downtown, costing $9; and a free bus shuttle, RTD’s 16th Street Free MallRide, that runs constantly for 19 or 20 hours a day through a 1-mile stretch of the Lower Downtown (LoDo) neighborhood, packed with restaurants, pubs, shops, galleries and hotels. (The shuttles are currently in the process of being replaced with electric buses.) Also in LoDo, you’ll find Coors Field, home of the major-league Colorado Rockies baseball team (alas, shuttered for the All-Star break during my visit), the Pepsi Center arena, Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and, not least, Union Station itself.
Elegantly restored, Union Station is well worth visiting even if you don’t have a train to catch. Easily recognizable by the large, bright orange “Union Station – Travel by Train” sign atop the 1914 Beaux-Arts façade of the central building, the station houses the Crawford Hotel (which offers station tours Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m. for $20), shops and restaurants — not to mention terminals for trains, buses and light rail. The high-ceilinged, multistory Great Hall, done in white with black and gold accents, is a fine place to linger for an hour or so.
Inevitable jokes about the Mile High City aside, Denver is an easy city to enjoy even if you have no interest in pot dispensaries. For $100 a night, I rented a cozy Airbnb basement apartment on the northern edge of the central Capitol Hill district, and my son and I Ubered and Lyfted our way about town — and walked a fair bit, too. We enjoyed hip restaurants like Public School 303, a classy gastropub near Union Station, and tourist attractions like the Molly Brown House (of “Unsinkable” fame), which was within easy walking distance of our rented flat.
Denver isn’t exactly paradise, though. Despite ongoing efforts to alleviate it, there’s a visible and persistent homeless problem, especially around some downtown public parks, which some critics peg to the legalization of recreational marijuana; also, some areas of downtown aren’t the most savory places. (Although locals warn of crime in LoDo, I never felt anything other than safe walking there — still, it’s an urban area, so exercise appropriate awareness.)
In an attempt to boost my hipster quotient by ditching the tourist trail and setting out on an urban adventure, I headed to the corner of Broadway and Ellsworth to have a bite at Sputnik, a casual millennial hang serving inexpensive but imaginative fare to carnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike, conveniently right next door to the Hi-Dive alternapunk club. I then crossed the street and wandered through the Mutiny Information Café, a combination coffee shop/bookstore/record shop that gave me the feeling I’d time-warped back to around 1987. The Mutiny’s aisles are crammed with LPs, cassettes, old comic books, pinball machines, actual paper zines and high bookshelf after high bookshelf, not to mention an intellectual cashier/barista dude with an attitude. The only concession to 2017 was the Wi-Fi. (To complete the picture, a sign affixed to the coffee grinder proclaims, “We value your color, class, creed, gender & orientation. This is a safe space. Anything less will not be tolerated.”) In the downtown Wyman Historic District, I enjoyed extraordinary wood-fired pizza at Brik on York (brik.bar), a sophisticated-casual wine bar with frequent live music.
In fairness to the 12-year-old, we also went to the Denver Zoo. If you’re going for a kid-friendly experience, this zoo is hard to beat: It’s an 80-acre playground where it’s possible to spend an entire day. Indeed, we spent an exhausting six hours there, just barely managing to make our way through all the major and most of the minor exhibits (I was flagging long before the kid was). Highlights included Bear Mountain, which the zoo claims as the first natural-habitat-type zoo exhibit in North America, dating back to 1918; the gorilla families gamboling in close view behind glass in Primate Panorama; extensive habitats for giraffes and elephants; and frequent feedings and demonstrations throughout the day of elephants, tigers, sea lions, llamas and such.
At the Molly Brown House, two of the first things I was told on the 45-minute guided tour were: 1. The house’s namesake owner was named Margaret, some friends called her Maggie, but she was never called Molly during her lifetime — that was an invention of Meredith Willson, who wrote the music and lyrics for the 1960 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” that was turned into a movie four years later (Margaret, who had died in 1932, had no say in this); 2. That movie, starring Debbie Reynolds as Molly, was “about 3 percent true.” (As for the accuracy of the 1997 James Cameron blockbuster, with Kathy Bates playing Molly, the less said the better.) The elegant old pile of a home, built in the 1880s, was rescued from demolition in 1970 and gradually restored to a circa-1910 appearance, complete with period-accurate product tins in the kitchen, and early electric lighting befitting the Browns’ high status. (The house also underwent extensive restoration earlier this year.) It’s well worth visiting to get to know the real Margaret Brown, a political activist, suffragist, socialite and patron of the arts, beyond the facile Hollywood stereotypes. The gift shop on the grounds sells Titanic memorabilia, books and such items as scarves emblazoned with the word “Unsinkable.”
On the ground floor of the Colorado State Capitol, which on the outside resembles a slimmed-down Texas Capitol (except their dome is covered in real gold leaf), I gazed appreciatively at eight murals painted in 1940 by Western artist Allen Tupper True with verses by Thomas Ferril, later Colorado’s poet laureate, on the order of “Beyond the sundown is Tomorrow’s Wisdom,” depicting a romanticized version of the Western past — and on into an imagined future. True also painted multiple murals for the state capitols of Wyoming and Missouri, and in many other buildings in Denver. The murals contribute to the general feeling of elegance, rather than ostentation, in the Capitol building.
After spending three days in Denver, I wasn’t so much overwhelmed as regretful about all the attractions and neighborhoods I hadn’t had the opportunity to explore. There seems nothing to do but plan a return trip. Maybe this time I’ll even get to explore those natural attractions outside the city I’ve heard so much about.